Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Fifty years ago, on the 10th October 1973, Spiro Theodore Agnew, the 39th Vice-President of the United States of America, Spiro Theodore Agnew resigned. It was just four days after the start of the Yom Kippur War.
Agnew was only the second Vice-President to have resigned, the first being Andrew Jackson’s Vice-President, John C. Calhoun, back in 1832. However, whereas Calhoun resigned over a political issue and went on to serve as U.S. Senator for South Carolina, Agnew was forced to stand down in a corruption scandal and would never hold public office again.
If he had managed to stay in office another 10 months he would have become the 38th President on the 9th August 1974 following Richard Nixon’s resignation. Agnew was one of the few members of the administration untouched by the Watergate conspiracy.
Agnew was born on 9th November 1918 in Baltimore, Maryland. Theophrastos Anagnostopoulous, his father, was a first-generation Greek immigrant, who changed his name to Theodore Agnew and opened a diner in 1908. Unsurprisingly, Theodore initially had few friends in his new country.
But he became close to William Pollard, the city’s federal meat inspector. When Pollard died, Theodore started courting Margaret, his widow, and the couple married in December 1917. Just 11 months later, the future Vice-President was born.
From the start, young Spiro felt culturally conflicted. The Akers, his mother’s family, were Anglo-Saxons from Bristol, Virginia. His mother insisted that Spiro was christened as an Episcopalian (Anglican), and not in his father’s Greek Orthodox church.
It is worth noting that Maryland, where Agnew grew up, was the most characteristically Southern-minded of the United States during the Civil War. At the beginning of the war, slavery was still legal. Of the 115,000 Marylanders who joined the army, 23 per cent of them fled over the border to Virginia to enlist in the Confederate Army. In current fashionable liberal parlance, this was not a society that instinctively celebrated diversity.
Consequently, Spiro, with his Greek Christian names, felt something of an outsider. He refused his father’s offer of Greek language lessons and asked friends to call him “Ted”.
The family suffered immensely during the Great Depression. First, the restaurant closed and then their savings were lost when a local bank collapsed. Theodore henceforth provided for his family by selling fruit and veg from a street barrow.
However, Spiro/Ted prospered by winning a scholarship to John Hopkins University to read Chemistry, and later studied law at the University of Baltimore. Agnew married Elinor, a local girl, in 1942 and went on to have four children.
During the Second World War, Ted served in the 54th Armoured Infantry Battalion. He saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, including the infamous Siege of Bastogne.
The Agnew family traditionally supported the Democrats. After the war, Ted joined a law firm and was advised by his senior partner to join the Republicans if he desired a political career. He accepted this advice, but it was many years before he was to make his political debut. In 1962, just four years before he was elected Vice-President, Agnew won his first public office as County Executive.
For the next few years, Agnew would identify with the Left of the G.O.P. He proudly supported Nelson Rockefeller, the bete noire of conservatives, and opposed Barry Goldwater’s nomination as the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate. He became the darling of the Republican Party establishment.
In 1966 he secured the G.O.P. nomination for Governor of Maryland. Agnew’s Democratic opponent was an old-school Dixiecrat, who opposed racially integrated housing. Agnew portrayed him as the K.K.K.’s candidate and, in doing so, secured 70 per cent of the black vote, winning the election.
As Governor, Agnew was initially quite liberal. He expanded healthcare programmes, supported Civil Rights, provided for more public housing, and repealed laws prohibiting interracial marriages.
The first sign of change came when in 1967 a militant black student activist by the name of H. Rap Brown made an inflammatory speech in which he stated: “It’s time for Cambridge to explode, baby. Black folks built America, and if America don’t come around, we’re going to burn America down.” Riots broke out in Cambridge, Maryland.
Agnew said of Brown “I hope that they put him away and throw away the key.” Amidst growing social chaos across the U.S.A., Agnew came to be seen as an apostle of law and order as he denounced the “permissive climate and misguided compassion”. When three days of rioting took place in Baltimore, he declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard to restore order.
With the 1968 Presidential Election approaching, Agnew initially chaired the “Rockefeller for President” committee. However, shortly after, Rockefeller bowed out of the race and Nixon’s camp made a play for Agnew’s support.
The Nixon team soon thought that Ted was exactly what they were looking for in the Vice-Presidential slot: a liberal Republican with conservative views on law and order. At the time of his nomination, most Americans had never heard of the Governor of Maryland. Democrats dismissed him by posing the question “Spiro who?”
In the 1968 campaign, Agnew transformed into the voice of Republican populism, as Nixon was keen to stop conservatives from straying to George C. Wallace, an independent candidate. When Nixon won, Agnew was told that he would have “new duties beyond what any Vice President has previously assumed.”
Essentially, this amounted to Agnew becoming “Nixon’s Nixon”, going around the country making speeches denouncing the Left and saying the sort of things that would be considered unpresidential if Nixon said them. Agnew became the darling of the G.O.P. grassroots as he personally attacked the administration’s opponents and teased the “intellectuals”.
Behind the scenes, tensions grew between Nixon and Agnew. Agnew now had a following of his own and he was irritated by being kept out of policymaking. The two started to clash on issues like China and Vietnam. However, Agnew was still valuable in the 1972 campaign and popular with voters. Ironically, during that same year, the seeds of Agnew’s downfall were sown.
George Beall, U.S. Attorney for Maryland, started looking into corruption within the State of Maryland. Beall was interested in planning bungs and contracts awarded on the basis of bribes paid to local politicians. His main target was Maryland’s current leadership, but soon rumours started to circulate that the former Governor could be involved.
It was discovered that one engineering firm, owned by a Lester Matz, had been giving Governor Agnew 5% per cent of the value of contracts awarded. What’s more, the payments had continued into his Vice-Presidency.
As the news spread, Agnew mounted a vociferous crusade to stay in office. He argued that a sitting Vice-President could not be indicted and made public speeches attacking the prosecution. Nixon remained silent.
In the end, it was to no avail. The prosecution rolled on and Alexander Haig, Nixon’s new Chief of Staff, realised that Agnew had to be replaced before Nixon inevitably fell. A plea bargain was arranged, and Agnew pleaded to one charge of tax evasion on condition that he be spared jail.
After he resigned, Agnew lived in obscurity until his death at the age of 77 in 1996. He continued to resent Nixon for not supporting him and had to be persuaded to attend his funeral in 1994. However, it is worth pondering what Agnew would have been like as President and whether his presence would have blocked Reagan’s rise.