Thursday, October 10, 2013

Spiro Agnew Resigned as Vice President 40 Years Ago Today

Another piece from the archives, marking the 40th anniversary of Spiro T. Agnew's resignation as vice president on October 10, 1973. Agnew left office under a cloud in the midst of the unfolding Watergate scandal, leading to the first use of the 26th Amendment procedures for selection of a vice president by Congress to fill a vacancy in that office. (Previous vacancies had gone unfilled throughout the rest of the presidential term.)

This article appeared in The Metro Herald in September 1996 as "Spiro Agnew: Up from the Memory Hole?" It was written on the occasion of Agnew's death on September 17, 1996.

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Early in 1973, a Sunday "Doonesbury" comic strip by Garry Trudeau showed eight panels of the south portico of the White House. Phones are ringing; suddenly a recording answers: "Good morning! This is the White House. We are sorry but all our lines are busy right now. Please hold on. A service representative will be with you in a moment." There is a beep and a pause, followed by: "Good morning. Thank you for calling the White House. May I help you?" "... Ah ... yes," says the caller. "I'm trying to reach Mr. Agnew." Comes the reply: "Speaking."

To many people, this is the predominant image of former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who died late Tuesday evening [September 17, 1996] at the age of 77. In the swirl of controversy that defined the Nixon White House -- Vietnam, Watergate, the Energy Crisis -- Agnew was a but a blur, a minor player relegated to the lower levels of the administration; indeed, he was little more than a messenger or telephone operator.

Plucked from obscurity on [August] 8, 1968, by Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon to be his running mate, Spiro Agnew had served as Baltimore County Executive and Maryland's Governor. Though some may claim he remained obscure throughout his truncated tenure as Vice President, the fact is that President Nixon assigned him major duties in both the domestic and foreign policy realms. Those who do remember him recall his lurid turns-of-phrase in his role as the administration's political attack dog.

"Nattering nabobs of negativism" was how Agnew characterized the press in one memorable speech in 1969. Spoken by Agnew, that phrase is ascribed to speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. (Is it necessary to ask, "Whatever happened to him?")

Spiro T. Agnew as Maryland governor
A year later, during the midterm election campaign, Agnew spewed forth against the administration's liberal opponents, saying that "ultraliberalism today translates into a whimpering isolationism in foreign policy, a mulish obstructionism in domestic policy, and a pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order."

Agnew did not limit his criticism to Democrats, either. During that year's campaign season, he turned his sights on New York Senator Charles Goodell, who as a "Rockefeller Republican" was fairly liberal in his voting record. Goodell was in a tight three-way race that included Conservative candidate James Buckley. Nixon was upset by Goodell's attitude toward the administration's Vietnam policy, and wanted to undercut his re-election efforts in an attempt to favor Buckley.

So Agnew was sent out on the attack. At a meeting of newspaper editors in New Orleans, Agnew suggested that Goodell's most recent statements about Vietnam were wildly inconsistent with the statements and votes he had made as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. By comparing his earlier and later statements, Agnew said, "you will find Goodell is truly the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party." (Jorgensen, in the 1950s, became the first person to have a successful sex-change operation.) Ms. Jorgensen, by the way, was not pleased at the comparison and objected to being used by Agnew as a "political pawn." (Goodell, by the way, lost his race to Buckley, who lost in turn to Daniel Patrick Moynihan six years later.)

Nonetheless, Agnew's role in the Nixon administration was more than just fodder for the media. Behind the scenes he performed important tasks. Henry Kissinger notes in his memoirs, for instance, that Agnew was one of the administration's point-men in the negotiations to end the Vietnam War, and during the drawn-out bargaining of late 1972 was always on stand-by, ready to fly to Paris to sign a peace treaty on the President's behalf.

Agnew's downfall, of course, was petty political corruption. I remember clearly the night of October 10, 1973, when Agnew resigned the vice presidency. My high school classmates and I learned a new Latin phrase: "nolo contendere" (no contest), the plea entered by Agnew that was short of an admission of guilt but still earned him punishment for accepting bribes (and failing to pay taxes on his bribery income) while he served, not only as Governor of Maryland, but as Vice President.

Strangely enough, Agnew treated his graft practices with an eerie sort of lightheartedness. One of the contractors who had delivered thousands of dollars in bribes to Agnew was being pressured to give money to the Nixon re-election campaign in 1972. After hearing his complaint, Agnew said to the man: "Tell them you gave at the office."

Agnew resigned; Nixon appointed Gerald R. Ford to succeed him. When Nixon himself resigned just 10 months later, Ford became "the accidental president." Had Agnew forestalled his own troubles for less than a year, he too could have been president -- and perhaps the second U.S. chief executive to resign in disgrace. What an ironic twist to history that would have been.

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