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Profile: Spiro T. Agnew
Spiro T. Agnew was a participant or observer in the following events:
ITT logo. [Source: Private Line.com]International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) acquires three smaller corporations, prompting the US Justice Department to file suits against ITT charging that the mergers violate antitrust laws. Between 1969 and April 1971, ITT officials meet with several Nixon administration officials, including Vice President Spiro Agnew; White House aides John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, and Egil Krogh; Cabinet secretaries John Connally and Maurice Stans; Justice Department officials John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst; and others, in attempts to persuade the administration to drop the lawsuits. [The People's Almanac, 1981]
Entity Tags: John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, Egil Krogh, John Connally, US Department of Justice, Richard Kleindienst, John Mitchell, Maurice Stans, International Telephone and Telegraph, Nixon administration, Spiro T. Agnew
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
Life Magazine cover featuring Agnew. [Source: Southern Methodist University]Vice President Spiro Agnew, fresh from helping Richard Nixon win the 1968 election by viciously attacking their Democratic opponents, wins a reputation as a tough-talking, intensely negative public presence in Washington. Much of Agnew’s tirades are crafted by White House speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire. In 1969, Agnew derides antiwar protesters, saying, “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” [Time, 9/30/1996] Student war protesters “have never done a productive thing in their lives,” and, “They take their tactics from Fidel Castro and their money from daddy.” [Chicago Sun-Times, 10/11/1998] In 1970, he attacks the American media and critics of the Nixon administration alike, telling a San Diego audience that “we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.” Agnew attacks enemies of the administration as “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “vicars of vacillation,” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Democrats are “radic-libs” and “ideological eunuchs.” In Des Moines, reading a speech written by Buchanan, Agnew slams the US media industry, saying it is dominated by a “tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one.” Agnew’s unrelenting attacks on the press raise, reporter Lance Morrow writes in 1996, “issues of media bias, arrogance and unaccountability that are still banging around in the American mind.” Agnew is undone by his own negativity, earning a barrage of critical press coverage for, among other things, calling an Asian-American reporter a “fat Jap,” referring to a group of Polish-Americans as “Polacks,” and dismissing the plight of America’s poor by saying, “To some extent, if you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all.” Many political observers feel that Agnew’s heated rhetoric is the precursor to the wave of personal, negative attack politics practiced by the GOP in the decades to come. [New York Times, 9/19/1996; Time, 9/30/1996] Interestingly, while many Americans celebrate Agnew’s rhetoric, few want him as a successor to the presidency. One Baltimore bar patron says, “I don’t want the president of the United States to sound like I do after I’ve had a few beers.” [Economist, 9/28/1996]
Vice President Spiro Agnew (see 1969-1971, April 10, 1973, and October 10, 1973) gives the following advice: “We must look to the university that receives our children. Is it prepared to deal with the challenge of the non-democratic left? One modest suggestion for my friends in the academic community: the next time a mob of students, waving their non-negotiable demands, starts pitching bricks and rocks at the Student Union—just imagine they are wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly.” [Hunt, 9/1/2009, pp. 18]
John Connally. [Source: Texas State Archives]President Nixon, disenchanted with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s ability to deliver electoral results and his negative public persona, decides to press Agnew to resign his post. In Agnew’s stead, Nixon wants to appoint Treasury Secretary John Connally, a popular, conservative Texas Democrat who Nixon feels can deliver votes among Southern Republicans and Democrats alike in the 1972 presidential elections. Agnew has privately grumbled about the lack of respect he receives in the White House, and discussed his idea of resigning to enter the business sector. But Connally’s choice would raise objections in Congress, which under the 25th Amendment would have to ratify Connally as the new vice president. Worse, Connally does not want the job, feeling the vice presidency is “useless” and believing he can be more effective in Nixon’s Cabinet. Though Nixon promises Connally an unprececented amount of power as vice president, even making him in essence “an alternate president,” Connally declines the position. Publicly, Nixon reaffirms his support for Agnew, not wishing to disrupt his chances at re-election in 1972. [US Senate, 2007]
By the summer of 1971, President Nixon and his senior staffers, particularly John Ehrlichman, have come to view Vice President Spiro Agnew as more of a liability than an asset (see Mid-1971). Agnew, who has served the president well as a conservative “stalking horse” who could lambast antiwar protesters and foreign leaders in a way that might be unsuitable for a president (see 1969-1971), has in recent months begun complaining about being kept away from real decision-making, particularly on foreign affairs. (Agnew has not made himself popular by attacking Nixon’s recent overtures to the Communist Chinese and complaining to anyone who would listen about his “poor” treatment at the hands of Nixon and his aides.) All of this has made Nixon unwilling to spend a lot of political capital in defending Agnew from bribery charges (see April 10, 1973). Nixon aides ask Agnew to voluntarily resign, a request he resists. In return, Agnew levels accusations that White House staffers began a media leak campaign designed to drive him from office. Agnew waffles on the question, offering to resign if Nixon would promise to grant him immunity from prosecution, then thundering to one receptive audience, “I will not resign if indicted!” By September, Nixon’s new chief of staff, Alexander Haig, brought in to keep the Nixon administration intact under the specter of the Watergate investigations, begins pushing Agnew to resign, threatening that the Justice Department would prosecute him for income tax evasion on the bribes he had taken unless Agnew resigned. Agnew will later say that he felt Haig was implicitly threatening his life if he didn’t “go quietly”; for his part, Haig finds Agnew so menacing that he tells his wife if he disappeared, she “might want to look inside any recently poured concrete bridge pilings in Maryland.” [US Senate, 2007]
After the New York Times verifies the phone calls to Nixon campaign provocateur Donald Segretti from Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see October 12-15, 1972), it publishes an analysis of the White House’s attacks on the media (see October 16-November, 1972). The analysis, written by Robert Semple, Jr, says in part: “The essence of the administration’s recent counterattack to the charges that some of President Nixon’s created or at least condoned a network of political espionage and disruption has been to denounce the newspapers that print them without explicitly discussing them. Behind the strategy lie two assumptions that tell much about the administration’s perceptions of the voters and newspapers that serve them. Judging by recent interviews with Mr. Nixon’s aides, these assumptions seem to be widely shared in his inner circle. First, at the moment, the White House feels, the alleged conspiracy is perceived by most of the public as a distant and even amateurish intrigue far removed from the Oval Office, and thus a denial or even discussion of the charges by the White House would give those charges undeserved visibility and currency. The second is that the public—softened up by three years of speeches from Vice President Agnew—has less than total confidence that what it reads and hears—particularly in the so-called Eastern Establishment media—is true and undistorted by political prejudice. Hence the recent administration attacks on the Washington Post, which has been giving the corruption allegations front-page treatment…. Repeated requests to senior White House aides to get the full story, as they see it, have gone unanswered.… ‘Do you know why we’re not uptight about the press and the espionage business?’ one White House aide… asked rhetorically the other day. ‘Because we believe that the public believes that the Eastern press really is what Agnew said it was—elitist, anti-Nixon and ultimately pro-McGovern.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 169]
Vice President Spiro Agnew tells Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman that he is becoming enmeshed in an investigation of illegal campaign contributions in his home state of Maryland. The state’s US Attorney, George Beall, questioned Agnew’s former business aide, Jerome Wolfe, who provided evidence of Agnew discussing raising funds from Maryland business owners who had received state contracts. It “wasn’t shakedown stuff,” Agnew says, “it was merely going back to get support from those who had benefitted from the administration.” Agnew knows that Beall’s brother is Senator J. Glenn Beall (R-MD), and asks Haldeman to have the senator intercede with his brother, a request Haldeman refuses. For his part, President Nixon is more amused than angered by Agnew’s apparent corruption, joking that taking campaign contributions from contractors was “a common practice” in Maryland and other states. “Thank God I was never elected governor of California,” Nixon cracks. But the allegations against Agnew will become more widespread; a Maryland grand jury will alert the Justice Department that Agnew had taken money for past favors, even taking payments—bribes—after becoming vice president. [Time, 9/30/1996; US Senate, 2007]
Well after the press conference (see April 17, 1973), President Nixon discusses his reluctance to fire chief of staff H. R. Haldeman with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, telling Kissinger that he wishes former campaign chief John Mitchell would just step up and take all the blame for himself. Kissinger says that firing Haldeman would probably protect Nixon’s hold on the presidency, and Nixon agrees. Nixon casually mentions the idea of resigning himself: “just throwing myself on the sword and letting [Vice President Spiro] Agnew take it. What the hell.” Kissinger vehemently disagrees with that idea. “That cannot be considered,” Kissinger says. “The personality [of Agnew], what it would do to the presidency, and the historical injustice of it. Why should you do it, and what good would it do? Whom would it help? It wouldn’t help the country.” After Nixon winds down from talking about resigning, Kissinger assures him: “You have saved this country, Mr. President. The history books will show that, when no one will know what Watergate means.” Kissinger has his own problems: he is essentially running the administration’s foreign policy in Vietnam without any input from Nixon whatsoever, and key decisions are not being made as Nixon focuses on Watergate to the exclusion of all else. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 591-592]
Spiro T. Agnew. [Source: University of Maryland]Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigns. He will be replaced by an appointee, House Republican Gerald Ford (see October 12, 1973). Agnew, a conservative Maryland Republican with a long history of racial repression, ethnic jokes, and racial slurs in his record, appealed to conservative Southern voters as Richard Nixon’s vice presidential candidate in 1968 and 1972 (see 1969-1971). Agnew was the first vice president to be given his own office in the West Wing. [Time, 9/30/1996; US Senate, 2007] But by mid- and late 1971, Agnew is battling attempts from within the White House to force him to resign (see Mid-1971 and Beyond).
Nolo Contendre - Agnew’s lawyers reach a deal with the Justice Department, agreeing to a plea of nolo contendre (no contest) to the tax charge, a $160,000 levy of tax repayments, and a $10,000 fine. In return, Agnew agrees to leave office. One of his last actions as vice president is to visit Nixon, who assures him that he is doing the right thing. Agnew later recalls bitterly: “It was hard to believe he was not genuinely sorry about the course of events. Within two days, this consummate actor would be celebrating his appointment of a new vice president with never a thought of me.” For his part, Nixon will recall, “The Agnew resignation was necessary although a very serious blow.” Nixon apparently is not as concerned about punishing a White House official for misconduct as much as he hopes Agnew’s resignation will redirect the public anger away from himself. That ploy, too, will backfire: Nixon later writes that “all [Agnew’s resignation] did was to open the way to put pressure on the president to resign as well.” [US Senate, 2007] Agnew later says that Nixon “naively believed that by throwing me to the wolves, he had appeased his enemies.” [New York Times, 9/19/1996] The State of Maryland will later lift Agnew’s license to practice law. [University of Maryland Newsdesk, 10/6/2003]
'Affluent Obscurity' - Agnew will return to private life (in what one reporter will call “an affluent obscurity”) [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 9/21/1996] as an international business consultant (see 1980s). He will publish a 1980 memoir entitled Go Quietly… Or Else, in which he says he was forced to resign by scheming Nixon aides, and a novel about a corrupt American vice president “destroyed by his own ambition.” Continuing to maintain his innocence of any wrongdoing (see 1981), he refuses any contact from Nixon until he chooses to attend Nixon’s funeral in 1994. [New York Times, 9/19/1996; US Senate, 2007]
Gerald R. Ford, Jr. [Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library]President Nixon names Congressman Gerald R. Ford (R-MI) as his nominee for vice president. Two days before, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office after being convicted of tax evasion charges unrelated to Watergate (see October 10, 1973). [Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, 5/3/1999] Nixon’s original choice for Agnew’s replacement is former Texas governor John Connally, in hopes that Connally can secure the 1976 GOP presidential nomination, win the election, and continue Nixon’s legacy. But Connally, Nixon’s Treasury Election, is himself under investigation for his handling of a secret Nixon campaign fund. Nixon’s close political ally and strategist Melvin Laird, Nixon’s first secretary of defense, and veteran political adviser Bryce Harlow advised Nixon to select Ford as his new vice president. Other Republicans are recommending better-known party stalwarts—former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, California governor Ronald Reagan, Senate Watergate Committee co-chair Howard Baker, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican Party chairman George H.W. Bush, Connally, Laird, and others—Ford is a complete party loyalist, popular among Congressional Republicans, and an influential member of the House Judiciary Committee. By naming Ford as vice president, Laird and Barlow hope to head off any impeachment vote by that committee. On October 10, Laird phoned Ford and, according to Laird’s later recollection, said: “Jerry, you’re going to get a call from Al Haig [Nixon’s chief of staff]. I don’t want any bullsh_t from you. Don’t hesitate. Don’t talk to Betty [Ford, his wife]. Say yes.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 30-31]
Entity Tags: Melvin Laird, Nelson Rockefeller, Spiro T. Agnew, Ronald Reagan, Richard M. Nixon, John Connally, Howard Baker, Bryce Harlow, Hugh Scott, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Betty Ford, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, House Judiciary Committee, George Herbert Walker Bush
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
President Ford discusses media reports of a feared coup attempt or unauthorized nuclear strike in the final days of the Nixon presidency (see August 22, 1974) with his ad hoc chief of staff, Alexander Haig, and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger (see August 25, 1974). Ford believes the leak that formed the basis of the story came from the “highest level of the Pentagon,” but he is unaware that Schlesinger is most likely the leaker. He is also unaware of the hornet’s nest of bureaucratic rivalries involved in the situation. Ford knows nothing of the strained relations between the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff going back to the Moorer-Radford spy affair (see December 1971), nor of Haig’s blurred loyalties and his network of connections between the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the White House. Ford is distressed by the stories, and furious when Haig assures him that the story is false—no such measures had been taken.
Implications of a Secret Deal - Ford worries most that the story will escalate into a whirlwind of media speculation about the nation being “at the brink” during Nixon’s final days, and more to the point, the media and the citizenry may begin speculating about the possibility that he took over the White House as part of some sort of secret deal. Ford also knows that such an extraordinary leak three weeks into his presidency is a direct insult to his own position. Ford orders Schlesinger to straighten out the entire mess right away.
Haig Also Involved? - Although Schlesinger denies his involvement in the stories, his credibility in this matter is wanting. And, if the stories are indeed true, then Haig must have been involved as well. Indeed, former Nixon aide Charles Colson will later write that Haig himself initiated the reported military watch, asking the Pentagon to disregard any order from Nixon. Like Schlesinger, Haig denies any part in the Pentagon watch, and calls the idea of a military coup of any stripe “an insult to the armed forces.” Haig will later accuse the so-called “countergovernment”—Congress, the courts, and the press—of successfully engaging in their own coup of sorts, in combining to drive both Nixon and former Vice President Spiro Agnew (see October 10, 1973) from office. But Haig has also dropped dark hints of his own to reporters about “dangers to the country deeper than Watergate,” and has spoken about the threat of “extra-constitutional” steps during Nixon’s last days.
Presidential Denial - Publicly, Ford, through press secretary Jerald terHorst, tells the press that “no measures of this nature were actually undertaken.” Questions about whether any requests for a military watch, or other such preparations, were ever made to forestall a military coup are referred to the Pentagon. [Werth, 2006, pp. 191-193]
Former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges (see October 10, 1973), serves as the intermediary in a complex $181 million deal arranged by former Nixon aides to sell military uniforms to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, the deal is arranged by former President Richard Nixon, who recommended the deal to the supplier of the uniforms, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. [New York Times, 9/19/1996]
A Maryland taxpayers’ civil suit finds that former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned over bribery and tax fraud charges eight years before (see April 10, 1973 and October 10, 1973), had solicited $147,500 in bribes as Baltimore county executive and as governor of Maryland, and that as vice president he had accepted $17,500 of that sum in cash while in office. [Time, 9/30/1996] Agnew’s former lawyer George White admits outside of the courtroom that Agnew had not only admitted taking bribes while governor, but told White that such behavior had been going on “for a thousand years.” White is freed to discuss privileged lawyer-client communications because of Agnew’s public assertions of his innocence in his recently published memoirs, Go Quietly… Or Else. White’s revelations fuel the civil suit that finds Agnew indeed took bribes while governor and vice president. [New York Times, 9/19/1996]
Spiro T. Agnew, the Republican vice president who resigned his office after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges (see October 10, 1973), dies of leukemia in his home state of Maryland. Former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan recalls Agnew’s “raw political courage” for serving as “the voice of the silent majority” during the Nixon administration, and says: “Of all those caught up—on both sides—in the American tragedy of 1973-1974 [Watergate], Spiro Agnew was one of the good guys.… At a time when the establishment was craven in pandering to rioters and demonstrators, Spiro Agnew told the truth.” Buchanan helped write some of Agnew’s most inflammatory speeches (see 1969-1971). Other Republicans also laud Agnew, even though for twenty years Agnew has had virtually no contact with any of his former Republican confrerees. “Spiro Agnew earned the support of millions of his countrymen because he was never afraid to speak out and stand up for America,” says Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), the Republican candidate for president. “He minced no words when patriotism and military service were ridiculed.” And former President George H.W. Bush says of Agnew: “He was a friend. I loved his family.” Former Democratic senator and World War II veteran George McGovern, whose courage and patriotism was harshly attacked by Agnew during the 1972 presidential campaign, says, “Some of the things he said during his lifetime were extreme and regrettable, but nonetheless I mourn his passing.” Former Nixon speechwriter Vic Gold is perhaps the most rhapsodic, saying of Agnew, “He was the John the Baptist of the Reagan revolution.” [New York Times, 9/19/1996; Knight Ridder, 9/19/1996] Reporter Sandy Grady is less forgiving. “Agnew was a small-time pol who became the most blatant crook to sit one heartbeat away from the presidency,” he writes. “He was a demagogue ranting ghost-written bile that split Americans amid the war and fires of the ‘60s. But political peers, sensing in Agnew’s tumble their own fragility, always treated Spiro as gently as a museum vase.” [Knight Ridder, 9/19/1996] Historian Allan Lichtman observes, “He will always stand as one of the symbols of the corruption that undermined the Nixon administration.” Fellow historian Joan Huff, author of a biography of Nixon, dismisses Agnew as “a tiny blip in history.” [Greensboro News & Record, 9/19/1996]
1996 Dole presidential campaign button. [Source: Dole Institute]Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter uses the occasion of former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s death (see September 17, 1996) to condemn the “wedge politics” of Agnew’s heyday (see 1969-1971). “Agnew led Richard Nixon’s campaign to win suburbia for Republicanism by exploiting white middle class anger at the poor, college antiwar activists, and the ‘liberal Eastern media’,” Alter writes. But “Spiro Agnew is gone, and the wedge politics he honed aren’t cutting for the GOP this year.” Agnew’s “politics of polarization” do not work anymore, Alter observes, but adds that Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole is still trying to use Agnew-like tactics in his own campaign to defeat incumbent Bill Clinton. Dole echoes Agnew’s language (see 1969-1971) in calling Clinton’s White House “a corps of elite who never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered.” Dole, writes Alter, is “still working from the 1968 playbook.” [Newsweek, 9/30/1996]
Shawn Parry-Giles. [Source: University of Maryland]Communications professor Shawn Parry-Giles says that she hears echoes of the rhetoric of former Vice President Spiro Agnew in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s speeches about Iraq (see 1969-1971). Parry-Giles says: “Spiro T. Agnew’s resignation is often lost in the turmoil surrounding the painful events of Watergate (see October 10, 1973). Yet his campaign against the US news media during the Vietnam War still resonates, especially among those who covered the war. In a recent press conference… Rumsfeld emphasized all the good that has come from the US efforts in that war torn country. In listening to his press conference, I heard echoes of… Agnew’s famous line: ‘In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.’ If the war in Iraq continues on its current trajectory, we might expect the spirit of Agnew to rise once again, as the Bush administration reminds the US news media and the [D]emocratic presidential candidates that in times of international conflict, we are to remain unified.” [University of Maryland Newsdesk, 10/6/2003]
Vice President Dick Cheney, formerly the chief of staff for President Gerald Ford (see November 4, 1975 and After), says, “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the ‘70s served, I think, to erode the authority… the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area.” Cheney says that he and George W. Bush have restored some of “the legitimate authority of the presidency” that was taken away in the aftermath of Watergate. “I think the vice president ought to reread the Constitution,” retorts Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean comments that Bush and Cheney’s behavior “reminds Americans of the abuse of power during the dark days of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.” [Toronto Star, 12/21/2005; Werth, 2006, pp. 348]
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