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On This Day: Vice President Spiro Agnew Resigns

October 10, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Oct. 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned his office and pleaded no contest to federal income tax evasion.

Agnew Resigns in Exchange for Leniency

Spiro Agnew, recently re-elected to his second term as Richard Nixon’s vice president, learned in the spring of 1973 that he was being investigated for receiving illegal campaign contributions during his time as governor of Maryland. His former aide, Jerome Wolff told investigators that Agnew had targeted recipients of state contracts for campaign donations, though Agnew claimed that “it wasn't shakedown stuff, it was merely going back to get support from those who had benefited from the Administration.”

As the investigation uncovered more allegations against Agnew, the Nixon administration pressured him to resign. Nixon himself was in legal trouble over the Watergate scandal, and his advisors feared that a potential impeachment of the vice president “would set a precedent that could be turned against Nixon,” according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office.

Agnew maintained his innocence and tried to have the investigation closed, but to no avail. On Sept. 29, he declared during a speech in Los Angeles, “I will not resign if indicted! I will not resign if indicted!” After the speech failed to shift public opinion, “The point was driven home to him that he was “dead,’” according to his press aide, Marsh Thomson.

Agnew made a deal with the Justice Department that would grant him leniency if he agreed to resign. On Oct. 10, he submitted a short letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announcing his resignation. He then went to court to plead no contest on a single count of federal income tax evasion for failing to report $29,500 of income in 1967. He was given three years’ probation and forced to back taxes and a $10,000 fine.

Historical Context: Watergate and the Nixon Resignation

Ten months after Agnew resigned, President Nixon resigned for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Nixon was succeeded by Gerald Ford, the former House Minority Leader who was selected to replace Agnew.

Biography: Spiro Agnew

Spiro Theodore Agnew was born in Baltimore in 1918 and, after serving during World War II, became a lawyer. Though his father, a Greek immigrant, was a Democratic ward leader, Agnew became a Republican in 1950s and was elected to his first government office, Baltimore County executive, in 1962. He ran for governor four years later and won, primarily by supporting integration against his segregationist Democratic opponent, George Mahoney.

Agnew served just two years as governor before becoming vice president. He caught the eye of Richard Nixon in April 1968, when he harshly criticized local black leaders for failing to control rioting in Baltimore following the Martin Luther King assassination, calling them “Circuit riding, Hanoi visiting, caterwauling, riot inciting, burn America down type of leaders” at a public meeting.

Nixon saw Agnew as someone who could appeal to white Southern voters, yet was also moderate enough to win the governorship in a primarily Democratic state. Critics of the selection asked “Spiro who?” and questioned the qualifications of the largely unknown governor, though the Nixon-Agnew ticket managed to win the presidency in the 1968 election.

Nixon did not think highly of Agnew as vice president. Nixon’s “estimate of Mr. Agnew was mocking and dismissive” and “he despised him as a fool and an idler,” writes The New York Times. The president did not allow Agnew to play a large role in policy making.

Agnew was used primarily as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” making sharply critical speeches against the media and political opponents. “With the help of White House speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire, Agnew developed a distinctive, jeering speech style that mixed some heavy fun into the contempt,” writes Time. He became known for alliterative phrases like “nattering nabobs of negativism," “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” and "vicars of vacillation.”

After his resignation, Agnew felt betrayed by Nixon, feeling that the president and his aides had schemed to force his resignation. Though he largely escaped criminal punishment, he lost a civil case brought by Maryland citizens; a civil court ruled in 1981 that he had accepted $147,500 in illegal kickbacks, including a $17,500 while he was vice president.

Agnew remained out of the public eye for the remainder of his life. He moved to California and had a lucrative career arranging international business deals, including a deal by former Nixon aides to sell military uniforms to Saddam Hussein. He died in September 1996 of leukemia at the age of 77.

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