Spiro Theodore Agnew (November 9, 1918 – September 17, 1996) was the 39th vice president of the United States from 1969 until his resignation in 1973. He is the second and most recent vice president to resign the position, the other being John C. Calhoun in 1832. Unlike Calhoun, Agnew resigned as a result of a scandal.
Agnew was born in Baltimore to an American-born mother and a Greek immigrant father. He attended Johns Hopkins University and graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law. He worked as an aide to U.S. Representative James Devereux before he was appointed to the Baltimore County Board of Zoning Appeals in 1957. In 1962, he was elected Baltimore County Executive. In 1966, Agnew was elected Governor of Maryland, defeating his Democratic opponent George P. Mahoney and independent candidate Hyman A. Pressman.
At the 1968 Republican National Convention, Richard Nixon asked Agnew to place his name in nomination, and named him as running mate. Agnew's centrist reputation interested Nixon; the law and order stance he had taken in the wake of civil unrest that year appealed to aides such as Pat Buchanan. Agnew made a number of gaffes during the campaign, but his rhetoric pleased many Republicans, and he may have made the difference in several key states. Nixon and Agnew defeated the Democratic ticket of incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his running mate, Senator Edmund Muskie.
As vice president, Agnew was often called upon to attack the administration's enemies. In the years of his vice presidency, Agnew moved to the right, appealing to conservatives who were suspicious of moderate stances taken by Nixon. In the presidential election of 1972, Nixon and Agnew were re-elected for a second term, defeating Senator George McGovern and his running mate Sargent Shriver.
In 1973, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland on suspicion of criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion, and tax fraud. Agnew took kickbacks from contractors during his time as Baltimore County Executive and Governor of Maryland. The payments had continued into his time as vice president. After months of maintaining his innocence, Agnew pleaded no contest to a single felony charge of tax evasion and resigned from office. Nixon replaced him with House Republican leader Gerald Ford. Agnew spent the remainder of his life quietly, rarely making public appearances. He wrote a novel and a memoir that both defended his actions.
At the time of his death, Agnew's legacy was perceived largely in negative terms. The circumstances of his fall from public life, particularly in the light of his declared dedication to law and order, did much to engender cynicism and distrust towards politicians of every stripe. His disgrace led to a greater degree of care in the selection of potential vice presidents. Most of the running mates selected by the major parties after 1972 were seasoned politicians—Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden—some of whom themselves became their party's nominee for president.
Some recent historians have seen Agnew as important in the development of the New Right, arguing that he should be honored alongside the acknowledged founding fathers of the movement such as Goldwater and Reagan; Victor Gold, Agnew's former press secretary, considered him the movement's "John the Baptist". Goldwater's crusade in 1964, at the height of Johnsonian liberalism, came too early, but by the time of Agnew's election, liberalism was on the wane, and as Agnew moved to the right after 1968, the country moved with him. Agnew's fall shocked and saddened conservatives, but it did not inhibit the growth of the New Right. Agnew, the first suburban politician to achieve high office, helped to popularize the view that much of the national media was controlled by elitist and effete liberals. Levy noted, "He helped recast the Republicans as a Party of 'Middle Americans' and, even in disgrace, reinforced the public's distrust of government."
For Agnew himself, despite his rise from his origins in Baltimore to next in line to the presidency, "there could be little doubt that history's judgment was already upon him, the first Vice President of the United States to have resigned in disgrace. All that he achieved or sought to achieve in his public life ... had been buried in that tragic and irrefutable act".
In October 2018, Rachel Maddow wrote and produced a seven-part miniseries, "Bag Man,” documenting bribery throughout much of Agnew's public career, and the bargain by which he avoided prison. Levy sums up the "might-have-been" of Agnew's career thus: "It is not a far stretch to imagine that if Agnew had contested corruption charges half as hard as Nixon denied culpability for Watergate – as Goldwater and several other stalwart conservatives wanted him to – today we might be speaking of Agnew-Democrats and Agnewnomics, and deem Agnew the father of modern conservatism."