Spiro T. Agnew, Bilious Tub-Thumper

So you’re Spiro Agnew. You’re totally unqualified but you’ve just been elected Vice-President of the United States of America. What now–a trip to Disneyland? No! Attack the “vicars of vacillation,” the “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Then go after the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The “ideological eunuchs,” the “rad-libs,” the “decadent few,” the “effete corps of of impudent snobs,” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

All this alliterative aggression was an amazing advance for the candidate whose quotidian quotes were racist rants. Agnew came to national notice as Nixon’s number two, attacking “polacks” and a “fat jap.” He once said that “once you’ve seen one ghetto you’ve seen them all.” He had speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire to thank for his phenomenally phobic phraseology.

The man was corrupt. He probably took bribes in the White House. And he even sought a tax break for the bribes he took. Many Vice-Presidents in American history look in retrospect like stunned parakeets–Dan Quayle, for instance. Agnew makes Quayle look presidential. Agnew was the second Vice President to resign. As Andrew Jackson’s VP, John C. Calhoun resigned in 1832 to become Senator from South Carolina. Agnew resigned, paid a fine, and went on parole.

It is a testament to the political chicanery of President Nixon that he knew a wedge issue when he saw it. Nixon put Agnew on the ticket because he needed a hatchetman to say the things Nixon couldn’t. When John Erlichman asked him why he kept Agnew on the ticket in the 1972 election, Nixon replied that “No assassin in his right mind would kill me. They know that if they did that they would wind up with Agnew.”

Agnew was born the son of a Greek immigrant vegetable peddler. He served in WWII as a company commander with an armored division and won the Bronze Star. He was a failed lawyer. After law school he worked in a Baltimore supermarket. “Ted got into politics through the PTA,” his wife said. “He kind of spread out.”

Having achieved some minor success he moved to the suburbs, joined the Episcopal church and the Kiwanis, gave up bowling for golf, asked people to call him by his more American middle name “Ted,” etc. He became pals with the developers who would bankroll him for years. He was elected Executive of Baltimore County in 1962, an otherwise excellent year.

In 1966 he was elected Governor of Maryland. He ran as a liberal Republican, opposing a white supremacist and Democrat George Mahoney. Mahoney’s slogan was “My Home is My Castle.” (Gary Wills characterized this slogan as “Up with the castle drawbridge, let the horde of advancing niggers silt up the moat.”) Agnew’s administration actually had solid legislative achievements in tax reform, environmental protection, and public accommodations law. But in later years it was discovered that there was not a single state contract for a bridge, road, or building that Agnew failed to profit by.

It was as much of a surprise to Agnew as anyone when he was nominated for veep at the 1968 convention. But he had already transformed his persona into the attack dog Nixon needed in a contest that included not just Hubert Humphrey but also George Wallace, who threatened to pre-empt the redneck moron vote.

Once in the White House, Agnew maintained an active schedule, speaking before perhaps 100 groups a year. In 1969 he went to Detroit to deliver a Buchanan-penned speech condemning the television media as “this little group of men” who “do not represent the views of America.” The speech has become a virtual touchstone of idiot conservatism.

Nixon detested Agnew, who was so far removed from the font of power that that he escaped the Watergate scandals utterly unscathed. If the bribery imbroglios had not engulfed him he would have succeeded Nixon in 1974. Shudder.

As it happened, Agnew pre-resigned Nixon by nearly a year. His nolo contendre to tax evasion charges was delivered at the same moment in 1973 as his resignation from the Vice-Presidency. Agnew denied every charge against him and compared himself to Dreyfus.

In later years Agnew worked as an “international businessman” for various odious companies and countries. He never spoke to Nixon again, although he did attend the old bastard’s funeral and said that he had forgiven him. Agnew never got over the sense that he had been sacrificed by Nixon to deflect attention from the President’s growing scandals. A word to those who would sacrifice: always inspect the beast prior to striking.

In his memoir Go Quietly...Or Else! Agnew portrayed himself as a victim who had been hurried out the door by Alexander Haig, a “totally self-centered, ambitious and ruthless” operator who sought to unseat Nixon in favor of virtually anybody else. If this is true, we owe Haig sustained applause.

Agnew dedicated his memoirs to his close personal friend Frank Sinatra, with whom he sat up nights boozing during his “wilderness years.” Agnew waxed nostalgic, writing “We hated the way the left-wingers were constantly running down the competitive, free-enterprise society.”

One of the few officials anywhere on Planet Earth who spoke positively of Spiro Agnew at his death was Spiros Boutas, the mayor of Gargalionoi, the small town in southern Greece from which Agnew’s father, Dimitrios Anagnostopoulos, emigrated to Baltimore in the early 1900s. “He was a good man and made us proud because he was the first American of Greek origin to reach such a high position,” the mayor said.

The White House ordered flags flown at half-mast.