Spiro Agnew

[ag-noo, -nyoo]
Spiro Theodore Agnew (November 9, 1918 September 17, 1996) was the thirty-ninth Vice President of the United States (and the first Greek American to serve in that capacity) serving under President Richard M. Nixon, and the 55th Governor of Maryland.

During his fifth year as Vice President, in the late summer of 1973, Agnew was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore, Maryland, on charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery, and conspiracy. In October, he was formally charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000, while holding office as Baltimore County Executive, governor of Maryland, and Vice President of the United States. On October 10, Agnew was allowed to plead no contest to a single charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income received in 1967, with the condition that he resign the office of Vice President.

Agnew is to date the only Vice President in U.S. history to resign because of criminal charges. Ten years after leaving office, in January 1983, Agnew paid the state of Maryland nearly $270,000 as a result of a civil suit that stemmed from the bribery allegations.

Early life

Spiro Agnew was born in the State of Maryland to Theodore Spiros Agnew, a Greek immigrant who shortened his name from Anagnostopoulos when he moved to the USA, and Margaret Akers, a native of Virginia.

Agnew attended Forest Park Senior High School in Baltimore, before enrolling in the Johns Hopkins University in 1937. He studied chemistry at Hopkins for three years, before joining the U.S. Army and serving in Europe during World War II. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in France and Germany.

Before leaving for Europe, Agnew worked at an insurance company where he met Elinor Judefind, known as Judy. Agnew married her on May 27, 1942. They eventually had four children: Pamela, James Rand, Susan, and Kimberly.

Upon his return from the war, Agnew transferred to the evening program at the University of Baltimore School of Law. He studied law at night, while working as a grocer and as an insurance salesman. In 1947, Agnew received his LL.B. (later amended to Juris Doctor) and moved to the suburbs to begin practicing law. He passed the Maryland bar exam in 1949.

Early political career

Agnew, raised as a Democrat, switched parties and became a Republican. During the 1950s, he aided U.S. Congressman James Devereux in four successive winning election bids. He entered politics himself in 1957, upon his appointment to the Baltimore County Board of Zoning Appeals by Democratic Baltimore County Executive Michael J. Birmingham. In 1960, he made his first elective run for office as a candidate for Judge of the Circuit Court, finishing last in a five-person contest. The following year, the new Democratic Baltimore County Executive, Christian H. Kahl, dropped him from the Zoning Board, with Agnew loudly protesting, thereby gaining name recognition.

In 1962 Agnew ran for election as Baltimore County Executive, seeking office in a predominantly Democratic county that had seen no Republican elected to that position in the twentieth century, with only one (Roger B. Hayden) earning victory after he left. Running as a reformer and Republican outsider, he took advantage of a bitter split in the Democratic Party and was elected. Agnew backed and signed an ordinance outlawing discrimination in some public accommodations, among the first laws of this kind in the United States.

Governor of Maryland

Agnew ran for the position of Governor of Maryland in 1966. In this overwhelmingly Democratic state, he was elected after the Democratic nominee, George P. Mahoney, a Baltimore paving contractor and perennial candidate running on an anti-integration platform, narrowly won the Democratic gubernatorial primary out of a crowded slate of eight candidates, trumping early favorite Carlton R. Sickles. Coming on the heels of the recently-passed federal Fair Housing Act of 1965, Mahoney's campaign embraced the slogan "your home is your castle". Many Democrats opposed to segregation then crossed party lines to give Agnew the governorship by 82,000 votes.

As governor, Agnew worked with the Democratic legislature to pass tax and judicial reforms, as well as tough anti-pollution laws. Projecting an image of racial moderation, Agnew signed the state's first open-housing laws and succeeded in getting the repeal of an anti-miscegenation law. However, during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Spring of 1968, Agnew angered many African-American leaders by lecturing them about their constituents in stating, "I call on you to publicly repudiate all black racists. This, so far, you have been unwilling to do."

Vice Presidency

Agnew's moderate image, immigrant background and success in a traditionally Democratic state made him an attractive running mate for Nixon in 1968. In line with what would later be called Nixon's "Southern Strategy," Agnew was selected as a candidate for being sufficiently from the South to attract Southern moderate voters, yet not as identified with the Deep South, which could have turned off Northern centrists come election time.

His vice presidency was the highest-ranking United States political office ever reached by either a Greek-American citizen or a Marylander. Agnew's nomination was supported by many conservatives within the Republican Party and by Nixon. But a small band of delegates started shouting "Spiro Who?" and tried to place George W. Romney's name in nomination. Nixon's wishes prevailed, and Agnew went from his first election as County Executive to Vice President in six years one of the fastest rises in U.S. political history.


Agnew was known for his tough criticisms of political opponents, especially journalists and anti-Vietnam War activists. He was known for attacking his opponents with unusual, often alliterative epithets, some of which were coined by White House speech-writers William Safire and Pat Buchanan, including "nattering nabobs of negativism" (written by Safire), "pusillanimous pussyfooters", and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history". He once described a group of opponents as "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."

In short, Agnew was Nixon's "hatchet man" when defending the administration on the Vietnam War. Agnew was chosen to make several powerful speeches in which he spoke out against anti-war protesters and media portrayal of the Vietnam War, labeling them "Franco Un-American". Agnew toned down his rhetoric and dropped most of the alliterations after the 1972 election, with a view to running for president himself in 1976.


On October 10, 1973, Spiro Agnew became the second Vice President to resign the office. Unlike John C. Calhoun, who resigned to take a seat in the Senate, Agnew resigned and then pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to criminal charges of tax evasion and money laundering, part of a negotiated resolution to a scheme wherein he accepted $29,500 in bribes during his tenure as governor of Maryland. The bribes were paid to Agnew by some members of the construction industry to get their projects approved. When Agnew moved from Annapolis, Maryland to Washington, D.C., he continued to demand payments. Angered, the construction men turned government's witnesses. Agnew was fined $10,000 and put on three years' probation. The $10,000 fine only covered the taxes and interest due on what was "unreported income" from 1967. The plea bargain was later mocked as the "greatest deal since the Lord spared Isaac on the mountaintop", by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs. Students of Professor John Banzhaf from The George Washington University Law School, collectively known as Banzhaf's Bandits, found four residents of the state of Maryland willing to put their names on a case and sought to have Agnew repay the state $268,482 - the amount he was known to have taken in bribes. After two appeals by Agnew, he finally resigned himself to the matter and a check for $268,482 was turned over to Maryland state Treasurer William James in early 1983.

As a result of his nolo contendere plea, Agnew was later disbarred by the State of Maryland. As in most jurisdictions, Maryland lawyers are automatically disbarred after being convicted of a felony, and a nolo contendere plea exposes the defendant to the same penalties as a guilty plea.

His resignation triggered the first use of the 25th Amendment, as the vacancy prompted the appointment and confirmation of Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader, as his successor. It remains one of only two times that the amendment has been employed to fill a Vice Presidential vacancy. The second time was when Ford, after becoming President upon Nixon's resignation, chose Nelson Rockefeller (originally Agnew's mentor in the moderate wing of the Republican Party) to succeed him as Vice President.

Later life

After leaving politics, Agnew became an international trade executive with homes in Rancho Mirage, California; Arnold, Maryland; Bowie, Maryland; and Ocean City, Maryland. In 1976, he briefly re-entered the public spotlight and engendered controversy with anti-Zionist statements that called for the United States to withdraw its support for the state of Israel, citing Israel's allegedly bad treatment of Christians, as well as what Gerald Ford publicly criticized as "unsavory remarks about Jews.

In 1980, Agnew published a memoir in which he implied that Nixon and Alexander Haig had planned to assassinate him if he refused to resign the Vice-Presidency, and that Haig told him "to go quietly… or else. Also in 1980, he considered, then decided against, running for Congress from Maryland. (ref. ABC News) Agnew also wrote a novel, The Canfield Decision, about a vice president who was "destroyed by his own ambition." Nixon reportedly made negative comments about Agnew. When John Ehrlichman, the President's counsel and assistant, 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.

Agnew died suddenly on September 17, 1996, at the age of 77 at Atlantic General Hospital, in Berlin, Maryland in Worcester County (near his Ocean City home), only a few hours after being hospitalized and diagnosed with an advanced, yet to that point undetected, form of leukemia. He is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, a cemetery in Timonium, Maryland in Baltimore County.

Popular culture

  • "Headless body of Agnew" is a character in the TV series Futurama, as a thug of the head of Richard Nixon.
  • In the TV series Angel, Spiro Agnew is described as a Grathnar Demon. Angel thought he was the only one who knew.
  • In the song "Titties & Beer" by Frank Zappa, from his Zappa in New York album, Agnew and Richard Nixon are mentioned in an on-stage dialogue between Zappa and the Devil (played by drummer Terry Bozzio). In the dialogue, Zappa is willing to sign a contract with the devil to reclaim the subjects of the song's title, and the Devil exclaims to Zappa: "I've had Milhous Nixon and Agnew too / and both those suckers was worse than you!"
  • In the episode "Mother Simpson" of The Simpsons, a Spiro Agnew alarm clock appears.
  • In the episode "Team Homer" of The Simpsons, while reading a MAD magazine Milhouse says, "Boy! They're really sockin' it to that Spiro Agnew guy again; he must work there or something."
  • Humorist Dave Barry points out that one can rearrange the letters in "Spiro Agnew" to spell "Grow A Penis."
  • In the Disney Channel show Recess, there is a Spiro T. Agnew Middle School.
  • Several references are made to Agnew throughout the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.
  • The song "Boom" by the Bloodhound Gang features the line "You're Spiro Agnew and I'm the Dick you answer to."
  • In the episode "Acceptable Losses" of Tour of Duty, Sergeant Taylor mentions he would like to know Spiro Agnew's real name before he dies.
  • In the song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Gil Scott-Heron, Spiro Agnew is mentioned along with other figures in government.
  • In an episode of The Wonder Years entitled "Day One", one of Kevin's teachers tells a story about meeting Spiro T. Agnew. Kevin calls this his teacher's crowning achievement.
  • Early issues of the National Lampoon contained a regular feature entitled "Mrs. Agnew's Diary". The 'entries' made frequent reference to "Spiggy" (i.e. Spiro) and were always signed "Judy".
  • Shawn "Clown" Crahan of the band Slipknot states that a speech by Spiro Agnew was the primary influence for lead singer Corey Taylor's lyrics to the song "Execute.
  • Gil Scott-Heron has a song about the Watergate Scandal called "H2O Gate Blues" on his Winter in America album which contains the line "And that ominous phrase: that if Nixon knew, Agnew - But Ag didn't knew enough to stay out of jail"
  • In this song "Talkin' Green Beret New Super Yellow Hydraulic Banana Teeny Bopper Blues," folk artist Jamie Brockett talks about meeting Agnew over making music versus the draft.

Electoral history

Baltimore County Executive, 1962

Governor of Maryland, 1966

1968 Republican National Convention (Vice Presidential tally)

United States presidential election, 1968

1972 Republican National Convention (Vice Presidential tally)

United States presidential election, 1972


External links

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