Biography of Spiro Agnew: The Vice President Who Resigned

The rise and fall of the ex-vice president

Vice President Spiro T. Agnew
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew speaks in Tennessee during the 1972 congressional campaign.

 Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images

Spiro T. Agnew was a little known Republican politician from Maryland whose unlikely ascent to the vice presidency prompted many Americans in the late 1960s to wonder "Spiro who?" Agnew was an unremarkable figure known to speak in a "deadening monotone" who was nonetheless notorious for his combative relationship with the press and unwavering loyalty to his boss, President Richard M. Nixon. He once referred to journalists as a "tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one” and to Nixon's critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” 

Agnew is perhaps most well-known for the end of his career. He was forced to resign from office after being charged with extortion, bribery and conspiracy and pleading no contest to income-tax evasion in 1973. 

Early Years

Spiro Theodore Agnew (also known as Ted) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on Nov. 9, 1918. His father, Theophrastos Anagnostopoulos, had immigrated to the U.S. from Greece in 1897 and changed his surname. The elder Agnew sold produce before entering the restaurant business. His mother was American, a native of Virginia. 

Spiro Agnew attended the public schools in Baltimore and entered Johns Hopkins University to study chemistry in 1937. He transferred out of the prestigious school after struggling academically and enrolled at the University of Baltimore Law School. He earned his law degree, but only after being drafted into the Army during World War II. He returned to law school after being discharged and received his law degree in 1947, then went on to practice law in Baltimore.

Early Career in Politics

Agnew was little known outside of his home state of Maryland before Nixon chose him as a running mate. His first foray into politics came in 1957 when he was appointed to the Baltimore County zoning appeals board, on which he served three years. He ran and lost for a judgeship in 1960, then won the Baltimore County executive position two years later.

(The position is similar to that of mayor of a city.) During Agnew's tenure, the county enacted a law requiring restaurants and other establishments to be to be open to customers of all races, built new schools and increased teacher salaries. He was, in other words, a progressive Republican.

After creating a name for himself in the populous Maryland County, Agnew sought and won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1966. He beat a Democratic candidate, George Mahoney, who supported segregation and campaigned on the slogan "Your Home Is Your Castle—Protect It." "Charging Mahoney with racial bigotry, Agnew captured the liberal suburbs around Washington and was elected governor," Agnew's Senate biography reads. But he would serve as governor for fewer than two years before he caught to eye of his party's presidential hopeful, Nixon.

Rise to the Vice Presidency

Nixon chose Agnew as a running mate in the campaign of 1968, a decision that was controversial and unpopular with the Republican Party. The GOP viewed the progressive urban politician with suspicion. Nixon responded by describing Agnew as "one of the most underrated political men in America," an "old fashioned patriot” who, having been raised and elected in Baltimore, was a master strategist on urban issues.

“There can be a mystique about a man. You can look him in the eye and know he's got it. This guy has got it," Nixon said in defense of his choice for running mate.

Agnew was elected vice president in 1968; he and Nixon were re-elected to second term in 1972. In 1973, as the Watergate investigation was churning toward a denouement that would force the resignation of Nixon, Agnew ran into legal trouble.

Criminal Charge and Resignation

Agnew was facing possible impeachment or criminal charges in 1973 for allegedly accepting payoffs from contractors when he served as Baltimore County executive and vice president. But he remained defiant in the face of a grand jury's investigation. "I will not resign if indicted! I will not resign if indicted!" he proclaimed. But evidence that he evaded paying his income taxes—he was accused of failing to report $29,500 in income—soon led to his downfall.

He resigned from office on Oct. 10, 1973, under a plea deal that allowed him to avoid prison time. In a formal statement to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Agnew stated: "I hereby resign the office of Vice President of the United States, effective immediately." A judge sentenced Agnew to three years of probation and fined him $10,000.

Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to use the 25th Amendment to appoint a successor to the position of vice president, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford. The amendment establishes the orderly transfer of power for replacing the president and vice president in the event they die in office, quit or are impeached.

The prosecution of the case removed Agnew from the presidential line of succession, which turned out to be a fateful decision. Nixon was forced to resign less than a year later, in August 1994, amid the Watergate scandal, and Ford took over the presidency. Agnew's resignation was only the second by a vice president. (The first took place in 1832, when Vice President John C. Calhoun resigned the office to take a U.S. Senate seat.)

Marriage and Personal Life

Angew married Elinor Isabel Judefind in 1942, whom he met while employed at an insurance company during his law-school years. The couple went to a movie and for chocolate milkshakes on their first date and discovered they had grown up four blocks apart. The Agnews had four children: Pamela, Susan, Kimberly, and James.

Agnew died of leukemia in Berlin, Maryland, at the age of 77.

Legacy

Agnew will forever be know for his rapid ascent from obscurity to national prominence and his scathing attacks on the news media and polemics on society and culture. He was critical of efforts to lift America's economically disadvantaged out of systemic poverty and of civil-rights protestors in the tumultuous late 1960s. He frequently used derogatory slurs, such as, “If you've seen one city slum, you've seen them all.”

Agnew reserved much of his ire for members of the news media. He was among the first politicians to accuse journalists of bias. 

Spiro Agnew Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Spiro Theodore Agnew
  • Also Known As: Ted
  • Known For: Serving as vice president under Richard M. Nixon and resigning for tax evasion
  • Born: Nov. 9, 1918 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  • Parents' Names: Theophrastos Anagnostopoulos, who changed his surname to Agnew, and Margaret Marian Pollard Agnew
  • Died: Sept. 17, 1996 in Berlin, Maryland, USA
  • Education: Law degree from the University of Baltimore Law School, 1947
  • Key Accomplishments: Enacted a law in Baltimore County requiring restaurants and other establishments to be to be open to customers of all races, built new schools and increased teacher salaries
  • Spouse Name: Elinor Isabel Judefind
  • Children's Names: Pamela, Susan, Kimberly and James
  • Famous Quote: "In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club — the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history." 

Sources 

  • Hatfield, Mark O. Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.