All in all I’ve always thought that Spiro Agnew got off rather lightly. In normal circumstances the Vice-President of the United States having to resign from office due to fraud and tax evasion would be the scandal of the decade. However because the Nixon Whitehouse was currently engulfed in the firestorm that was Watergate, and Nixon was soon to resign himself, Agnew somehow slipped through the cracks.
To say that Agnew has a low historical reputation is putting it mildly. Nixon was a crook and a liar but even his enemies had to admit that he was an incredibly smart guy, Agnew, to put it mildly, wasn’t. He’d only been selected as Vice-President in the first place as part of Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy’. At the time the accepted political wisdom was that Presidents needed to balance the ticket by choosing a VP candidate sufficiently unlike themselves in order to appeal to a different set of voters. Nixon obviously felt that he had northern Republicans in the bag but was weaker amongst southern Republicans/Dixicrats.
The South was currently going through a period of political realignment. Traditionally it had always been Democratic since the 1860s, however since Kennedy and LBJ’s civil rights programme it had slowly been shifting away from the Democratic Party towards the Republicans (briefly stopping over first with Wallace’s Independents). Agnew was from Maryland so Nixon thought he could use him to appeal to disaffected Democratic voters and southern Republicans, or as Hunter S Thompson said less kindly, but possibly more accurately, he was ‘a sop to the yahoo/racist vote’.
It’s fair to say that no one took Agnew particularly seriously as a figure of political leadership. The Democrats ran TV adverts openly laughing at him and questioning who he was while even Nixon commented, ‘No one’s going to assassinate me as they’d end up with Agnew as President’. If that sounds like a frosty response then it got worse as their first term went on with Nixon openly plotting to get rid of his Vice-President and attacking him at every opportunity.
Agnew rose incredibly quickly through the political world to the Vice-Presidency and as a result they hadn’t checked his background as accurately as they probably should have. As it later turned out there were a few skeletons in his closet relating to his time in Maryland politics and he was investigated for tax evasion and a host of other charges. In the end Agnew accepted a plea bargain and agreed to resign the Vice-Presidency in order to keep himself out of jail. His crimes caught up with him though, and a decade later he had to pay a quarter of a million dollars back to the state of Maryland.
In his defence Agnew was a popular Vice-President with the Republican grassroots and I suppose performed a useful service in terms of deflecting attention away from Nixon and his misdeeds. However in retrospect I think that even he’d admit that Agnew was one of his greatest political mistakes as after the Presidency he never spoke to him again as long as he lived.
Here is the Democrats rather cruel anti-Agnew advert from 1968 (it probably backfired on them and made people feel sorry for Agnew):