Read an Excerpt
“If you’ve seen one ghetto area, you’ve seen them all”
“What’s with the Fat Jap? Asleep again . . . .”
(Agnew to a reporter, during the 1968 presidential campaign)
“When I am moving in a crowd I don’t look and say,
‘Well, there’s a Negro, there’s an Italian, and there’s a
Greek, and there’s a Polack.’ ”
(Agnew, again on the campaign trail, 1968)
FACTS OF LIFE
ORIGIN: Born Spiro Theodore Agnew, November 9, 1918, Baltimore, Maryland; died of leukemia, September 17, 1996, Berlin, Maryland.
FORMATIVE YEARS: University of Baltimore Law School, never received an official degree, but passed the Maryland bar in 1947.
FAMILY PLANNING: Married Elinor “Judy” Isabel Judefind, May 27, 1942.
SELECTED ELECTION SCORECARD: 1966: won, governor, Maryland (resigned 1969). 1968–72: won, vice president of U.S., under Pres. Richard M. Nixon (resigned 1973). (Only the second vice president in history to resign. The first was Andrew Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun, who resigned in 1832.)
When he was looking for a presidential running mate in 1968, Richard Nixon said that he wanted a “political eunuch.” Nixon’s young assistant, Pat Buchanan, recommended the best such one for the job, Spiro “Ted” Agnew. Born in Baltimore to a Greek immigrant restaurant owner, Agnew served in the army in World War II and Korea, and went to law school at night on the G. I. Bill. He got into local politics, and won election to the Baltimore County Zoning Board of Appeals. Later, he served as the Baltimore County Executive, basically, the mayor of Baltimore, from 1962 to 1966. Hailed as the “New Suburban Man,” Spiro changed from a Democrat to a Republican and from a liberal to a conservative after he won election as Maryland’s governor. As vice president, Agnew made a name for himself as a basher of “radiclibs” (radical liberals), but his political career crashed and burned in 1973. Agnew later became buddies with entertainer Frank Sinatra, who once loaned him $250,000. In 1980, Spiro wrote a book in which he claimed his political downfall was due to the fact that he was “framed” by the Nixon administration. The title of the book? Go Quietly . . . Or Else.
SPIRO AGNEW DOES
THE DUMBEST THINGS
When Nixon announced Agnew as his vice president in 1968, a reporter surveyed random private citizens on what Spiro Agnew was. Two of the answers: “Some kind of disease,” and, “It’s some kind of egg.”
After riots in Baltimore in April 1968, Spiro called a meeting of moderate local black leaders. He accused them of having “a perverted concept of race loyalty,” and said that they were afraid of being called “Uncle Charlie’s boy” or “Uncle Tom.” “Don’t you think I know I’m committing political suicide when I sit here and do this?” Agnew told the leaders. “I know it.” They knew it too, and most of them walked out of the meeting.
Following the late 1960s riots in Baltimore, Agnew criticized a police officer who refused to shoot a looter for stealing a pair of shoes. The politician claimed that sparing the shoe thief displayed the “insidious relativism that has crept into our thinking.”
Spiro became even more bizarre during his second year as governor. He slashed health and welfare budgets, and attacked the Poor People’s Campaign as “the so-called poor people—with Cadillacs.”
“A spirit of national masochism prevails,” Vice President Agnew announced to the public, “encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Echoing the anti-intellectualism of China’s revered leader Mao Tse Tung, Agnew suggested that Americans should “sweep that kind of garbage out of our society.”
White House staffer Pat Buchanan helped Spiro write some of his more “memorable” lines criticizing opponents of the ongoing and escalating Vietnam War. Some of Agnew’s greatest bon mots: “merchants of hate,” “ideological eunuchs,” “parasites of passion,” “supercilious sophisticates,” “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history,” “vicars of vacillation,” “pusillanimous pussyfooting,” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Agnew was a big fan of the Reader’s Digest monthly column “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.” In some speeches, in order to display his newly expanded vocabulary, the vice president used such erudite terms as “struthious” and “tomentose.”
According to reporters, when the vice president went to Kenya in 1971, his “main outing was to a nearby hunting lodge, where, in company with his private physician and his pretty, red-haired secretary, he watched two rhinos copulating.”
While visiting Ethiopia, Kenya, and the Congo, Spiro met such African rulers as Haile Selassie, Jomo Kenyatta, and Mobutu Sese Seko. Agnew declared, “The black leadership in the United States . . . could learn much by observing the work that has been done in these countries. . . .” Rep. William Clay (D-Missouri) reacted to Spiro’s observations about some of the world’s most ruthless rulers by saying, “In my opinion . . . our vice president is seriously ill. . . . His recent tirade against black leadership is just part of a game played by him—called mental masturbation.”
Agnew liked to play golf, but had a bad habit of whacking bystanders with his balls. White House aides called him Spiro the clown.
Spiro once played tennis with the head of the Peace Corps as his doubles partner, and smashed a tennis ball into the back of the man’s head. The Peace Corps executive quickly put on a motorcycle helmet for protection.
At a Republican dinner in 1970, Agnew spoke out against rock music that had a pro-drug message. “We should listen more carefully to popular music, because . . . at its worst it is blatant drug-culture propaganda.” To demonstrate his point Agnew quoted the lyrics from the song “Acid Queen” by the Who, which is an anti-drug song.
In 1973, a federal grand jury in Maryland launched an investigation of Vice President Agnew. He was charged with fifty alleged violations of federal bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and tax laws. To a group of Republican women holding signs that read “Spiro Is Our Hero!” Agnew declared, “I will not resign if indicted! I will not resign if indicted!” On October 10, 1973, Agnew appeared in federal court, and pleaded no contest to a forty-five-page bill of charges. He resigned from the vice presidency that same day.
In the 1980s, Agnew became an “international consultant.” One of his better paying gigs was arranging for the sale of $181 million worth of uniforms by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to the ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.