Theophrastos Anagnostopoulos emigrated from Greece to the United States around the turn of the 20th century and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Proud of his Greek identity, but eager to assimilate, he changed his name to Theodore Agnew, and married a widow from Virginia named Margaret Pollard. Their son Spiro, born in 1918, would eventually rise to the nation’s second-highest office, but suffer a painful fall from grace.
Young Spiro revered his hardworking father but embraced his mother’s Episcopalian faith and strove to fit in with his American peers. He served honorably in the Army during World War II, winning a Bronze Star, and upon his return to Maryland embarked on a career in the law. Politics soon beckoned, and after a swift and successful apprenticeship in local politics, he was elected Baltimore County Executive and later—on the day after his 48th birthday–Governor of Maryland.
But for all his great political success, Agnew preferred the company of businesspeople, and his desire to curry favor with them (and to emulate their lifestyle) would eventually lead to disaster.
Despite Agnew’s outspoken support for the liberal Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the race for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, Richard Nixon, the eventual victor, unexpectedly chose Agnew as his running mate. Agnew was as surprised as anyone, declaring to the convention delegates, “I stand here with a deep sense of the improbability of this moment.” Nixon called him “the most underestimated politician in America.” After the ticket’s narrow victory in November, Agnew found himself a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Agnew had cultivated an image as a liberal Republican throughout his political career in Maryland, but as Vice President he adopted a more conservative tone. Perhaps his most famous utterance was a 1970 speech (written by William Safire) in which he criticized the liberal bias of the news media and dismissed critics of the Nixon Administration as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” This combative approach made him a darling of the conservative wing of the party, and he continued his alliterative rhetoric with attacks on “supercilious sophisticates” who disdained the “Silent Majority” of “everyday, law-abiding” Americans. But his impromptu remarks were sometimes crude; ironically, for a man who was sensitive about his own heritage, he occasionally used offensive ethnic slurs.
To the dismay of the nattering nabobs, Nixon and Agnew defeated the 1972 Democratic ticket led by Senator George McGovern in one of the largest landslide victories in American political history. But neither Nixon nor Agnew would have much time to gloat. The Watergate scandal—first reported in the Washington Post during the campaign—would soon consume the White House and lead to Nixon’s downfall.
But Agnew would be the first to go. A federal investigation of political corruption in Baltimore County had uncovered evidence that Agnew had received kickbacks in exchange for lucrative government contracts he had awarded while County Executive and later Governor. Even more devastating was a report that he received a cash payment of $10,000 during a meeting in his White House office. Though he protested his innocence, the evidence was overwhelming. To avoid more profound consequences, the Vice President pled “no contest” to a charge of tax evasion in 1973 and resigned from office on October 10, 1973. He was fined $10,000 and sentence to three years of unsupervised probation.
Under the terms of the 25th Amendment, Nixon nominated Representative Gerald R. Ford for Vice President, and with the subsequent approval of both Houses of Congress, he took office on December 6. Ford’s tenure was brief; eight months later he was sworn in as President after Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of Watergate. But were it not for a few cash-stuffed envelopes, the son of Theophrastos Anagnostopoulos would have become the 38th President of the United States instead.
Agnew retired to a life of affluence and obscurity, living in Ocean City, Maryland, and Rancho Mirage, California, and writing a memoir and an autobiographical novel. He reluctantly agreed to attend Nixon’s funeral in 1994, and in 1995 was present as his bust was unveiled in the Capitol (an honor extended to all former Vice Presidents). During the brief ceremony, he observed, “I’m not blind or deaf to the fact that there are critics who feel this is a ceremony that should not take place…I would remind those people that regardless of their personal view of me, this ceremony has less to do with Spiro Agnew than with the office I had conferred on me.”
He passed away at home in Maryland the following year, aged seventy-seven, and was buried in a leafy cemetery in Baltimore County, where his political career had begun.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.