Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Spiro Agnew

Spiro Theodore Agnew (November 9, 1918 - September 17, 1996) was the thirty-ninth Vice President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1973 under President Richard M. Nixon. He studied chemistry at Johns Hopkins University and earned a law degree from the University of Baltimore.

He was elected chief executive of Baltimore County in 1962 as a reformer and Republican outsider in a predominantly Democratic county. Democrats also helped elect him governor of Maryland in 1966 when the Democratic primary selected an opponent of integration as that Party's candidate. As governor, he backed tax and judicial reforms and projected an image of racial moderation during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr His moderate image, immigrant background and successful political career in a traditionally Democratic state made him an attractive running mate for Nixon in 1968.

Agnew became a lightning rod for public opinion when he publicly and angrily denounced critics of US war policy in Vietnam. He was known for attacking his opponents with unusual turns of phrase. Among his most famous were "nattering nabobs of negativism", which his speechwriter William Safire claims to have written, and "effete corps of impudent snobs". Both expressions refer to the press corps, whom both Agnew and Nixon considered to be their ideological enemies and which ultimately played a role in Nixon's downfall.

Agnew is also generally credited with the term "radiclib", an abbreviation of "radical liberal". This term notably surfaced in the Watergate scandal, in White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman's September 12, 1970 notes on a plot by Nixon to create "a front that sounds like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to support the Democratic candidates and praise their liberal records, etc., publicize their 'bad' quotes in guise of praise. Give the senators a 'radiclib' rating."

Patrick Buchanan, Safire and Agnew's other speechwriters ultimately did him no favors, however, by putting these words in his mouth: phrases such as "pusillanimous pussyfooting" and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history" made him sound like one of those bombastic Southern politicians caricatured in L'il Abner or Pogo. Agnew toned down his rhetoric and dropped most of the alliterations after the 1972 mid-term elections.

On October 10, 1973, 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 after pleading nolo contendere (no contest) to a criminal charge of tax evasion, part of a scheme where he allegedly accepted $29,500 in bribes during his tenure as governor of Maryland. Agnew was fined $10,000 and put on three years' probation. His resignation triggered the first use of the 25th amendment, as the vacancy prompted the appointment and confirmation of Gerald R. Ford as his successor.

Agnew was hospitalized in September 1996 and diagnosed with an advanced, yet to that point undetected, form of leukemia. He never left the hospital and died September 17, 1996.