FOR MARYLANDERS, Spiro Theodore Agnew will always be the native son who came closest to the presidency during the first two centuries of the nation's history. It was a destiny tinged not with greatness, but with sadness, tragedy, disgrace and ill-repute.
For what brought him down -- less than a year before the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation might have sent him to the White House -- was a tawdry story of kickbacks and bribery during a public career that saw him ascend from PTA president to Baltimore County executive to governor of Maryland to vice president of the United States.
Mr. Agnew's resignation on Oct. 10, 1973, after pleading no contest to an ancillary charge of tax evasion, averted what could have been a constitutional crisis of profound proportions. Had he balked, asserting he could be removed from his high office only through impeachment and conviction by the Congress, his case could have dragged on to coincide with the downfall of President Nixon. But as it happened, the Nixon entourage as well as federal prosecutors threatening jail time, forced his resignation and opened the way for Gerald R. Ford to become the nation's first and only un-elected vice president and president.
Such was the bitter, self-imposed fate of a Marylander who at one time was seen as the personification of the American success story. Born in Baltimore, the son of a Depression-era Greek immigrant, Ted Agnew earned a Bronze Star during World War II, got his law degree from the University of Baltimore and foundered in middling jobs as an insurance adjuster and supermarket personnel manager before his political career took off.
His early reputation was that of a liberal Republican who was able to enact a public accommodations bill in highly conservative Baltimore County and then go on to defeat a Democratic race-baiter, George P. Mahoney, to win the governorship in 1966.
In those days he was a (Nelson) Rockefeller Republican, one of the New York governor's chief boosters for the 1968 GOP nomination. But Mr. Rockefeller's sudden withdrawal and Baltimore race riots that led Governor Agnew to berate the city's black leaders for their silence brought him to Mr. Nixon's attention.
After his surprise selection as Mr. Nixon's running mate, Mr. Agnew was transformed overnight into a right-wing hatchet-man eager to assail Vietnam war protesters as "pusillanimous pussyfooters" and the liberal media as "nabobs of negativism." He considered himself a spokesman for the "silent majority" -- meaning middle class suburban whites of a kind he knew well from his Baltimore County days. When his downfall came, much of the ridicule and contempt that followed him to his death on the Eastern Shore this week, at age 77, was a form of payback by his angry critics.
Because Mr. Agnew was such a complete Marylander, the product of a state that had never before or since played a major role at the presidential level, his rise and fall has a special poignancy. The Sun expressed appreciation for his seemingly clean, business-like performance as county executive and endorsed him for governor, taking him to task only after he assailed the city's black leadership and assumed a harsh new persona at Mr. Nixon's bidding. He blamed the unfavorable reception he got as a vice presidential nominee on the word passed to the national media by this newspaper's reporters and editors.
What brought him down, what cut short his path to the Oval Office, came to light almost by accident. Federal prosecutors looking into suspected wrongdoing under Dale Anderson, his PTC successor as county executive, inadvertently subpoenaed the records of construction engineers for one of the Agnew years in Towson.
What they found was evidence that Mr. Agnew routinely accepted kickback money right into his years as vice president. While there was some truth in his contention that he was conforming to a political way of life in Baltimore County, his conduct clashed harshly with his pose as a squeaky clean reformer. The hypocrisy of it all was a factor in the public scorn that was his lot for the rest of his life.
Marylanders who have long considered Spiro Agnew an embarrassment to this state were discomfited when Gov. Parris N. Glendening hung his portrait in the State House and Congress unveiled a bust of the former vice president. They may feel the same as flags are flown at half-mast until his burial. Yet history cannot be denied. This Marylander was what he was -- an important if venal figure in a turbulent era. With the passage of time, the anger and passions of the Vietnam-Watergate period need to be replaced by sober judgment, understanding and perhaps even some compassion.
Pub Date: 9/19/96