Spiro Theodore Agnew (November 9, 1918 – September 17, 1996) was the United States’ 39th vice president, serving from 1969 to 1973. He is the second vice president to resign, with John C. Calhoun doing so in 1832.
Agnew Steps Down
Agnew resigned as Vice President of the United States today as part of a deal with the Justice Department to admit tax evasion and avoid prison.
The shocking development, which ended a Federal grand jury investigation into Mr Agnew in Baltimore and effectively ended his political career, stunned his closest allies and prompted President Nixon to look for a successor immediately.
“I formally quit the office of Vice President of the United States, effective immediately,” Mr Agnew said in a formal statement to Secretary of State Kissinger at 2:05 p.m., as required under the 1792 Succession Act.
Mr. Agnew stood before United States District Judge Walter E. Hoffman in a Baltimore courtroom minutes later, his hands barely trembling, reading from a statement in which he pleaded nolo contendere, or no contest, to a Government charge that he failed to report $29,500 in income received while Governor of Maryland in 1967. While this is not an admission of guilt, it does result in a conviction on the charge.
Tells the court that his income was taxable
“I admit that during the year 1967, I did receive payments that were not utilised for political reasons and that, as a result, these payments constituted income taxable to me in that year and that I was aware of this,” the nation’s 39th Vice President told the tribunal.
Mr Agnew was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $10,000 by Judge Hoffman. Mr Agnew might have been sentenced to prison if Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson had not personally intervened, claiming that “leniency is appropriate.”
In a “Dear Ted” letter made public by the White House, the President told Mr Agnew, “I appreciate your decision.” Mr Nixon emphasised his “deep sense of personal loss” in the letter, which lauded Mr Agnew’s “courage and candour,” as well as his patriotism and loyalty. However, it recognised that the choice was “wise in order to avoid a prolonged period of national division and uncertainty.”
The resignation automatically activated the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which require the Republican President to propose a successor who must be confirmed by a majority vote in both houses of Congress, where Democrats now hold the majority. The Speaker of the House, Carl Albert, a Democrat from Oklahoma, will be first in a line of succession to the presidency until a successor is confirmed and sworn in.
Mr Agnew’s abrupt retirement occurred just 11 days after he delivered an emotional statement to a Los Angeles audience, saying, “I will not resign if prosecuted!” If I am indicted, I will not resign!” The Vice-Presidency was vacated for the second time in the country’s history. The first time was in 1832 when John C. Calhoun resigned after being appointed to a Senate seat in South Carolina.
Mr Agnew’s choice looked to be motivated by personal factors rather than political or historical ones.
Mr Nixon requested Mr Agnew to quit at least twice after it was revealed on Aug. 6 that the Vice President was under investigation, according to close and authoritative allies.
Mr Agnew was alleged to have turned down the pleas until recently. Mr Agnew was told by his defence attorneys that the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service had found “incontrovertible proof” of unreported income while he was governor of Maryland, according to several colleagues.
Even so, the Vice President’s closest allies expected him to fight the allegations or, at the very least, to continue looking for a forum to try to put the allegations in the context of “a long-established pattern of political fundraising” in his home state, as he did in his courtroom statement today.
Said to Have Accepted Reluctantly
Mr Agnew apparently agreed to retire, plead no contest to a single tax-evasion charge, and accept the Justice Department’s promise to seek a lenient sentence yesterday.
According to the sources, Mr Agnew reluctantly accepted the proposition when he returned to Washington from a speaking engagement in New York yesterday, and then informed President Clinton of his choice at 6 p.m. last night.
Mr Agnew’s team gathered at his office in the Executive Office Building close to the White House shortly after 2:00 p.m. today. Maj. Gen. John M. Dunn, the Vice President’s military advisor, told the staff of the Vice President’s decision while addressing the court in Baltimore.
Some of the aides were crying. Others, taken aback by the news, wondered how they should answer the phone. And a lot of them publicly chastised the President.
Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Arizona, was one of Mr Agnew’s staunchest supporters, publicly declaring that Mr Agnew had been “handled terribly by persons in responsible Government positions.”
Justice Department Is Assailed
Senator Goldwater, like Mr Agnew, accused the Justice Department of “convicting” the Vice President through headlines and newscasts based on leaks of official material before a single formal case was filed.
Mr Agnew had fought tooth and nail until today to stop the probe of his Maryland political career, in which he served as Baltimore County Executive before becoming Governor. In earlier legal battles, his lawyers argued that the Constitution prohibited the indictment of an incumbent Vice President and that the leaks of information about the accusations against Mr Agnew had obliterated any chance of a fair trial.
As a result, Mr Agnew’s surprise appearance in a Baltimore courtroom this afternoon signalled the end of his quest for justice. Judge Hoffman was set to hear arguments from reporters and news organisations seeking to have subpoenas served on them by the Vice President’s lawyers quashed in court.
Feared Effort Would Take Years
At the same time, Mr Agnew maintained his innocence. However, he claimed that his attorneys had told him that proving his innocence may take years and that he had been forced to determine that “the public good necessitates rapid disposition of the challenges that I am facing.”
Mr Agnew’s allies later acknowledged that the signs of his historic decision had been there all along, but that they had refused to recognise them for what they had become.
After Mr Agnew’s emotional speech to the National Federation of Republican Women on Sept. 29 in Los Angeles, his aides described plans for subsequent speeches in which Mr Agnew would reiterate the charge that the Justice Department had chosen him as a “big trophy” to use in restoring reputations tarnished by “ineptness” in the investigation of the Republican burglary of the Democrats’ headquarters in the Watergate complex here.
However, at a White House press conference last Wednesday, President Nixon said the allegations against Mr. Agnew were “serious,” and he backed the Justice Department’s handling of the issue.
One Associate Is ‘Flabbergasted’
Mr Agnew gave a speech the next night in Chicago that was notable for its lack of accusations against the Justice Department, and he told assembled newsmen that “a candle can only burn for so long before it goes out.”
Beginning early last week, his press spokesman, J. Marsh Thompson, and other Agnew employees were apparently directed to make themselves unavailable to reporters.
“I thought things were beginning to close in,” one astonished Agnew associate said this afternoon. “I’m astounded.”
Significantly, a White House person familiar with past discussions between Mr Nixon and Mr Agnew said the decision was “not entirely unexpected here—I believe the initiative, this time, was from [Mr. Agnew’s] side.”
When the shock of Mr Agnew’s departure had worn off, the White House and congressional leaders began debating the politics and practicalities of Vice Presidential succession.
Mr Nixon was claimed to have begun consultations with figures “both within and beyond the Administration” about Mr Agnew’s successor.
Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana, gathered bipartisan congressional officials to discuss the nomination process and prepare for hearings to review the nominee’s qualifications.
Speculation About Successor
The White House has denied having a “contingency” list of possible successors on several occasions. According to published reports, Attorney General Richardson, Governor Rockefeller of New York, former Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally, Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus, or Senator Barry Goldwater could be nominated by Mr Nixon.
However, Democratic House leaders have signalled privately that they would oppose a nominee who could be expected to run for President three years from now. Others rumoured to be under consideration included former Pennsylvania governor William W. Scranton, former Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper, and former Secretary of State William P. Rogers.
Mr Agnew’s career came to an end at the age of 54, and he was believed to have started calling acquaintances to thank them for their previous support. He vanished from public view this afternoon as his limousine pulled away from the Baltimore courthouse, waving to onlookers.