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Vice President Agnew resigns

Vice President Agnew resigns

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Less than a year before Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as president of the United States, Spiro Agnew becomes the first U.S. vice president to resign in disgrace. The same day, he pleaded no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion in exchange for the dropping of charges of political corruption. He was subsequently fined $10,000, sentenced to three years probation, and disbarred by the Maryland court of appeals.

Agnew, a Republican, was elected chief executive of Baltimore County in 1961. In 1967, he became governor of Maryland, an office he held until his nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1968. During Nixon’s successful campaign, Agnew ran on a tough law-and-order platform, and as vice president he frequently attacked opponents of the Vietnam War and liberals as being disloyal and un-American. Reelected with Nixon in 1972, Agnew resigned on October 10, 1973, after the U.S. Justice Department uncovered widespread evidence of his political corruption, including allegations that his practice of accepting bribes had continued into his tenure as U.S. vice president. He died at the age of 77 on September 17, 1996.

Under the process decreed by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, President Nixon was instructed to the fill vacant office of vice president by nominating a candidate who then had to be approved by both houses of Congress. Nixon’s appointment of Representative Gerald Ford of Michigan was approved by Congress and, on December 6, Ford was sworn in. He became the 38th president of the United States on August 9, 1974, after the escalating Watergate affair caused Nixon to resign.

READ MORE: What Is the 25th Amendment?

Vice Presidential Vacancy Isn’t Automatically Filled by House Speaker

A viral Facebook post wrongly suggests that if Joe Biden were to become president and later step down, Nancy Pelosi would become vice president. The Constitution says the vice president would become president and nominate a replacement Congress must confirm or deny that pick.

Full Story

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lays out the political ascension that occurs if a president steps down or is removed from office, in which the vice president assumes the presidency.

But a Facebook post — circulating ahead of the Sept. 17 Constitution Day, no less — is distorting the facts about what a vice presidential vacancy would mean if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden became president and later stepped down.

“Biden steps down, Harris becomes president ! Makes Pelosi vice president. Think about That one,” the text post, shared by more than 8,000 users, reads.

While it’s true that Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, would become president in that hypothetical scenario, it’s false to suggest that Nancy Pelosi — assuming she is still House speaker — would automatically become vice president.

The 25th Amendment says that: “ In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”

Its next section reads: “ Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.”

So if Biden and Harris won the 2020 election and Biden stepped down after taking office, as the post hypothesizes, Harris would become president and then nominate a new vice president. And Congress would have the final say on confirming that nominee.

The 25th Amendment was approved by Congress in 1965 — not long after Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — and was ratified by three-quarters of the states in 1967, according to the U.S. National Archives.

When President Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in 1973, Nixon nominated House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to become vice president.

And when Nixon resigned the following year, Ford became president and nominated Nelson Rockefeller, the former governor of New York, to become vice president.

It is true, however, that under current law, if there is no president or vice president, the House speaker would be next in line for the presidency.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.


󈬉th Amendment.” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. Accessed 14 Sep 2020.

Kilpatrick, Carroll. “Nixon Resigns.” Washington Post. 9 Aug 1974.

Q: Can employers, colleges and universities require COVID-19 vaccinations?

Vice President Agnew resigns - HISTORY

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Agnew Plea Ends 65 Days of Insisting on Innocence

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Mets in World Series Defeat Reds for Flag

I.R.S. Sees Nothing to Prevent New Tax Cases Against Agnew

Washington, Oct, 10--Spiro T. Agnew resigned as Vice President of the United States today under an agreement with the Department of Justice to admit evasion of Federal income taxes and avoid imprisonment.

The stunning development, ending a Federal grand jury investigation of Mr. Agnew in Baltimore and probably terminating his political career, shocked his closest associates and precipitated an immediate search by President Nixon for a successor.

"I hereby resign the office of Vice President of the United States, effective immediately," Mr. Agnew declared in a formal statement delivered at 2:05 P.M. to Secretary of State Kissinger, as provided in the Succession Act of 1792.

Minutes later, Mr. Agnew stood before United States District Judge Walter E. Hoffman in a Baltimore courtroom, hands barely trembling, and read from a statement in which he pleaded nolo contendere, or no contest, to a Government charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income received in 1967, when he was Governor of Maryland. Such a plea, while not an admission of guilt, subjects a defendant to a judgment of conviction on the charge.

Tells Court Income Was Taxable

"I admit that I did receive payments during the year 1967 which were not expended for political purposes and that, therefore, these payments were income taxable to me in that year and that I so knew," the nation&aposs 39th Vice President told the stilled courtroom.

Judge Hoffman sentenced Mr. Agnew to three years&apos probation and fined him $10,000. The judge declared from the bench that he would have sent Mr. Agnew to prison had not Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson personally interceded, arguing that "leniency is justified."

In his dramatic courtroom statement, Mr. Agnew declared that he was innocent of any other wrongdoing but that it would "seriously prejudice the national interest" to involve himself in a protracted struggle before the courts or Congress.

Mr. Agnew also cited the national interest in a letter to President Nixon saying that he was resigning.

"I respect your decision," the President wrote to Mr. Agnew in a "Dear Ted" letter made public by the White House. The letter hailed Mr. Agnew for "courage and candor," praised his patriotism and dedication, and expressed Mr. Nixon&aposs "great sense of personal loss." But it agreed that the decision was "advisable in order to prevent a protracted period of national division and uncertainty."

The resignation automatically set in motion, for the first time, the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, under which the Republican President must nominate a successor who will be subject to confirmation by a majority vote in both houses of congress, where Democrats predominate. Until a successor is confirmed and sworn in, the Speaker of the House, Carl Albert Democrat of Oklahoma, will be first in line of succession to the Presidency.

Mr. Agnew&aposs sudden resignation came only 11 days after he made an emotional declaration to a Los Angeles audience: "I will not resign if indicted! I will not resign if indicted!" It marked the second time in the nation&aposs history that the Vice-Presidency was vacated by resignation. The first occasion was in 1832, when John C. Calhoun stepped down after he was chosen to fill a Senate seat from South Carolina.

Mr. Agnew&aposs decision appeared to have been based on personal, rather than political or historic, considerations.

Close and authoritative associates of Mr. Agnew said that, contrary to official White House denials, Mr. Nixon at least twice asked him to resign after it was disclosed on Aug. 6 that the Vice President was under investigation

The requests were said to have been spurned by Mr. Agnew until sometime in the last week. According to some associates, Mr. Agnew was advised by his defense attorneys that the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service had obtained "incontrovertible evidence" of unreported income while he held office in Maryland.

Even so, the Vice President&aposs closest associates had expected him to fight the accusations or at least to continue to seek a forum to try, as he did in his courtroom statement today, to place the accusations within the context of "a long-established pattern of political fund raising" in his home state.

Said to Have Accepted Reluctantly

Yesterday, the defense attorneys and officials at the Justice Department reportedly reached agreement on the plan under which Mr. Agnew would resign, plead no contest to the single tax-evasion charge and accept the department&aposs pledge to seek a light sentence.

According to the sources, Mr. Agnew reluctantly accepted the proposal when he returned to Washington from a speaking engagement yesterday in New York and then told the President of his reluctant decision at 6 o&aposclock last night.

Shortly after 2 P.M. today, Mr. Agnew&aposs staff was assembled in his office in the Executive Office Building next to the White House. As the Vice President was addressing the court in Baltimore, his military advisor, Maj. Gen. John M. Dunn, informed the staff of his decision.

Some of the aides wept. Others, stunned by the announcement, asked such things as how they should answer the telephone. And a number of them privately and bitterly denounced the President.

One of Mr. Agnew&aposs stanchest supporters, Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican of Arizona, declared publicly that Mr. Agnew had been "treated shamefully by persons in responsible Government positions."

Justice Department Is Assailed

As Mr. Agnew had done until today, Senator Goldwater accused the Justice Department of having "convicted" the Vice President by headlines and newscasts based on leaks of official information before a single legal charge had been filed."

Until today, Mr. Agnew had waged a determined campaign to halt the investigation of his Maryland political career, in which he was Baltimore County Executive before he became Governor. His attorneys had argued in preliminary legal skirmishes that the Constitution forbade the indictment of an incumbent Vice President and that the leaks of information about the charges against Mr. Agnew had destroyed any prospect for a fair hearing.

Thus, Mr. Agnew&aposs surprise appearance this afternoon in the Baltimore courtroom marked a swift abandonment of his campaign for vindication. Judge Hoffman had been scheduled to hear in the courtroom arguments by reporters and news organizations seeking to quash subpoenas served on them by the Vice President&aposs attorneys.

Feared Effort Would Take Years

At the same time, Mr. Agnew insisted that he was innocent of any other wrongdoing. But he said that his attorneys had advised him it might take years to establish his innocence and that he had been compelled to decide that "the public interest requires swift disposition of the problems which are facing me."

Some of Mr. Agnew&aposs associates said later today that the signals of his momentous decision had been there but that they had not wished to accept them for what they became.

After the Vice President&aposs emotional speech to the National &aposFederation 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 selected him as a "big trophy" to use in restoring reputations blemished by "ineptness" in the investigation of the Republican burglary of the Democrats&apos headquarters in the Watergate complex here.

But last Wednesday, President Nixon declared at a White House news conference that the charges against Mr. Agnew were "serious" and he defended the Justice Department&aposs conduct of the case.

One Associate Is &aposFlabbergasted&apos

The next night, in Chicago, Mr. Agnew delivered a speech marked by the absence of the accusations against the Justice Department and he asserted to assembled newsmen that "a candle is only so long, and eventually it burns out."

His press spokesman, J. Marsh Thompson, and other Agnew associates were reportedly ordered to make themselves unavailable to newsmen beginning early last week.

As one stunned Agnew associate remarked this afternoon, "I felt things were beginning to close in, but I still don&apost understand it. I&aposm flabbergasted."

A White House official familiar with previous discussions between Mr. Nixon and Mr. Agnew said, significantly, that the decision was "not altogether unexpected here--I think the initiative, this time, was from [Mr. Agnew&aposs] side."

The shock of the announcement of Mr. Agnew&aposs resignation had barely worn off when the White House and leaders in Congress began deliberating about both the politics and the mechanics of Vice Presidential succession.

Mr. Nixon was said to have begun consultation with leaders "both within and outside the Administration" on the nominee to succeed Mr. Agnew.

Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana, the Senate majority leader, assembled bipartisan Congressional officials to discuss the selection process and prepare for hearings to assess the qualifications of the nominee.

Speculation About Successor

The White House has repeatedly denied that it had a "contingency" list of potential successors. Published reports, and renewed speculation today, centered on the possibility that Mr. Nixon would nominate Attorney General Richardson, Governor Rockefeller of New York, former Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally, Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus or Senator Goldwater.

But Democratic leaders in the House have hinted privately that they would oppose a nominee who could be expected to confront their party three years from now as a Presidential candidate. Thus, others said to be under active consideration were such Republican elder statesmen as former Gov. William W. Scranton of Pennsylvania, former senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky and former Secretary of State William P. Rogers.

Mr. Agnew, his career ended at the age of 54 years, was said to have begun telephoning friends to thank them for their past support. He disappeared from public view this afternoon as the limousine in which he was riding pulled away from the Baltimore courthouse and the former Vice President waved to spectators.

Veep Spiro Agnew Resigns

On October 10, 1973, following months of pressure and scandal, Vice President Spiro Agnew turned in his letter of resignation to President Nixon (who was soon to follow him) becoming only the second vice president to resign.* Michigan representative Gerald R. Ford took his place as vice president on December 6, 1973.

Agnew began his political life as a liberal Democrat and ended it as a law-and-order Republican who pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to charges of tax fraud. He once called the media “nattering nabobs of negativism”** and found a political base with both social conservatives and what would later be called Reagan Democrats.

He rose quickly from a mere county executive of Baltimore County in 1962 to the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland in 1966. The Democrats nominated a race-baiting candidate and Agnew, running to the left of him, won becoming one of the first Republican governors south of the Mason-Dixon line since the Civil War. Just two years later, Nixon chose him to be his far-right, hippie-bashing, anti-intellectual attack dog – a role he (along with speechwriters William Safire and Pat Buchanan) clearly relished.

In fact, he was a hero to many and the subject of one of the first fads of the decade: T-shirts and other products sporting his image were mass-produced (check your local thrift store or our eBay links below and to the right). To his credit, Agnew refused royalties for merchandise with his likeness and instead asked that any proceeds go to aid families of American POWs. As you will see later, the “royalties” he chose to keep came from far deeper pockets.

No Joke

During the 󈨌 campaign, the Democrats ran an ad which simply showed the words “Spiro Agnew, Vice President” with someone who is heard but not seen chuckling at first, but eventually breaking into all-out laughter. Like the infamous Goldwater/A-bomb commercial of 󈨄, this controversial ad was quickly withdrawn. It was Agnew who was laughing by the end of the campaign as he and Nixon easily beat George McGovern and his divided Democratic party.


Agnew amongst the “silent majority” on a campaign stop, September 23, 1972. He didn’t believe in handouts to the poor, but happily received them from contractors seeking business with the state of Maryland.

Photo by Karl Schumacher, courtesy NARA

I Will NOT Resign

A defiant Agnew spent most of 1973 deflecting attention away from the growing Watergate scandal with his own troubles. He was accused of receiving kickbacks – illegal payments – from contractors who wished to do business with the state of Maryland while he was governor. The charges soon expanded to include payments he received while vice president. He claimed the charges were “damned lies” and vowed never to resign.

Some cynics saw the selection of Agnew as a running mate as Nixon’s insurance against being assassinated. Considering all of the assassinations in the sixties, any kind of insurance would have been prudent. But even Nixon-haters were glad it never came to that. He was a lightning-rod for liberals and Agnew’s troubles – no matter how damaging to the Republican Party – certainly helped keep Nixon’s troubles off the front page. That is, until Agnew had to resign.

Fooled Them All – Except the Taxman

Agnew pleaded no contest to charges of tax fraud. Ironically enough, the charges stemmed not from having received kickbacks and bribes as he had been doing for the better part of a decade, but for not reporting them on his income tax returns! (You may recall that similar charges – and not murder – are what brought down mobster Al Capone.)

Come On Down!

In typically brash Agnew style, he apparently had them deliver the illegal payments – which he called legitimate political contributions (in unmarked envelopes containing as much as $20,000 at a time) – directly to his vice presidential office! When you believe you are above the law, there is no reason to make such transactions any more complicated than they have to be.

While you or I would have spent five to ten in the pen, Nixon’s Justice Department took pity on him and let him off with a fine and three years probation. The puny $10,000 fine only covered the taxes and interest due on what was “unreported income” from 1967 even though there was evidence that the payments continued while he was vice president. That sweetheart plea bargain was later mocked as the “greatest deal since the Lord spared Isaac on the mountaintop” by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs.

Students Seek Justice

When it became apparent that Agnew was getting off with little or no punishment, law students at George Washington University used a class project to bring suit against the former Governor. Law School Professor John Banzoff allows his students to pick their projects and they initially sought the help of Agnew’s successor in Maryland, Governor Marvin Mandel. Mandel, however, was not receptive and soon found himself in prison serving a three-year sentence for mail fraud and racketeering. The charges stemmed from a scheme where he received $300,000 as a quid pro quo to influence race track legislation.

The students, who were collectively known as Banzoff’s Bandits, soon discovered a precedent under old English law that allowed an individual to bring suit when the government refuses to. It was the break they needed. They found four residents of the state of Maryland willing to put their names on the case and sought to have Agnew repay the state $268,482 – the amount he was known to have taken in bribes.

Somewhat surprisingly, the students won and after two appeals by Agnew, he finally resigned himself to the matter and a check for $268,482 was turned over the the Maryland state Treasurer William James in early 1983.

Listen to Agnew attack the media.

Whether you saw him as a spokesman for Nixon’s “Silent Majority” or as an ultra-conservative precursor to Dan Quayle, he proved to be far more on target on the golf course than in the political arena. He once used his ‘nattering’ nine-iron to take out two innocent bystanders at a golf tournament with consecutive shots before storming off the course.

What If?

If Agnew had not been caught, he would have become President Spiro T. Agnew on August 9, 1974 and Gerald R. Ford would be remembered today by about three people as the former Republican Minority Leader of the House from Michigan and one-time Warren Commission member.

Where Are They Now?

After resigning his post and paying his fines, Agnew wrote two forgettable novels (one about a disgraced Vice President!) and a paranoid and unapologetic memoir entitled Go Quietly or Else, where he claimed Nixon’s henchmen were out to get him and that the president “naively believed that by throwing me to the wolves, he had appeased his enemies.” He also worked as a lobbyist (the party takes care of its own – even if they resign in disgrace) before disappearing into complete obscurity. Agnew did attend Nixon’s funeral in 1994. Spiro Theodore Agnew died of leukemia on September 17, 1996 at the age of 77. His understated gravestone reads: “Agnew, Spiro T. 1918-1996.”

Professor Banzoff, incidentally, has been in the news lately as a crusader against the ever-expanding beltlines in America. He wants to reform the fast food industry – just as he did to the tobacco industry (earning the nickname “the Ralph Nadar of the tobacco industry”).

Agnew, Spiro T. Go Quietly… or Else. William Morrow, 1980.
Albright, Joseph. What Makes Spiro Run: The Life and Times of Spiro Agnew. Dodd Mead, 1972.
Cohen, Richard M. A Heartbeat Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Viking Press, 1974.
Coyne, John R. The Impudent Snobs Agnew vs. the Intellectual Establishment. Arlington House, 1972.
Lippman, Theo. Spiro Agnew’s America. W.W. Norton, 1972.
Marsh, Robert. Agnew: The Unexamined Man: A Political Profile. Evans and Company, 1971.
Peterson, Robert W. Agnew: The Coining of a Household Word. Facts on File, 1972.
UPI Wire Story. Successful Student Project: Make Agnew Pay. January 6, 1983.
Witcover, Jules. White Knight: The Rise of Spiro Agnew. Random House, 1972.

John C. Calhoun resigned in 1832.
**He had reason to hate one journalist in particular: Jack Anderson as much as outed his son James “Randy” Agnew in a column that Anderson apologized for 30 years later in his book, Peace, War, and Politics: An Eyewitness Account.

October 10, 1973: Agnew Pleads No Contest to Tax Evasion Charges, Resigns as Vice President

Spiro T. Agnew. [Source: University of Maryland] Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigns. He will be replaced by an appointee, House Republican Gerald Ford (see October 12, 1973). Agnew, a conservative Maryland Republican with a long history of racial repression, ethnic jokes, and racial slurs in his record, appealed to conservative Southern voters as Richard Nixon’s vice presidential candidate in 1968 and 1972 (see 1969-1971). Agnew was the first vice president to be given his own office in the West Wing. [Time, 9/30/1996 US Senate, 2007] But by mid- and late 1971, Agnew is battling attempts from within the White House to force him to resign (see Mid-1971 and Beyond).
Nolo Contendre - Agnew’s lawyers reach a deal with the Justice Department, agreeing to a plea of nolo contendre (no contest) to the tax charge, a $160,000 levy of tax repayments, and a $10,000 fine. In return, Agnew agrees to leave office. One of his last actions as vice president is to visit Nixon, who assures him that he is doing the right thing. Agnew later recalls bitterly: “It was hard to believe he was not genuinely sorry about the course of events. Within two days, this consummate actor would be celebrating his appointment of a new vice president with never a thought of me.” For his part, Nixon will recall, “The Agnew resignation was necessary although a very serious blow.” Nixon apparently is not as concerned about punishing a White House official for misconduct as much as he hopes Agnew’s resignation will redirect the public anger away from himself. That ploy, too, will backfire: Nixon later writes that “all [Agnew’s resignation] did was to open the way to put pressure on the president to resign as well.” [US Senate, 2007] Agnew later says that Nixon “naively believed that by throwing me to the wolves, he had appeased his enemies.” [New York Times, 9/19/1996] The State of Maryland will later lift Agnew’s license to practice law. [University of Maryland Newsdesk, 10/6/2003]
'Affluent Obscurity' - Agnew will return to private life (in what one reporter will call “an affluent obscurity”) [Star-Tribune (Minneapolis), 9/21/1996] as an international business consultant (see 1980s). He will publish a 1980 memoir entitled Go Quietly… Or Else, in which he says he was forced to resign by scheming Nixon aides, and a novel about a corrupt American vice president “destroyed by his own ambition.” Continuing to maintain his innocence of any wrongdoing (see 1981), he refuses any contact from Nixon until he chooses to attend Nixon’s funeral in 1994. [New York Times, 9/19/1996 US Senate, 2007]


The narrow monument park bounded by Lexington, Fayette and Calvert streets in downtown Baltimore has long been known as Court Square, named for the courthouses that flank it.

Here two centuries of legal history have been made, from the days when the U.S. Supreme Court members rode a circuit to decide major cases to the present day. In these buildings the innocent and guilty plead for equal time.

One afternoon in the troubled month of October 1973, a drama was to be played out in the federal courthouse on the square's east side. It was a drama that will be noted in the history books as long as there is a Maryland and a Baltimore.

At 2:05 p.m. on Oct. 10, tight security was in force in the building. In one of the fifth-floor courtrooms, Spiro Agnew, vice president of the United States, resigned. He was in court to answer charges that he accepted contract kickbacks in 1967, when he was governor of Maryland. He denied committing any illegal acts, but admitted the acceptance of payments that were improperly reported on his income tax returns. In exchange, the government let him off the hook with a $10,000 fine.

A few minutes earlier, as required by law, the vice president's 14-word resignation was delivered to the office of the secretary of state in the White House.

In the nearly 200 years of the republic's existence, no vice president had ever resigned under a legal cloud. Only one -- John C. Calhoun -- had ever resigned. And he did it because he wanted to be a senator. Only one had ever gotten into serious legal trouble after his term of office. That was Aaron Burr.

Agnew's resignation followed one of the most furious weeks in the history of Maryland journalism. Virtually mountains of Maryland's political misdeeds were shoveled onto page one of the nation's newspapers. In such an environment, it was only a minor revelation that President Richard Nixon had paid income taxes of less than $1,000 for 1970 and 1971 while pocketing a $151,000 refund, according to a Rhode Island newspaper. Likewise, little interest was raised by an admission that Helen Delich Bentley, as federal maritime commissioner, had served as the conduit for a $20,000 campaign donation for Richard Nixon raised by shipping interests.

The scandal around Agnew began gathering force on Oct. 2 with the vice president insisting he wouldn't resign, a stance Nixon said was "altogether proper." A news photo early that week showed the vice president playing golf in sunny Palm Springs, Calif. A scant 48 hours later, Dale Anderson, Baltimore County executive, was indicted for tax evasion.

The Evening Sun published a list of 12 investigations and ongoing criminal court cases involving state officials and police in addition to the Anderson and Agnew affairs.

As rumors sizzled through Maryland, it seemed impossible that anything could push Agnew and the Maryland political uproar off the front pages. But something did. The Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arab states broke out in midweek. But the Agnew story wasn't over yet. On the afternoon of Oct. 9, Agnew made an unreported visit to the White House to announce his decision to resign.

The next night, a few hours after he'd resigned, Agnew went to Little Italy for dinner and was photographed in Sabatino's. The Secret Service was with him and he seemed relaxed and happy. The president had told him he had faced the "great issues of our time with courage and candor."

Transcript - Episode 6: A Disappearing Act

A secret murder plot directed by the President? A fear of political assassination by the CIA. Facing the prospect of becoming the first Vice President in American history to resign in disgrace. Spiro T. Agnew tries to set the stage for his own exit from office. With wild claims of death threats that forced him out. Surprise revelations of what Agnew was doing with all of his money. And a suspense-filled final day that leaves the sitting Vice President. a convicted felon.

For a list of sources and references for this episode, see here.

MADDOW: What you’re about to hear, I think, is one of the most surreal clips I’ve maybe ever heard when it comes to American politics.

This is a TV interview with a Vice President. And what he’s about to allege here is that the President of the United States who he served with… was threatening to have him murdered.

This is not an outtake from some over-acted political thriller. This is a real interview that really happened.And the Vice President here, of course, is Spiro Agnew.

REPORTER: Agnew says he left because of a death threat from the White House. He quotes Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig urging him to resign with the words, “The President has a lot of power, don’t forget that.” Agnew writes that the remark sent a chill through his body. He took it as an innuendo that anything could happen, he might have-- in Agnew’s words-- “a convenient accident.” An interpretation that even today, he refuses to disown.

SPIRO AGNEW: I didn’t know what General Haig meant when he said “anything may be offing, things may get nasty and dirty.” . There’s no doubt in my mind that these things are possible. I don’t say it was a probability, but I do say it was a possibility.

REPORTER: You think then that there were men around Richard Nixon-- either in the White House staff or in the official mechanism of the CIA-- who were capable of killing a Vice President of the United States if they felt he was an embarrassment?

AGNEW: I don’t doubt that at all.Spiro Agnew didn’t just make that allegation that one time.

He made it repeatedly. He wrote about it in a book, he went on-the-record in a series of interviews stating that he believed President Richard Nixon might have him killed.

MEET THE PRESS MODERATOR: You say that you were fearful that if you did not go along, President Nixon or General Haig -- it’s not quite clear-- might have ordered you assassinated, could you explain that?

AGNEW: I was concerned and I think my concern at that time, based on my frame of mind after being seven months in a pressure cooker of attempts to get me to resign office . gave me reason to be concerned. I brought along with me this testimony from the Select Committee on the Government Operations Committee involving intelligence activities.

What Spiro Agnew pulls out at this point is a copy of a U.S. government report about the CIA’s efforts to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.He says what that report shows is that even though the CIA was never given a direct order from the President to kill Castro, they knew they were authorized to do it.

He’s making the point that even if Nixon never gave a direct order to to kill him-- to kill his Vice President-- it’s conceivable the CIA would take its cues from Nixon and act anyway.

AGNEW: It is possible for these things to happen. I’ve never said it was a probability that my life was in danger, I said it was one of the factors that crossed my mind and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back after all the pressures that had been put on me.

Spiro Agnew was alleging on national television that as a sitting Vice President, he was possibly the target of a contract killing by the President.

He said he even bought a gun at the time for his own protection.

NICK THIMMESCH (REPORTER, LOS ANGELES TIMES): You acknowledge that you had fear at this time, but after you left office, did you ever go to the federal government to get a permit for a handgun?

THIMMESCH: Why did you get that handgun, and what period was this?

AGNEW: I think it was immediately after I left office, I got it because I still had some fears.

THIMMESCH: Do you still have a handgun?

AGNEW: No, I’ve never carried the handgun, I thought it was sufficient that people would know I had the permit to carry one.

This is the story that Spiro Agnew wanted people to believe about the circumstances in which he left office. That he was another one of Richard Nixon’s victims.

Agnew’s tale of woe was that Nixon’s inner circle-- specifically Nixon’s chief-of-staff Al Haig-- pressured him for weeks to resign and when he refused to do it. they threatened his life. And thereby forced him out when he otherwise wouldn’t have left. Okay, maybe. Seems nuts, but maybe!

That said, there is another explanation for why Spiro Agnew stepped down when he did. And it does involve a three-letter federal agency, but not the CIA.

It involves special agents from the IRS who had been quietly and very diligently going through Vice President Agnew’s past.

Those agents and the Baltimore federal prosecutors working with them had already turned up the smoking-gun evidence of the bribery and extortion scheme that Agnew had been running in Maryland and in the White House. But they also started turning up something else: details about what exactly Spiro Agnew seemed to be doing with all that money he was making as a criminal.

And that part of the investigation got into areas of Agnew’s personal life that were maybe becoming a little uncomfortable for him:

RON LIEBMAN (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): There were some personal expenses in there that, pre-Monica Lewinsky and pre all that we've come across and some stories that we came across which-- unlike Ken Starr, I guess-- we just said “this is, this is not a part of the case.”

Ron Liebman and his fellow Baltimore prosecutors had stumbled upon an aspect of Agnew’s life-and-crimes that may have hit a nerve for the Vice President:

LIEBMAN: You know, these guys they have all these personal peccadillos, you know, they have money and power and they do stupid things. And we came across financial evidence of that and we heard some stories about that. One of them quite bizarre, but we, that wasn't part of the case.

The Baltimore prosecutors never actually used the information they would start to uncover about Agnew’s personal life, but Spiro Agnew was aware that the IRS was digging into it and what it involved was evidence of what seemed like a secret life… mistresses, sports cars, expensive gifts that never seemed to make it to Agnew’s wife Judy. Here’s prosecutor Tim Baker:

TIM BAKER (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): There was jewelry, too.

MIKE YARVITZ (PRODUCER): Jewelry to Agnew?

BAKER: A woman's watch. Which Judy never got.

YARVITZ: What does that suggest?

Death threats and handguns and CIA assassination plots sounded like a really cool reason to have to step down. But that probably wasn’t the reason he had to step down.

Spiro Agnew had carefully crafted this straight arrow, moralistic, hard line public image as a man of honesty and virtue and conservative integrity. He knew that if he continued to fight, all of that would come crashing down around him. It was finally time to cut his losses and go away.

You’re listening to “Bag Man.” I’m your host Rachel Maddow.

Episode 6: “A Disappearing Act”

NBC NEWS ANNOUNCER: “The Tonight Show” will not be seen tonight so that we may bring you the following NBC News Special Report.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history.

The Saturday Night Massacre took place on October 20th, 1973.

It was Richard Nixon, in a fit of rage, trying to end the investigation into Watergate that his own Justice Department was conducting.

Nixon ordered his Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the Special Prosecutor who was leading that investigation. And when Richardson refused to do that and resigned himself instead, that sparked a true-blue constitutional crisis:

CHANCELLOR: Agents of the FBI-- acting at the direction of the White House-- sealed off the offices of the Special Prosecutor, the offices of the Attorney General, and the offices of the Deputy Attorney General. That’s a stunning development. And nothing even remotely like it has happened in all of our history.

The Saturday Night Massacre is this signal moment in U.S. history. But many of the people who lived that history, are still around to tell it. JT Smith was Elliot Richardson’s top assistant at the Justice Department that day:

JT SMITH (EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT TO ATTORNEY GENERAL ELLIOT RICHARDSON): I don’t want to sound like a pretentious 29-year-old, but I was sorely vexed by events. And I had a lot of yellow, legal pad notes that bore upon the stuff we’ve been talking about. I took my notes, put them in my briefcase, and walked out without being searched by the FBI. And I took them home and I was sufficiently paranoid about the direction of the country, I hid them in the attic of my house.

What’s sort of incredible to realize with hindsight and what’s never mentioned in the history books about that moment is that Elliot Richardson and his team-- when the Saturday Night Massacre happened-- they were just coming off what may have been one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the U.S. Justice Department.

The Saturday Night Massacre happened on October 20th, 1973.

Just 10 days before that-- on October 10th-- Attorney General Elliot Richardson had single-handedly forced the resignation of the Vice President of the United States. It was October 9th when Elliot Richardson cut a high-stakes plea deal with Vice President Agnew’s lawyers that would would keep Agnew out of jail, but in exchange, he would offer his immediate resignation from office. Agnew’s attorney Marty London helped reach that deal:

MARTIN LONDON (VICE PRESIDENT SPIRO AGNEW’S DEFENSE ATTORNEY): I thought Elliot Richardson, in the end, made a deal because he saw this as a potential Constitutional crisis and a national disaster.

The deal was made – as controversial as it was – it was made. But what happened to Spiro Agnew in the last 24 hours of his Vice Presidency, it was this all-night, sirens wailing, down to the last minute, surprise sweat fest like you can’t believe.

In all of U.S. history, a Vice President had never before been forced to resign. And, at that moment, it wasn’t really clear how to do it. Logistically, even.

They had to dig through the archives to figure out the logistics. To figure out that the way a Vice President technically resigns-- the instrument of resignation-- turns out, it’s through a letter submitted to the Secretary of State? Okay, so he’ll resign to the Secretary of State!

After figuring that out and finalizing the deal and setting a court date for the very next day, October 10th, Marty London and the rest of Agnew’s defense team rushed back to the Vice President’s office to draft that resignation letter. Again, there was no precedent for what that should look like. What should the letter say?

LONDON: Nobody had written, thought about preparing for this (laughs), we’ve got two hours to get out a resignation letter! I don’t know how so many people got in that room, he had, the Vice President had some guy who was like counselor to the Vice President, another guy was there, another guy was there, Frank Sinatra had sent a lawyer! And now people are writing fantastic, long explanations. One guy said, “I’m resigning because the President is pushing me out, and outrageous. ”, another guy writes a letter, “I’m resigning because of the press wanted me gone. ”, and the other guy said, “The Department of Justice wanted me gone. ”, another guy said, “It’s the fucking Democrats, they want me gone. ”, you know it’s everything and we’re going nowhere, it’s an hour and a half later, the clock is ticking, the temperature in the room is 85 degrees, I said, “I got it guys, I got it guys” and-- I’ll pat myself on the back here-- I got it. And so, “Oh yeah, what’s your letter?” I say, “I hereby resign as Vice President of the United States. Respectfully.” Everybody says, “Well geez, that’ll do it.”

That chaotic scene in the Vice President’s office though, that was nothing compared to what was happening back in Baltimore that night at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The plea deal that had been reached with Agnew allowed the prosecutors to submit a detailed statement of evidence into the record laying out what crimes exactly Spiro Agnew had committed. The payoffs as Governor, the payoffs as Vice President, everything the prosecutors had.

What the prosecutors would ultimately draft was a 40-page long statement of evidence laying out Agnew’s alleged crimes. But the night before the court date, it wasn’t done yet.

And these three Baltimore prosecutors, they stayed up all night that night trying to get it finished in time:

BARNEY SKOLNIK (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): It was all written the night before we went to court. I mean, it was like this all-nighter thing, like it was being back in college. We were exchanging drafts, I think maybe Timmy wrote, you know, these parts, and I wrote some parts, and Ron wrote some parts.

BAKER: We just started dictating and drafts would go, pages would go. It wasn't like complete drafts, sections would go back and forth, back and forth, marked up, retyped, marked up, retyped, and we were on a deadline.

LIEBMAN: At like 1 or 2 in the morning, the Attorney General of the United States and Henry Petersen, I think, drive to Baltimore in the middle of the night, early in the morning and sit in George Beall's office as we start feeding him these papers, which was extraordinary. This is the Attorney General of the United States at two in the morning in Baltimore? You know, on my best days, I wouldn't want to be in Baltimore at two in the morning!

BAKER: And I think at like 6:00 AM, it's given to the US Marshals who then, we were later told, at points on the Baltimore-Washington expressway were doing in excess of 85 miles an hour and then it had to be to Agnew's lawyers by something like 8:00 AM in Washington, it was some terrible hour, and they got it there just in time.

They got it there… in fact…five minutes late.

This 40-page statement of evidence that was thrown together all night over-night, it was rushed to DC with a sirens wailing police escort like it was the holy grail.

For these prosecutors, it kind of was.

Spiro Agnew was about to walk into court and plead to a felony count of tax evasion, and these prosecutors wanted the American people to know that he had not-only been caught for tax evasion.

BAKER: We knew what it had to do. It had to bury him, so that the country could see this wasn't a “witch hunt”-- to use a current expression-- that there was a very substantial, solid case against him.

LIEBMAN: It was a big issue for all of us, all of us. Because what we certainly couldn't allow to happen would be for the Vice President to plead Nolo to a tax count and then to walk out and say, “This is nothing. This is some little mistake I made. This is absolutely, these guys are liars. I made a little mistake on my tax returns. I've made amends. I'm going to pay back the money that I should have paid and I'm going back to work.”

So, the statement of evidence was finally ready.

The Vice President’s resignation letter was finally ready.

A 2pm court date was set. But not a single soul in the country, except for the people directly involved knew what was about to happen in that courtroom.

Now, the press knew that there was going to be a hearing in court that afternoon, something to do with the wrangling over the Agnew case, but what the press thought the hearing was going to be about. was them. About newspapers’ efforts to quash these subpoenas that Spiro Agnew’s lawyers had sent to various reporters to try to get them to reveal their sources.

The press showed up that day ready to cover a hearing about that, all of the lawyers for the news organizations showed up at the counsel’s table ready to fight about those subpoenas to the reporters.

And then -- into the courtroom-- walked the attorneys for the Vice President.

LONDON: And they see us walking in, and we sit at the near table, and they look at us with hostility! I mean, I mean, sneering, like Grrrrr! Just angry! And then, two federal marshals come over to them and they say, “Pick up all your papers and move to the gallery”, and they’re resistant but I mean, these are federal marshals and the marshals do not explain why. They just said, “Clear this table and clear it now! You can go stand in the back.” And they stand in the back. And in walks, to occupy that table, Elliot Richardson, George Beall, and some more of Beall’s Assistants.

LIEBMAN: The bailiff makes an announcement, you know, “Ladies and gentlemen, the proceeding is about ready to begin. This courtroom is going to be locked. So if you can't stay, you have to get out. You have to leave now.”

The Baltimore prosecutors are there, sitting next to the Attorney General himself.

They know -- and the Vice President's lawyers know -- that what was about to happen in that courtroom, was something really big and surprising. The resignation was ready. The 40 page statement of his crimes was ready. The deal was ready and the country was about to have the whole thing sprung on them for the first time.

The hearing was set to begin at 2 o'clock sharp. There was just one problem.

LONDON: It’s now 2 o’clock and I am sweating because at our table, is me and Jay Topkis, and Jud Best is back in the clerk’s office on the telephone. And it’s 2 o’clock and somebody from this play is missing!

Everything was set. One of Agnew’s lawyers was in the clerk’s office at the court waiting to give the order over the phone to deliver Agnew’s resignation letter, to transmit that letter to the Secretary of State as soon as the Vice President himself walked into the courtroom.

It was all choreographed, each moment scripted and ordered for a very specific reason. And the time was now. But the Vice President of the United States. was nowhere to be found.

On the prosecution side, they had long feared that something just like this might happen.

LIEBMAN: What we were concerned was he, you know, he gets into court and he says, “Well, wait a minute, I changed my mind. These are bogus charges. I don't know why I'm here. I'm the Vice President of United States. I'm immune from prosecution. Marshal, could you unlock that door please? I gotta go.” You know, we're dealing with the Vice President of the United States. We are being as careful as we can be. We're on tenterhooks, right? We want this done just so. It had to be done just so or it wouldn't happen.

At 2 o’clock, when the Vice President was the only one missing, it looked for a brief moment. like it might not happen. Even to Agnew’s lawyers:

LONDON: Listen, you want to know if I got a little nervous between 2:00 and 2:01 because the man was a minute late? The answer is, I was anxious! I wouldn’t say nervous, but I was anxious. I said, look, you know if I have a 2 o’clock court date, I’m there at a quarter of two, I mean I’ve been doing this for a long time. I can understand him not wanting to come into that courtroom, and I do get it, him not wanting to come into that courtroom and sit there at that table for 15 minutes with all of those people staring at the back of his neck. So, I don’t know, I assume that he, he may have been there at a quarter of two sitting in his car out at the curb, looking at the watch and saying (laughing) “Okay, I better go in!” And maybe my watch was a minute fast, maybe he was there at 2 o’clock, I was anxious, but it never occurred to me that he was not going to do it.

That wait for the Vice President to show up, the question of whether or not he would show up, that hung in the air for a tense moment, until the courtroom doors swung open again:

LONDON: 2:01 exactly, in walks our client. And the people in the room, they gasped. It then became clear what this was about.

LIEBMAN: There was a noticeable hush. Gasp. You know, it was a surprise to so many people in there. The courtroom is locked. Agnew walks in, the judge gets on the bench, the bailiff or the law clerk calls “Oyez, oyez. All rise.” Everybody rises, everybody sits down and there's, you know, Spiro Agnew in his well tailored suit and his nice haircut about to plead Nolo Contendere to a felony.

LONDON: Jud Best comes out of the clerk’s office and says, “I’ve just been on the telephone with the offices of the Secretary of State, they have received the Vice President’s resignation letter.” And ultimately the judge accepts the plea and he sentenced him to a fine and a sentence of probation. And we walk out of the courtroom with the ex-Vice President of the United States. It was a stunning, um, stunning, stunning development.

For the first time in American history, a sitting Vice President appeared in court to answer criminal charges, for the first time in American history, a Vice President pled to a felony, and for the first time in American history, a Vice President resigned his office in disgrace.

Spiro Agnew arrived at the courthouse as the Vice President, as he crossed the threshold into the courtroom, his resignation was simultaneously submitted. He left that courtroom minutes later, as a convicted felon. He then spoke to the stunned reporters outside who had had no idea that any of this was coming.

AGNEW: I categorically and flatly deny the assertions that have been made by the prosecutors with regard to their contention of bribery and extortion on my part . I will have nothing more to say at this point, I will make an address to the nation within a few days.

Spiro Agnew’s decision to agree to a plea deal and resign, it happened so fast, that Agnew’s own staff at the White House didn’t even know that day that it was going to happen. Here’s David Keene, Agnew’s top political aide:

DAVID KEENE (SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO VICE PRESIDENT AGNEW): He went to Baltimore to plead nolo and Mike Dunn-- who was then the Chief of Staff -- called the senior staff together to tell us. And I pounded my fist on the desk and said, “Can’t the son of a bitch have the balls to come tell us himself?”

There was a lot of crazy stuff that happened in the United States of America in 1973.

But the Vice President of the United States suddenly resigning in disgrace… surprise! That stunned the country:

NEWS ANCHOR: Good evening. If you have just joined us, we are obliged to tell you the story we’ve been running since shortly after 2 this afternoon: namely, that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew is now the former Vice President, he resigned today. It’s been quite a day for news J.C.

NEWS ANCHOR: It really has. I think the public is still in shock, many people just disbelieve it, it’s hard to accept that it has come to this.

NBC NEWS REPORTER: There was disbelief on Capitol Hill where most House and Senate members had come to believe the Vice President’s assertions that he fully intended to fight the charges all the way.

SEN. MARK HATFIELD (R-OR): We have a period of time when there is political erosion. Confidence and faith in the whole system has been challenged by many people. And now to have this kind of confirmation of the worst suspicions that some people have held is really a very profound impact on the whole country.

REPORTER: Can you tell us what your reaction is to the resignation?

SEN. MIKE MANSFIELD (D-MT, MAJORITY LEADER): Well, uh, it was totally unexpected and I, uh, boy I don’t know what to say.

That was the Majority Leader in the Senate at the time, Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield.

The reaction in the country to Spiro Agnew's sudden resignation was kind of a muddled mess, it was a lot of things all at once. It was stunned confusion from a lot of people, there was elation from those who felt that justice had been served. There was also absolute outrage from Agnew's supporters, who really had stayed with him right til the very end.

WOMAN: I’m just sick about it, I think he’s a man of his word and I think they’ve all been doing the same thing ever since I started voting, and I think it’s just too bad, I think he’s a great man.

WOMAN: I think it was very unnecessary, I’m just, ohhh, I’m just sick. I’m very unhappy. I don’t think it was necessary, I think it’s a lot of political hogwash, and I’m ohhhh!

REPORTER: Did you vote for Agnew?

REPORTER: What do you think of him now?

MAN: I think it’s very unfortunate, the man seems to be railroaded or something. I don’t know if this is all fact, a lot of insinuation is being brought out.

Spiro Agnew built this base of support in the Republican Party, he convinced his supporters that he was innocent, he was the victim of a witch hunt. And even though he had just pled no contest to a felony in open court, his supporters just still couldn't accept it. They couldn’t absorb it. They had been primed to believe in his innocence and to hate and resent and suspect everything about this prosecution.

But, you know, a weird thing happened in the courtroom that last weird day. It was just an odd moment in the courtroom itself that didn’t seem like much at the time, but it would ultimately shake even Agnew’s most committed supporters. And it would ultimately cost Agnew much more than just having to resign from office and walk away. That’s next.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Spiro Agnew is in disgrace. Fallen from power. A convicted criminal. It’s something that none of his critics would even have predicted not long ago. And it is one of the biggest news stories of our time

The day that Spiro Agnew walked into a federal courthouse in Baltimore to plead to a felony and resign the Vice Presidency, one of the people inside the courtroom that day was a Law Professor from George Washington University. A professor named John Banzhaf.

JOHN BANZHAF (LAW PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY): I showed up and initially they would not let me in. I was reluctantly let into the courtroom, but with a very solemn warning that if I attempted to say anything, if I stood up, if I did anything at all, there were two big marshals behind me and they would immediately take me out of the courtroom. And I was told in very strong language, “Don't stand. Don't say anything. Don't try to have any role.”

It was a little bit of a strange thing for this law professor to be in court that day. To him, it was stranger still the way that he felt threatened by those federal marshals. But in his view, the strangest thing about the whole proceeding in that courtroom that day was the resolution of it.

Spiro Agnew was being allowed to plead to a felony, but he wasn’t being sent to jail, and he wasn’t even being forced to pay back any of the bribe money that he allegedly took.

What was the punishment here exactly? I mean, resigning from office, yes. But is that it?

After the remarkable day in court where -- surprise! -- the Vice President is pleading to a felony and, oh by the way, he’s also resigned, after that day, Banzhaf went back to his law classes at GW. And there he found that his law student were as perplexed as he was about how the whole thing had shook out.

BANZHAF: I mean, they said to me, “Professor Banzhaf, if somebody robs a bank and he's given a plea deal, he's at least required to give back the money.” Agnew, as a Governor and Vice President should be held to an even higher standard. They were outraged that he was allowed to get off on a minor plea, no time, and keep all the ill gotten gains.

Spiro Agnew had resigned his office, he was basically starting to disappear into obscurity, but this class of law students decided they were going to make a project out of him. They weren’t going to let him go away quietly.

The law students in Professor John Banzhaf’s class came up with a plan. Their first effort was to lobby Maryland’s Governor to bring a civil lawsuit against Agnew, since after all when he was taking those bribes and shaking down those contractors, it was the state of Maryland that was being defrauded. The state of Maryland should get that money back.

The Governor of Maryland met with these students to hear them out, to hear their plan. But even though he took the meeting and he heard what they had to say, at the end, he told them no, he wouldn’t do it.

BANZHAF: When we left, we were literally bewildered. I recall riding back in the car and the students are saying, “Well, why didn't they bring it? We don't understand. What's going on?” And I'm their professor who's supposed to know these things [laughing] and, of course, I had no answer for them. I could not figure out why they wouldn't want to bring the action. It was only quite a bit later when we learned that Governor Marvin Mandel was, likewise, on the take and was probably on the take, literally, while he was deciding not to bring this action!

The state of Maryland had been harmed, but the Governor of the state said he wasn’t willing to bring this case. So the students went to Plan B, they found an old British common law legal principle that they believed would let them sue on Maryland’s behalf even if they didn’t have the state’s support to do it. They found some Maryland taxpayers to be their plaintiffs.

And those law students did sue Spiro Agnew on behalf of Maryland taxpayers to recoup the bribe money that he had taken. It ended up taking years, but eventually they won! A court ruled that Agnew had, in fact, taken bribes, that he had defrauded the state, and he was ordered to write a check to the state of Maryland for more than a quarter million dollars.

And those students, they not-only exacted some of the punishment they felt like Agnew had escaped back in 1973, they also got one more crucial thing when it comes to the scales of justice here. They got a confession. Well, a confession by proxy.

Back in 1973, when the investigation first started, Agnew himself -- it turned out -- had admitted his whole criminal scheme to his lawyer, his personal lawyer, a man named George White. Then, later, in his own book about the scandal, Agnew -- oops-- broke the confidentiality of his own Attorney-Client relationship with George White when he chose to write about the conversations he’d had with White while the case was unfolding. That was a mistake.

Because when that lawsuit was eventually brought against Agnew by the law students at GW, not only was the court able to force Agnew to pay back some of the money he had ripped off from the taxpayers, the court was also able to get sworn testimony under oath from Agnew’s own lawyer about Agnew confessing that he was guilty.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Today-- only because ordered to by the judge-- George White broke his silence. He described learning about the kickback scheme from three Agnew associates who were threatening to implicate the Vice President. Confronting Agnew, he said “Ted, this is terribly serious, you’ve got to level with me, I’ve got to know the truth.” According to White, Agnew replied, “It’s been going on for a thousand years, what they told you is true.”

Quietly in the courts, when Spiro Agnew was already a trivia question – and a hard one! – quietly, while basically nobody was watching, Agnew’s entire story fell apart, all the denials, all the claims that this was a witch hunt or that he was the real victim here. It all fell apart, and his guilt was laid bare in court and for the record… because his longtime personal lawyer flipped on him.

When Agnew showed up to court that day in October 1973 to plead to a felony and resign the Vice Presidency, that 40-page statement of evidence that was assembled by the prosecutors, it was released to the public.

It was this damning recitation of what Agnew had done as an elected official. All of the payoffs, all of the extortion, all of the crimes committed even as Vice President.

And that document-- all these detailed allegations from the prosecutors-- it is a matter of public record, but even so, it’s one that sort of feels secret even now. All these years later, it is hard today to find that document even if you’re really looking for it.

The information contained in it is not what people immediately think when they hear the name Spiro Agnew. “Oh yeah, Agnew, Nixon’s Vice President, didn’t he have like a tax evasion problem? Something from back before the time he became Vice President?” That’s how Agnew’s remembered, but Agnew really was way worse than history remembers him for, if he’s remembered at all.

Agnew basically disappeared into history after he resigned. He got a job working for Eva Gabor’s fifth husband-- seriously-- Frank Sinatra helped him pay the relatively minor fines that were imposed by the court back in 1973, Agnew wrote a bad novel -- a thriller with sort of unsettling sex scenes in it, frankly -- he also published that memoir in which he claimed that Richard Nixon was going to have him killed. But basically, big picture, Agnew just went away.

And the few times that he did reappear, he was always asking for sympathy. This was from an interview with him in 1980:

AGNEW: The penalty I’ve paid is very heavy. People say, “Agnew didn’t pay any penalty, he bought his way out of jail with the Vice Presidency”, but they don’t know what a penalty I paid. They don’t understand I lost my right to practice law, I lost my pension, and the worst penalty of all is during those years immediately following my resignation when I was not at all answering the charges, to walk down the street and see people say “there he goes.” You know, to be recognizable not just in the United States, but any place I went in the world. That’s a pretty severe penalty.

Spiro Agnew probably does deserve to be more infamous than he is.

But the team of federal prosecutors who discovered his crimes and took him down, they deserve to be more famous than they are.

George Beall-- the U.S. Attorney who refused to let pressure from the White House interfere with his investigation-- he went on to prosecute that subsequent sitting Governor of Maryland for corruption. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat. He got him, too.

Ron Liebman and Barney Skolnik, they both took part in that prosecution of Maryland’s next Governor. And then, like George Beall, they both moved into quiet careers in private practice.

Tim Baker, he ended up getting George Beall’s old job as Maryland U.S. Attorney before he, too, went into private practice. They all ended up doing fine.

But none of them ended up etched into our history books and our national memory for the role that they played in-- well-- saving the republic from a national catastrophe, saving the country from a criminal Vice President ascending to the Presidency amid the ashes of Watergate, which would have plunged the country from Watergate right into another catastrophic scandal in the White House, and likely the forced removal of the next President right after Nixon.

What further damage would have been inflicted on the country if we had had to remove not one, but two corrupt criminal sitting Presidents back-to-back within months of each other?

These young kids from Baltimore, these determined federal prosecutors, they saved us from that disaster.

Their case was obstructed from the White House on down, they were attacked and maligned by the most powerful politicians in the country. They endured that at the ripe old average age of about 32. They kept their heads down and they kept going.

Their bosses-- US Attorney George Beall and Attorney General Elliot Richardson-- they led them without fear or favor, they shielded them. And then, Elliot Richardson single-handedly got Agnew out. Restoring and protecting the line of succession for the American Presidency.

Elliot Richardson held a press conference the day after Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President. And remember, Elliot Richardson would himself be forced out of office just days later-- less than two weeks later-- in the Saturday Night Massacre.

But during that press conference upon the resignation of Agnew, Richardson was asked directly what lessons the country should take from what we’d just been through:

REPORTER: We've been through a period unprecedented in American history. What do you believe the nation can learn from the Agnew case?

ELLIOT RICHARDSON: I would hope first that the nation would feel that the process of criminal justice is one that it can trust and have confidence in. I would hope that it would feel that the interests of the nation have been placed first by all those concerned, including the Vice President himself. I would hope that, most fundamentally, all of us would have confidence that our system works. Indeed, I think this is the most affirmative aspect of all that has taken place over recent months, all the disclosures, the investigations, the indictments. They have exposed the shoddy side of the governmental and political process, but they have also demonstrated that the governmental and political process is capable of uncovering these things, and-- having uncovered them-- taking proper action.

The system works. The system is not destroyed by bad people behaving badly. It can deal with bad behavior and with corruption from those in power. Our system doesn’t break when that happens. It’s designed to confront that problem and to fix it.

A criminal occupant of the White House who tried to obstruct justice at every turn, to destroy the credibility of his own Justice Department, to smear the free press reporting on it… he was not allowed to get away with it.

Thanks to Elliot Richardson, and George Beall, and that team of young, scrappy Baltimore prosecutors, the line of succession to the U.S. presidency was restored and protected and justice was done.

George Beall passed away not long ago. He died in January of 2017, just days before the inauguration of our current President.

Upon his passing, one of his successors as U.S. Attorney in Maryland put out a public statement honoring the work that George Beall did throughout his career, but particularly focusing on this case.

The statement said this: “George Beall was a legendary federal prosecutor, an exemplary public servant and a lawyer of unsurpassed integrity . Although George Beall's family was politically active and Vice President Agnew was a member of Beall's own political party, Beall did not hesitate to pursue the case. His commitment to justice serves as an example to us all.”

That statement about one Republican having the courage to pursue another without hesitation, that was written by one of George Beall’s successors as Maryland U.S. Attorney… it was written by Rod Rosenstein, who is now Deputy Attorney General of the United States.

Be sure to join us next week for the final episode of “Bag Man”, you will want to hear how this all turns out. That’s next week, we’ll see you then.

Agnew Resigns as Vice President Pleads 'No Contest' to Tax Evasion

The vice president of the United States has resigned and a new item--perhaps the climactic one--has been added to that chapter of our history books entitled "Watergate." But the net effect of all the, furor is likely to be little.

A full two months ago, when the first allegations of Spiro Agnew's involvement in an old-fashioned kickback scheme appeared, his political future had ended. The fire-breathing orator, whose appeals for law and order and tighter control of the press had so frightened liberals, was reduced by a flood of corruption charges to a trapped man.

Although his choices were few, he continued to scrap like the Agnew of old. He called the charges "damned lies," and toured the country, scoffing at the accusations and asking for support.

He lashed out at the Justice Department and the press for leaking information about the investigation. At the same time, he engaged in "plea bargaining" by tendering his resignation in return for lesser charges and a request by the Justice Department for clemency.

Like any American vice president, Agnew's only importance lay in his potential as a presidential hopeful. His resignation's principal effect is merely to open the way for another presidential aspirant to be christened front-runner by President Nixon.

But this christening would be of dubious value. Nixon's public approval rating hovers near an historic low point. Under normal circumstances, the resignation of a vice president would reflect badly on his president. But in Nixon's case, the mirror is already so murky that one more bit of tarnish won't make much difference.

Equally inconsequential, will be the effect of Agnew's resignation on the laws governing the conduct of politicians. No new laws were needed to pin Agnew down: The laws were already on the books.

But will Agnew's resignation prompt the Justice Department to enforce these laws more vigorously? Probably not. The spirit of enforcement, if it indeed exists at Justice, got put there after the embarrassment of the initial Watergate investigation, which uncovered conspiracy limited to seven men. If anything, knocking over a king-pin like Agnew may tend to inject a little complacency into the department.

And what of Agnew? His resignation will probably be no deterant to finding another job--one in which he'll almost definitely have more to do than in his old one. When Agnew's nomination for vice president was announced five years ago, the question everyone asked was "Spiro who?" Ten years from now the same question will greet the mention of his name

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Spiro T. Agnew, 39th Vice President (1969-1973)

On November 13, 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew became a household word when he vehemently denounced television news broadcasters as a biased "unelected elite" who subjected President Richard M. Nixon's speeches to instant analysis. The president had a right to communicate directly with the people, Agnew asserted, without having his words "characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics." Agnew raised the possibility of greater government regulation of this "virtual monopoly," a suggestion that the veteran television newscaster Walter Cronkite took as "an implied threat to freedom of speech in this country." But Agnew's words rang true to those whom Nixon called the Silent Majority. From then until he resigned in 1973, Agnew remained an outspoken and controversial figure, who played traveling salesman for the administration. In this role, Spiro Agnew was both the creation of Richard Nixon and a reflection of his administration's siege mentality.

The son of a Greek immigrant whose name originally was Anagnostopoulos, Spiro Theodore Agnew was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 9, 1918. He attended public schools and went to Johns Hopkins University in 1937 to study chemistry, before transferring to the University of Baltimore Law School, where he studied law at night while working at a grocery and an insurance company during the day. In 1942 he married a fellow insurance company employee, Elinor Isabel Judefind, known to all as Judy. Drafted into the army during World War II, he won a Bronze Star for his service in France and Germany. He returned to school on the GI Bill of Rights, received his law degree in 1947, practiced law in a Baltimore firm, and eventually set up his own law practice in the Baltimore suburb of Towson.

Moving from city to suburb, Agnew remade his own image. When he recalled the ethnic slurs he suffered about "Spiro" while a school boy, he now called himself "Ted" and vowed that none of his children would have Greek names. Agnew similarly changed party affiliations. Although his father was a Baltimore Democratic ward leader and Agnew had first registered as a Democrat, his law partners were Republicans and he joined their party. In 1957 the Democratic county executive of Baltimore County appointed him to the board of zoning appeals. In 1960 Agnew made his first race for elective office, running for associate circuit judge, and coming in fifth in a five-person contest. In 1961, when a new county executive dropped him from the zoning board, Agnew protested vigorously and in so doing built his name recognition in the county. The following year he ran for county executive. A bitter split in the Democratic party helped make him the first Republican elected Baltimore County executive in the twentieth century. In office he established a relatively progressive record, and in 1966, when nominated as the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland, Agnew positioned himself to the left of his Democratic challenger, George Mahoney. An arch segregationist, Mahoney adopted the campaign slogan, "Your Home Is Your Castle&mdashProtect It," which only drove liberal Democrats into Agnew's camp. Charging Mahoney with racial bigotry, Agnew captured the liberal suburbs around Washington and was elected governor.

It came as a shock to Agnew's liberal supporters when as governor he took a more hard-line conservative stance on racial matters than he had during the campaign. Early in 1968, students at the predominantly African American Bowie State College occupied the administration building to protest the run-down condition of their campus&mdashat a time when Maryland essentially ran separate college systems for black and white students. Instead of negotiating, Agnew sent the state police to take back the administration building. When the students went to Annapolis to protest, Agnew ordered their arrest and had the college temporarily closed down. Then in April, when riots broke out in Baltimore following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Governor Agnew summoned black leaders to his office. Rather than appeal for their help, he castigated them for capitulating to radical agitators. "You were intimidated by veiled threats," Agnew charged, "you were stung by . . . epithets like `Uncle Tom.'" Half of the black leaders walked out before he finished speaking. "He talked to us like we were children," one state senator complained. The incident dramatically reversed Agnew's public image, alienating his liberal supporters and raising his standing among conservatives.

On the national scene, Agnew formed a committee to draft New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller for president in 1968. In March, during his weekly press conference, Agnew watched on television what he expected would be Rockefeller's declaration of candidacy. Without warning, Rockefeller withdrew from the contest, humiliating Agnew in front of the press corps. Rockefeller later jumped back into the race, but by then Agnew had moved toward the frontrunner, Richard Nixon. When polls showed none of the better-known Republicans adding much as Nixon's running mate, Nixon surprised everyone&mdashas he liked to do&mdashby selecting the relatively unknown Agnew. "Spiro who?" asked the pundits, who considered Agnew unqualified for national office. Despite such doubts, Nixon saw much promise in his choice. "There can be a mystique about the man," Nixon assured reporters. "You can look him in the eyes and know he's got it."

Nixon expected Agnew to appeal to white southerners and others troubled by the civil rights movement and recent rioting in the cities. Attention shifted from this issue during the campaign, however, when Agnew made a number of gaffes, including some ethnic slurs and an accusation that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, was soft on communism. Agnew also encountered allegations of having profited financially from his public office, charges that he flatly denied. Agnew's biggest problem was that he seemed so ordinary and unremarkable. A tall, stiff, bullet-headed man and the sort of fastidious dresser who never removed his tie in public, he tended to speak in a deadening monotone. Whether he helped or hurt the campaign is not clear, but in November the Nixon-Agnew ticket won a razor-thin victory over the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey and the independent candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Learning the Constraints of the Office

Although Nixon had chosen a running mate who would not outshine him, he had pledged to give his vice president a significant policy-making role and&mdashfor the first time&mdashan office in the West Wing of the White House. Nixon also encouraged Agnew to use his position as presiding officer of the Senate to get to know the members of Congress in order to serve as their liaison with the White House, and Agnew enthusiastically charged up Capitol Hill. Having had no previous legislative experience, he wanted to master the techniques of presiding over the Senate. For the first months of his vice-presidency, he met each morning with the Senate parliamentarian, Floyd Riddick, to discuss parliamentary procedures and precedents. "He took pride in administering the oath to the new senators by never having to refer to a note," Riddick observed. "He would study and memorize these things so that he could perform without reading." According to Riddick, at first Agnew presided more frequently than had any vice president since Alben Barkley.

"I was prepared to go in there and do a job as the President's representative in the Senate," said Agnew, who busily learned to identify the senators by name and face. Yet he quickly discovered the severe constraints on his role as presiding officer. Agnew had prepared a four-minute speech to give in response to a formal welcome from Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. When Mansfield moved that the vice president be given only two minutes to reply, Agnew felt "it was like a slap in the face." The vice president also unwittingly broke precedent by trying to lobby on the Senate floor. During the debate over the ABM (Anti-Ballistic-Missile) Treaty, Agnew approached Idaho Republican Senator Len Jordan and asked how he was going to vote. "You can't tell me how to vote!" said the shocked senator. "You can't twist my arm!" At the next luncheon of Republican senators, Jordan accused Agnew of breaking the separation of powers by lobbying on the Senate floor, and announced the "Jordan Rule," whereby if the vice president tried to lobby him on anything, he would automatically vote the other way. "And so," Agnew concluded from the experience, "after trying for a while to get along with the Senate, I decided I would go down to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and try playing the Executive game."

The vice president fit in no better at the White House than at the Capitol. Nixon's highly protective staff concluded that Agnew had no concept of his role, especially in relation to the president. Nixon found their few private meetings dismaying because of Agnew's "constant self-aggrandizement." Nixon told his staff that as vice president he rarely had made any requests of President Dwight Eisenhower. "But Agnew's visits always included demands for more staff, better facilities, more prerogatives and perquisites." The anticipated use of Agnew as a conduit to the nation's mayors and governors floundered when it became apparent that Agnew did nothing more than pass their gripes along to the president. When Agnew protested that Nixon did not see enough of his cabinet, Nixon grumbled that his vice president had become an advocate for all the "crybabies" in the cabinet who wanted to plead their special causes. Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman took Agnew aside and advised him that "the President does not like you to take an opposite view at a cabinet meeting, or say anything that can be construed to be mildly not in accord with his thinking."

Nixon appointed Agnew head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council but again found the vice president more irritant than asset. In April 1969, while at Camp David, Nixon summoned Haldeman to complain that the vice president had telephoned him simply to lobby for a candidate for director of the Space Council. "He just has no sensitivity, or judgment about his relationship" with the president, Haldeman noted. After Agnew publicly advocated a space shot to Mars, Nixon's chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman, tried to explain to him the facts of fiscal life:

Look, Mr. Vice President, we have to be practical. There is no money for a Mars trip. The President has already decided that. So the President does not want such a trip in the [Space Council's] recommendations. It's your job . . . to make absolutely certain that the Mars trip is not in there.

From such experiences, the White House staff concluded that Agnew was not a "Nixon team player."

Throughout his first term, President Nixon was preoccupied with the war in Vietnam. By the fall of 1969, Nixon came to the unhappy conclusion that there would be no quick solution in Vietnam and that it would steadily become his war rather than Lyndon Johnson's. On November 3, Nixon delivered a television address to the nation in which he called for public support for the war until the Communists negotiated an honorable peace. Public reaction to the speech was generally positive, but the Nixon family was "livid with anger" over the critical commentary by various network broadcasters. Nixon feared that the "constant pounding from the media and our critics in Congress" would eventually undermine his public support. As president he wanted to follow the Eisenhower model of remaining above the fray and to use Agnew for the kind of hatchet work that he himself had done for Ike. When his speech writer Pat Buchanan proposed that the vice president give a speech attacking network commentators, Nixon liked the idea. H.R. Haldeman went to discuss the proposed speech with the vice president, who was interested "but felt it was a bit abrasive." Nevertheless, the White House staff believed the message needed to be delivered, "and he's the one to do it."

Agnew already had some hard-hitting speeches under his belt. On October 20, 1969, at a dinner in Jackson, Mississippi, he had attacked "liberal intellectuals" for their "masochistic compulsion to destroy their country's strength." On October 30 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he called student radicals and other critics of the war "impudent snobs." On November 11 in Philadelphia he decried the "intolerant clamor and cacophony" that raged in society. Then, on November 13 in Des Moines, Iowa, he gave Buchanan's blast at the network news media. Haldeman recorded in his diary that, as the debate on Agnew mounted, the president was "fully convinced he's right and that the majority will agree." The White House sent word for the vice president "to keep up the offensive, and to keep speaking," noting that he was now a "major figure in his own right." The vice president had become "Nixon's Nixon."

Agnew relished the attention showered upon him. He had been frustrated with his assignment as liaison with the governors and mayors, and dealing with taxation, health, and other substantive issues had required tedious study. By contrast, he found speechmaking much more gratifying. As John Ehrlichman sourly noted, Agnew "could take the texts prepared in the President's speechwriting shop, change a phrase here and there, and hit the road to attack the effete corps of impudent snobs." His colorful phrases, like "nattering nabobs of negativism," and "radiclibs" (for radical liberals) were compiled and published as "commonsense quotations." "I have refused to `cool it'&mdashto use the vernacular," Agnew declared, "until the self-righteous lower their voice a few decibels. . . . I intend to be heard over the din even if it means raising my voice."

The "Agnew upsurge" fascinated President Nixon, who took it as evidence that a new conservative coalition could be built between blue-collar ethnic voters and white-collar suburbanites. Nixon believed that Agnew was receiving increasing press coverage because his attacks on the media "forced them to pay attention." When some of his advisers wanted to put Agnew out in front in opposition to expanded school desegregation, Nixon hesitated because he did not want to "dilute or waste the great asset he has become." By March 1970, the relationship between the president and vice president reached its apex when the two appeared for an amusing piano duet at the Gridiron Club. No matter what tunes Nixon tried to play, Agnew would drown him out with "Dixie," until they both joined in "God Bless America" as a finale.

As the strains of their duet faded, Nixon began having second thoughts and concluded that he needed to "change the Agnew approach." He informed Haldeman that the vice president had become a better salesman for himself than for the administration, emerging as "too much of an issue and a personality himself." That month, when the Apollo XIII astronauts had to abort their mission and return to earth, Haldeman worked frantically to keep Agnew from flying to Houston and upstaging the president. Agnew sat in his plane on the runway for over an hour until Nixon finally canceled the trip. "VP mad as hell," Haldeman noted, "but agreed to follow orders." In May 1970, after National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State University, Nixon cautioned Agnew not to say anything provocative about students. Word leaked out that the president was trying to muzzle his vice president. The next time Buchanan prepared "a hot new Agnew speech," Nixon felt more leery than before.

By the summer of 1970, Nixon pondered how best to use Agnew in that fall's congressional elections. The president himself wanted to remain remote from partisanship and limit his speaking to foreign policy issues while Agnew stumped for candidates. Nixon worried that, if Agnew continued to appear an unreasonable figure, using highly charged rhetoric, he might hurt rather than help the candidates for whom he campaigned. "Do you think Agnew's too rough?" Nixon asked John Ehrlichman one day. "His style isn't the problem, it's the content of what he says. He's got to be more positive. He must avoid all personal attacks on people he can take on Congress as a unit, not as individuals." Some Republican candidates even asked Agnew to stay out of their states. As the campaign progressed, Agnew's droning on about law and order diminished his impact. Nixon felt compelled to abandon his presidential aloofness and enter the campaign himself, barnstorming around the country, as Attorney General John Mitchell complained, like a man "running for sheriff." The disappointing results of the midterm elections&mdashRepublicans gained two seats in the Senate but lost a dozen in the House&mdashfurther shook Nixon's confidence in Agnew.

In 1971 the president devoted most of his attention to foreign policy, planning his historic visit to China, a summit in Moscow, and continued peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris. The vice president went abroad for a series of good-will tours and ached for more involvement in foreign policy&mdashan area that Nixon reserved exclusively for himself and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Nixon preferred that Agnew limit himself to attacking the media to "soften the press" for his foreign policy initiatives. He decided to keep the vice president out of all substantive policy decisions, since Agnew seemed incapable of grasping the big picture. For his part, Agnew complained that he was "never allowed to come close enough" to Nixon to participate in any policy discussions. "Every time I went to see him and raised a subject for discussion," the vice president later wrote, "he would begin a rambling, time-consuming monologue."

Agnew, who described himself as the "number-one hawk," went so far as to criticize Nixon's "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" with the People's Republic of China. The dismayed president considered Agnew "a bull in the . . . diplomatic China shop." Nixon had H.R. Haldeman lecture the vice president on the importance of using the China thaw to "get the Russians shook." "It is beyond my understanding," Nixon told Ehrlichman. "Twice Agnew has proposed that he go to China! Now he tells the world it's a bad idea for me to go! What am I going to do about him?"

By mid-1971, Nixon concluded that Spiro Agnew was not "broad-gauged" enough for the vice-presidency. He constructed a scenario by which Agnew would resign, enabling Nixon to appoint Treasury Secretary John Connally as vice president under the provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. By appealing to southern Democrats, Connally would help Nixon create a political realignment, perhaps even replacing the Republican party with a new party that could unite all conservatives. Nixon rejoiced at news that the vice president, feeling sorry for himself, had talked about resigning to accept a lucrative offer in the private sector. Yet while Nixon excelled in daring, unexpected moves, he encountered some major obstacles to implementing this scheme. John Connally was a Democrat, and his selection might offend both parties in Congress, which under the Twenty-fifth Amendment had to ratify the appointment of a new vice president. Even more problematic, John Connally did not want to be vice president. He considered it a "useless" job and felt he could be more effective as a cabinet member. Nixon responded that the relationship between the president and vice president depended entirely on the personalities of whoever held those positions, and he promised Connally they would make it a more meaningful job than ever in its history, even to the point of being "an alternate President." But Connally declined, never dreaming that the post would have made him president when Nixon was later forced to resign during the Watergate scandal.

Nixon concluded that he would not only have to keep Agnew on the ticket but must publicly demonstrate his confidence in the vice president. He recalled that Eisenhower had tried to drop him in 1956 and believed the move had only made Ike look bad. Nixon viewed Agnew as a general liability, but backing him could mute criticism from "the extreme right." Attorney General John Mitchell, who was to head the reelection campaign, argued that Agnew had become "almost a folk hero" in the South and warned that party workers might see his removal as a breach of loyalty. As it turned out, Nixon won reelection in 1972 by a margin wide enough to make his vice-presidential candidate irrelevant.

Immediately after his reelection, however, Nixon made it clear that Agnew should not become his eventual successor. The president had no desire to slip into lame-duck status by allowing Agnew to seize attention as the frontrunner in the next election. "By any criteria he falls short," the president told Ehrlichman:

"Energy? He doesn't work hard he likes to play golf. Leadership?" Nixon laughed. "Consistency? He's all over the place. He's not really a conservative, you know."

Nixon considered placing the vice president in charge of the American Revolution Bicentennial as a way of sidetracking him. But Agnew declined the post, arguing that the Bicentennial was "a loser." Because everyone would have a different idea about how to celebrate the Bicentennial, its director would have to disappoint too many people. "A potential presidential candidate," Agnew insisted, "doesn't want to make any enemies."

Unbeknownst to both Nixon and Agnew, time was running out for both men's political careers. Since the previous June, the White House had been preoccupied with containing the political repercussions of the Watergate burglary, in which individuals connected with the president's reelection committee had been arrested while breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Although Watergate did not influence the election, persistent stories in the media and the launching of a Senate investigation spelled trouble for the president. Innocent of any connection to Watergate, Agnew spoke out in Nixon's defense.

Then, on April 10, 1973, the vice president called Haldeman to his office to report a problem of his own. The U.S. attorney in Maryland, investigating illegal campaign contributions and kickbacks, had questioned Jerome Wolff, Agnew's former aide. Wolff had kept verbatim accounts of meetings during which Agnew discussed raising funds from those who had received state contracts. Agnew swore that "it wasn't shakedown stuff, it was merely going back to get support from those who had benefitted from the Administration." Since prosecutor George Beall was the brother of Maryland Republican Senator J. Glenn Beall, Agnew wanted Haldeman to have Senator Beall intercede with his brother&mdasha request that Haldeman wisely declined.

President Nixon was not at all shocked to learn that his vice president had become enmeshed in a bribery scandal in Maryland. At first, Nixon took the matter lightly, remarking that taking campaign contributions from contractors was "a common practice" in Maryland and other states. "Thank God I was never elected governor of California," Nixon joked with Haldeman. But events began to move quickly, and on April 30, 1973, Nixon asked Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign because of their role in the Watergate coverup. Then, that summer, the Justice Department reported that the allegations against Agnew had grown more serious. Even as vice president, Agnew had continued to take money for past favors, and he had received some of the payments in his White House office.

Nixon had quipped that Agnew was his insurance against impeachment, arguing that no one wanted to remove him if it meant elevating Agnew to the presidency. The joke took on reality when Agnew asked House Speaker Carl Albert to request that the House conduct a full inquiry into the charges against him. Agnew reasoned that a vice president could be impeached but not indicted. That line of reasoning, however, also jeopardized the president. For over a century since the failed impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, it had been commonly accepted reasoning that impeachment was an impractical and inappropriate congressional tool against the presidency. Agnew's impeachment would set a precedent that could be turned against Nixon. A brief from the solicitor general argued that, while the president was immune from indictment, the vice president was not, since his conviction would not disrupt the workings of the executive branch. Agnew, a proud man filled with moral indignation, reacted to these arguments by digging in his heels and taking a stance that journalists described as "aggressively defensive." He refused the initial suggestions from the White House that he resign voluntarily, after which Agnew believed that high-level officials "launched a campaign to drive me out by leaking anti-Agnew stories to the media."

"I Will Not Resign If Indicted!"

By September, it was a more desperate, less confident-looking man who informed Nixon that he would consider resignation if granted immunity from prosecution. Nixon noted that "in a sad and gentle voice he asked for my assurance that I would not turn my back on him if he were out of office." Believing that for Agnew to resign would be the most honorable course of action, Nixon felt confident that, when the vice president left for California shortly after their meeting, he was going away to think matters over and to prepare his family for his resignation. But in Los Angeles, fired up by an enthusiastic gathering of the National Federation of Republican Women, Agnew defiantly shouted, "I will not resign if indicted!" As Agnew later explained, he had spent the previous evening at the home of the singer Frank Sinatra, who had urged him to fight back.

Nixon's new chief of staff and "crisis manager," General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., was haunted by the specter of a double impeachment of the president and vice president, which could turn the presidency over to congressional Democrats. General Haig therefore took the initiative in forcing Agnew out of office. He instructed Agnew's staff that the president wanted no more speeches like the one in Los Angeles. He further advised that the Justice Department would prosecute Agnew on the charge of failing to record on his income tax returns the cash contributions he had received. Haig assured Agnew's staff that, if the vice president resigned and pleaded guilty on the tax charge, the government would settle the other charges against him and he would serve no jail sentence. But if Agnew continued to fight, "it can and will get nasty and dirty." From this report, Agnew concluded that the president had abandoned him. The vice president even feared for his life, reading into Haig's message: "go quietly&mdashor else." General Haig similarly found Agnew menacing enough to alert Mrs. Haig that should he disappear she "might want to look inside any recently poured concrete bridge pilings in Maryland."

A Plea of Nolo Contendere

Meanwhile, Agnew's attorneys had entered into plea bargaining with the federal prosecutors. In return for pleading nolo contendere , or no contest, to the tax charge and paying $160,000 in back taxes (with the help of a loan from Frank Sinatra), he would receive a suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine. On October 10, 1973, while Spiro T. Agnew appeared in federal court in Baltimore, his letter of resignation was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Agnew was only the second vice president to resign the office (John C. Calhoun had been the first). Prior to resigning, Agnew paid a last visit to President Nixon, who assured him that what he was doing was best for his family and his country. When he later recalled the president's gaunt appearance, Agnew wrote: "It was hard to believe he was not genuinely sorry about the course of events. Within two days, this consummate actor would be celebrating his appointment of a new Vice-President with never a thought of me."

Nixon still wanted to name John Connally as vice president, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield intimated that Congress would never confirm him. On October 12&mdasheven as pictures of Agnew were being removed from federal offices around the country&mdashNixon appointed House Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford as the first vice president to be selected under the Twenty-fifth Amendment. Agnew was stunned by the laughter and gaiety of the televised event that seemed "like the celebration of a great election victory&mdashnot the aftermath of a stunning tragedy."

The coda to the Agnew saga occurred the following year, as Nixon's presidency came to an end. In June 1974, the besieged president dictated an entry in his diary in which he confronted the real possibility of impeachment. Nixon reviewed a series of decisions that now seemed to him mistakes, such as asking Haldeman and Ehrlichman to resign, appointing Elliot Richardson attorney general, and not destroying the secret tape recordings of his White House conversations. "The Agnew resignation was necessary although a very serious blow," Nixon added,

because while some thought that his stepping aside would take some of the pressure off the effort to get the President, all it did was to open the way to put pressure on the President to resign as well. This is something we have to realize: that any accommodation with opponents in this kind of a fight does not satisfy&mdashit only brings on demands for more.

On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon joined Spiro Agnew in making theirs the first presidential and vice-presidential team in history to resign from office.

October 10, 1973: Vice President Spiro Agnew Resigns

October 10, 2015

Spiro Agnew, on the day he took the office of vice president, in 1969. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned on this day in 1973 after being indicted for accepting thousands of dollars in bribes while serving as Baltimore county executive, governor of Maryland and vice president. He had long been the enemy of liberals and the left, whom he variously derided—in terms crafted by future New York Times columnist William Safire—as “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” The Nation, in an editorial titled “The Big Trophy,” offered no sympathy for President Richard Nixon, who claimed he had been personally pained by the resignation of his lieutenant.

If it were not an integral part of the worst political scandal in our history…. Agnew’s stepping down would be almost pure black humor. But it is not surprising that he should have failed to pay income taxes…. What a cruel comedown, however, for a proud and arrogant apostle of law and order who once denounced student protesters as “garbage.” His is not a rags-to-riches story but a fable about a mediocrity who made it big, who became a political celebrity for reasons that had nothing much to do with character or capacity. He was tapped for the Vice-Presidency for reasons of purest political expediency indeed Nixon can only blame himself for whatever embarrassment Agnew has caused him.…

The President, responsible for Agnew’s rise and fall, was all shook up by Agnew’s resignation. The Vice President’s departure has left him with a sense of “deep personal loss.” So farewell to you, Spiro you will be remembered as the flashiest dresser to serve as Vice President since Lyndon Johnson.

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.

Richard Kreitner Twitter Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer and the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union. His writings are at www.richardkreitner.com.

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