Addressing delegates at the 1968 Republican convention after being nominated for vice president, Maryland’s Spiro T. Agnew acknowledged the obvious.
His low profile ended when Nixon shocked the convention by selecting Agnew as his running mate — a decision ratified with little enthusiasm by the Aug. 8 convention. As Agnew accepted the nomination, he conceded that his selection for the national ticket was a stunning turn of events.
“I stand here,” Agnew told the delegates, “with a deep sense of the improbability of this moment.”
He wasn’t the only one. There were many more-prominent figures whose names had been floated as possible vice-presidential nominees — from liberal New York Mayor John V. Lindsay to conservative California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Rank-and-file delegates and Republican bigwigs reacted with befuddlement, astonishment and fury to the news that the little-known former Baltimore County executive was Nixon’s choice for the No. 2 spot on the ticket.
“I hardly know who Agnew is,” an Iowa delegate told The Washington Post. “I hope he fills the bill.”
That lack of familiarity was regarded as an asset by Nixon and his advisers, who were eager to present a fresh face to the electorate, according to Nixon biographer Roger P. Morris. “Agnew was a mystery man, a cipher. He was a very unknown and seemingly bland and inconsequential character,” Morris said in an interview.
In the coming campaign and the years that followed, Agnew would rocket from obscurity to national prominence with scorching speeches and off-handed slurs against Japanese Americans and Polish Americans. His dismissive comment about impoverished inner-city neighborhoods — “if you’ve seen one slum you’ve seen them all” — drew harsh criticism. In office, he assailed intellectuals as “an effete corps of impudent snobs” for coddling student protesters. He labeled congressional opponents of the war in Vietnam “radic-libs” and denounced Nixon administration critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Conservatives loved him. Liberals hated him. Democrats mocked him.
As vice president, Agnew became a leading administration proponent of law and order — a role that ended abruptly on Oct. 10, 1973, when he resigned after pleading “nolo contendere” — no contest — to a single charge of tax evasion stemming from bribes he pocketed as governor. Prosecutors produced additional evidence — denied by Agnew — that he had been taking bribes from his days as a county executive through his first term as vice president. His downfall offered a tawdry distraction to the burgeoning Watergate scandal that would lead to Nixon’s resignation less than a year later.
“He gave voice to the anxieties of that amorphous sociological entity, Middle America, on such issues as crime, race, radical demonstrators and the communications media,” The Post wrote after his resignation. “It was the saddest of ironies that Spiro Agnew, a thunderer for law and order, had to end his political career with the admission that he cheated on his taxes.”
All of that, however, lay in the future. As Agnew stood before Republican delegates that night, his biggest challenge was selling himself.
Agnew needed to reassure GOP potentates who were puzzled and miffed by his selection. Backers of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s chief rival for the Republican nomination, greeted the news of Agnew’s selection with “a mixture of anger, disbelief and hilarity,” Leroy F. Aarons wrote in The Post. Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) said he was “shocked,” according to The Post’s Richard Harwood. Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer, a Rockefeller supporter, was “livid with rage,” Harwood wrote.
Nixon, however, seemed quite pleased with himself. Speaking to reporters the day after the convention closed, Nixon said the Baltimore native exuded “a quiet confidence” and called him “the most underestimated politician in America,” according to The Post.
The Maryland governor’s rise on the national political scene began in earnest on March 21 — the day Agnew expected Rockefeller to announce his candidacy for the White House.
At the time, Agnew, who had defeated segregationist Democrat George Mahoney in the 1966 gubernatorial race, was considered a moderate on racial issues. As Baltimore County executive and governor, he backed anti-discriminatory public accommodations and open-housing laws and cultivated an image as a “low-key problem solver,” the New York Times reported.
In the early months of 1968, as Nixon’s multiyear campaign to come back from his defeat in the 1960 presidential election appeared to be gaining momentum, Agnew was backing another candidate for the Republican nomination. He had organized a “Draft Rockefeller” committee of prominent Baltimore business leaders. At the time, Morris said, Agnew viewed himself as “part of that more moderate, Rockefeller-eastern wing of the party.”
But Rockefeller took himself out of the race — and Agnew and other supporters were flabbergasted. The episode marked a turning point in Agnew’s political career — and the beginning of the end of his carefully cultivated image as a moderate. Agnew’s move toward a tougher line on domestic disorder reflected growing support among Republican voters for an emphasis on law and order in the upcoming campaign, Morris said. “He was following his ambition, which was pretty substantial.”
On April 11, following days of rioting in Baltimore that erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Agnew met with African American leaders and accused them of failing to stand up to militants. More than half of the audience of 50 walked out in protest as Agnew continued his remarks, which gained nationwide attention.
Agnew later conceded that his “manners” may have contributed to tensions at the meeting, but in the aftermath of the episode, he showed no regrets. By the middle of June, Agnew “was openly wearing his confrontation with the black leaders in Baltimore as a badge of honor, and a not-so-subtle advertisement of his political value to the law-and-order campaign that Nixon was already running on his own,” journalist Jules Witcover writes in his book on the Nixon-Agnew relationship.
“ ‘People are fed up with the riots. I’ve tried to be liberal, but at some point you have to stop leading the people and start following them,’ ” Witcover quotes Agnew as telling reporters at a Republican governors conference in Tulsa in June 1968.
At the governors meeting Agnew praised Nixon’s position on civil disorder and traveled soon after to New York to meet with the Republican front-runner, Witcover writes. Agnew’s praise at an Annapolis news conference for the former vice president’s tough talk on quelling street protests was seen by reporters as “open playing up to Nixon,” according to Witcover.
Nixon had already noticed. “Of late Nixon himself has been displaying keen interest in Agnew as a vice-presidential nominee,” in part because the pair saw eye-to-eye on urban issues, David S. Broder wrote in The Post on May 17. But when it came time to pick a running mate in Miami Beach, advisers and allies bandied about a variety of more conventional choices, including House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, the man who would succeed Agnew as vice president.
Nixon consulted closely with conservative Sens. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, as well as GOP grandees Thomas E. Dewey and Herbert Brownell, while leaving party liberals such as Lindsay and Percy out of the loop, Harwood wrote. No one, Morris said, had any inkling of the payoffs Agnew was getting.
Shortly before noon on Aug. 8, Nixon made his decision, Harwood wrote. “He called Agnew at 12:25 p.m. and 10 minutes later announced his decision to the press.”
The next day, The Post’s Ward Just reported, Nixon expressed complete confidence in his nominee: “You can look him in the eye and say, ‘he’s got it.’ ”