Last week would have been the 100th birthday of one of America’s most consequential vice presidents. There were no commemorations or retrospectives on his five years in office. But we have felt the impact of Spiro Agnew throughout this fall’s campaigns, and in many ways, it explains the results: Democrats made huge gains with well-educated suburbanites, while Republicans displayed increasing strength with non-college-educated, rural, white Americans.
Agnew is the spiritual godfather of President Trump and a harbinger of the modern Republican Party. Born in 1918 to a Greek immigrant father who ran a diner, Agnew rode a generational wave of middle-class Americans who transitioned from FDR-supporting New Dealers to law-and-order, suburban Republicans by the 1960s. Like fellow converts Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond, Agnew found political opportunity in a GOP that unapologetically defended white Americans threatened by the growing anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and women’s movements.
Agnew’s path rightward was slightly different from those of many other converts. He was initially considered a moderate who relied on Democratic support in his 1966 election to the governorship of Maryland. In his short time in Annapolis, he signed a fair-housing bill and ended antiquated state miscegenation laws.
But after starting the 1968 presidential primary campaign as a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller, Agnew broke with the liberal New York governor on issues of race and law-and-order in the wake of violence in his state and what he considered a tepid reaction by its black leadership class. Agnew’s angry denunciations of rioters in Baltimore following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. caught the eye of Richard Nixon and his assistants, who were looking for a vice presidential nominee who could be acceptable to all wings of the party — especially the critically important, and growing, conservative Southern wing.
Agnew was a heartbeat away from the presidency for five years. And while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow recently devoted a podcast to Agnew’s corruption and the Justice Department investigation that led to his resignation in October 1973, he is remembered today mostly for his alliterative speeches (“nattering nabobs of negativity” and the “hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history"), ghostwritten by Pat Buchanan and William Safire. Agnew receives only a cursory reference in biographies of Richard Nixon and is often overlooked in retrospectives of the late 1960s. He was recently voted the worst vice president in American history by a group of academics.
But people weren’t always so dismissive.
In his most famous speech, delivered in Des Moines in November 1969, Agnew took on journalists by asking, “What do Americans know of these men who read the same newspapers and draw their political views from the same sources?” And just as for conservatives today, his political base loved the media-bashing.
Agnew addressed his “silent majority” supporters far from the cosmopolitan coasts, taking on “radical liberals” and those within his own party who failed to back Nixon’s Vietnam War policies. He brushed aside data and analysis as “pabulum for the permissivists.” He went after those who “think that a college education makes you not only intellectually superior, but morally superior as well to those who did not have your opportunity.” He questioned elites who “think that blue-collar work — like fixing an automobile or driving a truck — is not nearly as dignified or significant as pushing a pencil at a tax-exempt foundation.”
A broad swath of Americans loved it. By the end of 1969, Agnew was the third-most-admired man in America, behind only Billy Graham and Nixon.
Inside the White House, Nixon and his aides alternated between enjoying Agnew’s political tailwinds and worrying about the fallout from the growing divide in an increasingly polarized America. Nixon aide Jeb Magruder wondered if the vice president had turned off “people who enjoy art, attend the symphony, and read the New York Times Book Review.” Of course, these were exactly the kind of people Agnew’s supporters loved to hate.
Nixon staffers also worried that the vice president’s incessant us-against-them-talk contributed to the toxic environment that led to the deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by fearful National Guardsmen in May 1970. As Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman wrote his diary in the aftermath: “The whole university community is now politicized, and there’s no way to turn it off. All blame Agnew primarily.”
Below the surface, Nixon and his aides busied themselves trying to keep Agnew at arm’s length from serious issues by occupying him with ceremonial and secondary tasks. Nixon wanted to replace Agnew on the 1972 ticket, but his campaign manager John Mitchell worried that dumping him would “backfire with the conservative new majority … particularly in the South, among whom Agnew had become almost a folk hero.”
When Nixon was reelected in a landslide in 1972, Agnew became the early front-runner to be the next Republican presidential nominee. But there would never be a run for president. Agnew resigned in disgrace a year into his second term, pleading no contest to tax evasion for taking kickbacks that had started during his time in Maryland. He slunk off to Southern California for a life spent golfing with Frank Sinatra, lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabian potentates and publishing an odd, steamy novel.
Historians often credit Nixon for establishing “the emerging Republican majority,” which opened a lane for Agnew’s good friend Ronald Reagan to carry the new conservative momentum into the White House in 1980. In this “rise of the right” narrative of the past half-century, figures such as Newt Gingrich, the tea party and Agnew’s old speechwriter Pat Buchanan also figure prominently. But it is Agnew who might be the best avatar of Trump’s party in 2018. His assaults on the media became the norm in Republican politics, as did his attacks on college professors, the purported immorality of popular culture and the perceived arrogance of “coastal elites.”
Agnew, with his pugnacious style, tapped into what many white Americans felt in the late 1960s, and he demonstrated a path forward for a conservative, populist politics that has been at the heart of Republican appeals — and the language of conservative media — ever since. Many of those better-recognized figures and movements learned the lessons taught by Agnew. But while they receive the credit, it was Agnew who first blazed the path.