On this day in 1973, Spiro Agnew becomes the first U.S. vice-president to resign in disgrace. That same day, he pleaded no contest to a count 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.
GOP-nominee Richard Nixon plucked Agnew from obscurity in 1968, placing the rookie Maryland governor on the ’68 ticket. Initially, Agnew played the centrist, pointing to his civil rights record in Maryland. As the campaign developed, however, he quickly adopted a more belligerent approach, with strong law-and-order rhetoric, a style which alarmed the party’s Northern liberals but played well in the South.
Agnew used racial epithets, attacked “liberals” and the press, and said of poverty “if you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all.” John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager, was impressed, some other party leaders less so; Sen. Thruston Morton (R-KY) described Agnew as an “asshole.” Regardless, Agnew was dubbed “Nixon’s Nixon,” able to shore up reactionary support so Nixon himself could feint to the center.
After four cantankerous but successful years in office, and eight months into his second term, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland on suspicion of conspiracy, bribery, extortion and tax fraud. Agnew had accepted kickbacks from contractors during his time as Baltimore County executive and Governor of Maryland, and the payments had continued into his time as vice-president.
Initially Agnew publicly proclaimed his innocence and on August 8 held a press conference at which he called the stories “damned lies.” Nixon assured Agnew of his complete confidence, but Chief of Staff Al Haig visited Agnew at his office and suggested if the charges could be sustained, Agnew might want to take action prior to his indictment (shades of Michael Cohen). By this time, the Watergate investigation that would lead to Nixon’s resignation was well advanced, and for the next two months, fresh revelations in each scandal were almost daily fare in the newspapers (shades of Robert Mueller).
Two months later, Agnew put in his notice to Nixon, and on October 12, 1973, Michigan-grad and Cong. Gerald R. Ford (R-MI), he of the leather helmet days, was named to be 40th vice-president. Ford would slide into the top job less than one year later, but that’s another story for another time (shades of 2020?).