Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Spiro T. Agnew (1918-1996)
MSA SC 3520-1486
Governor of Maryland, 1967-1969
Vice President of the U.S., 1969-1973 (Republican)

The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission, 1970), pp. 301-309.

"ON AUGUST 8, 1968, Maryland was suddenly and unexpectedly catapulted into national prominence when the Republican presidential candidate, Richard M. Nixon, selected the State’s Governor, Spiro T. Agnew to be his vice presidential nominee. A relatively obscure man with little national or international stature at that time, Agnew had risen meteorically within ten years, from an almost unknown son of a Greek immigrant to a candidate for the second highest office in the nation. As Maryland’s fifth Republican governor, his rise to the gubernatorial office was because of luck, Democratic Party discontent and pluck. When he resigned his gubernatorial office to become Vice President of the United States in 1969, the first Marylander ever to hold that office, he left with the reputation of having been a good but a controversial governor, even though his administration had been too short for him to win the passage of some of his programs, or to see others carried out.

"Spiro Theodore Agnew was born in Baltimore City on November 9, 1918, the only son of Theodore Spiro Agnew, restaurant operator and leader of the city’s Greek community, and the former Margaret Akers of Bristol, Virginia. His father had come to this country in 1897 at the age of twenty-one from the village of Gargalianos, in Messenia, Peloponnesus, Greece. The family name Agnew was shortened from the Greek name Anagnostopoulos by the elder Mr. Agnew. President Nixon would later describe his vice president as a man who 'has experienced poverty and prejudice and has risen above them on his own merits,' for during his youth, Agnew’s family was known as 'those Greeks down the street' and his father had experienced financial difficulties during the depression years.1

"Agnew was educated in the public schools of Baltimore City. He enrolled at The Johns Hopkins University, where he studied chemistry for three years, but admitted that he was not too interested in the subject. After his discharge from the Army, he attended the University of Baltimore, where he received his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1947.

[p. 302] "Agnew was married on May 27, 1942, to Elinor Isobel Judefind of Baltimore, whose father, the late Dr. W. Lee Judefind, was a chemist and vice president of the Davison Chemical Company. They had four children, three daughters, Pamela, Susan and Kimberly, and one son, James Rand.

"During World War II, he was a company commander with the 10th Armored Division in the European Theater of Operations. He was recalled for an additional year of Army service during the Korean War.

"After Agnew was graduated from law school, he worked at different jobs. One of his first was as a part-time law clerk at night. He was then employed with the Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company. After his release from the service, he worked for a time as assistant personnel director for a grocery concern before he became a labor lawyer.

"During the middle 1950’s, Agnew moved to Baltimore County, where he became interested in public affairs as a practicing attorney in Baltimore County and as president of the Loch Raven Community Council. He was active in moves to obtain open spaces legislation in the county and also in the successful drive for charter 'home rule' government which replaced the Board of County Commissioners in 1957 with a full time County Executive and Council.

"In 1957, he was appointed minority member of the Baltimore County Board of Appeals, which hears zoning appeals. He later became its chairman. In 1960, he made his first attempt at elective office by becoming a candidate for a circuit court judgeship from Baltimore County. Although he won the Republican primary, he was soundly defeated in the general election, finishing fifth and last in a field of five candidates.

"His ouster from the Board of Appeals in 1961 by the Democratic-controlled County Council, despite widespread backing from civic organizations, brought his name to new prominence and led him to run in 1962 for County Executive. He won despite a Democratic registration edge of nearly four to one. A key factor in his victory was Democratic friction between candidates Michael J. Birmingham and Christian H. Kahl. 'His election,' declared The Sun, 'means that the voters [of Baltimore County] clearly indicated that they have had enough of old fashioned county politics . . . . The vote in his favor and its clear warning . . . [says that] the people have had enough of Towson’s traditional folkways.'2

Under his administration, Baltimore County became one of the first in the nation to enact a public accommodations law. It also passed legislation to require 'open spaces' for park and recreational use in all new subdivisions. During his term, he was instrumental in providing sixty miles of new water supply lines and one hundred and twenty miles of sanitary sewage lines. He also secured appropriations by which Baltimore County built new schools, improved teacher salaries, reduced the pupil-teacher classroom ratio by fourteen per cent, began public kindergartens, reorganized the police bureau and pioneered in community college curricula to fill employment gaps in the fields of police work and social services.

[p. 303] "In 1966, Agnew, with the full endorsement of Maryland Republican leaders, ran for Governor. He had but token opposition from three little-known opponents in the primary election. At the same election the voters also approved the calling of a Constitutional Convention which would meet the following September in an attempt to replace the antiquated Constitution of 1867.

"In 1966, Maryland Democratic Party feuding split it irreparably for the ensuing campaign. Eight candidates competed for the post to be vacated by outgoing Governor J. Millard Tawes who was ineligible to serve another term. Congressmen Carlton Sickles, Attorney General Thomas B. Finan, and the perennial office-seeker George P. Mahoney, the leading candidates, indulged in such a bruising primary campaign that the wounds could not be healed in time for the general election, then less than eight weeks away. George P. Mahoney, the ultimate nominee, consequently, failed to have the support of both the national and the State Democratic organization.

"Agnew conducted his campaign on the slogan 'Your kind of man.' He campaigned on a platform which advocated the overhaul of the State’s tax structure to shift more of the cost of local government from the property to the income tax. He favored State aid for kindergartens, increased emphasis on vocational training, closer State ties with the heads of county governments, governmental reorganization, expansion of the community colleges, and the issuance of bonds to accelerate construction of sewage treatment plans. He opposed open housing legislation which would apply to the individual home owner, but instead, he stated that he would only support State measures if they applied to new apartments and subdivisions.

"Mahoney, on the other hand, adopted an anti-civil rights slogan with white backlash appeal, 'Your home is your castle—protect it.' Agnew openly sought Democratic and liberal support and ran on a platform calling for an anti-open housing plank, calling Mahoney an incompetent. Agnew accused him of ducking the issues by basing his campaign on an appeal to bigotry.

"On November 8, 1966, he was elected over Mahoney and third party candidate Hyman Pressman, Baltimore City Comptroller, by over 81,000 votes because of widespread Democratic support, an element of white backlash, a Republican national trend, and because people felt him to be more competent than Mahoney. It was purely a personal triumph for Agnew, because his Republican Party failed to secure a majority in the General Assembly or to elect either the Comptroller or the Attorney General. Many Negroes also voted for him because of the impact of the Mahoney emotional slogan. 'Maryland has said loudly and clearly that it wants to remain in the mainstream of America,' said Agnew after his election.3 The Evening Sun hailed Agnew’s victory by asserting that 'many tens of thousands of Democrats, exercising their independent judgment, rallied to Mr. Agnew because they were convinced he was the [p. 304] best man who was easily the best qualified to head Maryland’s government for the next four years.'4

"When Agnew took office as Maryland’s fifty-fifth governor on January 25, 1967, he did so with several distinctions. He was the first Governor to be inaugurated on the fourth Wednesday of January after his election. He was also the first resident of Baltimore County to become governor under the Constitution of 1867, the State’s first Governor to have been born in the twentieth century, and the first American of Greek descent to become the chief executive of any state.

"Agnew began his term with a broad pledge of good government. He advocated fiscal reform, executive reorganization and praised the people for approving a constitutional convention. He called for 'a new spirit of leadership which will consciously and continually dedicate itself to the pursuit of excellence. It shall be the resolve of this administration to pursue a course of excellence in its exercise of the duties of government. Each program, each statute, each appropriation will be measured to see that it achieves high standards of excellence. It shall be the hallmark of the new administration to exact excellence in programs and service . . . through leadership.' He went on to open the door to new ideas by stating that 'we have lived with old laws too long and resisted new ideas too easily. Without change, immediate and positive change, we will become merely custodians of a static state; driving from a state of indifference to a state of emergency.'5

"Agnew launched his administration with an impressive series of legislative accomplishments. All of these he achieved through a close working relationship with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, the first to be newly reapportioned and now under the domination of the cities and the suburban counties. In 1967, these included a fiscal reform program which, for the first time, based the State income tax on a graduated scale instead of a flat rate and gave local governments a major revenue source other than the property tax. It also passed an open housing law that was the first on a statewide basis south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It implemented legislation for the convention to rewrite Maryland’s one hundred year-old Constitution. Finally it authorized the planning and building of four additional toll crossings of the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore Harbor.

"Governor Agnew created within his office a Task Force on Modern Management to study waste and duplication in the State government and to recommend improvements. He also initiated, with legislative approval, a new policy of substantial cash down payments on capital improvements to save interest costs. He appointed executive-legislative committees to study reform of the business tax structure and highway financing. State agencies, at his urging, commenced planning on the development of comprehensive air and water pollution control programs.

[p. 305] "An early mark of the Agnew administration was a closer working relationship with local governments. As Governor, he personally visited the heads of county and city governments in the State’s twenty-four political subdivisions to establish this liaison. Nearly eighty-five per cent of the additional revenue raised from the tax reform program also went directly to local governments, primarily to finance educational and police protection improvements and to provide real estate tax credits for the elderly. These met needs that otherwise would have fallen on local property taxes.

"The Constitutional Convention, overwhelmingly approved by the voters in 1966, met in the State House in Annapolis on September 12, 1967, to draft a new Constitution. The Convention concluded its work on January 10, 1968 with the formal signing of the Document. Agnew supported its ratification, but in spite of all the careful preparation which had gone into drafting it, the voters overwhelmingly rejected it by an overwhelming majority. 'Seldom had the whole leadership of any state been so resoundingly slapped down,' commented one of Agnew’s biographers.6

"His 1968 accomplishments included the adoption of a water pollution control program, the strengthening of the public accommodations law, and the acquisition of Friendship Airport. The General Assembly also enacted legislation 'to reform our outmoded business tax structure, infuse some new life into our lagging roads program, strengthen the hands of public officials in coping with civil disorders and place Maryland in the forefront of states offering a new approach to correctional problems by authorizing establishment of a regional detention center.'7

"In the election of 1966, Negroes had voted for Agnew because of their opposition to Mahoney’s emotional slogan. They supported him wholeheartedly especially after his appointment of a Negro to his staff, his issuance of an executive order for a Code of Employment Practices, the broadening of the public accommodations law and the passage of a limited fair housing statute. Agnew began to lose Negro backing early in April when he closed the Bowie State College, because a large group of students who had come to air their grievances about the college conducted a 'sit-in' at the State House. Agnew refused to meet with them, stating that 'it is time that public officials in this country stop yielding to pressures and threats and intimidations by those who would take the law in their own hands. I certainly don’t intend to yield to such pressures, and I hope that this is clear from today’s events at Bowie.'8 He lost Negro support completely when he delivered his famous lecture to Negro leaders at his conference on April 11, 1968, following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Baltimore riots. In this conference, he accused Negro leaders of cowardice by failing to repudiate publicly the inflammatory statements by black militants just before the riots. Both his failure to meet with Bowie State College students and his castigation of the Negro leaders cost him the support of Maryland Negroes. By November 1968, [p. 306] even the mildest of the Negro leaders were calling him a racist with the result that he lost their vote in the presidential election of that year.

"During the preliminaries leading to the presidential contest of 1968, Agnew supported New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and took the lead in spearheading a drive to secure for him the Republican nomination for President. After March 21, 1968, when Rockefeller surprisingly announced that he would not become a candidate, Agnew took an active interest in Richard Nixon’s campaign and endorsed him.

"Prior to his nomination as Vice President, Agnew played an important role in the 1968 Republican National Convention. Because of his growing friendship with Richard Nixon, Agnew nominated him for President in a speech in which he termed Nixon as a man who 'has fought throughout his political career for principle and he has not hesitated to pay the price of unpopularity in standing up for principle. . . . 'He went on to describe Nixon as a 'man firm in upholding the law and determined in the pursuit of justice; a man who can negotiate peace without sacrificing life, land and liberty; a man who had the courage to rise up from the depths of defeat six years ago and to make the greatest political comeback in American history; the one man whose life gives proof that the American dream is not a shattered myth and that the American spirit, its strength and sense of stability remains firm.'9

"On August 8, 1968, Nixon chose Agnew to be his vice presidential running mate. In his acceptance speech, Agnew admitted that he was 'an unknown quantity' and that 'his name was not exactly a household word.' He went on to speak of the 'deep improbability of this moment' and he added that he looked forward to 'major responsibilities' as Vice President. He declared that he would not be satisfied 'under any circumstances, until I prove to you that I am capable of doing a job for the Republican Party and the American people in November.'10

"Nixon himself indicated that he had chosen Agnew because he wanted his experience with the problems of state and local governments and their relations with Washington. Before he named Agnew, Nixon reviewed his criteria that his Vice President 'be qualified to be President,' an effective campaigner, and 'one who could assume the new responsibilities that I will give to the Vice President, particularly in the area of states and cities.' There were indications, too, that Nixon selected Agnew because he would be more acceptable to Southern party leaders because of Agnew’s moderately conservative views on crime and civil rights.11

"Agnew’s nomination was one of the major surprises in a year of great political surprises. Agnew’s nomination, commented the Baltimore Evening Sun, 'throws a spotlight on Maryland and adds another chapter to a remarkable American success story. Heartiest congratulations to him. Marylanders must realize, however, that Mr. Agnew’s great personal [p. 307] triumph creates problems for State government, which must continue to function during the campaign.'12

"In the presidential campaign which followed, Agnew received more attention than usual because the press played up his many political errors. To many, he emerged as a bumbler, and a moderate conservative of limited scope and suppleness, who found himself spending much of his time attempting to explain away a succession of gaffes. Agnew appealed to the working, the lower middle class, and middle brow, family oriented white majority whose unhappiness with the chaotic pace of social change made them attentive to the third party candidate George Wallace. As the campaign developed, Agnew appealed to the voters of the nation because of his firm stand on the law and order issue, together with his conservative image. He came to represent 'the new breed of politician, the mostly self-made suburbanite who has risen to prominence not in the smoke-filled rooms of old style political clubhouses but in the fluorescent-lit atmosphere of the supermarket, the homogenized world of the PTA and the wheeling and dealing of the local board of zoning appeals.'13

"At the election held on November 5, 1968, the Nixon-Agnew ticket won a narrow popular victory and received 302 electoral votes to 191 for Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, Democratic Party candidates, and 45 for George Wallace and Curtis LeMay, third party candidates. The Republicans failed to carry Maryland because the Negroes whom Agnew had alienated during his April speech, overwhelmingly voted against him. Baltimore voted Democratic by over 98,000 votes to give that Party a 20,000 vote majority in the State.

"With his election as Vice President, Agnew prepared to resign as governor. Because of circumstances over which he had no control, Agnew left the State in a financial crisis. His administrative reorganization program was well underway, but constitutional modernization had failed. His impending resignation created a wild scramble among Democrats to succeed him, because the General Assembly which would elect a successor, was overwhelmingly controlled by that Party.

"Agnew resigned on January 7, 1969, before an almost unprecedented special session of the Legislature. In his farewell address, he reviewed the record of his administration. He pointed out that fiscal reform in 1967 was his greatest single accomplishment even though he had difficulty in leaving his successor a balanced budget for the next fiscal year. He pointed to other accomplishments in the repeal of the anti-miscegenation law, the adoption of a fair housing law, expansion of the public accommodations statutes, and a water and air quality control program.

"His biggest failure, he said, was the defeat of the proposed Constitution. He hoped that the General Assembly would reorganize the Executive Branch, as well as provide for a lieutenant governor. Agnew termed his biggest disappointment the violent civil disorders in Baltimore, Cam- [p. 308] bridge, and Salisbury. 'Watching a city burn, walking through blocks obliterated as if by bombs from an enemy air attack is painful. One cannot emerge from such an experience untouched.'14

"Even Agnew’s critics praised his administration after he had resigned. The Washington Post characterized him 'a good Governor of Maryland. . . . Judged against what he brought to the office—personal integrity, administrative experience, and a conservative view of the world and its problems—he had done well.'15 The Washington Evening Star said 'more important than anything else, the last two years have marked a constructive change of direction for the State as a whole, and they have produced a record on which successive administrations surely will build.'16 The Baltimore American commented that 'it should be remarked that, working with a Democratic majority in the legislature, Agnew successfully avoided a major rebellion and succeeded in getting a number of the most important measures in his program passed into law.'17

"Agnew took the oath of office as Vice President on January 20, 1969. After several months, he settled into his job in a different way from his predecessors. President Nixon gave him an office in the White House and a suite in the Executive Office Building. The President assigned him to work with the Office of Intergovernmental Relations which dealt with federal relations between State and local governments. Within a few months he had overcome the reputation which he had earned during the campaign as a man who put his foot into his mouth every time he opened it. He performed ceremonial chores as well as his constitutional duties in presiding over the Senate. The Evening Star defended his record by pointing out that 'the Vice President was never as bad as his verbal gaffes made him seem. It is only necessary to recall that he was generally acknowledged to have been an able governor of Maryland before joining the Nixon ticket.'8

"By the fall of 1969, Agnew had come to be the leading spokesman of 'the great silent majority,' by speaking about what worried and concerned the average American the most. Within a year, his name had indeed become a household word. He was characterized as one of the nation’s most admired men, a successful Republican fund-raiser, and a most controversial Vice President. Writing in the News American on August 9, 1970, Lloyd Shearer termed him 'the most controversial man in the nation—despised by large segments of American youth, academe and blacks, reportedly accused by President Nixon’s own educational advisers of being the most single inflammatory individual in the Government, a Vice President who in a period of 18 months has denounced the television networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kingman Brewster, Averell Harriman, Edward Kennedy, William Fulbright, I. F. Stone, Joe Rhodes, Cyrus Vance, John Lindsay, Clark Clifford and a host [p. 309] of other personalities and institutions. Here he is, too, revealed by the Gallup Poll as a man supported by most Americans, the spokesman for the heretofore ‘silent majority,’ a Vice President of courage, honesty, integrity and forthrightness, an elected official who is not a Presidential hatchetman but rather the voice of middle America whose members believe he personifies all the fine qualities and rewarding characteristics which have made this country great. . . . He attracts few neutrals, only supporters and enemies.'”19

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