Seven years after resigning the vice presidency in disgrace in 1973, Spiro T. Agnew wrote an apologia titled “Go Quietly … or Else.”
The title pretty much summed up Agnew’s life for the past 23 years, a very non-public existence for a man once a heartbeat away from the presidency.
In fact, Agnew had become the political equivalent of Howard Hughes, so reclusive that a mere sighting of him was cause for a news item. Breaking his shadowy exile to attend Richard Nixon’s funeral in 1994, Agnew drew as much, perhaps more attention, than the presidents and Watergate figures in attendance.
Nattily dressed and tanned, his silver mane swept back, Agnew moved like a specter through the crowd. Many times, he found himself standing alone.
For unlike the broken president he served under, there was no rehabilitation for Spiro Theodore Agnew, no rapprochement with the public and the press and, it seems, little hope of redemption in history.
“He will always stand as one of the symbols of the corruption that undermined the Nixon administration,” said Allan Lichtman, historian at American University here.
The 77-year-old Agnew died Tuesday of undiagnosed acute leukemia at Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, Md., near his summer home in Ocean City, Md. His year-round home was in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Flags were flown at half-staff at federal buildings and friends and political foes alike offered praise and sympathy.
“Spiro Agnew earned the support of millions of his countrymen because he was never afraid to speak out and stand up for America,” said Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.
Pat Buchanan, the former presidential candidate, who wrote some of Agnew’s speeches, said: “Spiro Agnew had something few people in this city ever show: raw political courage. At a time when the Establishment was craven in its pandering to rioters and demonstrators, Vice President Agnew told the truth about both of them.”
A towering, ramrod-straight presence with the aloofness of a maitre d’ in a too-trendy restaurant, Agnew and his ten-dollar-word speeches were a rallying cry for the right, a lightning rod to the left and a mirror to a country divided by the Vietnam War.
Even so, his lasting legacy is as a harbinger of the downfall of the Nixon presidency.
“Ultimately, he’ll be a tiny blip in history. He won’t be remembered except for his resignation while in office and a few of those phrases,” said Joan Hoff, head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and author of a book on Nixon.
“Those phrases” made Agnew a household word in the turbulent early 1970s.
His attacks on liberals, on “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” and his denunciation of the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism” struck chords with what Nixon called the “silent majority” of Americans who supported his administration.
In his 1980 book, Agnew said he had been forced out of office by Nixon, who “naively believed that by throwing me to the wolves, he had appeased his enemies.”
From the day he left office until Nixon’s death, Agnew never spoke to his former president, refusing to take his calls. “I felt totally abandoned,” Agnew explained.
Yet he went to Nixon’s funeral. “I decided after 20 years of resentment to put it all aside,” he said.