On the surface, at least, it was such an all-American story, especially for a man who came to renown as B-movie villain in our politics. His father, born Theophrastos Anagnostopoulos, in a Greek town, emigrated to America at the end of the 19th century, opened a diner in Schenectady, New York, and, between grill orders, passionately read philosophy. He moved to Baltimore, bought another restaurant and married his friend’s widow, Margaret Pollard. Their first child together, a son, christened Spiro Theodore Agnew, was born Nov. 9, 1918.
The family did well in the 1920s, with Theo acquiring a larger Baltimore restaurant. They lost everything in the Great Depression, however, and Theo was reduced to selling fruits and vegetables from a roadside stall, but his faith in melting-pot America – and in the Democratic Party – was unshaken. Spiro, embarrassed, rejected his ethnic background and asked people to call him “Ted.” He went on to Johns Hopkins University to major in chemistry, then switched to night school law classes at the University of Baltimore. He worked days as a clerk at an insurance firm, where met his future wife, Judy.
Ted was drafted into the Army just before Pearl Harbor, sent to officer candidate school in Kentucky and, eventually, to France in 1944 as a replacement officer with an infantry battalion that participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded a Bronze Star. Then it was back to Baltimore.
In 1947, Agnew passed the bar exam. He started a law practice that foundered and got a job as a store detective for a supermarket chain. He also became a Republican. He made several failed bids for local office before he was elected Baltimore County executive in 1962, a post that had been held by Democrats for the previous 67 years.
He had the aura of a reformer. He campaigned on desegregation (the county was 97% white). But he was uneasy about the civil rights movement and early on had a penchant for law and order. He also steered county business to Republican cronies. In 1966, he won the race for the Maryland governorship, against a Democrat who was a wealthy paving contractor, a devout Catholic and an arch segregationist endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
As governor, Agnew pushed for tax reform, environmental protections and the repeal of laws against interracial marriage, and kept business associates closer than politicians. He grew fiercer in his opposition to Black and student militancy as the 1960s heated up. That drew the attention of Richard Nixon, who tapped Agnew as his running mate in the 1968 presidential election. Agnew campaigned primarily on law and order, which suited Nixon.
In office, Agnew became known as “Nixon’s Nixon” for the way he rhetorically went after Democrats and demonstrators, which he relished. In 1969, in a speech in New Orleans, he said violent demonstrations were condoned by “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” For good measure, he also attacked the news media for its supposedly liberal bias.
This was Ground Zero of the culture wars.
A 1970 Gallup Poll showed Agnew to be the third-most-popular American, after Nixon and evangelist Billy Graham.
He ran with Nixon again in 1972, when they won re-election in a landslide. Earlier that year, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland had begun probing corruption in Baltimore County surrounding public contracts. As the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon administration, Agnew was drawn into his own Baltimore donnybrook. When the probe turned up evidence he had taken kickbacks from contractors, he pleaded no contest to one felony charge of tax evasion and resigned the vice presidency, the first and last person to do that since John Calhoun in 1832 – and the only one to do it in disgrace.
There were documented charges that he continued to accept bribes while he was in the White House, one for as little as $800. Americans – some, at any rate – were amazed that a governor and a vice president could be purchased so cheaply.