Almost overnight, Agnew became a political punching bag. On the campaign trail, he churned out gaffes and ethnic slurs. Liberal jokesters, in turn, made fun of his Hellenic name. “Every time I hear Spiro Agnew, I want to say ‘Gesundheit,’” wrote one columnist. Before long, Nixon speechwriter William Safire worried that Agnew would forever be tagged as a “dangerous buffoon.”
But the shrewd Nixon understood that Agnew—who called student protestors “communists” and shrugged off a Harlem campaign stop with a flippant “[I]f you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all”—had struck a serious chord with some white voters. Responding to Safire, Nixon shot back, “You know why they’re screaming at Agnew? Because he’s hitting where it hurts.”
Thus began Agnew’s rise as right-wing populist hero for some, toxic idiot for others. It was a volatile combination that confounded many and set a path for right-wing politics going forward.
There is another part of Agnew’s legacy more visible today: his proximity to the presidency brought hope to those whose politics went beyond right-wing populism and traded in conspiracy theories and antisemitism. To them, the Far Right, Agnew’s rise brought with it the possibility that they might not have to remain at the margins of political power forever.
After the election, Agnew did not settle quietly into his mainly ceremonial office. His popularity soared even higher as he continued attacking the media, the anti-war movement, the Black Power movement, universities, and the counterculture. His famous alliterative put-downs of liberals as “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history” helped frame the Democratic Party as a group of leftist weirdos. In July 1969, The New York Times reported that “the intervals between Vice President jokes seem to be growing significantly longer.” When Nixon cruised to reelection in 1972, Agnew became among the front-runners for the 1976 GOP nomination.
Then a federal investigation uncovered a trail of bribery dating back to his days as Baltimore County executive in the early 1960s, and, remarkably, continuing through his time as vice president. The case against Agnew was so airtight that he couldn’t demagogue his way out of it. In October 1973, he pled nolo contendere to one count of tax evasion and, in return for his resignation from office, received a $10,000 fine and three years’ probation. With the plea deal completed, Agnew, and the jokes associated with him, receded from the public consciousness overnight. As Agnew himself said later, “It was as though, from the moment I stepped out of office, I had ceased to exist.”
Agnew may have been a clown to many, but in hindsight he was also a prophet. He presaged our current era of tub-thumping by mixing the white middle-class anxieties of the Kiwanis-PTA set with the paranoia of the Far Right. Facts were less important than temperament.
But a reevaluation of his legacy shows not only his importance as a figure of the populist Right but also the role of white-nationalist media in elevating his national profile. These were the days long before the internet and partisan cable stations, when verbal warfare was waged mainly through newsletters. But Agnew’s moment in the spotlight came when an important modern political pattern was coming into focus: always attack, and if defeated, invoke conspiracy.
The right-wing conspiracist who had always paid the closest attention to Agnew’s rising star was Gerald L. K. Smith. Smith’s career in the world of demagogues began as Huey Long’s chief organizer for Long’s Share Our Wealth campaign. By the time of Long’s assassination in 1935, Smith’s organizing skills had grown the membership of Share Our Wealth clubs to eight million. At Long’s funeral, Smith led a massive procession of 200,000 mourners and then gave a powerful eulogy as “old women cried and men wiped away tears,” according to Long biographer Richard D. White Jr. During the New Deal years, Smith branded Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trust a “slimy group of men culled from the pink campuses of America with [a] friendly gaze fixed on Russia.” In the late 1940s, he launched his Christian Nationalist Crusade, delivered radio addresses, and pioneered the art of direct mail fundraising. By the 1960s, Smith’s mailing list had reached three million, with contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in annually, making him a millionaire with multiple homes.
But Smith was also notorious for his antisemitism and his fierce objection to American support for Israel. More than just a crank, H. L. Mencken called him the “deadliest and damnedest orator ever heard on this or any other earth.” Or as writer Max Lerner later summed up Smith’s career: “Hatred flowed out, money flowed in.”
Smith spotted an ally in Agnew after what came to be known as the Des Moines speech of November 1969. Here, Agnew singled out a “little group of men” in the media who, he alleged, “wield a free hand” in “selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues” to the American public. The “little group,” he added, “live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, DC, or New York City.”
All this talk of a secretive group of manipulators—the classic cabal trope—delighted
Smith. “Watch the conspiracy unfold designed to destroy, annihilate, smear and assassinate the character of Vice President Agnew,” he wrote. As to whom the group was, Smith clarified that “every informed observer knows that the news media is controlled by the Jews.”
For others, Agnew’s Des Moines speech struck a populist chord that played well outside the Beltway, although not in explicitly antisemitic ways. In West Virginia, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph gloated, “No one, but no one, is asking ‘Who’s Spiro Agnew?’ nowadays.” His “blistering” of the media had struck a nerve with “millions of fed-up citizens.” Nationally syndicated columnist John Chamberlain gloated that the liberal elite “tried to kill Agnew by laughing at him.” But the vice president had emerged as “a Tribune of the People, a man of growing stature and power.”
After members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four demonstrators at an anti-war protest at Kent State University in May 1970, Nixon sent word for Agnew to cool it on the broadsides against student activists. But Smith kept up the diatribes: “Firing Squads Necessary, Concentration Camps Required, This is War,” read the headline of The Cross and the Flag, his monthly newsletter. “Unless a strong man appears on the scene, we are doomed to the chaos of anarchy.” Soon he was making the case that the “man we really need for president is Spiro Agnew.”
Smith thought he saw his predictions about Agnew’s fate coming true as the Maryland bribery investigation became public in August 1973. He warned that the “Machiavellian machine of satanic conspirators has mobilized every evil and irresponsible force in the world.” The “treason machine” pushing the Watergate investigation realized that taking out Nixon now would “make the fearless, upstanding statesman, Spiro Agnew, the President by succession.” This would not do: “Therefore they concluded that they must destroy the Vice President first.” He could not resist pointing out that the sitting federal grand jury in Baltimore was “fundamentally black and the prosecutors have been Jewish.”
With Agnew’s resignation, Smith grew even more hysterical. In the October 18, 1973, newsletter, the first after Agnew’s resignation, the title alone read, “Chaos Is Upon Us, The President May Be a Hostage, Do the Jews Own Our Congress? Is World War III Here?” When Nixon resigned the following year, he predictably blamed the “Zionists.”
In his retirement, Agnew briefly turned author and wove antisemitic tropes into his potboiler novel, The Canfield Decision (1976). In multiple interviews promoting the book, Agnew revealed his belief that Jews wielded too much control over the media and American foreign policy. William Safire, at that point a columnist for The New York Times, wrote disgustedly that the “anti-Israel lobby has a new champion: my old friend and former colleague, novelist Spiro T. Agnew.” “Former Agnew staffers,” he reported, “tell me his anti-Semitic cracks first began when the Jewish businessmen he had known in Baltimore County sought immunity by turning state’s evidence against him.” Agnew “became embittered at a handful of Jews, which might well have turned him against Jews in general.”
Gerald L. K. Smith died in April 1976, but his tabloid continued to lionize the former vice president: “Would to God that we had ten men of his courage in the United States Congress who would be as honest and forthright as Mr. Agnew has been. That formula could save America from the bondage of the Jew.”
In 1980, Agnew published another book, Go Quietly … or Else. He claimed that as the pressure to resign mounted, Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, sent word: “The President has a lot of power—don’t forget that.” “I interpreted it as an innuendo that anything could happen to me,” Agnew recalled. “I might have a convenient ‘accident.’”
Very few took this seriously. Other than attending Nixon’s funeral in 1994, Agnew stayed out of the news until his own death in 1996. While he may have felt as though he had “ceased to exist” after his resignation, he in fact had helped energize the conspiratorial Right. His fall from power only deepened their convictions that there really were sinister forces at work against white Christian everyday Americans, as they called themselves. The more liberals reacted in alarm to his bullying of anti-war protestors or the Black Panthers, the more Agnew’s base grew convinced that he must be right—or in today’s MAGA parlance, that he was “over the target.” Even after Agnew’s spectacular fall from power, his base did not go away. They merely waited for another hero.
Jerald Podair is a professor of history and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies Emeritus at Lawrence University.
Zach Messitte is the former president of Ripon College, where he was also a professor of politics and government.
Charles J. Holden is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Together with Jerald Podair and Zach Messitte, he is the co-author of Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump's America (University of Virginia Press, 2019).