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Disgraced Spiro Agnew would have a radio show today

Updated: October 10, 2013 12:39PM

On Oct. 10, 1973, Spiro Agnew resigned as the nation’s 39th vice president. Four decades later, many Americans are still asking “Spiro Who?” Because Agnew, once an early favorite to win the 1976 presidential election, did what today would be unthinkable when caught red handed: he disappeared from the political arena.

After pleading nolo contendere to tax evasion, Agnew led a remarkably low profile life. He published a steamy novel called The Canfield Decision, lobbied for the Saudis, hung out with Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs, penned a memoir and died quietly in Ocean City, Maryland in 1996 at the age of 77. But for five years he was a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Spiro Agnew’s vanishing act stands in stark contrast to how Americans have come to live with today’s scandals. Our scandalized politicos are probably better known for their infamy than for their legislative or executive prowess. And yet, back they come into the political limelight. Ney, Spitzer, Sanford, Vitter, Filner, McGreevy, Corzine, Craig. All have joined the bipartisan scandal-to-rehabilitation hall of fame.

News of Agnew’s confession prompted reflections on the vice president’s personal shame. Walter Cronkite eulogized, “we would not have wished even on Spiro Agnew the disgrace in which his reputation, his hopes and dreams are smothered tonight.” David Broder of The Washington Post agreed that Agnew had been “completely disgraced.”

Reaction stories reflected political allegiances. Defenders like William F. Buckley conceded that Agnew’s crime was “shabby” but he appreciated the vice president’s broadsides against the antiwar movement. Thanks to Agnew, the silent majority “came finally to stand up against the moral anarchists who, when they violated the law, whinnied out their defenses pleading the grand immunities of civil disobedience and anti-militarism.” William Safire celebrated Agnew’s verbal assaults against “the professional aginners who too often did not know what they were for, who wanted only to reject all authority.”

Criticism poured in from the “effete snobs” of the press and Eastern elite. For Tom Wicker of The New York Times, Agnew was “getting off lightly, which is more than could be said for the dead he scorned at Attica, or the street kids growing up in the ghettoes avoided because, he once said, if you see one, you’ve see them all.” Mike Royko, then of the Chicago Sun-Times, recalled how Agnew “could stand in public and sneer at women who might hide the fact that they make a few bucks baby sitting, because they are afraid their welfare payments would be reduced . . . He could sneer at people who ‘cheat,’ to use his word, because they are trying to survive. To survive. Not to play golf with Frank Sinatra.”

Not found in these varied reactions to Agnew’s resignation is any speculation on when he might stage a comeback. At the end of a “where is he now?” piece in October, 1975, Nick Thimmesch speculated for The New York Times that it was only “deep in the middle of the night” that Agnew dared to even wonder “if the day will come, say, five or ten years from now, when the American people forgive and forget, and he can speak to them again.” But Agnew never did speak to the American people again as a man with any influence.

Perhaps Agnew was a generation too early. Today he’d have a radio show, a book deal, a blog, and influence among House Republicans. He certainly would have visited the Iowa State Fair this past summer.

Today we allow our political leaders second chances. Does this mean we’ve become the permissive society that conservatives who backed Agnew feared? Have politics devolved into a morass of moral relativism — where I the voter will forgive my guy, but hey your guy has to go? Or have we become more discerning? Maybe we recognize now that well-meaning civil servants can make bad personal decisions and might even break the law. But as informed citizens we are able to distinguish those mistakes that close the door to political power for good from those that still merit extending the second chance. By remembering Spiro Agnew’s fall from politics 40 years ago, perhaps we can better assess our current relationship with political scandal.

Charles Holden is a professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Zach Messitte is the president of Ripon College in Wisconsin.

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