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As much as history has shone a light on the political career of Richard Nixon, it hasn’t done so much with Nixon’s former running mate Spiro Agnew, the one-time Governor of Maryland who would eventually leave office in disgrace over shady dealings and shadier actions mid-way into his second term as VP and ahead of the resignation of his boss.
In 1968, the Nixon-Agnew ticket faced two principal opponents. The Democrats, at a convention marred by violent demonstrations, had nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Maine Senator Edmund Muskie as their standard-bearers. The segregationist former Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, ran as a third-party candidate, and was expected to do well in the Deep South.Nixon, mindful of the restrictions he had labored under as Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952 and 1956, was determined to give Agnew a much freer rein and to make it clear his running mate had his support. Agnew could also usefully play an “attack dog” role, as Nixon had in 1952.
Initially, Agnew played the centrist, pointing to his civil rights record in Maryland. As the campaign developed, he quickly adopted a more belligerent approach, with strong law-and-order rhetoric, a style which alarmed the party’s Northern liberals but played well in the South. John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager, was impressed, some other party leaders less so; Senator Thruston Morton described Agnew as an “asshole”.
Throughout September, Agnew was in the news, generally as a result of what one reporter called his “offensive and sometimes dangerous banality”. He used the derogatory term “Polack” to describe Polish-Americans, referred to a Japanese-American reporter as “the fat Jap”, and appeared to dismiss poor socio-economic conditions by stating that “if you’ve seen one slum you’ve seen them all.” He attacked Humphrey as soft on communism, an appeaser like Britain’s prewar prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Agnew was mocked by his Democratic opponents; a Humphrey commercial displayed the message “Agnew for Vice President?” against a soundtrack of prolonged hysterical laughter that degenerated into a painful cough, before a final message: “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious…” Agnew’s comments outraged many, but Nixon did not rein him in; such right-wing populism had a strong appeal in the Southern states and was an effective counter to Wallace. Agnew’s rhetoric was also popular in some Northern areas, and helped to galvanize “white backlash” into something less racially defined, more attuned to the suburban ethic defined by historian Peter B. Levy as “orderliness, personal responsibility, the sanctity of hard work, the nuclear family, and law and order”.
In late October, Agnew survived an exposé in The New York Times that questioned his financial dealings in Maryland, with Nixon denouncing the paper for “the lowest kind of gutter politics”. In the election on November 5, the Republicans were victorious, with a narrow popular vote plurality – 500,000 out of a total of 73 million votes cast. The Electoral College result was more decisive: Nixon 301, Humphrey 191 and Wallace 46. The Republicans narrowly lost Maryland, but Agnew was credited by pollster Louis Harris with helping his party to victory in several border and Upper South states that might easily have fallen to Wallace – South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky – and with bolstering Nixon’s support in suburbs nationally. Had Nixon lost those five states, he would have had only the minimum number of electoral votes needed, 270, and any defection by an elector would have thrown the election to the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.
This interview, a somewhat contentious one for Meet The Press, comes months before the eventual winning the 1968 election. His term as vice-President and the “Agnew Style” that, if anything, caused more division within the U.S. – but even at this relatively early stage, it was abundantly clear Spiro Agnew was no shrinking violet.