Like Nixon, Agnew’s public persona would be dominated by allegations of wrongdoing. Yet Agnew’s career is also worth studying.
Agnew emerged as a surprise, a relatively unknown figure, suddenly named by Nixon as a running-mate in 1968. Donald Rumsfeld recalls the astonishment when Nixon unveiled his pick:
When Nixon announced Governor Agnew’s selection the following day, he said he had based his decision on three criteria. First, Nixon claimed, Agnew was qualified to become president. Second, he said Agnew would be a good campaigner; and third, if they got elected Agnew would be able to manage domestic policy. To my knowledge, Agnew was not particularly noted for those qualities. More than anything Nixon seemed pleased that he had selected someone so unexpected, catching everyone off guard. And indeed the choice of Agnew was so startling that it stunned even Agnew.
As is often the case, in recent decades, a great deal of speculation preceded Nixon’s announcement. Nixon and his staff had listed potential running mates. Prominent individuals and Nixon’s personal friends had been consulted.
Some, like Rumsfeld, reckoned that Nixon had deliberately veiled his thinking, in order to create a shocking sensation when Agnew was disclosed as the vice presidential candidate. Gerald Ford, who at the time was House Minority Leader, was surprised and perhaps a bit skeptical. Later, after having ascended to the presidency himself, Ford would write:
Nixon had selected Spiro T. Agnew, the governor of Maryland, as his running mate. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who had risen from total obscurity a few years earlier to become a governor of a border state. I remembered meeting him two years before at a Republican dinner in Annapolis. He’d come up to me, a well-groomed but somehow diffident man who seemed to talk out of the corners of his mouth. “Hi, I’m Ted Agnew, Baltimore County executive, and I’m running for governor,” he’d said, sticking out his hand.
Why did Nixon choose Agnew? In addition to the three reasons outlined by Rumsfeld above, and in addition to his love for surprises, there was another factor in Nixon’s choice.
In 1968, Nixon was running against “the party of Maddox, Mahoney, and Wallace” - the quote comes from a 1966 newspaper column authored by Nixon (with help behind the scenes from his speechwriter and staffer Patrick Buchanan). These three men were the public face and shaping force of the Democratic Party at that time.
Lester Maddox was a restaurant owner and segregationist governor of Georgia, known for driving African-Americans out of his restaurant by brandishing an ax handle. George Mahoney was a segregationist nominated by the Democratic Party for governor of Maryland. George Wallace was the segregationist governor of Alabama, who uncompromisingly declared, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Against “the party of Maddox, Mahoney, and Wallace,” Nixon offered the heritage of the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower and Nixon had moved the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, against resistance from the Democratic Party. When Lyndon Johnson used a procedural maneuver to weaken the act, a technicality about jury selection, Ike and Nixon responded with the 1960 Civil Rights Act, which they again ushered through Congress over objections from the Democratic Party.
As Republicans, Ike and Nixon had defended the 'Little Rock Nine' and broken through the barriers of segregation. The Democratic Party, in the person of Orval Faubus, worked to keep the African-American students out of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. The Democrats were so committed to segregation that Eisenhower and Nixon had to use federal troops to ensure that the Black students were admitted to the school.
In this environment, Nixon chose Agnew. In Maryland, when Agnew ran for governor against George Mahoney, Agnew earned 70% of the African-American vote. Ann Coulter writes:
One of the main reasons Nixon chose a rookie like Spiro Agnew as his vice presidential nominee was Agnew’s sterling civil rights record. Agnew had passed some of the first bans on racial discrimination in public housing in the nation - before the federal laws - and then beaten segregationist George Mahoney for governor of Maryland in 1966.
It is one of history’s better-kept secrets that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew won a large share of the Black vote in 1968 because the opposing party was thoroughly populated with leaders who opposed desegregation and integration.