Thirty-five years ago a seminal event in the history of the Vice Presidency occurred. Spiro Agnew pleaded no contest to one count of income tax evasion and resigned from his office. In the speech (see the YouTube audio below) he refers to this resignation as insignificant in the context of America’s peace and prosperity. But in fact Agnew’s rise and fall had a profound impact on the course of the Vice Presidency.
While Agnew was a political cipher in the Nixon Administration and glad-handed by staffers to keep him away from anything important – his limitations and malfeasance set the stage for new trends in national politics.
The resignations in short order of both a Vice President (Agnew) and a President (Nixon)led to the “outsider” candidacy of Jimmy Carter. Since then, almost every Presidential election has featured an “outsider” candidate and anti-Washington “insider” rhetoric has become a stock feature of the American political scene. It took an outsider President to seriously consider an empowered Vice President – and that too has become an important (although still relatively new) feature of American politics.
It is possible that this would have occurred without Agnew’s resignation – Nixon’s resignation alone would have been sufficient to shock the political system (although considering how close the 1976 election was – Carter won 50.1% vs. Ford’s 48% of the popular vote) Agnew’s actions may in fact have been an important factor.
However, Agnew’s resignation led to Ford’s appointment and ultimately taking office not having won a national election to anything. The rapid turnover in the nation’s highest offices, as Marie Natoli wrote in her American Prince, American Pauper: The Contemporary Vice Presidency in Perspective, changed views of the Vice Presidency, focusing on “the job which the Vice-President is really all about: the Presidency.”
Bonus video: Agnew castigating effete snobs