Grave of the Week: Spiro Agnew’s Invisible Grave

Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens
Timonium, Maryland

Vice Presidential graves – at least for those men who never attained the office of President – are a wonderful illustration of the office itself; at once impressive and forgettable.  Presidents tend to have gravesites that are wrought with symbols of honor and respect; this is true for even the most reviled of them (James Buchanan, for example, who was as little regarded in the aftermath of his presidency as he is today, still got a fairly nice send-off and tomb).  But Vice Presidential graves go back and forth; some are monumental and impressive, while others are surprisingly pedestrian.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the grave of Spiro Theodore Agnew, the country’s 39th Vice President, who resigned the office due to criminal charges in his home state of Maryland.

Spiro Agnew’s political story reveals a great deal about national politics in the 1960s and 70s.  Agnew was the son of a Greek immigrant who settled in Baltimore early in the twentieth century; Agnew himself served in the European Theater during WWII, winning the Army’s Bronze Star.  He returned from war to attend law school, and began his own practice just outside Baltimore in one of the area’s growing suburbs.

He was not heavily involved in politics for much of his early career; only in the early 1960s, with the country in turmoil over the Civil Rights Movement, did he begin to take part in local politics.  The Democratic Party in the early 60s was deeply divided; Southern Democrats defended segregation often with violent retribution, while Northern Democrats tended to support Civil Rights legislation such as that proposed by John F. Kennedy before his death in 1963.  Agnew, a Republican, used this division to his advantage; a moderate on race issues, he appealed to many Marylanders who increasingly opposed segregation.  Agnew was elected first to the position of Baltimore County Executive and then as Maryland’s governor by exploiting this issue; he appealed to what many white Southerners saw as a common sense approach to an increasingly divisive issue.  Agnew supported desegregation to an extent, but rejected any stronger measures and increasingly criticized what he saw as radical advocates of equality.

These qualities made him a perfect running mate for Richard Nixon, who in 1968 was beginning to exploit those same divisions.  Nixon spoke of a ‘Silent Majority’ – as he put it in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination, “the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.” Agnew, who disdained anti-war protesters and who attacked Civil Rights leaders’ integrity following the 1968 riots sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination, was all too happy to become Nixon’s fist, an attack dog who, throughout the campaign and into his vice presidency, became known for his fierce attacks on the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”: protestors, anti-war activists, liberals.

Agnew’s rapid and stunning rise hid a scandal that ultimately brought him down: evidence of significant bribery during his term as Maryland’s governor.  These charges were widely known in Washington throughout his term as Vice President, but as the Watergate scandal which ultimately brought the administration of Richard Nixon to an end heated up, Nixon – who regarded Agnew as a lightweight – used it to force Agnew’s resignation rather than see him ascend to the Presidency.  Michigan Representative Gerald Ford took his place.

Agnew, disgraced, returned to Maryland.  He was not honored as one of the country’s Vice Presidents; it took until 1995 for a bust of Agnew to be placed inside the US Capitol alongside his fellow office holders, and even his home state of Maryland removed his Governor’s portrait from the state capitol for nearly 16 years.  It too was replaced in 1995, just a year before Agnew passed away.

Agnew’s grave would be almost impossible to find if you didn’t know exactly where to look; when I visited Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens it took me nearly 45 minutes despite having a reasonable map at my disposal.  Overgrown and buried in the lush grass, it makes no reference to his time as Vice President; it is an anonymous as any surrounding it, reflecting the disgrace that even he himself came to feel.  Contrasted with the grave of his President – who himself was forced to resign from office, on charges arguably far worse than those that brought down Agnew, but who is rewarded with a Presidential Library and Museum, as well as a laudatory grave – and it’s tempting to even feel sorry for this man, who became the thug his party needed him to be, even when it caused him to ultimately fall from grace.

Nixonland, Rick Perlstein
Obituary for Spiro T. Agnew.  Francis X. Clines, New York Times, September 19, 1996


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s