Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Day Spiro Agnew Resigned

In the fall of 1973, my family was living in Nashville while my father was on a four–month sabbatical.

We spent the previous summer in Austria. While we were there, we tried to keep up with what was happening in the Watergate hearings through the international editions of TIME and Newsweek, but the reports were not as complete as Americans were getting here at home — and, of course, there was no way for us to monitor the Watergate hearings that were taking place that summer.

I knew that President Nixon was under mounting public pressure over his involvement in activities related to the Watergate break–in, but I had no idea where it would go. And there must have been news reports about Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, and the problems he was having with those who were investigating his activities as governor of Maryland — even if most of the activity was conducted in secrecy.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in "The Final Days" that "[b]y August, the details of the Agnew investigation were all over the newspapers," and the following month "plea–bargaining with the vice president's attorneys" had begun.

With everything else that was going on in my life at that time, I suppose I was oblivious to what was happening with Agnew.

Maybe most Americans were, too. Maybe the plea negotiations were conducted in relative secrecy as well. Anyway, I have no memory of anything being said about Agnew's legal problems. (Of course, I was quite young at the time.)

It came as a surprise to me when, 40 years ago today, on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, I walked into the apartment in which my family was living after school had dismissed for the day and found my mother watching news reports on TV. Mind you, this was in the years before cable's explosive popularity, before cable news networks came along. A news report in the middle of an ordinary Wednesday afternoon could only mean that something serious had happened.

And it had. Agnew had resigned.

He wasn't the first vice president to resign. And, clearly, it wasn't as spontaneous as I naively thought it was at the time.

Agnew submitted his letter of resignation to Nixon, officially saying only that "I hereby resign the Office of Vice President of the United States, effective immediately."

In a more personal letter to the president that was submitted at the same time, Agnew observed that "the accusations against me cannot be resolved without a long, divisive and debilitating struggle in the Congress and in the courts." He had concluded, he wrote, that it was in America's "best interests" for him to resign.

He never addressed the question of whether he was guilty, either in his communication with Nixon or in his actual court appearance, in which he pled nolo contendreno contest.

In his reply, Nixon didn't address that side of it, either.

Nixon, who also would resign about 10 months later, said he knew Agnew's decision to resign "has been as difficult as any facing a man in public life could be," and it left Nixon "with a great sense of personal loss," but he said he respected the decision.

Nixon commended Agnew for his "courage and candor ... strong patriotism and ... profound dedication to the welfare of the nation," and he thanked him for his service as vice president.

And then, under the provisions of the 25th Amendment — and with everything else that was vying for his attention — Nixon had to choose Agnew's replacement. This was something no other president had ever had to do, and no one knew how long it might take.

Turned out it didn't take too long.

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