In my latest reading of Jules Witcover’s Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, the focus was on Watergate as well as Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s legal problems.
Agnew was accused of taking kickbacks from contractors in exchange for providing them with contracts. Agnew allegedly did this as Governor of Maryland, but the charge was also that he was continuing to receive kickbacks as Vice-President, as the contractors continued to demonstrate their gratitude for Agnew’s help over the years. From what I gathered in reading Witcover, Agnew had a variety of responses to these charges. For one, he said that he was receiving campaign contributions, not kickbacks. Second, he blamed the corruption in question on one of his subordinates, whom Agnew happened to bring with him to Washington, D.C. when he (Agnew) became Vice-President. And third, Agnew alleged that certain people in Maryland were conjuring up stories about Agnew in order to get themselves legally off the hook on charges regarding corruption. I should also note that, in Witcover’s book, Agnew appears to be surprised to learn of the allegation that he continued to receive kickbacks as Vice-President (but I don’t recall offhand if Witcover was the one narrating this, or if he was quoting somebody else).
Eventually, Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff, Alexander Haig, pressured Agnew to resign. But, for a while, Nixon and some of his key advisers wanted to keep Agnew on as Vice-President. The reason was that they regarded Agnew as insurance for Nixon: the Democratic Congress would be reluctant to remove Nixon from office for Watergate, were Agnew to be Nixon’s replacement as President, for the Congress definitely did not want a President Agnew! Agnew thought this was because he was so conservative, and that may have been part of the reason. But I also infer from Witcover’s book that many people just did not think that Agnew was Presidential material, and this included Nixon, a number of prominent Nixon aides, and others.
John Damgard, who was an aide to Agnew, related that Agnew felt that Nixon tried to save his own skin by offering up Agnew. If the Congress spent a lot of time on Agnew’s impeachment, the reasoning supposedly was, it wouldn’t have the motivation to go on to impeach Nixon. Why Nixon (or, more accurately, Haig, under Nixon’s possible direction) went on to ask for Agnew’s resignation rather than allowing Agnew to stay on as VP and be impeached, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps it was because Agnew’s case in court was appearing to be such a lost cause for Agnew, that Nixon would have had to demand his resignation, in order not to look bad.
In writing about Witcover’s book, I’ve talked about Agnew’s popularity. In Witcover’s narration, Agnew kept some of that, even amidst his scandals. Agnew received telegrams from people expressing their support for him, even as some of them criticized Nixon for not supporting Agnew enough—-for being out for Nixon alone. When Nixon spoke out about Agnew, Nixon (to Agnew’s apparent disappointment) did not mention Agnew’s insistence that he (Agnew) was innocent; rather, Nixon praised Agnew’s service in speaking candidly about controversial issues. According to Witcover, Nixon was “merely commending [Agnew’s] past service in a way that could sustain his own good standing with the vice-president’s Silent Majority constituency” (page 329).