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Spiro Agnew Dies; Nixon VP Quit in Disgrace


WASHINGTON — Spiro T. Agnew, who earned an enduring but unenviable niche in American history as the first vice president forced to resign in disgrace, died Tuesday afternoon at a hospital in Berlin, Md. He was 77.

The cause of death was not revealed.

A desk clerk at English Towers in Ocean City, where Agnew had an apartment, said that the former vice president was transported to a nearby hospital by volunteer firefighters from Ocean City about 3 p.m. EDT.

Agnew, who maintained a residence in Palm Springs, may be best remembered for the no-contest plea to tax-evasion charges that forced him to resign as Richard Nixon's vice president, but there was more to his public career than the kickback scandal that led to his downfall.

The relatively brief time he held office encompassed one of the most turbulent periods in this country's life. It was a time when one great controversy piled on another and Agnew was deeply embroiled in nearly all of them, from racial conflicts and the role of the press, to Vietnam and Watergate.

The son of an immigrant peddler, Agnew shared with millions of Americans his age the hard times of the Depression and the subsequent striving for affluence.

Faith Destroyed

Many of the country's white middle class who felt their values threatened by the upheaval and change that marked the 1960s and 1970s considered Agnew their most vociferous champion. But their faith in him was destroyed by the revelations of avarice and mendacity that repudiated his claim as an upholder of lofty moral standards.

Tall, well built and silvery-haired, Agnew appeared more presidential than most presidents, including Nixon.

Agnew was remarkably apolitical in taste and demeanor. He preferred playing gin rummy with his aides to backslapping and handshaking with precinct captains and Republican county chairmen.

Although he owed his influence to his rhetoric, he was a pedestrian orator, avoiding for the most part flourishes of any sort. His flat monotone and direct style helped to create an impression of sincerity.

Early in his career, Agnew appeared to undergo a change of heart and mind. He first came to national attention in 1966 when--after serving one term as Baltimore County executive--he ran for governor of Maryland on the Republican ticket (with the backing of liberals and blacks) against Democrat George P. Mahoney, whose campaign was tinged with racism. Mahoney's candidacy divided his own party and Agnew won.

Hard-Line Reputation

But in office, Agnew's harsh response to riots and demonstrations alienated many of the black leaders who had supported him and gave him a reputation as a hard- liner. This transformation, as much as anything else, commended the obscure Maryland governor to the 1968 GOP presidential nominee, Nixon.

A novice in national politics, Agnew suffered from his own inexperience and clumsiness. In an ill-advised attempt at humor he referred to one reporter as "a fat Jap." He used the word "Polack" when answering a press conference question. "When you've seen one slum, you've seen them all," he once remarked casually.

Thus the picture that came across to the country was of an insensitive blunderer. Alarmed Nixon strategists shunted Agnew into the background of the campaign. Agnew himself was badly shaken and deeply embittered at the press, which he blamed for exaggerating and distorting his errors. In mid-campaign he was so troubled he asked a reporter: "Has a vice presidential candidate ever lost a presidential election?"

In the case of Agnew and Nixon, the answer in November 1968 turned out to be no. The flush of victory and the prestige of office helped Agnew steadily recover his confidence.

Press Unforgiven

But he never forgave the press for the injuries he felt had been done him. And with the encouragement of Nixon and his advisors, the new vice president soon took a measure of revenge. In the fall of 1969 he delivered speeches attacking television commentators and newspaper publishers for striving to dominate public opinion, "all grinding out the same editorial line." News executives objected indignantly but the speeches struck a responsive chord among the middle-Americans whom the Nixon administration regarded as its constituency.

The uproar over Agnew's attacks on the press, and over his equally scathing tongue-lashing of antiwar demonstrators, whom he branded as "an effete corps of impudent snobs," prompted the White House to make Agnew what he himself called "the cutting edge" of the 1970 congressional campaign.

That fall Agnew set out across the country on what amounted to a punitive expedition, designed mainly to defeat Senate Democrats and at least one liberal Republican, Charles Goodell of New York, who had opposed the president on the war.

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