September 30, 1996 12:00 PM

BY THE TIME SPIRO T. AGNEW DIED last week at 77, in Berlin, Md., of acute leukemia, he had become a historical footnote, having lived for the past 23 years far from the public eye. But had he not been forced by scandal to resign the vice presidency on Oct. 10, 1973, he would have been sworn in as the 38th President of the United States upon the departure of Richard Nixon only 10 months later. The succession would have been the fulfillment of an American dream—the rise of an immigrant peddler’s son to the highest office in the land. Plucked from relative obscurity as Maryland’s governor to serve as Nixon’s running mate in 1968, he became a vividly partisan figure, the Administration’s point man in its war against liberals, anti-Vietnam War activists, the national media and all enemies real and perceived. Mixing an impressive capacity for bare-knuckle politicking with a baroque taste for alliteration—”nattering nabobs of negativism,” he called the frequently critical press corps—he was reviled by those he opposed, beloved by aroused party loyalists. “It was a very controversial period,” says Victor Gold, his vice presidential press secretary, “and Agnew was at the vortex.”

After Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972, Agnew was positioning himself for a presidential run. Those dreams ended in 1973 when, under pressure from a White House reeling from the mounting Watergate scandal, he pleaded no contest to charges of income-tax evasion related to kickbacks he had taken as a Maryland public official. Though Agnew never spoke to his former patron again, he did attend Nixon’s funeral in 1994. “He tried to call me,” Agnew said at the time of the funeral, “but I didn’t take the calls.” In his later years he discussed his resignation in a memoir titled Go Quietly…or Else, wrote a novel about Washington politics and worked as a businessman with international clients. In a 1980 interview he urged young people not to go into politics: “…the expectation of people…is just so high that no ordinary man can ever perform to suit them.”

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