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Jun 10 2011

Spiro T. Agnew

contributed by Josh Hager.

Spiro T. Agnew is one of the most divisive names in modern American political history.  On October 26, 1970, Agnew visited NC State as part of a campaign tour.  Several years later, his political career ended in disgrace.  In 1973, facing charges stemming from committing fraud and accepting bribes during his time as governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew resigned from the Vice Presidency as part of a plea agreement to avoid harsher sentencing.  Agnew’s resignation remains to this day the only occasion wherein the Vice President of the United States resigned due to impending criminal litigation.  Historically speaking, Agnew’s resignation is most significant for opening the door to the appointment of Gerald Ford to the Vice Presidency.  As a direct result of Ford replacing Agnew and then replacing President Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford remains the only person to become President of the United States without winning election to either the Presidency or the Vice Presidency.

Yet Agnew’s failings in 1973 had no bearing on the importance of his visit to NC State in 1970.  Before his political downfall, Agnew expanded the visibility of the Vice Presidency and  became a prolific speaker for conservative causes.   Moreover, he was a powerful campaigner for Republicans trying to win control of Congress in the 1970 mid-term elections.  In the early fall of 1970, Agnew added a stop in Raleigh on behalf of local Republicans to his national campaigning tour.  When Agnew joined the list of speakers, organizers moved the event from a local high school to Reynolds Coliseum and hoped to fill it to its 12,000 seat capacity.  More specifically, organizers hoped that Agnew would help Republicans take the heated race in Congressional District NC-4 where incumbent Democrat Nick Galifianakis (uncle of movie star Zach Galifianakis) faced a difficult challenge from Jack Hawke.  Galifianakis faced an unusually difficult challenge for an incumbent because the boundaries of NC-4 had just been redrawn.  As a result, Galifianakis had to win over the support of new voters from Raleigh through Forsyth County.  Due to the new conservative voters in the district, winning NC-4 was a major goal for the Republican Party. Therefore, the main reason for Agnew’s stop in Raleigh was to directly call for Republicans in Galifianakis’s district to come out to the polls for Jack Hawke and in so doing retake the NC-4 district (1).

Unfortunately for Agnew and his supporters, the selection of a college campus as the site for a crucial campaign rally was a poor political decision.  Thanks to Nixon’s unpopular policies in Vietnam and Agnew’s harsh critiques of college campus protestors, most college students had a strongly unfavorable view of the Vice President.  While the student body as a whole at NC State was by no means as liberal as that of UC-Berkeley and had not endured the violence that students at Kent State faced in early 1970, it did contain a great number of progressives (also labeled “radicals”) who despised Agnew.  For example, a photograph from the 1970 Agromeck shows a student with a sign telling Vice President Agnew to “shut up.”  Interestingly, the sign also included the peace symbol (please see the photograph below).  The most prominent opponent of Spiro Agnew was Student Body President Cathy Sterling, who used her regular column in The Technician to voice her anger at Agnew’s visit.  In her column of October 14,1970 titled “A gut -level response to Agnew’s visit,” Sterling characterized Agnew as a national joke and as a right-wing haranguer engaged in a rhetorical battle against the American university education system. Despite her strong negative views of Agnew, Sterling encouraged fellow liberals to stay home during the speech in order to avoid any incidents that could reinforce the negative image of college liberals espoused by Agnew and the Republicans at large.  Some liberal students decided Sterling was correct; others decided to directly counterprogram Agnew’s speech with events in the Brickyard sponsored by the whimsically-named “ConSPIROcy” group.

With tension rising on campus, would violence ensue along with guaranteed liberal protests? Could Agnew’s speech occur without incident?  Would Galifianakis keep his congressional seat with Agnew on the attack?  Please read Part II of our column on Spiro Agnew’s visit in the forthcoming days to find out the answers to these questions.

(1) “Agnew and Hawke-Dynamite for Galifianakis,” The Technician, 10/19/1970

For more information about famous visitors to campus, please visit http://historicalstate.lib.ncsu.edu/

**Special credit goes to Martha Summerlin for discovering the 1970 Agromeck photograph below.

Protestor holds sign, 1970