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Agnew, Ford, and the presidential museum that could have been in Baltimore

  Gerald Ford, the 38th President, owes his place in history to the fact that Spiro Agnew was a crook. So when the newly renovated Ford Presidential Museum reopened in Grand Rapids Michigan last week, you would have thought they would show the man from Maryland, who made it all possible, a little love. But, no.

NoMarylanderhas achieved a higher office or had such a crushing political fall as Agnew, who resigned as vice president in 1973 in connection with bribery and extortion charges. That paved the way for Ford to become president.

But the only nod Agnew got from the podium that day was from former Vice President Dick Cheney, who mentioned in passing that "President Ford had served briefly as vice president when Agnew resigned."

Right. President Nixon picked Ford to replace Agnew. Ford then became president after Nixon, also a crook, also resigned.

Cheney served as Ford’s chief of staff. So did former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who also was at the event. Afterwards, when asked about Agnew, Rumsfeld said, “Certainly when President Ford came in it brought a different tone and tenor to the vice presidency.”

Inside the museum, Agnew does get mentioned, albeit briefly. He’skind of shoved to the side, next to a much bigger display about the Watergate scandal.

Okay, that seems fair. That is what made Ford president, after all.

Maureen Tucker of Grand Rapids, who checked out the display that explained Agnew’s fall from grace, said she remembers the scandal "and the shock that there was so much before he became vice president,, what he had done."

 What Agnew did was plead no contest in 1973 to tax evasion charges in exchange for resigning and staying out of prison.

A civil suit in 1981 found that Agnew had taken nearly $150,000 in bribes while serving as Baltimore County executive and Maryland’s governor. He got his final payoffs in envelopes when he was vice president.

So when it came time to replace Agnew, Nixon, who was having his own troubles with Watergate, turned to the squeaky-clean Eagle Scout, Gerald Ford, who at the time was the House minority leader.

Donald Holloway, the Ford Museum’s curator, said more than 400 FBI agents fanned out across the United States to investigate Ford, "And they found nothing."

Ford and Agnew are linked by history, but Holloway says there is no evidence that they really knew each other. Holloway says that’s not surprising since they took very different paths to Washington. And there is also no evidence that once he became vice president, Ford reached out to his predecessor.

Holloway said some might have misconstrued a meeting between Ford and Agnew "as some sort of collaboration."

In other words, Ford wasn’t going to touch Agnew with a ten foot pole.

So, you might ask yourself, “What if…?” What if Agnew had kept his nose clean in Maryland. He well could have become president when Nixon resigned in 1974. And then, maybe we’d have theSpiroT. Agnew Presidential Museum, perhaps at the Inner Harbor or near his boyhood home in Forest Park. But instead it’s in Ford’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is remembered as an honest man who always tried to do what was right.

The crowd at the re-opening of the Ford museum
John Lee /
The crowd at the re-opening of the Ford museum
The statue of former President Gerald R. Ford at the entrance to his museum.
John Lee /
The statue of former President Gerald R. Ford at the entrance to his museum.

Copyright 2016 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore

John Lee