(Vice President Spriro T. Agnew and President Richard M. Nixon)

In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.

A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as “intellectuals”.

There are people in our society who should be separated and discarded.

Three things have been difficult to tame: the oceans, fools and women. We may soon be able to tame the oceans; fools and women will take a little longer.

Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the Government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York!

Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.

A narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the televised news. A single dramatic piece of the mosaic becomes, in the minds of millions, the entire picture.


For those of you who are too young or have forgotten their history the above words of wisdom did not emanate from Donald Trump but from Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro T. Agnew.  Some would argue that Agnew has passed on to the dust bin of history, but if one is looking for the words of a demagogue we can begin with Joseph McCarthy, follow with Agnew, and just look at the daily tweets of the current president.  Agnew’s tale may have receded into the past, but it has been resurrected by MSNBC program host Rachel Madow and television producer Michael Yarvitz’s new book, BAG MAN: THE WILD CRIMES, AUDACIOUS COVER-UP AND SPECTACULAR DOWNFALL OF A BRAZEN CROOK IN THE WHITE HOUSE.

Madow and Yarvitz offer a breezy, well documented account of how a sitting Vice President Spiro T. Agnew ran an undercover bribery and extortion scheme from inside the White House.  Agnew’s machinations were a continuation of a process he had developed as Baltimore County Executive and later as Governor of Maryland.  The authors describe the investigation of three young prosecutors from Baltimore; Barney Skolnik, Ron Leibman, and Tim Baker that began as a case against a few engineering firms with contracts with Baltimore County, an area surrounding the city of Baltimore that was booming in the 1960s and 70s that eventually led to Agnew.  The problem that emerged was that the Watergate investigation was well underway and the number two man to the president was also a crook!


(Attorney General Elliot Richardson)

If the Agnew scandal had not occurred during Watergate it would have been considered one of the most sordid chapters visited upon the White House in the pre-Trump era.  In telling the reader about Agnew’s tale, the authors focus on a corrupt occupant of the White House “whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who clings to high office by using power and prerogative of the same office to save himself.”  Maddow and Yarvitz explore the strategies pursued by prosecutors and Agnew’s defense which raises some interesting historical tidbits.  For example, Agnew was able to get Nixon to pressure the US Attorney George Beall to drop the case.  Nixon enlisted his new Chief of Staff Alexander Haig (H.R. Haldeman had resigned over Watergate) to approach Maryland Senator Glenn Beall to call off his younger brother who was the US Attorney in charge of the investigation.  When that did not work, he enlisted George Herbert Walker Bush, the future Vice President and President to engage in obstruction of justice by pressuring Beall.  To his credit Beall refused and protected his prosecutors from the administration.  In Jon Meacham’s biography of Bush, he hems and haws about Bush’s role in Iran-Contra, but never mentions his role in the Agnew case.  Perhaps he should rework his hagiography of Bush.

There are numerous examples of the author’s attention to detail and insights.  A wonderful example surrounds Agnew’s refusal to fade away into the night and arguing that he would fight for his job all the way to the Supreme Court employing the logic that a sitting Vice President could not be criminally indicted unless they were impeached by the House and removed by the Senate.  If the Supreme Court rejected the argument, a strategy already employed by Nixon’s lawyers, then the President would also be in trouble.  This explains why Nixon had enough of Agnew and sent Haig to tell him to resign.  It is somewhat humorous how the authors present a president seemingly drowning in his own scandals having to deal with a Vice President who demanded support in weaseling out of his own crimes.

George Beall, the United States attorney for Maryland, right, with Attorney General Elliot Richardson in October 1973, when his graft investigation of Vice President Spiro Agnew came to a head.

(Attorney General Elliot Richardson and US Attorney George Beall)

The authors do an exceptional job placing the Agnew scandal in the context of Watergate.  Their job was facilitated by tapes and documents that seemingly were buried for decades which they have brought to life integrating verbatim transcripts to support their conclusions.  The use of hours and hours of White House tapes, secretly recorded, as well as an audio diary dictated by H.R. Haldeman is a treasure trove of information that prosecutors did not have in 1973.  They zero in on the investigation of Agnew and relate a number of scenes dealing with the prosecutors, Agnew-Nixon meetings, the comments by Agnew’s defense lawyers, and the machinations of the Nixon administration which are all priceless.  When the authors inform the former prosecutors what they have learned they are amazed, “Wow! Agnew said my name! Oh joy….makes my whole life worthwhile.”

If there are heroes that emerge from the Agnew fiasco, they are Attorney General Elliot Richardson who allowed his office to pursue the case.  Interestingly, it was Richardson who refused to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox when ordered to by Nixon as part of the Saturday Night Massacre.  The next hero is George Beall who withstood immense pressure from the Nixon administration and his brother to stop the investigation.  Beall refused and shielded his prosecutors to allow them to perform their constitutional duties.

The link to current events rest with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel which ruled that a sitting Vice President could be indicted, but a president could not.  The 1973 ruling was cited by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to explain why he could not indict Donald Trump.  The ruling has never been tested in the courts and provides a loophole for future presidents to follow in Trump’s footsteps.

Agnew’s “pay for play” activities are delineated in detail as his convoluted defense and uproarious personality, along with his bullying tactics-sound familiar?  In 1973 the American people were able to get rid of a criminal through prosecution and eventual resignation, today luckily, we are able to rely on the elective process because the likes of Bill Barr and Republicans in the Senate refused to perform their constitutional duties.

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