Bag Man

By

Leonard Zwelling

The President of the United States is being threatened with indictment or impeachment. Those around him may be guilty as well. The president has fired many of his former associates. He is being accused of obstruction of justice and the Justice Department is being put in the unenviable position of having to choose between loyalty to the boss or loyalty to the Constitution.

I’m discussing the present, right? Not. It’s the summer of 1973, a year after the Watergate break-in. President Nixon is hunkered down in the White House having relieved two Attorneys General of their duties along with his chief of staff and others in his inner circle to try to call off the dogs in the press and in Congress who are screaming for his head. But Mr. Nixon had a problem that Mr. Trump doesn’t have, or at least I think he doesn’t have.

At the same time as the Watergate hearings were on-going and there was a rising sense that Mr. Nixon might not survive the end of his second term, even after having been elected in a landslide a year before, Mr. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew was also in trouble and it had nothing to do with Watergate.

Mr. Agnew had been the county executive of Baltimore County in Maryland and then risen to be Governor of Maryland before Mr. Nixon plucked him from relative national obscurity in 1968 to be his running mate. Mr. Agnew had developed a reputation for plain- spoken antagonism of the left and of the news media, constantly barraging both with upbraiding and scorn. He had become, in a word, Nixon’s Nixon and the GOP loved him, especially the young Republicans and the Republican women.

Federal prosecutors in Maryland had gotten word that the current executive of Baltimore County was taking kickbacks for lucrative contracts with the county. They investigated and were able to trace this practice, not only to the current county executive, but to the previous one who was now Vice President of the United States. The three prosecutors pursued the case and found that Mr. Agnew was still taking envelopes of cash as kickbacks while in the White House. In other words, the President of the United States was looking more like a crook every day and the Vice President, who might succeed him should the president be impeached, was absolutely a crook. The federal prosecutors realized that they had to not only get Agnew out of office, but had to do so quickly. Agnew had other ideas when news of his pending indictment became public. He took it to the people.

He ratcheted up his excoriation of the press and the Democrats. He even wanted to be impeached thinking he would never get convicted by the Senate and that impeachment was preferable to indictment and would throw the Justice Department off his trail. Besides, Agnew’s lawyers insisted a vice president couldn’t be indicted. What even the federal prosecutors didn’t know was that Agnew, with the help of the president and the whole White House apparatus including Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Haig and even the then Chairman of the Republican National Committee, one George Herbert Walker Bush, was going to try to put pressure on the senator from Maryland Glenn Beall to talk the chief prosecutor in Maryland out of pressing his case against Agnew. Why Senator Beall? Because that chief prosecutor was his little brother George. That’s right, all the while Nixon was ducking and weaving to try to prove he was “not a crook” and that Watergate was a witch hunt, his vice president was doing pretty much the same thing. The tension in D.C. was so high that Speaker of the House Carl Albert was asking for help from some of JFK’s ex-staff with planning to become president if both Nixon and Agnew fell.

All of this is related in a great new podcast called Bag Man hosted by none other than MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. It’s a seven-part broadcast and well worth a listen.

The parallels to today cannot be missed. Not only were high officials under scrutiny by the press, a special prosecutor and the Justice Department, these officials were insisting they were immune from indictment and Congress was loathe to impeach either Nixon or Agnew.

Eventually, when presented with the overwhelming evidence of official misconduct, extortion and bribery, Agnew agreed to a plea deal on one count of tax evasion and no jail time—and his resignation. As it would later turn out, this resignation in October of 1973 prevented Agnew from ascending to the presidency when Nixon resigned in August of 1974. Otherwise, the country might have had two successive presidents resign.

This podcast series is unique in that many of the principals from 1973 are still alive and available to be interviewed. And they are. They are the real heroes of the story. I wonder who will be the heroes this time? Mueller? Rosenstein? Will the next Attorney General be as brave as was Elliot Richardson in 1973 and cut the deal with Agnew’s lawyers just days before Richardson himself was fired in the October 20 Saturday Night Massacre?

There is far more to play out in 2019. The current president is every bit as embattled as was Nixon in 1973. Let’s hope it turns out as well this time.

But then again, Mike Pence is no Gerry Ford!

Leonard Zwelling