Spiro Agnew is not well remembered in American history. He’s seen as a bit player in the Watergate Scandal that brought down the Richard Nixon administration, a sideshow. In reality, Vice President Spiro “Ted” Agnew was nearly as much of a constitutional crisis as his boss was, and Rachel Maddow’s new podcast Bag Man explores that story in incredible detail, interviewing the lawyers who were involved as well as showing them recently declassified documents that they never saw. More than anything else it serves as our only template for what to do when we have a high member of government in the executive branch that is clearly a criminal.
Maddow walks a listener through the convoluted history, but here are some highlights in case you need incentive to try it out. Agnew pled guilty to felony tax evasion, which seems almost like a crime. In reality, Agnew’s plea was the end result of a massive investigation that unequivocally proved that the vice president regularly took envelopes full of cash for his political influence, a practice that began when he was a Maryland politician and continued right up to the White House.
Here was the problem from justice’s perspective. Nixon and Agnew had just won re-election. By a lot. There was no arguing that the administration was the clear will of the people. And, Agnew was popular. He was an unapologetic firebrand who gleefully bashed the left and the media. The base loved him, and saw him as some kid of savior against an encroaching left they felt was invading their way of life. Indicting him was overturning a public mandate.
Beyond that, Agnew’s crimes were unrelated to Watergate, which was in full swing in 1973. There was a very real possibility that Nixon would go down before his vice president, which would put a man who was nightmarishly corrupt into the presidency.
This story is full of twists and turns, and I have only described the barest minimum of what Maddow delves into. As she does in her show on MSNBC, Maddow has a knack for tying together the many strange threads of intersecting history. In this case, everything from bizarre motivational speakers hawking records to the power of political jingles. Mostly, though, it’s a chronicle about the pursuit of justice when the system itself tries to break.
The young prosecutors who went after Agnew and the press who covered it were vilified by the vice president in a way that was then-unprecedented but which is now routine as Donald Trump faces increasing pressure from the Robert Mueller investigation. The parallels between the 1970s and today are unsettling, but there is a lot of comfort to be derived from Bag Man shows how good people focused on what was right despite popular opinion managed to save a country from who knows what mess.
Bag Man is set to release its final seventh episode soon, and I can’t recommend catching up on it enough now that Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen has pled guilty to perjury. We haven’t exactly been here before, but we have been in the neighborhood. Shout-out on the ‘70s-esque incidental music soundtrack as well because sometimes it sounds like a lost Stephen Stills record and it’s lovely.
It's one of the most compelling things you’ll ever listen to. It might very well be a historical prequel to tomorrow’s news as we go through our own presidential criminal scandal. Catch up as soon as you can.
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