Spiro Agnew is having a moment. For one thing, America’s 39th vice president — Richard Nixon’s attack dog for nearly five years in the late 1960s and early 1970s — pioneered the art of blaming all of an administration’s problems on “impudent snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism” in the news media, an tactic that would be taken to new lows under the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But that’s not the main reason that — 22 years after his death — people are talking about Agnew, who was lifted from relative obscurity as Maryland’s governor to serve a heartbeat away from the Nixon presidency. Folks are suddenly recalling the White House years of “Ted” Agnew because the man was a crook.
Agnew stunned America on the afternoon of Oct. 10, 1973, when — with virtually no advance warning — he walked into a Baltimore courtroom and pleaded “nolo contendere” (equivalent to a guilty plea, but with no admission of wrongdoing) to a single felony charge of tax evasion. A team of young federal prosecutors had actually compiled evidence of much, much more — that throughout his rapid political rise Agnew had routinely pocketed envelopes stuffed with cash from contractors, even inside the White House.
And yet the deal that Agnew accepted that day from the Nixon administration’s U.S. Justice Department not only didn’t charge the vice president with bribery but didn’t require him to spend a single day in prison. That’s because it achieved the primary goal of then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson, which was forcing Agnew to resign immediately.
The reason for that? Nixon was already deeply mired in his own scandal — Watergate — and there was growing talk of impeachment. Removing one president only to replace him in the Oval Office with a caught-red-handed criminal might have ripped America apart.
“I thought Elliot Richardson, in the end, made a deal because he saw this as a potential Constitutional crisis and a national disaster,” Agnew’s then-defense lawyer, Marty London, recalled recently on a popular podcast about the Agnew case, Bagman, narrated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Maddow wasn’t shy in explaining why the podcast team had decided to relive the Agnew case in all its sleazy glory nearly a half-century later. What happened to a sitting vice president, she explained, raised so many of the same issues that America is confronting in 2018 with the now overlapping criminal probes of corruption surrounding President Trump’s 2016 campaign and possible obstruction of justice by his White House.
On Friday — not long after the final episode of Bagman dropped — federal prosecutors in Manhattan took a cue from their 1970s forerunners in Baltimore and accused President Trump (a.k.a. “Individual-1”) of taking part in a felony conspiracy to win the 2016 presidential election by funneling hush money to a Playboy model and an adult-film star who’d had affairs with Trump, and flagrantly violating campaign finance laws to make it happen.
That alone should have been enough to launch an immediate House impeachment inquiry, yet the Justice Department filing regarding Trump’s confessed “bagman," Michael Cohen, seemed just the tip of the iceberg. With a methodical slowness, special counsel Robert Mueller seems determined to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s on the questions of whether the president’s campaign colluded with Russian actors who interfered in the 2016 election and whether White House moves like the 2017 firing of FBI chief James Comey were meant to obstruct Mueller’s investigation.
Interestingly, the Trump campaign-meddling-and-obstruction probe is remarkably similar to the Watergate scandal that ultimately sunk Nixon in August 1974, while the Trump-Michael-Cohen-Stormy-Daniels affair smacks more of Agnew’s plight, an open-and-shut felony by one of the top two officials in the land.
In 1973, the idea that a known crook might spend the last 2-3 years of Nixon’s term in the Oval Office, with his finger on the nuclear button during the depths of the Cold War, was completely unacceptable to the wiser men in both political parties (including Richardson, a Republican who reported to Nixon until he was fired later that eventful October in the “Saturday Night Massacre.”)
In 2018, with growing evidence of Trump’s criminality? Meh. The Establishment doesn’t seem to have to guts to confront what’s directly in front of them.
House Democrats, who’ll be taking over the gavel in January, have grudgingly conceded that they might have to take the first steps down the road toward a Trump impeachment — with about the same enthusiasm as a patient learning about his looming root-canal work. Republicans in both houses of Congress — including some who voted for the impeachment or removal of Bill Clinton — seem more determined now to move the bar on whether violating campaign finance laws to fool voters in a presidential election is really that bad. Team Trump is convinced the president can rally his base and even ride the ensuing chaos to win a second term — which, bizarrely, would get him past the statute of limitations for the crimes he allegedly committed with Cohen.
(One more fascinating thing that Bagman revealed was that Agnew may have also taken the resignation deal to prevent some embarrassment: Exposure of an extramarital affair, or affairs. In the Stormy Daniels era, that kind of embarrassment seems a nonfactor.)
Spiro Agnew did try some now-familiar Trumpian tactics to save his job in 1973. When news of the investigation leaked, he gave fiery speeches that blamed the news media. Both Agnew and Nixon — as Bagman revealed for the first time — and allies like then-GOP national chair George H.W. Bush (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) tried to get their allies at Justice to quietly quash the probe. None of this got anywhere. Forty-five years ago, “the right thing to do” actually trumped “what’s good for the political Right.”
“I would hope that it would feel that the interests of the nation have been placed first by all those concerned, including the Vice President himself,” AG Richardson (reminder, again … a Republican!) said in the wake of the Agnew resignation deal. He added that the outcome " demonstrated that the governmental and political process is capable of uncovering these things, and — having uncovered them — taking proper action."
The system seems not very capable today. What’s changed in less than a half-century? Politics is more ideological and more partisan than it was in 1973, with liberal Republicans like Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker who pressed hard on Watergate having gone the way, politically, of the brontosaurus. Some of that extreme partisanship is the result of gerrymandering and other antidemocratic (with a small "d") moves that incumbents have increasingly gotten away with. Today, Republicans who buck Trump are likely to lose their jobs in a gerrymandered primary — especially when voters are whipped into a frenzy by right-wing media like Fox News or Rush Limbaugh that simply didn’t exist four decades ago.
To be sure, Democrats who held House and Senate majorities in 1973-74 played a key role in driving the Watergate investigations. But their effort would have gone nowhere if not for Republicans or conservatives — the probing federal judge John Sirica, the whistle-blowers Mark Felt (top FBI official) and John Dean (who’d been Nixon’s White House counsel), and GOP pols like Tennessee Sen. Howard ("What did the president know and when did he know it?) Baker. Richardson and Baltimore U.S. attorney George Beall, whose brother was a Republican senator from Maryland, played a similar role with Agnew.
In the case of Nixon, his August 8, 1974, resignation only happened when top Republican senators like Barry Goldwater and the Philadelphian Hugh Scott trudged down Capitol Hill to personally deliver the news that the embattled president had no chance of surviving an impeachment trial. Today, a similar delegation of GOPers is the only way to end the long national nightmare of Trump.
Monday night, 44 former U.S. senators — emphasis on the word “former” — published an extraordinary op-ed in the Washington Post which, although couched in frustratingly but understandably vague language, essentially urged today’s Senate to channel the spirit of Watergate in navigating the flurry of revelations of high crimes and misdemeanors from Team Trump. A whopping 10 Republicans — including Watergate hero Weicker, still plugging away at age 87 — signed the letter.
“At other critical moments in our history, when constitutional crises have threatened our foundations, it has been the Senate that has stood in defense of our democracy,” the letter stated. “Today is once again such a time.”
It wouldn’t take more than a handful of current Republican senators to again walk down that long hill to the White House — to repudiate the cowardice of fearing a primary loss and instead do what what’s best for the country by informing Trump that he could no longer expect to survive an impeachment trial. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that America simply couldn’t abide the notion of a criminal president named Spiro Agnew. Why should it be any different for a president named Donald Trump?