Is it possible for an American vice president to direct a vast criminal enterprise within the halls of the White House? To have one of the most brazen corruption scandals in American history play out while nobody’s paying attention? And for that scandal to be all but forgotten decades later?
The year was 1973, and the vice president in question was Spiro T. Agnew, Richard Nixon’s second-in-command. Long on firebrand rhetoric and short on political experience, Agnew had carried out a bribery and extortion ring in office for years, when–at the height of Watergate–three young federal prosecutors discovered his crimes and launched a mission to take him down before it was too late. Before Nixon’s downfall made way for Agnew to ascend to the presidency himself. Agnew did everything he could to bury their investigation: dismissing it as a “witch hunt,” riling up his partisan base, making the press the enemy, and, with a crumbling circle of loyalists, scheming to obstruct justice.
In this blockbuster account, Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz detail the investigation that exposed Agnew’s crimes, the attempts at a cover-up–which involved future President George H. W. Bush–and the bargain that forced Agnew’s resignation but also spared him years in federal prison. Based on the hit podcast, Bag Man expands and deepens the story of Spiro Agnew’s scandal and its lasting influence on our politics, our media, and our understanding of what it takes to confront a criminal in the White House.
I had heard of the Bagman podcast but never got around to catching up. But I remember watching Rachel talk about Agnew during a couple of A blocks of her show and was surprised that I hadn’t even heard the name of this supposedly infamous VP. So when I saw the announcement for this book, I was obviously very excited and immediately got around to reading it as soon as I got my library copy.
I naturally don’t want to hash the facts from the book again in this review, but reading about this whole saga of a corrupt VP who took envelopes of cash bribes even while in the White House was just stunning, and even more surprising was the fact that this seems like a very forgotten piece of history, probably overshadowed by the Watergate scandal and its aftermath. However, the main point I took from this story was the parallels to the Trump administration – from the numerous similarities between the two figures and their brazen corruption, as well as the attacks they go on when caught. It’s almost like I was reading about the past four years and not something that happened almost 50 years ago. And just like what happened with Agnew, it feels like this administration might also escape prosecutions or any consequences, either due to a too lenient Biden admin or more possibly, lots of self serving pardons.
But what felt not similar between Agnew’s case and the current administration was the conduct of the Attorney General, the US attorney of Maryland as well as the prosecutors. Rightfully, the authors highlight the relentless work done by these civil servants who did their duty despite pressure from the higher ups and ultimately got a corrupt person out of the presidential line of succession, even if they were unable to get their preferred indictments or sentences. This is obviously in stark contrast to our recently resigned AG who never felt like someone who would support the prosecutors under him if they wanted to pursue similar lines of inquiry against anyone in the administration. This just goes to show that while the corruption has lived on, principled people – who would put up a fight against those in power using their positions for nefarious activities – are now a rare commodity, which is very unfortunate for the country.
All in all, this was a well written and interesting read with lots of first hand information from the lawyers who were involved, and despite the brazen corruption of a person in high office, I did enjoy the book a lot. There’s quite a bit of snark in the writing, which I think I can attribute to Rachel’s signature humor, but it never lessened the importance of what happened. And just like Rachel mentioned many times in her previous book Blowout, the strength of our small-d democratic institutions depends on the people who are ready to defend them, even against those in power – and the past four years have shown that they are not invincible. It’s now upto the people how they want to hold their electeds accountable. But before you do that, read this book and listen to the podcast, but sometimes history really teaches us lessons which can help us make better choices in the future.