“Both a thriller and a history book, Bag Man is a triumph of storytelling.”—Preet Bharara, New York Times bestselling author of Doing Justice and host of the podcast Stay Tuned with Preet
Is it possible for a sitting 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 Spiro T. Agnew, the former governor of Maryland, was 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 impending downfall elevated Agnew to the presidency. The self-described “counterpuncher” vice president 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 order to survive.
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 backroom bargain that forced Agnew’s resignation but also spared him years in federal prison. Based on the award-winning 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.
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About the Author
Michael Yarvitz is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning television producer and journalist. He was the executive producer and co-writer of the podcast series Bag Man.
Read an Excerpt
Divider in Chief
"NBC interrupts its regular program schedule to bring you the following special report.”
The urgent, static-filled announcement cut into NBC’s prime-time lineup on the evening of April 4, 1968, just four days after President Johnson’s dramatic withdrawal from the race for the presidency.
The election was still seven months away. Richard Nixon had not yet secured the Republican nomination, and Spiro Agnew had only just passed the one-year mark of his undistinguished and unremarkable term as governor of Maryland. He was an afterthought or, more precisely, a non-thought in national Republican politics. But the bulletin of April 4, and the days that followed, began to change all that.
It was a Thursday evening, in the heart of prime time, when NBC News broke into its regular programming. “Martin Luther King Junior was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee,” the newsman Chet Huntley somberly reported, “shot in the face as he stood alone on the balcony of his hotel room. He died in a hospital an hour later.”
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been in Memphis in support of African American sanitation workers striking in protest of insufficient pay and unsafe working conditions, marching with signs that read, i am a man. Dr. King’s murder sent waves of shock, panic, fear, and anger rippling through the country.
The Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy—whose own brother had met the same fate four and a half years earlier, and who himself would be brought down by an assassin’s bullet months later—delivered the news to a stunned, mostly African American crowd on the streets of Indianapolis. “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings,” Kennedy said. He recognized the understandable human responses of “bitterness, and hatred and a desire for revenge” in the face of this injustice and pain. But he begged for understanding and calm, in keeping with King’s lessons of nonviolence. “I shall ask you tonight to return home to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King,” Kennedy implored, “but importantly to say a prayer for our own country.”
Indianapolis did remain calm. But as the news of the assassination spread late that night and early into the next morning, parts of America were convulsed by shock, and outrage, and, in a handful of cities, full-fledged riots. One of those cities was Baltimore. In that critical moment, with so much hanging in delicate balance, Maryland’s new Republican governor, Spiro T. Agnew, decided to respond to the crisis in his state’s largest city with brute force. And with political posturing that would make a peacock blush.
Agnew ordered more than five thousand Maryland National Guard troops onto Baltimore’s streets, armed with live ammunition. Those troops joined a force of twelve hundred city police officers and an additional four hundred state troopers who had already been dispatched to the riot areas. The soldiers and police systematically swept the city, arresting thousands of residents involved, or suspected to be involved, in the riots.
When nearly seven thousand National Guardsmen and police officers weren’t enough to quell the unrest, Agnew declared that an “insurrection” was under way in his state. This permitted him to make a formal request to President Johnson, asking for an additional two thousand active-duty U.S. Army soldiers to join the Guardsmen. The arrival of soldiers from the Eighteenth Airborne Corps Artillery marked the first time federal troops had been deployed in Baltimore since just after the Civil War. U.S. military jeeps with barbed wire across their hoods rolled through city streets, while Governor Agnew presided over the law-and-order response from the state capital.
Six days into the crisis—with more than five thousand protesters jailed, six people dead, and Baltimore still aflame—Agnew finally reached out to somebody other than law enforcement and the military. The governor called a select group of African American community leaders to a meeting at a state government building in downtown Baltimore. Black Baltimore had voted overwhelmingly for Agnew against his Klan-endorsed, nutball Dixiecrat opponent, so they represented a real bloc of the governor’s voting base. Which meant most of these men and women had reason to expect a frank and respectful discussion about how best to join with law enforcement to help calm the violence. What they got at the meeting—which was televised live at the governor’s invitation—was something altogether different.
Agnew filibustered from the start, wagging his finger at the assembled black leaders, laying the blame for the violence at their feet, lecturing them about how they had failed to stand up to the younger and more militant black champions, whom Agnew called “the circuit riding . . . caterwauling, riot-inciting, burn-America-down type of leader.” The group understood pretty quickly that Agnew had invited them to this meeting for one simple reason: they were props in his scripted and televised set piece.
More than half of the community leaders walked out in protest during Agnew’s screed. “He is as sick as any bigot in America,” one pastor said on his way out. “He is as sick as anything I have seen in America.”
Letters and calls to the governor protesting his high-handed and disrespectful treatment of the African American community in Maryland were swamped by letters and calls in support of Agnew’s performance. Among those in support was Richard Nixon’s brash, young, white-nationalist speechwriter, Pat Buchanan. “Agnew had called in these civil rights leaders and asked, ‘Why aren’t you condemning the violence?’ ” Buchanan later said. “And the objection a lot of people made was he brought in TV cameras and read them the riot act.” Agnew had pulled off the kind of twofer Buchanan appreciated. The governor had come down hard on the uprising in his state, and he had created his own made-for-television moment to publicly browbeat his opposition. This guy knew how to use television, and without breaking a sweat. Buchanan immediately sent Agnew’s speech to Nixon, “and he was very impressed by [Agnew’s] toughness.”
Agnew’s specific brand of “toughness” appealed to Nixon at that moment in particular because he was already anticipating a snag in his election plans—a snag named George Wallace. The unreconstructed segregationist and recent governor of Alabama had thrown his hat in the ring as an independent candidate for president, which made for a perilous new challenge from the far-right flank. Nixon was counting on overwhelming support from conservative whites in the Deep South to defeat the Democrat Hubert Humphrey that November, but if George Wallace managed to peel off enough of that vote, he might starve the Republican ticket of enough support to cost Nixon the White House. By another maddeningly slim margin. Again.
And so what Nixon and Pat Buchanan saw in Agnew that April in Baltimore looked like an answer to their electoral map problems by August. “His toughness would help us in the border states,” Buchanan said of Agnew. “If we’re running against Wallace, we’re not going to win Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi. But Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, the upper/outer South? We could win that.”
Spiro Agnew was Richard Nixon’s kind of man.
Nixon campaigned across the country that fall, while Spiro Agnew concentrated on those southern border states, delivering what Buchanan described as a “hard-line” message. And while George Wallace did manage to pick off Deep South states like Alabama and Mississippi that November, the Nixon-Agnew ticket won Tennessee and Florida, and the Carolinas, and Virginia and Missouri and Kentucky. They held on and—in a squeaker—won the White House, beating Hubert Humphrey with a little more than 43 percent of the popular vote.
Richard Nixon’s calculation worked. But what he got in his new vice president was something more than he bargained for, in a few different ways. Not the least of which was that Agnew was becoming a star in the making in the Republican Party, a politician whose appeal to the conservative base would quickly outstrip even Nixon’s own.