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Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz Tell the Full Sordid Story of Spiro Agnew

BAG MAN
The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House
By Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz

After Richard Nixon picked Spiro T. Agnew as his running mate, Alice Roosevelt Longworth reportedly said, “Promise me, Dick, that if you’re elected, you’ll always make Governor Agnew travel with you on your plane.” Such remarks were inspired by Agnew’s unshackled commentary: for instance, as governor of Maryland, saying that it would be a “tremendous deterrent” to shoot a few looters and, as a vice-presidential candidate, calling a Japanese-American reporter a “Fat Jap.”

There was, though, a less public side of Agnew: He’d been getting kickbacks from Maryland public works contractors since he’d served as Baltimore County executive; and sealed envelopes, stuffed with “wads of cash,” kept coming even after he was sworn in as vice president. His downfall was the subject of an entertaining and informative podcast titled “Bag Man,” by Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host, and Michael Yarvitz, a television producer and journalist. They have now repurposed their research to write a breezy book of the same name.

For a half-century, the most complete account of the case was “A Heartbeat Away,” by Richard M. Cohen and Jules Witcover of The Washington Post. Maddow and Yarvitz credit their work but realized there was lots more to tell, and lots of fresh material to tell it with — particularly “hours and hours and hours” of White House tapes, secretly recorded, as well as an audio diary dictated by Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. None of this aural evidence was available in 1973, when George Beall, the Maryland U.S. attorney, and three young assistant attorneys built the bribery case that led to Agnew becoming the only vice president ever forced to resign.

After it was learned that Agnew was a target, Nixon and his new chief of staff, Alexander Haig, discussed plans in the Oval Office to obstruct the investigation. Among those enlisted to help was the Republican National Committee chairman, and future president, George Herbert Walker Bush, whose involvement was uncovered by the authors in a “memo to file” found in Beall’s papers, at Frostburg State University. After the Marylanders brought what they knew to Attorney General Elliot Richardson — their errand, and admiring affection for Richardson, are engagingly described — there was no shutting it down. In the summer of Watergate, faced with the possibility of a Nixon impeachment, Richardson made his priority getting Agnew out of the line of succession as quickly as possible.

Like the hosts of a reality show, Maddow and Yarvitz step from behind a 47-year-old curtain to inform the former prosecutors what they’ve learned. “Wow! Agnew said my name! Oh, joy,” one says. “Makes my whole life worthwhile.” But while “Bag Man” the book is considerably more detailed than the podcast, it necessarily lacks a soundtrack for such spontaneous exclamations, and the sordid immediacy of hearing those White House tapes — gems like Nixon talking to Agnew about Beall and asking: “Is he a good boy? Why the hell did we appoint him?”

Agnew resigned in October 1973, 10 months ahead of Nixon’s resignation, but his story didn’t end there. He enjoyed his “convicted/emeritus” status, wrote a lousy novel and tried to make a living. In what Maddow and Yarvitz call “perhaps Agnew’s most malodorous second act,” he asked a Saudi royal to help him resist the “unremitting Zionist efforts to destroy me,” by paying $2 million into a Swiss bank. In May 1995, he attended a ceremony at the Capitol, where his marble bust was added to the vice-presidential pantheon. I can report, as a witness, that no one murmured a harsh word about the honored attendee. Maddow and Yarvitz, though, don’t hold back. To read “Bag Man” is to be reminded how lucky the nation was to be rid of him.

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