In the wake of last week’s damning Congressional testimony by Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer-fixer, it’s a smart time to search for precedent. Picture a White House mired in scandal and ever-widening investigations. The administration digs in and fights back. An executive wages war on the investigators by dismissing the whole affair as a “witch hunt!” This person also attacks the press as the enemy of the people and the “elites” of the country as traitors. Until suddenly, the case was neatly wrapped up in a felony plea deal that managed to allow the executive to duck criminal charges and claim his innocence at every opportunity for years to come.
This all happened in 1973 to vice president Spiro Agnew, but because Watergate dominated the news cycle, Agnew’s fall has been mostly forgotten by the American public. In their revealing and essential podcast Bag Man, which premiered last fall, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow and producer Mike Yarvitz shed new light on the Agnew affair and, over the course of seven episodes, show why a story from nearly half a century ago could not be more relevant today.
“I had thought that it was much more of a Watergate-adjacent story,” Maddow tells Rolling Stone. “But every bit really was new to me, other than the fact that Agnew had been Nixon’s vice president and got in trouble and had to resign. I thought he had done something in Maryland way back in the day. But that’s not at all what happened, he was just this freaking shakedown artist and extortionist crook at every step of his public life.”
One of the surprising facts you’ll likely learn in the podcast is the scale of Agnew’s corruption and the way it continued all the way into the White House.
“When Agnew was the vice president, he was having these Baltimore businessmen, not only coming to his office on the White House grounds, but also coming to his vice-presidential residence, and delivering envelopes to him there,” Yarvitz says. “When you’re doing something that brazen, it’s hard to believe you’re not inviting trouble for yourself.”
The open criminality drew the interest of U.S. Attorneys, many of whom Maddow and Yarvitz interview on the podcast. It’s the clear-eyed recollections of these public servants, the incredible pressure they were under and just how high the stakes were that help make history come alive on Bag Man. Both Maddow and Yarvitz show their admiration for Nixon’s Attorney General Elliot Richardson, a person thrust into a crucible that few have ever faced — heading up simultaneous investigations that implicated both top executives in the Oval Office.
“There are a few different morals we can derive from the Agnew story, but one of the big morals is the heroism, patriotism and long-sighted wisdom of Elliot Richardson,” says Maddow. “Richardson’s heroism was burned into the country’s retinas with a different act, when he resisted Nixon’s calls to fire Archibald Cox and resigned with dignity in the Saturday Night Massacre. The Agnew narrative was very powerful but had happened less than two weeks earlier and had been eclipsed. It’s sort of a different story with the same bottom line.”
Bag Man is filled with juicy details of palace intrigue and levers of power being pulled inside the Nixon White House. Agnew’s verbiage throughout is a delight — “nattering nabobs of negativism” for one. Who knew then-RNC chair George H.W. Bush leaned on a senator to try and sway the investigation? The attempts to obstruct justice and smear investigators as “Muskie supporters” sound familiar and frightening. And Agnew’s meteoric political rise and unwavering popularity will certainly remind you of someone.
“Agnew’s supporters were telling him that ‘the liberal media is out to get you,'” Yarvitz says. “They said, ‘it’s the corrupt Justice Department’; his base of support was never going to believe the allegations that were being made against him.” And then there’s Agnew’s wild claims that Nixon planned to have him killed. It’s a story Yarvitz thinks Agnew wanted to tell to make him look like more of a “victim.”
When asked about Agnew’s political legacy, Maddow sees it clearly. “You can erase everything about Agnew’s disgrace and resignation, and I think you could still see a real through-line between him and that hard-line, confrontational, media-savvy Republican conservatism that persists now,” she says.
How the Justice Dept. handles a case of corruption in the White House is incredibly important as we move deeper into 2019. “That’s a very live issue today: How much of the legal wrangling over immunity issues for presidents and vice presidents,” Maddow says. “There was a weird memo that came out from the Department of Justice around the time that all of this stuff was coming to a head with Agnew. The 1973 memo says, ‘Well, you know, maybe the president can’t be indicted, but surely a vice president can!’”
That’s what makes Bag Man both chilling and comforting — we’ve been here before. To be sure, the circumstances are different, but the themes and institutions remain the same. “The more you dive into even modern American history, the more you realize that the word ‘unprecedented’ is overused,” Maddow says. “We tend to suffer from this modern myopia, of believing that everything we’re going through is the first time it’s ever happened. That’s sometimes true, but it’s more weird than you think.”