With the criminal investigation of him now public, Vice President Spiro Agnew launches a bold counter-attack to survive. An unprecedented assault... on his own Justice Department that's investigating him. And the reporters now covering his case. And Agnew gets back-up in that effort from his legion of hardcore supporters across the country and in Congress.
For a list of sources and references for this episode, see here.
MARTIN LONDON (VICE PRESIDENT AGNEW’S DEFENSE ATTORNEY): My name is Marty London. And in 1973, I was part of the defense team for our client Spiro T. Agnew who was Vice President of the United States.
MADDOW: Martin London was an attorney at a prestigious, white-shoe, New York City law firm called Paul Weiss.
London had recently wrapped up a high-profile case representing Jackie Kennedy, the former First Lady of the United States.
But in the Summer of 1973... along with the rest of the country... Marty London was busy following every development of the rapidly unfolding Watergate saga...
JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening, it was John Mitchell’s turn at the Senate Watergate Committee today, he spent the whole day in the witness chair…
One afternoon that frantic summer of Watergate, Marty London’s law partner got a phone call from an unknown number in Washington, DC.
LONDON: He says to me, “Marty, I just got the strangest call. A fella calls me and he says, he introduces himself, he’s from Chuck Colson’s firm in Washington, DC. And he asks me if I can come to Washington DC tomorrow morning to meet a new client.”
That caller presented Marty London and his law partner Jay Topkis with a cryptic offer about a mystery client who needed representation fast:
LONDON: “Well, that’s very interesting, who’s the client?” And he says, “Well, I can’t mention his name on the phone, it’s so secure, it’s so confidential, I’m not allowed to mention his name.” So Jay says, “Well, what is he?” He says, “He’s a very high government official.” And Topkis says, “Oh, is he a Congressman?” The caller says, “Higher!” He says, “Is he a Senator?” He says, “Higher!” He says, “Oh my goodness, is he a Cabinet official?” He says, “Higher!” He says, “Oh my God, you’re talking about the President of the United States?” He says, “Welllll, not quite so high!”
It was early August.
Marty London and his law partner hopped on a flight from New York City... down to Washington, DC... to sit down with their new client... the Vice President.
LONDON: I found the Vice President to be everything I did not expect him to be. He was charming, he was soft spoken, he was gracious, he was a nice guy! You would meet him and you would like him!
The reason Vice President Spiro Agnew needed to beef up his legal team -- and on very short notice! -- is because that night… the federal criminal investigation targeting him was about to go public.
NBC ANNOUNCER: This is NBC Nightly News. Tuesday, August 7th. Reported tonight from Washington by John Chancellor.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. Washington was stunned today by the disclosure that Vice President Agnew is under criminal investigation by federal authorities in his home state of Maryland. Involved are possible charges of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion ... Agnew says he is innocent, a member of his staff said today “you are probably going to hear more that is terribly serious.”
The President of the United States was already under investigation in Watergate.
And now the Vice President was the subject of a criminal bribery-and-extortion investigation of his own.
He’d been secretly accepting envelopes of cash inside the White House and inside his own Vice Presidential residence.
That investigation had been such a well-kept secret that the day it broke publicly, Agnew’s own staff-- including top aides like David Keene-- they had no idea it had been going on:
DAVID KEENE (SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO VICE PRESIDENT AGNEW): I was in Hilton Head taking a few days off. And Johnny Damgard called me and he said, “Dave, you have to get back here because the Vice President is thinking about canceling his schedule and there’s nothing I--” and he was the scheduler. And I said, “What?!”, and he said, “Yeah, there’s an investigation going on.” And it broke with an article in The Wall Street Journal.
The press-- which had been working the Watergate story all Summer long-- they now had this giant new scandal and they were instantly all over it.
RON LIEBMAN (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): And it took about three seconds for the American press to, you know, to attack the federal courthouse.
That’s Ron Liebman, one of the prosecutors who had been quietly pursuing the case:
LIEBMAN: I remember the FBI came in and talked to us about how we had to secure our files and we had to put them in lead file cabinets and I had to take my name out of the directory assistance-- the phone books in those days-- none of which we did. We told them, “Yeah, okay.” You know, we're (laughing) we really don't have the time for that right now! “Okay, fine. We'll take care of it.” “You sure?” “Yup, Yup, Yup. We will.“ I mean, the press was, there was a frenzy.
All of this press attention that was now being paid to this team of Baltimore investigators... it was partly because this was a giant case they had broken open-- a bribery scandal involving the sitting Vice President.
But the other reason they were the focus of so much attention at the time is because the target of that investigation-- the Vice President-- had decided that his defense, would be about them.
His defense would be that there was this biased and partisan group of investigators who were unfairly persecuting him from inside his own Justice Department... for their own treacherous reasons.
AGNEW: Some Justice Department officials have decided to indict me in the press, whether or not the evidence supports their position. This is a clear and outrageous effort to influence the outcome of possible grand jury deliberations ... I will fight! I will fight to prove my innocence and that I intend to remain in the high office to which I have been twice elected.
Spiro Agnew-- with his back against the wall, with the investigation of him now public-- he started attacking that investigation as a witch-hunt… as a witch hunt led by politically-motivated biased bad actors inside the Justice Department.
This was something new in American politics.
A sitting occupant of the White House... under criminal investigation... trying to save himself... by declaring war on his own Justice Department.
You’re listening to “Bag Man.” I’m your host Rachel Maddow.
Episode 3: “Hang In There, Baby”
1972 NIXON CAMPAIGN SONG: Nixon now! Nixon now! He’s made the difference, he’s showed us how! Nixon now!
The 1970s Republican Party was a big-tent political party:
It was the Barry Goldwater libertarian Republicans of the 60s.
It was right-wing conservatives who would later make up the Reagan Revolution.
There were moderate and liberal Republicans.
But none of those ideological slivers of the party had a monopoly on the energy and the legwork that it takes to really get stuff done in politics. Inside the Republican Party, everybody knew who the real activists were, the real soldiers who really got stuff done. Republican women.
KEENE: I mean, the two arms of the Republican Party that were important were the Young Republican Federation and the Women’s Federation because that’s where the ground troops came from. The Democrats had the Unions, we had the women.
That’s David Keene again. He was the top political aide for Vice President Agnew in 1973.
And that Fall, when Agnew was looking for a place to mount his big, public defense against the investigation into him-- when he was looking for friendly territory-- David Keene knew there was no better place than an event that was about to pop up on the political calendar:
The annual convention... of the National Federation of Republican Women.
KEENE: That’s the place to do it. That’s your army.
The National Federation of Republican Women held their convention in Los Angeles that fall of 1973.
In the Fall of ‘73, Spiro Agnew was fighting for his political life.
GARRICK UTLEY: TIME Magazine today quotes officials in the Department of Justice as saying that the case against Vice President Agnew is growing steadily stronger and that an indictment appears inevitable...
Agnew now had lawyers like Marty London who were fighting his battles in court, but Agnew himself had devised a very specific PR strategy for his own survival: a full-frontal assault on the Justice Department that was investigating him.
Attack the investigators in order to discredit the investigation.
And that gathering of Republican Women in Los Angeles… that would his venue for launching that public attack.
NBC ANNOUNCER: We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this NBC News Special Report. Vice President Spiro Agnew is about to speak in Los Angeles.
If you want to get a sense for how the hardcore Republican base felt about Spiro Agnew even when he was in the worst legal trouble of his life, just listen to the reception he got from that crowd of Republican women in Los Angeles that day...
REPUBLICAN WOMEN: Fight Agnew, fight! Fight Agnew, fight! Fight Agnew, fight! Fight Agnew, fight! Fight Agnew, fight!
Even before he showed up, the hall was electric. These Republican women activists were holding homemade signs that said “Spiro is My Hero.” One newspaper reporter in the hall said the enthusiasm these Republican women had for Agnew was maybe surpassed only by the hostility they had for the press that was there to cover him.
That reporter wrote: “Some women approached newsmen ready for a fight. Several women took notes or tape-recorded [Agnew’s] speech [themselves] so they could report on it when they returned [home] -- a precaution in case the papers did not tell the entire story.”
This was a crowd that was angry at the press. And they had full-faith in the man they were there to see.
And what Spiro Agnew unleashed in that packed convention hall... was an all-out attack on the Justice Department the likes of which nobody had really seen before in U.S. politics.
AGNEW: Irrespective of the claims of certain individuals in the Department of Justice, it was not through my fault that this became a non-secret procedure, but through deliberately contrived actions of individuals in the prosecutorial system of the United States, and I regard those as outrageous and malicious (cheers/applause) … And if we find in fact that in Baltimore or in Washington individuals employed by the Department of Justice have abused their sacred trust and forsaken their professional standards, then I will ask the President of the United States to summarily discharge those individuals! (cheers/applause)
The Vice President there was calling his own Justice Department malicious and out of control.
And with that crowd of Republican women hanging on his every word, he then started targeting specific officials inside the Justice Department, including the head of the Criminal Division who was directly involved in his case:
AGNEW: I say this to you: the conduct of high individuals in the Department of Justice-- particularly the conduct of the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Division of that department-- is unprofessional and malicious and outrageous, if I am to believe what has been printed in the news magazines and said on the television networks of this country, and I have had no denial that that is the case … People will say to me “Why? You don’t make sense. Why should a Republican Department of Justice and a Republican prosecutor attempt to get you?” Well, I don’t know all the answers, but I would say this: that individuals in the upper professional echelons of the Department of Justice have been severely stung by their ineptness in the prosecution of the Watergate case ... and they are trying to recoup their reputation at my expense, I’m a big trophy! (cheers/applause)
Now, keep in mind, Richard Nixon-- who at this point was neck-deep in Watergate trouble-- he had not even taken the pretty extraordinary step of attacking his Justice Department, at least not in public -- not like this.
But here was the Vice President at a Republican rally:
Accusing officials in the Justice Department of professional misconduct.
Accusing the investigators of leaking information about him to the press.
Pledging to seek out bad actors participating in the investigation, to have them purged from the Department.
AGNEW: I want to make another thing so clear that it cannot be mistaken in the future: because of these tactics which have been employed against me, because small and fearful men have been frightened into furnishing evidence against me, they have perjured themselves in many cases it’s my understanding, I will not resign if indicted, I will not resign if indicted! (cheers/applause)
The strategy here wasn’t to challenge the specific and credible allegations of wrongdoing that were now public This was a strategy to smear the investigators who were looking into him, to smear them as biased and corrupt, to accuse them of leading a witch-hunt against him.
This was a strategy, specifically, to convince the Republican base-- the party activists in that crowd and Republicans watching at home-- that the corrupt Justice Department and the biased press were out to get him and his supporters shouldn’t believe either of them.
This was a deliberate strategy... and it worked. At least in the short run, it worked.
After that speech, Agnew started receiving hundreds of letters from supporters all across the country. There are boxes and boxes of these letters that you can see in Agnew’s files at the University of Maryland to this day, the letters he received and even the replies that he sent.
One couple from Kansas City wrote: “Dear Mr. Vice President -- We believe in your innocence. Give them hell -- the press and the liberals are out to get you and all conservatives.”
One school-teacher from Colorado wrote to him: “I’m sick of what the media and the Democrats are doing. They lost and [they] can’t take it.”
A man named Joe Taylor from Missouri wrote: “Dear Veep: Give the God damned sons-of-bitches hell. It’s a good thing somebody in Washington has guts enough to say something, and fight back.”
Agnew actually responded to that one... he wrote back, “Dear Mr. Taylor: Thank you for your very kind letter -- and for your excellent advice! Warm regards.”
Again, the allegations that were public at that point were that Agnew had been illegally extorting people throughout his time in public office, up to and including accepting cash payoffs throughout his time in the White House. But Republicans across the country... really didn’t seem to mind!
And they didn’t just write letters to Spiro Agnew about it...
The Attorney General Elliot Richardson also started getting these letters. But his were just bins and bins and bins full of hate mail.
“I hope you and all your smart Justice Department lawyers are pleased”, one woman wrote to him, “I feel you have done a great wrong to this nation and one day you are going to have to pay.”
One woman from Lubbock, Texas wrote: “Are you a Democrat, or has this been done by the Democrat Party? If so, that explains it, for it looks like they can’t bear for the Republicans to get any glory or praise for anything.”
One man wrote: “I believe there is deliberate malice -- from the liberal news media and also from politicians who fear Mr. Agnew’s appeal to the average American.”
Agnew was defending himself not by attacking the actual case against him, but by attacking the institution of the Department of Justice and the specific people bringing the case against him.
These three young prosecutors who had led the case against Agnew -- Tim Baker, Ron Liebman, Barney Skolnik-- they were all now fair game. Here’s Tim Baker:
TIM BAKER (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): I remember Agnew saying that Skolnik was a Muskie volunteer and I-- horror!-- had been, to show what a complete Pinko I was, I had been a Peace Corps volunteer!
Discredit the investigation by going after the investigators. That was the first part of Agnew's strategy.
Agnew’s legal team had something else up their sleeves. That’s next.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. In the matter of possible criminal charges against Vice President Agnew, it was a dizzying, bewildering, and historic day.
Once the investigation of Spiro Agnew went public in the Summer of 1973, something started happening in the coverage of the scandal that the Vice President’s lawyers quickly tried to turn to their advantage.
They noticed that some articles about the investigation seemed to contain lots and lots of very specific details about the case; details that were supplied to reporters by anonymous sources. Here’s Agnew’s defense lawyer Marty London:
LONDON: We were made aware of great varieties of newspapers who had always begun their articles with “high sources in the Justice Department have told us that…” Or “High government officials report to us that…” But there was no question, this was a very leaky investigation.
Agnew’s public defense at that point was to portray the Justice Department as corrupt, portray the media as out to get him… all of these leaks to the press… this was a golden opportunity for Agnew’s lawyers to nail both of those targets at once: the Justice Department for leaking and the horrible press for publishing those leaks without named sources.
With that two-birds-one-stone idea as their basic strategy, Agnew’s legal team decided they would pursue the leaks-about-the-case... in court. They came up with a fairly radical plan to try to prove that the Justice Department was the source of those leaks to the press. Their plan was to put individual news reporters under oath and try to force them to testify about their sources.
Agnew already had a well-earned reputation for being hostile to the press. Well, now his lawyers would try to turn that into legal strategy, too.
The question was... would the court go along with it? Marty London's request to the judge -- his demand to the judge -- was pretty extraordinary:
LONDON: I reached into my briefcase and pulled out an order that I had written the day before and I said “Here’s an order, all you gotta do is sign it.” What the order does is gives us the opportunity to put these reporters under oath. If you want to know if they’re telling the truth, let’s put them under oath. And while we’re at it taking their depositions, let’s take the depositions of the government’s officials, too. The judge said, “Well that seems like a pretty sensible idea to me.” George Beall, I think he almost had a coronary! He was a young fella, I was afraid for his health. They got red in the face, they said “this is outrageous”, they said, “this has never been done before, there’s no rule permitting this, there’s no precedent for this, it’s just not right.” And the judge said, “Where do I sign?” And that’s really, to use a legal expression, that’s when the shit hit the fan.
Agnew’s legal team was trying to change the story, so it was no longer about the alleged criminal activity of the Vice President, it was instead about criminal misconduct on the part of these investigators.
LONDON: I was a lawyer here! I’m not a judge, and I’m not a philosopher king. In this case, it was in my interest to get as much information from that journalist as I could.
Marty London got that judge to sign-off on this order to haul in news reporters and put them under oath. And then he sent out a raft of subpoenas to reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, TIME Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, nine reporters in all from the biggest news outlets in the country, demanding their testimony:
LONDON: The press was up in arms, and they had fashioned lapel buttons, you know, it said “Free The Agnew Nine” because they all swore they would go to jail before they would testify. And I get a call from a reporter from a local New York newspaper who says, “Marty, I’m in deep shit here, you killed me.” I said, “What did I do?” He said, “I didn’t get a subpoena!” We had at that time what was known as “subpoena envy”, everybody wanted a subpoena. I said, “Well, look I really, I apologize, no hard feelings, I only served subpoenas on people who wrote stories that said they had sources.” And he said, “I did that! I did that!” I said, “Send me your article, and I’ll send you a subpoena.” So he sent me the article and I sent him a subpoena, and the “Free The Agnew Nine” became “Free The Agnew Ten.”
This strategy from the Agnew legal team turned into a bit of a circus, but that was by design.
It put all sorts of pressure on the Justice Department about these supposed leaks.
And the American press corps-- which had been covering the actual allegations against the Vice President up until that point -- they got completely sideways defending themselves over these subpoenas:
DAVID BRINKLEY: So, they are showering subpoenas all over town and ordering reporters to come to Baltimore and tell where they got their news. Those responding so far say they will tell nothing. Whether or not these lawyers learn much about that, they will have succeeded, to some extent, in turning the public’s attention away from their client and turning the attention and some abuse on the press.
So, the American press corps was now under attack by the Vice President and his lawyers. Rather gleefully.
And the Justice Department, too. The Baltimore prosecutors-- who were still assembling their case-- they were not-only being attacked publicly by the Vice President, they were now also being threatened by Agnew’s lawyers as potential criminals themselves. Here’s Barney Skolnik:
BARNEY SKOLNIK (FMR FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): I mean it was, it really was ludicrous. I mean, we're investigating the case and suddenly people are coming from Washington to present us with, you know, strangers are coming from the Department of Justice Public Integrity Section or something and saying, “Here, this is an affidavit about, you know, whether or not you have leaked and you must fill it out and you must sign it.” Everybody! I mean, it wasn't just-- it was the secretaries. I mean, it was...
This was a maximum pressure campaign that Agnew’s lawyers launched against the Justice Department and these individual prosecutors… all to try to put them on the defensive. And to this day, Agnew’s lawyers believe, Marty London believes, that this pressure worked. The prosecutors themselves like Tim Baker they still bristle at that idea. The first voice you’ll hear is producer Mike Yarvitz.
MIKE YARVITZ (PRODUCER): He thinks that the pressure that they were able to put on the Justice Department about this issue of leaks--
YARVITZ: What ultimately--
BAKER: Phooey. There wasn’t any pressure about leaks, we weren't leaking anything, we knew it. And they weren’t going to be able to prove that we had leaked anything because we hadn’t. The pressure was: get the guy out of the Vice Presidency. That was always the pressure.
Whether they had leaked anything or not… this was a strategy. The Vice President was trying to save himself by targeting the press and by targeting these prosecutors and dragging them through the mud.
And the prosecutors couldn’t publicly defend themselves. Instead, they reacted to that strategy from Agnew... by doubling down on what they could do, by doubling down on their case.
LIEBMAN: That was, that was noise, noise to be pushed aside. We knew that. That's all designed to distract you. “Don't let it distract you.” We were too good for that. Kids that we were, we were too good for that.
For all of that noise and distraction that Agnew brought to bear on this investigation… and against the prosecutors, it didn’t just come from him and his lawyers. He had political back-up.
A whole army of Republicans in Congress who were about to rush to his defense.
NBC REPORTER: At the Capitol, the Vice President got some welcome support from fellow Republicans. GOP Senators of all shades rose to his defense, suggesting he may be the victim of politically-inspired rumors.
Republicans in Congress knew in 1973-- when their own Vice President got in serious trouble-- that it was in their own best interest to try to save him. And that may, in part, just have been raw partisan instinct, but they also knew that Spiro Agnew still had the Republican base wrapped around his finger, regardless of the allegations against him:
KEENE: It was easy to rally support for Ted Agnew. I mean, people loved him.
It was David Keene’s job to rally Republican support for Agnew in Congress.
KEENE: The Republicans were hearing from their constituents that “this is our guy!” But they liked him as well.
When the criminal allegations against Agnew came to light, rather than turning against him or waiting for the investigation to play out, Republicans in Congress rushed to give him as much cover as they could. They adopted his line that he was the victim of a “witch hunt.”
SEN. JAMES BUCKLEY (R-NY): Well, I believe that the man has been put under incredible pressure because of the habit we’ve gone into of trial by print, based on third-hand leaks of information that may or may not be sound.
SEN. CARL CURTIS (R-NE): To condemn someone, to have innuendos, to raise questions-- “When is he going to retire? Will he be impeached?”-- when no one has made a specific charge against him, damages him all across the country. And, furthermore, it’s damaging our country.
Even the discussion that Agnew might need to go-- even talking about that possibility-- in the words of that Republican Senator, that was “damaging” to the country.
Republicans in Congress went after alleged leaks in the case. They went after the news media for reporting the leaks.
This was not “let’s allow the investigation to run its course.” Republicans instantly circled the wagons around their man in the White House who was in legal trouble, but still as popular as ever in their party.
SEN. BARRY GOLDWATER (R-AZ): He’s innocent until somebody has proven him guilty. And if we’ve reached a point in this country where we’re guilty just because some newspaper or some lesser member of the Attorney General’s office hints that we are, then we’ve come to the end of justice in this country.
That was Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona talking about a lesser member of the Attorney General's office. He’d later say, "I don't give a damn if Agnew is as guilty as John Dillinger." In his view, Agnew was getting railroaded... railroaded by the press and by the Justice Department.
That was the way Republicans talked about this case. This was Republican Senator Carl Curtis from Nebraska:
SEN. CARL CURTIS (R-NE): Will you inform me what he’s done? No one has! Now, that’s not American justice. That may be a certain brand of American newscasting, but it’s not what prevails in the courtroom, we lawyers have a better record than that.
NBC REPORTER: Do you feel there’s some kind of plot against the Vice President?
SEN. CURTIS: I think there’s a scheme on to destroy the President and, if they can drag down his Vice President, that helps. Somebody got John F. Kennedy! ... I believe that same sadistic element-- it’s very tiny-- but you add to that the professional Nixon haters ... you’ve got a bad combination ... here Mr. Agnew hasn’t been accused of a specific single transaction, and for me to say iffy things about what would happen if he resigned, I don’t think he should resign or he will resign!
Spiro Agnew-- in his public campaign to beat back the allegations against him-- he had back-up. Elected Republicans coming to his defense... publicly casting doubt on the investigation, attacking and disparaging the investigators.
Two House Republicans even traveled over to the White House one afternoon that Fall to personally deliver to Agnew a giant physical display of support from his fellow Republicans.
It was a larger-than life card signed by 100 Republicans in Congress.
The image on the front of the card was a cat barely clinging to a tree branch by its claws. The caption underneath said, “Hang In There, Baby.”
Republicans in Congress had taken sides. They were firmly behind their Vice President even though he was under criminal investigation.
What those Republicans didn’t know at the time though-- what only a handful of people inside the White House knew-- was that Spiro Agnew wasn’t just counting on vocal support from the Republican base and vocal support from Republicans in Congress.
He also had a private plan. He was undertaking an elaborate, behind the scenes effort to obstruct the investigation, to try to shut the investigation down.
It was an effort to use his political power from his position inside the White House to make the investigation go away.
It involved enlisting the help of Richard Nixon’s inner circle, people like White House Chief of Staff HR Haldeman..
HR HALDEMAN (NIXON WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF): The Vice President called me over today and said he had a real problem...
It also included the assistance of President Richard Nixon himself...
PRESIDENT NIXON: It’s amazing, isn’t it? By golly, the way they start to go after everybody, don’t they?
ALEXANDER HAIG (NIXON WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF): Yeah, they’re after everybody. And the Vice President has been very nervous...
This part of the story has never really been told in-depth before.
The investigators themselves... had no idea that any of this was going on at the time. They’re about to hear it here for the first time.
BAKER: (Laughing) I never knew this!
SKOLNIK: “Ways they can pressure George.” Wow.
YARVITZ: I mean, what does-- you’re a lawyer-- what does that look like?
LIEBMAN: (laughs) Clearly obstruction of justice or attempt to obstruct justice. Clearly
That part of the story... is next time.
I’m Rachel Maddow, and this is “Bag Man.”
“Bag Man” is a production of MSNBC and NBC Universal. This series is executive produced by Mike Yarvitz. It was written by myself and Mike Yarvitz. Editorial and production support from Jonathan Hirsch and Marissa Schneiderman from Neon Hum Media. And you can find much more about this story on our website which is: msnbc.com/bagman.