A secret murder plot directed by the President? A fear of political assassination by the CIA. Facing the prospect of becoming the first Vice President in American history to resign in disgrace... Spiro T. Agnew tries to set the stage for his own exit from office. With wild claims of death threats that forced him out. Surprise revelations of what Agnew was doing with all of his money. And a suspense-filled final day that leaves the sitting Vice President... a convicted felon.
For a list of sources and references for this episode, see here.
MADDOW: What you’re about to hear, I think, is one of the most surreal clips I’ve maybe ever heard when it comes to American politics.
This is a TV interview with a Vice President. And what he’s about to allege here is that the President of the United States who he served with… was threatening to have him murdered.
This is not an outtake from some over-acted political thriller. This is a real interview that really happened.And the Vice President here, of course, is Spiro Agnew.
REPORTER: Agnew says he left because of a death threat from the White House. He quotes Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig urging him to resign with the words, “The President has a lot of power, don’t forget that.” Agnew writes that the remark sent a chill through his body. He took it as an innuendo that anything could happen, he might have-- in Agnew’s words-- “a convenient accident.” An interpretation that even today, he refuses to disown.
SPIRO AGNEW: I didn’t know what General Haig meant when he said “anything may be offing, things may get nasty and dirty.” ... There’s no doubt in my mind that these things are possible. I don’t say it was a probability, but I do say it was a possibility.
REPORTER: You think then that there were men around Richard Nixon-- either in the White House staff or in the official mechanism of the CIA-- who were capable of killing a Vice President of the United States if they felt he was an embarrassment?
AGNEW: I don’t doubt that at all.Spiro Agnew didn’t just make that allegation that one time.
He made it repeatedly. He wrote about it in a book, he went on-the-record in a series of interviews stating that he believed President Richard Nixon might have him killed.
MEET THE PRESS MODERATOR: You say that you were fearful that if you did not go along, President Nixon or General Haig -- it’s not quite clear-- might have ordered you assassinated, could you explain that?
AGNEW: I was concerned and I think my concern at that time, based on my frame of mind after being seven months in a pressure cooker of attempts to get me to resign office ... gave me reason to be concerned. I brought along with me this testimony from the Select Committee on the Government Operations Committee involving intelligence activities...
What Spiro Agnew pulls out at this point is a copy of a U.S. government report about the CIA’s efforts to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.He says what that report shows is that even though the CIA was never given a direct order from the President to kill Castro, they knew they were authorized to do it.
He’s making the point that even if Nixon never gave a direct order to to kill him-- to kill his Vice President-- it’s conceivable the CIA would take its cues from Nixon and act anyway...
AGNEW: It is possible for these things to happen. I’ve never said it was a probability that my life was in danger, I said it was one of the factors that crossed my mind and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back after all the pressures that had been put on me.
Spiro Agnew was alleging on national television that as a sitting Vice President, he was possibly the target of a contract killing by the President.
He said he even bought a gun at the time for his own protection.
NICK THIMMESCH (REPORTER, LOS ANGELES TIMES): You acknowledge that you had fear at this time, but after you left office, did you ever go to the federal government to get a permit for a handgun?
THIMMESCH: Why did you get that handgun, and what period was this?
AGNEW: I think it was immediately after I left office, I got it because I still had some fears.
THIMMESCH: Do you still have a handgun?
AGNEW: No, I’ve never carried the handgun, I thought it was sufficient that people would know I had the permit to carry one.
This is the story that Spiro Agnew wanted people to believe about the circumstances in which he left office. That he was another one of Richard Nixon’s victims.
Agnew’s tale of woe was that Nixon’s inner circle-- specifically Nixon’s chief-of-staff Al Haig-- pressured him for weeks to resign and when he refused to do it... they threatened his life. And thereby forced him out when he otherwise wouldn’t have left. Okay, maybe. Seems nuts, but maybe!
That said, there is another explanation for why Spiro Agnew stepped down when he did. And it does involve a three-letter federal agency, but not the CIA.
It involves special agents from the IRS who had been quietly and very diligently going through Vice President Agnew’s past.
Those agents and the Baltimore federal prosecutors working with them had already turned up the smoking-gun evidence of the bribery and extortion scheme that Agnew had been running in Maryland and in the White House. But they also started turning up something else: details about what exactly Spiro Agnew seemed to be doing with all that money he was making as a criminal.
And that part of the investigation got into areas of Agnew’s personal life that were maybe becoming a little uncomfortable for him:
RON LIEBMAN (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): There were some personal expenses in there that, pre-Monica Lewinsky and pre all that we've come across and some stories that we came across which-- unlike Ken Starr, I guess-- we just said “this is, this is not a part of the case.”
Ron Liebman and his fellow Baltimore prosecutors had stumbled upon an aspect of Agnew’s life-and-crimes that may have hit a nerve for the Vice President:
LIEBMAN: You know, these guys they have all these personal peccadillos, you know, they have money and power and they do stupid things. And we came across financial evidence of that and we heard some stories about that. One of them quite bizarre, but we, that wasn't part of the case.
The Baltimore prosecutors never actually used the information they would start to uncover about Agnew’s personal life, but Spiro Agnew was aware that the IRS was digging into it and what it involved was evidence of what seemed like a secret life… mistresses, sports cars, expensive gifts that never seemed to make it to Agnew’s wife Judy. Here’s prosecutor Tim Baker:
TIM BAKER (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): There was jewelry, too.
MIKE YARVITZ (PRODUCER): Jewelry to Agnew?
BAKER: A woman's watch. Which Judy never got.
YARVITZ: What does that suggest?
Death threats and handguns and CIA assassination plots sounded like a really cool reason to have to step down. But that probably wasn’t the reason he had to step down.
Spiro Agnew had carefully crafted this straight arrow, moralistic, hard line public image as a man of honesty and virtue and conservative integrity. He knew that if he continued to fight, all of that would come crashing down around him. It was finally time to cut his losses and go away.
You’re listening to “Bag Man.” I’m your host Rachel Maddow.
Episode 6: “A Disappearing Act”
NBC NEWS ANNOUNCER: “The Tonight Show” will not be seen tonight so that we may bring you the following NBC News Special Report.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history...
The Saturday Night Massacre took place on October 20th, 1973.
It was Richard Nixon, in a fit of rage, trying to end the investigation into Watergate that his own Justice Department was conducting.
Nixon ordered his Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the Special Prosecutor who was leading that investigation. And when Richardson refused to do that and resigned himself instead, that sparked a true-blue constitutional crisis:
CHANCELLOR: Agents of the FBI-- acting at the direction of the White House-- sealed off the offices of the Special Prosecutor, the offices of the Attorney General, and the offices of the Deputy Attorney General. That’s a stunning development. And nothing even remotely like it has happened in all of our history.
The Saturday Night Massacre is this signal moment in U.S. history. But many of the people who lived that history, are still around to tell it. JT Smith was Elliot Richardson’s top assistant at the Justice Department that day:
JT SMITH (EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT TO ATTORNEY GENERAL ELLIOT RICHARDSON): I don’t want to sound like a pretentious 29-year-old, but I was sorely vexed by events. And I had a lot of yellow, legal pad notes that bore upon the stuff we’ve been talking about. I took my notes, put them in my briefcase, and walked out without being searched by the FBI. And I took them home and I was sufficiently paranoid about the direction of the country, I hid them in the attic of my house.
What’s sort of incredible to realize with hindsight and what’s never mentioned in the history books about that moment is that Elliot Richardson and his team-- when the Saturday Night Massacre happened-- they were just coming off what may have been one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the U.S. Justice Department.
The Saturday Night Massacre happened on October 20th, 1973.
Just 10 days before that-- on October 10th-- Attorney General Elliot Richardson had single-handedly forced the resignation of the Vice President of the United States. It was October 9th when Elliot Richardson cut a high-stakes plea deal with Vice President Agnew’s lawyers that would would keep Agnew out of jail, but in exchange, he would offer his immediate resignation from office. Agnew’s attorney Marty London helped reach that deal:
MARTIN LONDON (VICE PRESIDENT SPIRO AGNEW’S DEFENSE ATTORNEY): I thought Elliot Richardson, in the end, made a deal because he saw this as a potential Constitutional crisis and a national disaster.
The deal was made – as controversial as it was – it was made. But what happened to Spiro Agnew in the last 24 hours of his Vice Presidency, it was this all-night, sirens wailing, down to the last minute, surprise sweat fest like you can’t believe.
In all of U.S. history, a Vice President had never before been forced to resign. And, at that moment, it wasn’t really clear how to do it. Logistically, even.
They had to dig through the archives to figure out the logistics. To figure out that the way a Vice President technically resigns-- the instrument of resignation-- turns out, it’s through a letter submitted to the Secretary of State? Okay, so he’ll resign to the Secretary of State!
After figuring that out and finalizing the deal and setting a court date for the very next day, October 10th, Marty London and the rest of Agnew’s defense team rushed back to the Vice President’s office to draft that resignation letter. Again, there was no precedent for what that should look like. What should the letter say?
LONDON: Nobody had written, thought about preparing for this (laughs), we’ve got two hours to get out a resignation letter! I don’t know how so many people got in that room, he had, the Vice President had some guy who was like counselor to the Vice President, another guy was there, another guy was there, Frank Sinatra had sent a lawyer! And now people are writing fantastic, long explanations. One guy said, “I’m resigning because the President is pushing me out, and outrageous...”, another guy writes a letter, “I’m resigning because of the press wanted me gone...”, and the other guy said, “The Department of Justice wanted me gone...”, another guy said, “It’s the fucking Democrats, they want me gone...”, you know it’s everything and we’re going nowhere, it’s an hour and a half later, the clock is ticking, the temperature in the room is 85 degrees, I said, “I got it guys, I got it guys” and-- I’ll pat myself on the back here-- I got it. And so, “Oh yeah, what’s your letter?” I say, “I hereby resign as Vice President of the United States. Respectfully.” Everybody says, “Well geez, that’ll do it.”
That chaotic scene in the Vice President’s office though, that was nothing compared to what was happening back in Baltimore that night at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The plea deal that had been reached with Agnew allowed the prosecutors to submit a detailed statement of evidence into the record laying out what crimes exactly Spiro Agnew had committed. The payoffs as Governor, the payoffs as Vice President, everything the prosecutors had.
What the prosecutors would ultimately draft was a 40-page long statement of evidence laying out Agnew’s alleged crimes. But the night before the court date, it wasn’t done yet.
And these three Baltimore prosecutors, they stayed up all night that night trying to get it finished in time:
BARNEY SKOLNIK (FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR): It was all written the night before we went to court. I mean, it was like this all-nighter thing, like it was being back in college. We were exchanging drafts, I think maybe Timmy wrote, you know, these parts, and I wrote some parts, and Ron wrote some parts.
BAKER: We just started dictating and drafts would go, pages would go. It wasn't like complete drafts, sections would go back and forth, back and forth, marked up, retyped, marked up, retyped, and we were on a deadline.
LIEBMAN: At like 1 or 2 in the morning, the Attorney General of the United States and Henry Petersen, I think, drive to Baltimore in the middle of the night, early in the morning and sit in George Beall's office as we start feeding him these papers, which was extraordinary. This is the Attorney General of the United States at two in the morning in Baltimore? You know, on my best days, I wouldn't want to be in Baltimore at two in the morning!
BAKER: And I think at like 6:00 AM, it's given to the US Marshals who then, we were later told, at points on the Baltimore-Washington expressway were doing in excess of 85 miles an hour and then it had to be to Agnew's lawyers by something like 8:00 AM in Washington, it was some terrible hour, and they got it there just in time.
They got it there… in fact…five minutes late.
This 40-page statement of evidence that was thrown together all night over-night, it was rushed to DC with a sirens wailing police escort like it was the holy grail.
For these prosecutors, it kind of was.
Spiro Agnew was about to walk into court and plead to a felony count of tax evasion, and these prosecutors wanted the American people to know that he had not-only been caught for tax evasion.
BAKER: We knew what it had to do. It had to bury him, so that the country could see this wasn't a “witch hunt”-- to use a current expression-- that there was a very substantial, solid case against him.
LIEBMAN: It was a big issue for all of us, all of us. Because what we certainly couldn't allow to happen would be for the Vice President to plead Nolo to a tax count and then to walk out and say, “This is nothing. This is some little mistake I made. This is absolutely, these guys are liars. I made a little mistake on my tax returns. I've made amends. I'm going to pay back the money that I should have paid and I'm going back to work.”
So, the statement of evidence was finally ready.
The Vice President’s resignation letter was finally ready.
A 2pm court date was set. But not a single soul in the country, except for the people directly involved knew what was about to happen in that courtroom.
Now, the press knew that there was going to be a hearing in court that afternoon, something to do with the wrangling over the Agnew case, but what the press thought the hearing was going to be about... was them. About newspapers’ efforts to quash these subpoenas that Spiro Agnew’s lawyers had sent to various reporters to try to get them to reveal their sources.
The press showed up that day ready to cover a hearing about that, all of the lawyers for the news organizations showed up at the counsel’s table ready to fight about those subpoenas to the reporters.
And then -- into the courtroom-- walked the attorneys for the Vice President.
LONDON: And they see us walking in, and we sit at the near table, and they look at us with hostility! I mean, I mean, sneering, like Grrrrr! Just angry! And then, two federal marshals come over to them and they say, “Pick up all your papers and move to the gallery”, and they’re resistant but I mean, these are federal marshals and the marshals do not explain why. They just said, “Clear this table and clear it now! You can go stand in the back.” And they stand in the back. And in walks, to occupy that table, Elliot Richardson, George Beall, and some more of Beall’s Assistants.
LIEBMAN: The bailiff makes an announcement, you know, “Ladies and gentlemen, the proceeding is about ready to begin. This courtroom is going to be locked. So if you can't stay, you have to get out. You have to leave now.”
The Baltimore prosecutors are there, sitting next to the Attorney General himself.
They know -- and the Vice President's lawyers know -- that what was about to happen in that courtroom, was something really big and surprising. The resignation was ready. The 40 page statement of his crimes was ready. The deal was ready and the country was about to have the whole thing sprung on them for the first time.
The hearing was set to begin at 2 o'clock sharp. There was just one problem.
LONDON: It’s now 2 o’clock and I am sweating because at our table, is me and Jay Topkis, and Jud Best is back in the clerk’s office on the telephone. And it’s 2 o’clock and somebody from this play is missing!
Everything was set. One of Agnew’s lawyers was in the clerk’s office at the court waiting to give the order over the phone to deliver Agnew’s resignation letter, to transmit that letter to the Secretary of State as soon as the Vice President himself walked into the courtroom.
It was all choreographed, each moment scripted and ordered for a very specific reason. And the time was now. But the Vice President of the United States... was nowhere to be found.
On the prosecution side, they had long feared that something just like this might happen.
LIEBMAN: What we were concerned was he, you know, he gets into court and he says, “Well, wait a minute, I changed my mind. These are bogus charges. I don't know why I'm here. I'm the Vice President of United States. I'm immune from prosecution. Marshal, could you unlock that door please? I gotta go.” You know, we're dealing with the Vice President of the United States. We are being as careful as we can be. We're on tenterhooks, right? We want this done just so. It had to be done just so or it wouldn't happen.
At 2 o’clock, when the Vice President was the only one missing, it looked for a brief moment... like it might not happen. Even to Agnew’s lawyers:
LONDON: Listen, you want to know if I got a little nervous between 2:00 and 2:01 because the man was a minute late? The answer is, I was anxious! I wouldn’t say nervous, but I was anxious. I said, look, you know if I have a 2 o’clock court date, I’m there at a quarter of two, I mean I’ve been doing this for a long time. I can understand him not wanting to come into that courtroom, and I do get it, him not wanting to come into that courtroom and sit there at that table for 15 minutes with all of those people staring at the back of his neck. So, I don’t know, I assume that he, he may have been there at a quarter of two sitting in his car out at the curb, looking at the watch and saying (laughing) “Okay, I better go in!” And maybe my watch was a minute fast, maybe he was there at 2 o’clock, I was anxious, but it never occurred to me that he was not going to do it.
That wait for the Vice President to show up, the question of whether or not he would show up, that hung in the air for a tense moment, until the courtroom doors swung open again:
LONDON: 2:01 exactly, in walks our client. And the people in the room, they gasped. It then became clear what this was about.
LIEBMAN: There was a noticeable hush. Gasp. You know, it was a surprise to so many people in there. The courtroom is locked. Agnew walks in, the judge gets on the bench, the bailiff or the law clerk calls “Oyez, oyez. All rise.” Everybody rises, everybody sits down and there's, you know, Spiro Agnew in his well tailored suit and his nice haircut about to plead Nolo Contendere to a felony.
LONDON: Jud Best comes out of the clerk’s office and says, “I’ve just been on the telephone with the offices of the Secretary of State, they have received the Vice President’s resignation letter.” And ultimately the judge accepts the plea and he sentenced him to a fine and a sentence of probation. And we walk out of the courtroom with the ex-Vice President of the United States. It was a stunning, um, stunning, stunning development.
For the first time in American history, a sitting Vice President appeared in court to answer criminal charges, for the first time in American history, a Vice President pled to a felony, and for the first time in American history, a Vice President resigned his office in disgrace.
Spiro Agnew arrived at the courthouse as the Vice President, as he crossed the threshold into the courtroom, his resignation was simultaneously submitted. He left that courtroom minutes later, as a convicted felon. He then spoke to the stunned reporters outside who had had no idea that any of this was coming.\
AGNEW: I categorically and flatly deny the assertions that have been made by the prosecutors with regard to their contention of bribery and extortion on my part ... I will have nothing more to say at this point, I will make an address to the nation within a few days.
Spiro Agnew’s decision to agree to a plea deal and resign, it happened so fast, that Agnew’s own staff at the White House didn’t even know that day that it was going to happen. Here’s David Keene, Agnew’s top political aide:
DAVID KEENE (SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO VICE PRESIDENT AGNEW): He went to Baltimore to plead nolo and Mike Dunn-- who was then the Chief of Staff -- called the senior staff together to tell us. And I pounded my fist on the desk and said, “Can’t the son of a bitch have the balls to come tell us himself?”
There was a lot of crazy stuff that happened in the United States of America in 1973.
But the Vice President of the United States suddenly resigning in disgrace… surprise! That stunned the country:
NEWS ANCHOR: Good evening. If you have just joined us, we are obliged to tell you the story we’ve been running since shortly after 2 this afternoon: namely, that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew is now the former Vice President, he resigned today. It’s been quite a day for news J.C.
NEWS ANCHOR: It really has. I think the public is still in shock, many people just disbelieve it, it’s hard to accept that it has come to this.
NBC NEWS REPORTER: There was disbelief on Capitol Hill where most House and Senate members had come to believe the Vice President’s assertions that he fully intended to fight the charges all the way.
SEN. MARK HATFIELD (R-OR): We have a period of time when there is political erosion. Confidence and faith in the whole system has been challenged by many people. And now to have this kind of confirmation of the worst suspicions that some people have held is really a very profound impact on the whole country.
REPORTER: Can you tell us what your reaction is to the resignation?
SEN. MIKE MANSFIELD (D-MT, MAJORITY LEADER): Well, uh, it was totally unexpected and I, uh, boy I don’t know what to say.
That was the Majority Leader in the Senate at the time, Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield.
The reaction in the country to Spiro Agnew's sudden resignation was kind of a muddled mess, it was a lot of things all at once. It was stunned confusion from a lot of people, there was elation from those who felt that justice had been served. There was also absolute outrage from Agnew's supporters, who really had stayed with him right til the very end.
WOMAN: I’m just sick about it, I think he’s a man of his word and I think they’ve all been doing the same thing ever since I started voting, and I think it’s just too bad, I think he’s a great man.
WOMAN: I think it was very unnecessary, I’m just, ohhh, I’m just sick. I’m very unhappy. I don’t think it was necessary, I think it’s a lot of political hogwash, and I’m ohhhh!
REPORTER: Did you vote for Agnew?
MAN: I certainly did.
REPORTER: What do you think of him now?
MAN: I think it’s very unfortunate, the man seems to be railroaded or something. I don’t know if this is all fact, a lot of insinuation is being brought out.
Spiro Agnew built this base of support in the Republican Party, he convinced his supporters that he was innocent, he was the victim of a witch hunt. And even though he had just pled no contest to a felony in open court, his supporters just still couldn't accept it. They couldn’t absorb it. They had been primed to believe in his innocence and to hate and resent and suspect everything about this prosecution.
But, you know, a weird thing happened in the courtroom that last weird day. It was just an odd moment in the courtroom itself that didn’t seem like much at the time, but it would ultimately shake even Agnew’s most committed supporters. And it would ultimately cost Agnew much more than just having to resign from office and walk away. That’s next.
JOHN CHANCELLOR: Spiro Agnew is in disgrace. Fallen from power. A convicted criminal. It’s something that none of his critics would even have predicted not long ago. And it is one of the biggest news stories of our time
The day that Spiro Agnew walked into a federal courthouse in Baltimore to plead to a felony and resign the Vice Presidency, one of the people inside the courtroom that day was a Law Professor from George Washington University. A professor named John Banzhaf.
JOHN BANZHAF (LAW PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY): I showed up and initially they would not let me in. I was reluctantly let into the courtroom, but with a very solemn warning that if I attempted to say anything, if I stood up, if I did anything at all, there were two big marshals behind me and they would immediately take me out of the courtroom. And I was told in very strong language, “Don't stand. Don't say anything. Don't try to have any role.”
It was a little bit of a strange thing for this law professor to be in court that day. To him, it was stranger still the way that he felt threatened by those federal marshals. But in his view, the strangest thing about the whole proceeding in that courtroom that day was the resolution of it.
Spiro Agnew was being allowed to plead to a felony, but he wasn’t being sent to jail, and he wasn’t even being forced to pay back any of the bribe money that he allegedly took.
What was the punishment here exactly? I mean, resigning from office, yes. But is that it?
After the remarkable day in court where -- surprise! -- the Vice President is pleading to a felony and, oh by the way, he’s also resigned, after that day, Banzhaf went back to his law classes at GW. And there he found that his law student were as perplexed as he was about how the whole thing had shook out.
BANZHAF: I mean, they said to me, “Professor Banzhaf, if somebody robs a bank and he's given a plea deal, he's at least required to give back the money.” Agnew, as a Governor and Vice President should be held to an even higher standard. They were outraged that he was allowed to get off on a minor plea, no time, and keep all the ill gotten gains.
Spiro Agnew had resigned his office, he was basically starting to disappear into obscurity, but this class of law students decided they were going to make a project out of him. They weren’t going to let him go away quietly.
The law students in Professor John Banzhaf’s class came up with a plan. Their first effort was to lobby Maryland’s Governor to bring a civil lawsuit against Agnew, since after all when he was taking those bribes and shaking down those contractors, it was the state of Maryland that was being defrauded. The state of Maryland should get that money back.
The Governor of Maryland met with these students to hear them out, to hear their plan. But even though he took the meeting and he heard what they had to say, at the end, he told them no, he wouldn’t do it.
BANZHAF: When we left, we were literally bewildered. I recall riding back in the car and the students are saying, “Well, why didn't they bring it? We don't understand. What's going on?” And I'm their professor who's supposed to know these things [laughing] and, of course, I had no answer for them. I could not figure out why they wouldn't want to bring the action. It was only quite a bit later when we learned that Governor Marvin Mandel was, likewise, on the take and was probably on the take, literally, while he was deciding not to bring this action!
The state of Maryland had been harmed, but the Governor of the state said he wasn’t willing to bring this case. So the students went to Plan B, they found an old British common law legal principle that they believed would let them sue on Maryland’s behalf even if they didn’t have the state’s support to do it. They found some Maryland taxpayers to be their plaintiffs.
And those law students did sue Spiro Agnew on behalf of Maryland taxpayers to recoup the bribe money that he had taken. It ended up taking years, but eventually they won! A court ruled that Agnew had, in fact, taken bribes, that he had defrauded the state, and he was ordered to write a check to the state of Maryland for more than a quarter million dollars.
And those students, they not-only exacted some of the punishment they felt like Agnew had escaped back in 1973, they also got one more crucial thing when it comes to the scales of justice here. They got a confession... Well, a confession by proxy.
Back in 1973, when the investigation first started, Agnew himself -- it turned out -- had admitted his whole criminal scheme to his lawyer, his personal lawyer, a man named George White. Then, later, in his own book about the scandal, Agnew -- oops-- broke the confidentiality of his own Attorney-Client relationship with George White when he chose to write about the conversations he’d had with White while the case was unfolding. That was a mistake.
Because when that lawsuit was eventually brought against Agnew by the law students at GW, not only was the court able to force Agnew to pay back some of the money he had ripped off from the taxpayers, the court was also able to get sworn testimony under oath from Agnew’s own lawyer about Agnew confessing that he was guilty.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Today-- only because ordered to by the judge-- George White broke his silence. He described learning about the kickback scheme from three Agnew associates who were threatening to implicate the Vice President. Confronting Agnew, he said “Ted, this is terribly serious, you’ve got to level with me, I’ve got to know the truth.” According to White, Agnew replied, “It’s been going on for a thousand years, what they told you is true.”
Quietly in the courts, when Spiro Agnew was already a trivia question – and a hard one! – quietly, while basically nobody was watching, Agnew’s entire story fell apart, all the denials, all the claims that this was a witch hunt or that he was the real victim here. It all fell apart, and his guilt was laid bare in court and for the record… because his longtime personal lawyer flipped on him.
When Agnew showed up to court that day in October 1973 to plead to a felony and resign the Vice Presidency, that 40-page statement of evidence that was assembled by the prosecutors, it was released to the public.
It was this damning recitation of what Agnew had done as an elected official. All of the payoffs, all of the extortion, all of the crimes committed even as Vice President.
And that document-- all these detailed allegations from the prosecutors-- it is a matter of public record, but even so, it’s one that sort of feels secret even now. All these years later, it is hard today to find that document even if you’re really looking for it.
The information contained in it is not what people immediately think when they hear the name Spiro Agnew. “Oh yeah, Agnew, Nixon’s Vice President, didn’t he have like a tax evasion problem? Something from back before the time he became Vice President?” That’s how Agnew’s remembered, but Agnew really was way worse than history remembers him for, if he’s remembered at all.
Agnew basically disappeared into history after he resigned. He got a job working for Eva Gabor’s fifth husband-- seriously-- Frank Sinatra helped him pay the relatively minor fines that were imposed by the court back in 1973, Agnew wrote a bad novel -- a thriller with sort of unsettling sex scenes in it, frankly -- he also published that memoir in which he claimed that Richard Nixon was going to have him killed. But basically, big picture, Agnew just went away.
And the few times that he did reappear, he was always asking for sympathy. This was from an interview with him in 1980:
AGNEW: The penalty I’ve paid is very heavy. People say, “Agnew didn’t pay any penalty, he bought his way out of jail with the Vice Presidency”, but they don’t know what a penalty I paid. They don’t understand I lost my right to practice law, I lost my pension, and the worst penalty of all is during those years immediately following my resignation when I was not at all answering the charges, to walk down the street and see people say “there he goes.” You know, to be recognizable not just in the United States, but any place I went in the world. That’s a pretty severe penalty.
Spiro Agnew probably does deserve to be more infamous than he is.
But the team of federal prosecutors who discovered his crimes and took him down, they deserve to be more famous than they are.
George Beall-- the U.S. Attorney who refused to let pressure from the White House interfere with his investigation-- he went on to prosecute that subsequent sitting Governor of Maryland for corruption. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat. He got him, too.
Ron Liebman and Barney Skolnik, they both took part in that prosecution of Maryland’s next Governor. And then, like George Beall, they both moved into quiet careers in private practice.
Tim Baker, he ended up getting George Beall’s old job as Maryland U.S. Attorney before he, too, went into private practice. They all ended up doing fine.
But none of them ended up etched into our history books and our national memory for the role that they played in-- well-- saving the republic from a national catastrophe, saving the country from a criminal Vice President ascending to the Presidency amid the ashes of Watergate, which would have plunged the country from Watergate right into another catastrophic scandal in the White House, and likely the forced removal of the next President right after Nixon.
What further damage would have been inflicted on the country if we had had to remove not one, but two corrupt criminal sitting Presidents back-to-back within months of each other?
These young kids from Baltimore, these determined federal prosecutors, they saved us from that disaster.
Their case was obstructed from the White House on down, they were attacked and maligned by the most powerful politicians in the country. They endured that at the ripe old average age of about 32. They kept their heads down and they kept going.
Their bosses-- US Attorney George Beall and Attorney General Elliot Richardson-- they led them without fear or favor, they shielded them. And then, Elliot Richardson single-handedly got Agnew out. Restoring and protecting the line of succession for the American Presidency.
Elliot Richardson held a press conference the day after Spiro Agnew resigned as Vice President. And remember, Elliot Richardson would himself be forced out of office just days later-- less than two weeks later-- in the Saturday Night Massacre.
But during that press conference upon the resignation of Agnew, Richardson was asked directly what lessons the country should take from what we’d just been through:
REPORTER: We've been through a period unprecedented in American history. What do you believe the nation can learn from the Agnew case?
ELLIOT RICHARDSON: I would hope first that the nation would feel that the process of criminal justice is one that it can trust and have confidence in. I would hope that it would feel that the interests of the nation have been placed first by all those concerned, including the Vice President himself. I would hope that, most fundamentally, all of us would have confidence that our system works. Indeed, I think this is the most affirmative aspect of all that has taken place over recent months, all the disclosures, the investigations, the indictments. They have exposed the shoddy side of the governmental and political process, but they have also demonstrated that the governmental and political process is capable of uncovering these things, and-- having uncovered them-- taking proper action.
The system works. The system is not destroyed by bad people behaving badly. It can deal with bad behavior and with corruption from those in power. Our system doesn’t break when that happens. It’s designed to confront that problem and to fix it.
And in this case it did.
A criminal occupant of the White House who tried to obstruct justice at every turn, to destroy the credibility of his own Justice Department, to smear the free press reporting on it… he was not allowed to get away with it.
Thanks to Elliot Richardson, and George Beall, and that team of young, scrappy Baltimore prosecutors, the line of succession to the U.S. presidency was restored and protected and justice was done.
George Beall passed away not long ago. He died in January of 2017, just days before the inauguration of our current President.
Upon his passing, one of his successors as U.S. Attorney in Maryland put out a public statement honoring the work that George Beall did throughout his career, but particularly focusing on this case.
The statement said this: “George Beall was a legendary federal prosecutor, an exemplary public servant and a lawyer of unsurpassed integrity ... Although George Beall's family was politically active and Vice President Agnew was a member of Beall's own political party, Beall did not hesitate to pursue the case. His commitment to justice serves as an example to us all.”
That statement about one Republican having the courage to pursue another without hesitation, that was written by one of George Beall’s successors as Maryland U.S. Attorney… it was written by Rod Rosenstein, who is now Deputy Attorney General of the United States.
Be sure to join us next week for the final episode of “Bag Man”, you will want to hear how this all turns out. That’s next week, we’ll see you then.
“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: msnbc.com/bagman.