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By Why Is This Happening?

Rachel Maddow joins Chris Hayes to talk about her new podcast, how we can use history to make sense of current events, what it’s like to be covering the news in this political moment... and why are you still reading this description — it’s Rachel and Chris! What more do you need to know!

RACHEL MADDOW: We're all citizens of a country in which people in the highest-ranking political positions in the country can lie regularly, flagrantly, get caught, even about humiliatingly small and self-serving things, and nothing happens because of it. And that's our life now, that's not just the life of Donald Trump and the life of Kirstjen Nielsen and all these people. That's our lives.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Well, this one's sort of a weird one, or a hard one. It's not weird or hard, it's awesome. But I usually sit down and record the intro to the podcast, and it's like introducing you to some set of concepts for a problem or an intellectual story or a piece of history that we're going to discuss, and making sure that you, the listener, are equipped with the necessary context to get what we're going to get into.

But today's guest doesn't — I mean, it's a cliché, but really — need an introduction. Her name is Rachel Maddow. You most likely have heard of her. She is, well, she's my very dear friend, first of all.

She hosts the 9 p.m. show on MSNBC, right after mine at 8, and we both work very hard in our little offices where we make our shows every day, but we do get to see each other through the television screen at that handoff at 8:59:30, or 9:00:24 seconds if I'm running late and feeling super guilty, and then obsess over it as I go home. I get to see Rachel Maddow in what we call, in cable news business, the throw. The throw is when I say, "Hey, Rachel. 'The Rachel Maddow Show' starts right now."

So, I've been wanting to talk to her on the podcast for a while. And I am not alone, because we take emails at WITHpod@gmail.com, the inbox faithfully maintained by one Tiffany Champion, and we have been getting lots of requests to talk to Rachel Maddow, because everyone wants to talk to Rachel Maddow, and hear Rachel Maddow, and watch Rachel Maddow, and be around Rachel Maddow, and bask in the reflected light of Rachel Maddow, because she's such an incredible person and incredible storyteller.

And so, we have this amazing occasion to do it because Rachel has this fantastic new podcast out. You may have heard of that as well. It's called “Bag Man,” and it tells the story of the scandal around and subsequent downfall of Spiro Agnew, who was the vice president for Richard Nixon.

And what's great about this podcast is, it's a serialized podcast — new episodes out every Tuesday — telling this story that, at one level, exists in the public record, although they have broken new ground and discovered new things that have never previously been reported. But it's also one of these crazy stories in American history that, because it happened essentially in parallel with Watergate, was wildly overshadowed both in the coverage at the time and in the history books, because everyone looks back and it's like, Watergate, Watergate, Watergate.

It's like, Oh right, the vice president was also preposterously corrupt and criminal. And because Richard Nixon was preposterously corrupt and criminal, you spend less time thinking about the ways in which Spiro Agnew was preposterously corrupt and criminal — although, as you will learn in the podcast “Bag Man,” the ways in which he was criminal, and particularly the ways in which he attempted to subvert the Justice Department investigation into himself, bears some really, really strong historical parallels to what we might be seeing unfold before our eyes today in the era of Donald Trump.

Pres. Richard Nixon, second from right, his wife First Lady Pat Nixon, from right, Vice Pres. Spiro Agnew and Mrs. Judy Agnew, from left, share the spotlight at one of six inaugural balls held for Pres. Nixon in Washington on Jan. 21, 1969.AP file

So I got to sit down with Rachel and talk about a bunch of stuff. Talk about "Bag Man," talk about the ways in which there's a historical resonance between what Spiro Agnew was up to back then in his own criminal enterprise and his attempts to obstruct justice, and covering the scandals we see unfolding today in the Trump administration. And then we just kind of vibed out a bit about our relationship and friendship, which goes back years and years and years. She's been both a dear friend and also a mentor, and someone I look up to, and someone I’ve learned so much from.

We kind of cover all of that in this conversation; there is no, like, you know, new mind-blowing piece of data for me to introduce to you. It's just me and Rachel Maddow talking about a Spiro Agnew scandal and covering the news. Enjoy.

You have a podcast now.

RACHEL MADDOW: I do. Well, you got one first, and I was like, He has what? What? Chris has what?

CHRIS HAYES: And then your podcast came out, and I was like, Oh God, Rachel's going to make a podcast, going to be better than my podcast. I was so annoyed that you're making a podcast. It is... No, but it's a total, a... It was, like, slightly too honest, but —

RACHEL MADDOW: We are a lot, like... You know, people talk about work spouses?

CHRIS HAYES: I know, yeah, yeah.

RACHEL MADDOW: You know that's a thing that people who... We're clearly work siblings.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Well, I was. And then I was actually super psyched that it was totally different in format, and have been listening to it and loving it. My wife Kate and I have both been loving it and learning from it.

RACHEL MADDOW: Oh, thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: So I want to ask you how you got into it. I remember my father, at one point, when I was a teenager, my dad would talk about Watergate sometimes, because it's this iconic thing for that generation of people. My dad was born in 1948.

RACHEL MADDOW: What year were you born?

CHRIS HAYES: 1979.

RACHEL MADDOW: Okay.

CHRIS HAYES: So he would talk about it, and I do remember at some point him being like, whether he was talking or I was asking about, like, How did you get from Nixon to Ford, who was the Speaker of the House? Like, was... There's like someone in the middle there? He was like, Oh yeah, the vice president was taking bribes in the White House, and I remember at the time being like, Well, wow.

RACHEL MADDOW: Huh, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: And then it is true that I just, like, have that piece. I know that piece of information prior to your podcast, that this is a true thing, that there was a vice president of the United States who took bribes in the White House, but that's basically all I knew.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: So what made you want to do it about this?

RACHEL MADDOW: My impression. First of all, so you were born in 79, I was born in 73. In April 73, my mom was home from work and nursing me and obsessively watching the Watergate hearings while I was becoming a being. And so I'm convinced that's what made me the person that I am today, like that's what I absorbed with my first nutrition in the world outside of the uterus.

CHRIS HAYES: Fascinating. Ambient vibratory signals.

RACHEL MADDOW: Exactly. Sam Ervin is really my true mother. So that's part of it. So my impression... I think the reason that I decided to do the podcast, because I had a mistaken impression about Spiro Agnew. I had not known about bribes. My impression without paying any attention to it was that it was something to do with tax evasion that was well before his time in Washington, it was something that dated back to his time in Maryland, and it was probably something that was going to get him in trouble in Maryland anyway. And I didn't have any sense that it was something, that he was a crook even while he was in the White House and taking bribes.

But then, the reason I started poking around the story — I just basically wanted to find out if there were any good books written about it — is because I thought it was an FBI case, and I thought the FBI made the decision in the Watergate era, basically, Let's get Agnew first. If Nixon's going to go down, let's get Agnew out of the way before we do that. Turns out, not at all what was going on.

CHRIS HAYES: No.

RACHEL MADDOW: Part of the backstory — which we actually don't go into detail about in the podcast, but if we ever do, like, the 40-episode version of it — is that the U.S. Attorney in Maryland didn't particularly want to involve the FBI in this investigation to the extent that they had a choice about the matter, because they didn't trust the FBI to be able to handle public corruption stuff, and because they thought that if they did bring the FBI in, the FBI would tip off the White House about it in a way that would result in pressure on the Justice Department from yet another avenue to shut the whole thing down. And so they brought in the IRS to do the work, not the FBI, and the people who actually did the legwork that forced Agnew out were IRS agents.

And the IRS was not strategizing in this way that I had imagined about, like, We need to get Agnew out of there first because we're going to get Nixon next. It was totally separate, totally different thing. And so I was wrong about it in my impression in a couple different ways, and the more I looked into it, the more I realized this is a story that is not told.

CHRIS HAYES: The podcast is great, and I'm learning a ton about it, and it's really gripping. I don't want to cannibalize the joy of learning things from the podcast, so I want to sort of talk about the lessons of it, or sort of takeaways.

RACHEL MADDOW: Sure.

CHRIS HAYES: So, one thing that I think is really fascinating is just the idea that it had nothing to do with Watergate.

RACHEL MADDOW: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: I think there are some people who think it probably did, like, Oh yeah, he was caught up. It's like, no.

RACHEL MADDOW: I thought it did.

CHRIS HAYES: He just was a —

RACHEL MADDOW: I thought that Agnew was out of there because they were freaked out. No, no, totally separate.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And the thing that I think about that is, like, what does that say? What does that say? There's this sort of "fish rots from the head down" thing, right?

President Donald Trump talks to reporters as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, from right, looks on at a signing ceremony for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act in the Oval Office on November 16, 2018.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

So we're watching this now play out, but it's like, how is it that everyone President Trump chooses turns out to just either be totally corrupt or not be corrupt before they get into office, but then become corrupt, or? What is your takeaway from that, that it just so happened that the most corrupt president of the United States, Richard Nixon, at least at that moment, had the —

RACHEL MADDOW: The standing record-holder, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, the standing record-holder also happened to have this guy. Like, is that coincidence? Do you have a theory of that?

RACHEL MADDOW: Well, the way that Nixon picked Agnew is dishy and gross in all sorts of ways that, maybe? When people get chosen for high political office in a way that doesn't have democratic accountability, right? Choosing a vice president is this singular choice that presidential candidates make, that tells you a lot about how they're run, and who's really running them, and how good they are at making decisions. It's a totally unaccountable decision.

But the way that Nixon picked Agnew was basically on the basis of needing to compete with George Wallace. So, 1968, Wallace is threatening Nixon's base, right, because he's going to cannibalize white racist voters from the Republican base in a way that Nixon is worried about. He's looking around for a potential vice president, and there's a lot of normal choices that he could've made. In particular, Nixon was interested in a bunch of people who he was close friends with.

And what had happened with Agnew is that Agnew got elevated really fast in Maryland, and he had started off as a Democrat, but became a Republican because it was an easier way to get on the ballot. He ended up becoming governor in sort of a mistake. The Democratic machine politics in Maryland were in such an entrenched, bad, corrupt state around the time that he was on the rise that basically the two machines destroyed each other in 68 for the Democratic primary for governor, and he ended up running against literally a Klansman. The Democratic nominee for governor against Agnew was this, like, ran-in-every-election, perennial-candidate, crank, Klan guy.

And so Agnew, as the Republican candidate, seems comparatively normal, gets all these crossover normal Democratic votes, and he gets elected. Everybody thinks he's going to be this moderate Republican sane guy, who's not the Klansman and not the machine candidate. They think he's going to be a clean-up-the-government kind of guy. Agnew gets in there with that impression, having set those expectations, and turns out to be a total demagogic racist himself.

So, Baltimore riots, right? There's all sorts of unrest going on in Maryland, and Agnew decides that he's going to use that unrest in his state to publicly berate black leaders in his state, to deride them in ways that is designed for maximum humiliation to up his national profile as much as he can. The expectations for him becoming governor were totally different than the way he governed.

CHRIS HAYES: Fascinating.

RACHEL MADDOW: And that caught the eye of a man named Pat Buchanan, who was working for Nixon, and who was looking for a running mate for Nixon, and knew that he needed somebody to take away some of the tjuzs off of George Wallace, and was like, I got a guy who can give us some George Wallace tjuzs. Look how he's shocking people in Maryland with how racist he's being. And that's...

CHRIS HAYES: Wow.

RACHEL MADDOW: Pat Buchanan picked Agnew to run with Nixon. Nixon had no idea who he was. And so, no. Is that the story of Agnew's corruption? No. It's the story of a different way Agnew was kind of a monster. But when you get chosen to be vice president of the United States on that basis, probably worth looking a little deeper.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, well, but then that gets to a related point, right, which is, is there some kind of inherent connection between demagogues and corruption? That, like, is it an accident that these two traits go together, like when we look at Huey Long, right?

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Huey Long is a demagogue and really corrupt.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: And there's ways in which those things are bound up. In other countries, those things tend to be bound up.

RACHEL MADDOW: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And it certainly looks like the thing that we're looking at now looks a lot like that.

RACHEL MADDOW: I mean, I am a religious person. I am a person who has a belief in God and has religious faith, and thinks about things in terms of how we all answer to God at the end of our lives, and so therefore, I believe that those types of badness are related, because they come from the same bad place in the universe. But that is a fundamentally non-scientific way of looking at it.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, yeah, yeah.

RACHEL MADDOW: I mean, I'm telling you my prejudice on these things is like, yeah, corruption and racist demagoguery must go together because those things come from the same dark part of the earth. But, I mean, it may just as easily be coincidence.

CHRIS HAYES: So he sort of puts himself on the map as a demagogue, and Pat Buchanan sees, like, This guy could be our Wallace, essentially.

RACHEL MADDOW: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is interesting, too, because there's kind of a little bit of relationship to Palin there, like, We need this person to have this particular appeal to this particular set.

RACHEL MADDOW: You think that's why they picked Palin?

CHRIS HAYES: I think so.

RACHEL MADDOW: See, I always...

CHRIS HAYES: No, but no, what's your theory on why they…

RACHEL MADDOW: Well, I mean, we could ask Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt, who were involved in it in particular, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's right.

RACHEL MADDOW: But my impression of the Palin pick was actually sort of the opposite of that — that they thought that, first of all, Palin would be new, and she would be a jolt to the campaign, and all this stuff. But they thought that she would be an attractive candidate because she reinforced the maverick idea and the anti-corruption idea of John McCain, right?

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin acknowledge the crowd during a campaign rally for McCain at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson, Arizona March 26, 2010.Joshua Lott / Reuters file

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.

RACHEL MADDOW: So that was the strain of McCain-ism that they wanted to elevate, and she did actually have a noble record in terms of standing up to the oil industry and the old boys' club in the Alaska government, and I think that's what they thought they were getting with her.

CHRIS HAYES: But instead, they got their own version of a 21st-century...

RACHEL MADDOW: Agnew.

CHRIS HAYES: Agnew.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, yeah, her job was to go out... I mean, what is remarkable about listening to the Agnew speeches in “Bag Man,” it's like there's not that much has changed. The only thing that is unnerving is that the only thing that's changed is that, like, it's all gotten way less literate than it was then.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah, I was just going to say, he was better at being Palin than she was.

CHRIS HAYES: He's very florid and literate, and almost kind of urbane, and there's this kind of panache to his style.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: But it's all the same stuff. It's the same stuff.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Like, The liberals, and the academics, and the East Coast elite, and the media, you arrayed against us, the righteous, virtuous people.

RACHEL MADDOW: You know, it's funny, how literate he is, and how articulate he is, and like, his show-off-y vocabulary.

CHRIS HAYES: Very show-off-y, yeah.

RACHEL MADDOW: People who were annoyed with him at the time, and who saw him as a dangerous demagogue at the time, used to totally mock him for that, which is very interesting. They'd be like, Spiro Agnew never found one word that he could use when 10 words wouldn't do. You know, people went after him for that, but we see that as a great asset now because there's nobody that literate in American politics anywhere anymore. I mean, not since Obama.

CHRIS HAYES: But he is doing the... I mean, what is fascinating to me is, when you talk about Wallace, and then you talk about him as sort of in comparison to Wallace, or chosen with that as the specter, and then you think about 40 years of a certain kind of right-wing rhetoric, is that there really is a bedrock through line in the story that is being told about who you are, and who they are, and who the enemies are.

RACHEL MADDOW: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: Particularly with respect to the media. I mean, this was the thing that he was, in some ways, best at.

RACHEL MADDOW: You know, and one of the things I think we're seeing as the sort of natural... So it's, you're right, it's a robust through line. There's also a cumulative effect of that having been so present in in hardline Republican conservative politics for all of these years. Eventually, when you are that one thing so clearly and so effectively for so many decades, it ends up changing the country and changing politics.

And I think we're seeing some of that right now — right after the 2018 midterms — with this sort of minor pseudo-academic freakout we're seeing among Republican pollsters and number-crunchers who are recognizing that the percentage of the college-educated population in a congressional district is really what tells you whether or not they're going to elect a Democrat or a Republican,. And to see the most educated districts in the country go completely blue, like 98 percent blue across the country, we should've probably seen some of this when it became a sort of Fox News trope within the last three or four years that kids shouldn't go to college, you know, that college is a bad thing. This anti-intellectual, anti-elite line of argument that we've seen from right wing populists since the beginning of time, it ultimately has an effect.

We've got a new Justice Department spokesperson who's from Liberty University, and Liberty University was founded by a televangelist so that your Christian child wouldn't be corrupted by actual higher education. And now that's the spokesperson for the Justice Department.

These things add up. They have real results in the world. Is there going to be a backlash to that? Is there going to be a resurgent intellectualism in hard line conservatism that isn't the kind of white supremacist stuff that we're seeing, which is the pseudo-intellectual stuff, right? I don't know, but it adds up. It adds up over time.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, and he was not quite the first to do this. The Agnew rhetoric preceded him, and he was part of a long line, but he was particularly practiced at it, and then it was also practiced because it ended up bring crucial to his defense. This is what's so fascinating too, so you've got all these things that are happening here.

I want to build towards how we reflect on this in modern times, but see, we've got the demagoguery. You've got the anti-press thing. You've got the corruption, just that he's a crook. He's just a flat-out crook. And then you've got the way he defends himself from being a crook, which is all the tools are sitting out on the table. He already has them.

RACHEL MADDOW: And it works really well for a long time. I mean, for a long time, from the time the public knew about the criminal investigation into Agnew until the time he left office is actually quite precipitous, happens pretty quickly. Happens between the summer and fall of 1973, but in terms of the White House having an idea that it was happening, and Agnew mounting his defense about it and putting together the multi-variant defense that he put together, some of which was in public and some of which was behind the scenes.

I think some of the things that we both argue and prove in the podcast is that it was a criminal obstruction of justice scheme that he engaged in, and that he drew a lot of other high-level Republican figures into, but it works to the extent that he holds on to his base. He builds his base. He creates this expectation among his base that, no matter what he's charged with, it'll be a B.S. charge, because the Justice Department is full of liberals. And they didn't call them “Deep State,” but essentially, it's these establishmentarians who can't handle his rise, who never want to see a Republican succeed.

And they do succeed in turning a lot of the Republican base against the press in an overt way. I'm totally in love with that tape from him addressing the Republican women's gathering. "I will not resign if indicted. I will not resign if indicted." And just that detail... Yeah, and they're going crazy. "Fight Agnew fight."

CHRIS HAYES: "Fight Agnew."

RACHEL MADDOW: "Fight Agnew fight."

President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, with their arms around each other, wave to supporters at the victory rally after winning by a landslide early in the day after the election on November 8, 1972.Bettmann Archive via Getty Images file

CHRIS HAYES: And it's also such an insane line to come out of a politician as a thunderous applause line.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Like what, you're going to be a what? What, what are you, what?

RACHEL MADDOW: "If indicted?" But he's prepping them, so no matter what the Justice Department does, they're wrong and I'm right, and you know it in advance. And then, at that same event, you've got women, Republican women activists showing up with their own tape recorders. What was — Think about the size of tape recorders in 1973, to record his speech themselves, so they can play it when they go back home with their homemade recording, because the press will doctor the recording and not actually tell the story of what he really said. I mean, my God, it really does feel like today.

CHRIS HAYES: And he also is doing this, the sort of idea of the “Deep State,” right? One of the prosecutors on the case had been a Muskie volunteer at one point, and this keeps coming up in the tapes. I'm not ahead of the listener.

I got no special preview, I've listened to the first four episodes, but we watch Trump talk about the Mueller people: Oh, they're Democrats. And in this weird way, it's almost like, Oh, all of this is being cribbed. Is it being cribbed in an intentional way, or that this is just the way you go about it? It's literally the same playbook.

RACHEL MADDOW: I wonder about the president — our current president — I wonder about his political cultural immersion. He talks pretty openly about the fact that he's not a reader. I know that he didn't read the Agnew story...

CHRIS HAYES: Of course not.

RACHEL MADDOW: ...because it doesn't exist, and I don't think he's listening to “Bag Man,” but there are these overt echoes, right? “America First” is a historical thing that he's taken from somebody else. “Make America Great Again” is a historical thing that he's taken from somewhere else. The “Silent Majority” is a historical thing that he's taken from somewhere else, and I don't know if that's because somebody talks to him about U.S. history, and he says, "I like that, let's use that,” or if he remembers in some subconscious sense, reading about these things as they happened.

He's a guy in his 70s, so he was around for all this stuff to happen. I mean, it can't be that this stuff is floating through the White House as potential avenues of defense against criminal investigation, and he chooses them off the shelf marked “History.” It can't be that it's that overt, right? It's not even just that history rhymes in this case. He's literally doing the exact same stuff.

CHRIS HAYES: Agnew tries to play these cards. He attacks the media. He attacks the Justice Department. He preps his people. He also lies. This is such an obvious point, but it's actually a really important one to me, because I think one of the things that I've had a hard time with over the last two years is, I just don't — in my life, in my relationships, in my workplace, in my romantic relationship and in my family life and my friends — I don't have occasion to deal with people that lie like this all the time.

You have to keep reminding yourself of it, because it's just unnatural. If I say to Tiffany, Oh, did you book the room? And she's like, Yeah, we booked the studio, that's not a lie. Why would she lie? But if the White House says, Yeah, we booked the studio, they're lying. Everything they say is a lie all the time, and this is true of Agnew, but it does have some power to lie all the time, until it doesn't.

RACHEL MADDOW: And there's a dislocating —

CHRIS HAYES: That's what it is, yes.

RACHEL MADDOW: There's a dislocating thing that happens when you move from the world where lying is an unusual thing that would have negative consequences, to a thing where it's regular. Part of the... To continue your personal allegory there, part of the consequence of you living in a world where people don't regularly lie is that, if somebody were found to have lied, where Tiffany wasn't just wrong like, Oh, I forgot, we didn't book the studio, but, No, I'm lying to you about it, because I'm trying to get something for myself by doing this — sorry, Tiffany— you would expect, Tiffany would be in trouble. There would be a problem.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, not only would she be in trouble, but I would be weirdly embarrassed for both of us that that happened. I would just be like, Why did that happen? It would be so weird. It'd be so outside the norm of how we go about our day.

RACHEL MADDOW: And so it doesn't just change the world for the liar, when you become a person who can just... It changes the world for all of us.

CHRIS HAYES: For everyone, yes.

RACHEL MADDOW: Because now we're all living in a world, we're all citizens of a country in which people in the highest ranking political positions in the country can lie regularly, flagrantly get caught — even about humiliatingly small and self-serving things — and nothing happens because of it. And that's our life now. That's not just the life of Donald Trump and the life of Kirstjen Nielsen and all of these people. That's our lives, and if we don't want to live in that kind of a country again, I have no idea how we go back to our old expectations of what public and political life is.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, but here's where I feel like the silver lining is, at least in this podcast, which is my feeling always is, are they going to get caught? My feeling right now about the current situation with respect to Donald Trump, specifically about Russia and collusion and Mueller, but more broadly is, I want to first know what the facts are. What did they do? And if they're innocent, then I want to know that, right? What did they do?

If they did bad things, if they did crimes, will we find that out and will it matter, right? And the thing that's satisfying about the arc of Agnew is, he's a demagogue, he thinks he could bull his way through. They try to mess with the investigation. They attack the investigators. They attack the press.

RACHEL MADDOW: His support gets stronger and stronger and stronger.

CHRIS HAYES: Stronger and stronger. It doesn't work. I guess the question is, why didn't it work? And then what does that say about now, right? There's some... Everyone, it's like every party I go to, everyone just wants to know —

RACHEL MADDOW: How does this end? How does this end?

CHRIS HAYES: That question, how does this end... How does it end, and is anyone, does it matter? Does gravity still exist? If you hold a ball up here and you drop it, does it go to the ground? If they did all this bad stuff, does it matter?

RACHEL MADDOW: There are three factors, I think, that go into explaining why Agnew got caught, and why he didn't succeed. He mounted a defense to this scandal which was formidable, and which, for most of the time you were living through it, the reporters who were covering it at the time and the prosecutors who were covering it at the time had no reason to expect that he wasn't going to win. He was a very, very powerful figure. He had much more political juice than Nixon did.

And he was poised to become president if Nixon fell in Watergate, and that was the time when it really felt like Nixon was going to fall in Watergate. He had a great reputation. He had tons of support. He was erudite. He was literate. He did have incredible charisma, right? He had the world in his hands. It really felt like he was going to win. There's three reasons that he didn't win.

Number one, which is the first story that we tell in “Bag Man,” is because the Justice Department did its job at every level. You had these prosecutors working with IRS agents that got him dead to rights, that absolutely just nailed the case. Their supervisor was a U.S. attorney who was a Republican — Nixon-appointed, Republican, young U.S. Attorney from a very connected Republican family. His older brother owed his seat in the U.S. Senate directly to Nixon and to Agnew.

He's a Maryland U.S. attorney. His older brother is a Maryland Republican U.S. Senator. Their father had held that Maryland U.S. Senate seat before them. Agnew had been Maryland governor, so the whole family owes him, and they bring all of that family pressure to bear on the U.S. attorney to make this thing go away, and he just takes it like a lightning rod. He takes it and he does not pass on any of that pressure to the prosecutors who are working for him. He just eats it.

Attorney General Elliot Richardson at a press conference in October 1973. AG Richardson faced the daunting prospect that Fall of needing to force out the Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, before President Nixon went down in Watergate.AP Photo

That is no-bull and heroic and the right thing for a U.S. attorney to do. Also, the attorney general — and there's more on Elliot Richardson as we get deeper into the story — but Elliot Richardson, as Nixon's third attorney general, the first two resigning in disgrace, Elliot Richardson does the right thing as attorney general by shielding this prosecution from political pressure, and by helming it, recognizing the national importance of this prosecution, and making sure that it was prioritized in terms of the way it ended, in a way that would maximize national benefit.

That's one, Justice Department. Number two, the other reason that it fails is because Nixon abandons him. That's Episode Five. The White House had been helping him obstruct justice. The White House decided to stop doing that for a very specific reason.

And then the third thing, which is the final sad denouement of the whole story, is personal stuff about Agnew, about his failings as a man, and how that helps him fail as a politician. All of those things come together very fast. Being essentially a bad person, losing political strength, and being up against a real oppositional force that does things the way they ought to be done, that was too much for him, but it takes all of that.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about the first thing, because that seems particularly relevant, right? I used to really reject the “Great Man” theory of history. I think I was much more — in my youth, particularly — I think coming up through the left particularly, that it was about structures and not people, and that this whole idea of “Man For All Seasons” rising to the occasion at the right moral moment was a little... It's all about who controls the means of production, stuff like that.

I think I've changed a lot with that. I think partly, even things like Civil War history, where Grant is kind of a drunk. He's not... And then it's like, Oh, he's actually this towering, important... He's the right man at the right moment. How much is that the story here of Elliot Richardson and Bell to you, about the right person at the right moment making the right moral choices? And if it wasn't that person at that moment, things could've gone the other way.

RACHEL MADDOW: It's a very well-put question, and I think it's a hard question, because there's also... counterfactual, okay. Let's say it wasn't somebody with the integrity of Elliot Richardson who's in there. Can we say for sure that that would've meant that Agnew survived this, because somebody would have? I don't know. Had George Bell actually passed on the pressure that he was receiving as U.S. attorney to actually try to inflect what his prosecutors were doing, might they at that point have become heroic in ways that we don't otherwise see in terms of having to stand up to that too?

You don't know, but I do think that I'm sort of where you are in terms of being between those two theories of history. I do think that one of the things that you see in U.S. history is that people do become as big as the circumstances need them to be, and that doesn't necessarily mean that people unilaterally bend history to their noble will, right? A lot of things need to fall into place, but I do think that trying circumstances call on good people to be better than they ever thought they could be, and that's how you get flawed humans doing heroic things. And you see that in times of trial, in times of stress. You also see that in ugly times.

CHRIS HAYES: I just got goosebumps, because I feel like I just saw... I've known you for a very long time, and I feel very close to you. I'm getting weirdly choked up, but I just feel like I just saw this very clear moment of your moral cosmology. You are, the thing you said about being a person of faith, just the sense that there's a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do, and you're going to have to answer at the end of the day, and that that's actually a thing that's distinct.

I've been thinking about this a lot, that integrity is distinct from having good or bad politics in some ways or ideology. There are people with good politics to my estimation who have no integrity. There are people with bad politics to my estimation who do have integrity in the moment, and that... I don't know. I don't know how you characterize it or how you test for it or how you encourage it or what that means, because it seems so hard for me to theorize, and I find myself frustrated by my lack of ability to theorize integrity. And yet, at this moment, it seems so profoundly important. It all feels like it's just on a knife's edge.

RACHEL MADDOW: That's why I raised the issue of faith, because for me, it is a little bit mystical. And I mean that in a technical sense. I think the reason I'm in love with history is a way of talking about current politics, and the reason my A blocks are 25 minutes long because I have all these long stories, is because part of the way I think we understand how to live well is by recognizing in other people with whom we empathize, and we almost never empathize with heroes. We recognize with fellow, flawed human beings.

And when integrity matters the most is when people come into circumstances that they're not prepared for, and that they couldn't have predicted, and that they didn't spend a life and spend their education and spend their moral upbringing getting ready for. But when you're confronted with something where what you do will matter and nobody's here to help you with it, and it's a hard decision and it's a decision that may or may not hurt you personally, but it's not obvious what you should do.

Elliot Richardson, as attorney general, is confronted with these young prosecutors who have done noble and incredible work, and they have nailed this guy. And the reason these guys are public corruption prosecutors is because they like to put corrupt politicians in jail, because they think that's the right thing to do for the country. It is the right thing to do for the country.

It is also true that the country cannot bear — as far as they can tell — cannot bear the prospect of a president being removed from office and then being replaced instantly, in that second, by another president who will immediately need to be removed from office for another separate, totally just as bad corrupt scheme.

So what's the right thing to do there? That's hard.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's not actually that clear, right.

RACHEL MADDOW: It's not clear. What's the thing that you do? You make the decision with integrity, with selflessness, and with an eye on history, and you hope that you can answer for it when you die. It's just — it's a little mystical.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. By the way, for people that have not listened to the podcast, and I suspect there's not that many people frankly that are listening to this that haven't listened to the podcast, but you guys paint the scene really well of these three prosecutors going to Elliot Richardson's office. And Richardson doesn't know this.

Richardson's sitting there. He's the third attorney general. He's got Watergate as the dominant story in the country. The country is veering towards a constitutional crisis, and these three line prosecutors come to the office to be —

RACHEL MADDOW: Average age, 32.

CHRIS HAYES: Average age 32, to be like, By the way, the vice president's also taking bribes in the White House in sacks of cash. And Richardson's like, Are you f****** kidding me? Are you f****** kidding me? Do I need this? I don't need this.

RACHEL MADDOW: You can imagine him, and this doesn't come up, but you can sort of imagine him being like, Please tell me this is Watergate. Please tell me this is Watergate-related. No, it's a totally separate thing. Please tell me this is from the past. Please tell me...

CHRIS HAYES: No.

RACHEL MADDOW: No, no, no. He's taking thousands, tens of thousands of dollars in cash, in his White House office, as a matter totally separate from Watergate. And we got him dead to rights.

CHRIS HAYES: And we have it. Yeah.

RACHEL MADDOW: And we got it. Oh, I'm sorry Mr. Attorney General. Do you have to break to go take another drunken call from the President, who is freaking out about his scandal? Which is...

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

RACHEL MADDOW: I mean —

CHRIS HAYES: No, that's —

RACHEL MADDOW: Okay, so do the right thing.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And what the right thing is. There's also this question, too, I mean, I think the satisfying thing about Agnew, and I think in some ways the satisfying thing about Nixon, ultimately, right, is the truth outs.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: We do know the truth. There's a question in my mind, as I go back to that, and I think you and I, and everyone else, has been doing a lot of back and forth, right? Looking back at previous periods of American history, particularly that period. Does the truth out because of some teleological force in the universe? Does the truth out as a matter of moral physics? Or does the truth out because the jacka** taped himself, and it's just an accident of history that, because he wanted this tax write-off, that the tapes were there?

RACHEL MADDOW: I mean, I am a little romantic about the constitution, and so I think that, in part, the truth comes out on these things because these are matters of law enforcement, and law enforcement follows a non-political track in our country, where evidence gets preserved. Things are archived. People aren't allowed to just take the White House tapes out into a barrel and burn them in the backyard, and if they did, they'd get in trouble.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

RACHEL MADDOW: And prosecutors figure this stuff out, and stuff gets recorded. I mean, the prosecutors, in the end — and we're not to this part in the podcast yet — but the prosecutors make this very interesting decision about how they are going to publicly memorialize all of their evidence of Agnew's crimes, which is something that will seem totally new to you, when you get to that part in the podcast, because even though they publicly memorialized it, it disappeared in the billowing mushroom cloud that was Watergate at the time.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

RACHEL MADDOW: But making that decision to make sure there is a public record? Okay, like... that's why I think these things come out. There aren't Stasi files that get burned by the barrel when the government flips over. We're not like that. We're a stable democracy with law enforcement that exists outside of political wins. But we also have to fight to keep that.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Right. That's the moment that we're in. Or it feels like the moment we're in.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Agnew and Nixon go down as sort of villains of history, I think it's not crazy to say.

RACHEL MADDOW: To the extent that anybody remembers Agnew at all.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right. Or a forgotten figure. But then I keep coming back to... I'm watching this now, and I watch the news every day.

RACHEL MADDOW: You make some of it.

CHRIS HAYES: Make some of it, I guess, and there's two things happening, right? So one level, there's this, Everything's unprecedented! Never before. Never before. Which is — part of it's true. There's a lot of stuff being done that hasn't been done before, or said before, particularly. Then there's also this kind of historical amnesia that's maddening, which is part of why I like the fact that you spend so much time on history, and I like this podcast. Because it's like, actually, there's some precedent here.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah, yeah. And that we are... I think that you're right. There are both of those things happening at once. We have never had a non-Senate-confirmed person running the Justice Department, and specifically overseeing an investigation into the president who put that non-Senate confirmed person in charge of the Justice Department to oversee that investigation. That's definitely unprecedented.

That said, we have had a demagogic, attack-the-media White House figure under federal criminal investigation, who defied the Justice Department as inherently partisan, as part of his defense. It's worth remembering that stuff. But I also feel like one of the things that I feel like we've learned from the professional historians who we get to talk to as part of news right now, because there is so much interest in whether there's precedent for so much of the stuff that we're seeing, is that history isn't dead, either.

Reagan and Bush leave the White House on January 20, 1989, Reagan's last day as president and Bush's first day in the Oval Office. Bush had beaten Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis the previous November.The White house / via Getty Images

When George H. W. Bush was going to become Ronald Reagan's vice-presidential running mate, or when he was going to become Ronald Reagan's successor as president of the United States, you would think that would be an occasion for people to go back and vet everything that George H.W. Bush did, and every controversy he was adjacent to, as part of the country deciding whether or not he should be vice president, and then president of the United States.

Why is it that in a podcast in 2018, we are the ones who are able to find the archival material that shows that George H. W. Bush was part of what appears to be a criminal obstruction of justice scheme to try to save Spiro Agnew's neck, right? Poppy Bush was RNC chairman at the time of Watergate. His Watergate record is not awesome.

CHRIS HAYES: No! It is not.

RACHEL MADDOW: His Spiro Agnew record is curl-your-hair bad. And George H.W. Bush went on to be a million other things in U.S. history, and his place in history is big and complex, but this is a deep, dark, potentially-criminal part of it. How are we only turning this up now? It wasn't that hard to find.

CHRIS HAYES: Right! And that, to me, that when George H.W. Bush makes his appearance in Episode Four as being part of this criminal obstruction enterprise...

RACHEL MADDOW: A key part of it. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: The thing that I obsess over now is George W. Bush and the Iraq War, because I just feel like, partly, I think it's generational that was so defining. I was 24 or 25 when the war started. It was the kind of, in so many ways, defining political fight of my 20s.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: But also, I think, in American history, is, like, a true stain. A truly dark moment. There are hundreds of thousands of people that were killed in Iraq, and almost 5,000 service members. I think about 1,000 service members — Americans — that were killed. It's just amazing to me how little that sticks, in some ways.

I think sometimes, in the darkest times, now, it's like this... you tell yourself this History has its eyes on you kind of thing, that the truth will out, and the books will be written. But it's like... maybe not.

RACHEL MADDOW: Or maybe because Donald Trump is the next Republican president after George W. Bush, people start thinking about George W. Bush as a kindly guy who's nice to Michelle Obama at funerals.

CHRIS HAYES: Which I just mean, and I'm sure interpersonally, everyone that I know who knows him says that he's a perfectly charming, decent, whatever, but like, that aside, I just...

RACHEL MADDOW: History is contested ground.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the point. It's contested ground.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah. I got home... Recently, there was this controversy where the First Lady, Melania Trump, appears to have called for the firing of the Deputy National Security Advisor. It was this strange thing. I got home after talking about that for the first time —

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, her spokesperson definitely did call for the firing.

RACHEL MADDOW: Well, said that that person "does not deserve to be ..."

CHRIS HAYES: I guess that's true, yeah.

RACHEL MADDOW: Well, anyway. We've all lived through this controversy in the past week.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

RACHEL MADDOW: The first time we talked about it on the show, a few days ago, I got home, and Susan says to me, "Wasn't there a controversy about Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff?" I said, "Yes. Nancy Reagan essentially caused the firing of the White House Chief of Staff. It was a slightly different thing. It wasn't a national security job. It was a big scandal at the time and everything."

I said, "But at the same time, people don't like to think of even Reagan's worst scandals as being all that scandalous anymore, because of the way that Reagan has been remembered in history." She said, "Yeah, but I remember what you were like when he died." I was like, "What are you talking about?" She's like, "You've blocked it out, but I remember what you were like."

I was like, "What was I like?" She gave me a whole chapter and verse of how, when Ronald Reagan died, I didn't have a nice thing to say about him, and couldn't summon the goodwill to be even nice about the funeral, because all I could talk about was Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra, and Ronald Reagan and AIDS, and Ronald Reagan and his other scandals.

So that's my own lived history, that my girlfriend remembers, about my views within the past decade, that I already don't even remember. I was like, "What was I so mad about? Nancy Reagan firing the Chief of Staff? That wasn't that bad."

CHRIS HAYES: Not that big a deal.

RACHEL MADDOW: Susan was like, "Girl, sit down! Do you remember yourself? Let me hold up a mirror. Let me tell you how impossible you were to live with the week of the Reagan funeral." I was like, "Oh, dear." My own history.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm not going to keep you much longer, because you and I both have television shows. But people ask me this all the time. Right now, when I'm socializing with people, sort of friends-of-friends, they're like, Man, this must be such an amazing time to do your job. I feel like my response doesn't really give them what they want.

RACHEL MADDOW: Is that true? What do you usually say?

CHRIS HAYES: Because my response is just like, Yeah. Just, we're trying. I don't know if we're doing it right. I'm just filled with constant self-doubt about navigating this particular moment.

RACHEL MADDOW: More than you are at other points?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, yeah, I think so. I found this one more...

RACHEL MADDOW: What would doing it right be?

CHRIS HAYES: I think the thing that I wrestle with a lot is the attentional economy of the world of Donald Trump.

RACHEL MADDOW: What's the right stuff to cover?

CHRIS HAYES: What's the right stuff? What do you pay attention to, and what do you ignore? In some ways, that's the defining question of our age.

RACHEL MADDOW: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: How do you feel? What is your response to someone saying like, How does it feel to be covering this right now? To do your job right now?

RACHEL MADDOW: What I usually say, and I think it's true, is that mostly what this time feels like is that I feel blessed and lucky to have this job. I feel like it is a privilege. It's like winning the lottery. My job is to read the news all day, figure out what I think is important in the news, and then explain it on my own terms in a way that I hope is helpful to people. For anybody who's worried about the news, imagine just being paid to do that so you didn't have to do other stuff for money. That's great, and I feel very lucky to have this job, and I will have it as long as they will let me have it.

At the same time, what you're saying, in terms of figuring out how to do it right, we are living in an era with an unusual president who has an unusual talent, which probably explains more of how he got into the White House than anything else.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

RACHEL MADDOW: Which is that he's very effective at manipulating media coverage of him and things that he directs media attention to.

CHRIS HAYES: He draws attention. And he's good at attention.

RACHEL MADDOW: And diverting attention.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, but manipulating attention.

RACHEL MADDOW: He's great at it. So how do you do it right? How do you not play requests in this environment? It's an inherently difficult task, that you can never do perfectly right, and you need to recalibrate every day.

Neither of us is running for office. We're not running a political movement. We're not running activist campaigns to get stuff done. We're trying to explain stuff in a way that's honest and helpful. That is something that is just a struggle, and you'll get it wrong a little bit every day, and every day, you try to get it a little bit more right.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, but part of it, too, is that it's just hard for me. And this is maybe the philosophy major in me. This is the third time in this podcast I've talked about wanting to theorize something, which is that I can never quite theorize it.

RACHEL MADDOW: The challenge? Or...

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, the challenge, or Why'd you do this story and not that story? It all feels — it's partly the nature of the production schedule, the craziness of the news cycle, that it all feels under-theorized to me, and because it feels under-theorized to me, I go home every night being like, Ah. Did I make the right call there?

It's funny, because I remember, when I first met you. The first time I think I met you was in D.C., it was at a bar in D.C., it was the first or second time. You invited me out. You were in D.C., and you invited me out, and I was very, very excited, and very touched that you invited me to have a drink with you after the show, and I was like, Wow. This is the big time.

RACHEL MADDOW: It wasn't what you thought.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Yeah. Check my hair in the mirror, made sure I was wearing my nice new shirt.

RACHEL MADDOW: Make sure we weren't wearing the exact same outfit, like we do every day.

CHRIS HAYES: I remember going, and it was early. You had gotten the show, and you were really wrestling with all this stuff. You had gotten the show. You were trying to find your feet a little bit, and I think you were. And I'm just sitting there feeling, Dude, you are crushing it! It's amazing! You've got a fricking television show. A television show! It's on the TV. You can just put it on! All these people watch it. And you're you, and isn't that the greatest?

And you're like, I don't know if I'm doing this right.

RACHEL MADDOW: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I see the face, because I remember coming away from that being like, Man, she's really ...

RACHEL MADDOW: She's a little screwed up.

CHRIS HAYES: She's a little screwed up by this thing. I can see now, when I'm at a social event, where someone opens with that to me, be like, Buddy, you're crushing it! You're doing it! You're there. Trump, man. Woo! Yeah, get him! Go do it!

I'm just like, Oh, I don't know. What am I doing? What am I doing? You just see their face drop in exactly like, Oh, what's going on in there, buddy? But it's just because there's no right answer, is really what I'm saying.

RACHEL MADDOW: And it's because you care about doing it right.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly.

RACHEL MADDOW: It's because you care about the opportunity that you've been given. You and I both have this sense of being on a tightrope. I could fail at any moment, I need to take advantage of this moment that I've got. This is a great thing. I want to do the best that I can. And I recognize that so few people have this opportunity, I want to use it in the way that is right?

It's not ambition, so much, as it is respect for the platform.

CHRIS HAYES: It's respect for the platform, and, yes, exactly. And also, there's a higher purpose here about the truth. There's a fidelity to something that's getting it right in some way. Telling the truth in the ways that citizens need to know what's happening in the world so that they can self-govern.

RACHEL MADDOW: But, I mean, that's freedom, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

RACHEL MADDOW: Part of the way that you honor the freedom of the press, and the freedom that we have been afforded editorially to do what we want in the way that we want to do it, is by acting in an unconstrained manner. When we are unconstrained, and we are not driven by other people's imperatives or fiats, then it's hard to decide what to do because we're free to do what we want.

And that struggle to do right with that amount of freedom, is A: a blessing, and B: it should be hard. We should be filled with self-doubt, and we should be trying every day to un-break a little bit of the broken process that we work with.

CHRIS HAYES: To me, that comes back to Elliot Richardson sitting in that office. Which is that it's not clear what the right answer is, but you've got to do your work. You've got to try to do your work with integrity.

RACHEL MADDOW: And that's why you need to be in good shape, you know what I mean? You need support. You need to sleep. You need to have a clear mind, and a clear heart about what you're doing. You need to clear space in your life, so you can give the best of you to everything you're doing. Because these decisions are not easy.

CHRIS HAYES: They're not easy.

RACHEL MADDOW: We're not walking on a path that anybody else has cut. You have to do your best every day. It's hard. You're going to screw up. Part of doing your best means cleaning up your messes and making a renewed commitment every day to trying to do it as best you can. Doing it with integrity. Being able to answer for your actions, both on a daily basis, and at the end of it all.

CHRIS HAYES: At Peter's Gates.

RACHEL MADDOW: I mean, it ought to be hard.

CHRIS HAYES: The pastor Rachel Maddow, is… Rachel Maddow is the host of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which you can find at 9 p.m. on MSNBC. She is also the host of “Bag Man,” which is a great new serialized podcast about a historical scandal that is mind blowing, but whose details are very poorly known, told in an extremely gripping fashion. You can find that wherever you get your podcasts. There's probably an ad for it in the midst of this podcast. I imagine we ran her promo.

She is also a mensch. She is a great soul, a wonderful human, and my dear friend. Thank you, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW: You're killing me, man. Thanks, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, thank you to Rachel for taking some time to sit down. You have to understand that Rachel's process for producing and creating that show every night is the most intense in all of cable news, by literally orders of magnitude.

I mean, I work very hard. We work very hard to make our show. What she does every night on that show requires this level of both effort, genius and sustained concentration that is just almost inconceivable. It's like she runs a marathon every day. So asking her to take an hour out of that day was not a small ask, so I'm super, super grateful that she made the time to do that. I hope you guys enjoyed it as well.

We always love to hear from you, so send us your feedback on this conversation or any others that you have encountered. You can tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod. Or email us: WITHpod@gmail.com. We do read all those e-mails. We do read the tweets, and we do love to hear from you.

As you see from this episode, we take your suggestions seriously. Rachel is one of a number of people that have been suggested to us as guests through both of those channels, and we always love to hear ideas for people that I should interview.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.