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The Wildest Month of the US Presidency, Part I
The Spiro Agnew Edition
Washington today seems tense and grim. The House of Representatives is without a speaker, as the body’s GOP is in the midst of incredible, unprecedented infighting following its internal coup against Kevin McCarthy. The Senate faces myriad problems of its own—from the federal bribery charges against Sen. Bob Menendez to the disruptive hold by Sen. Tommy Tuberville on hundreds of military promotions, a paralysis rippling through the Pentagon’s upper ranks. Both houses are staring down another government shutdown next month with little optimism that fiscal deals can be worked out in time, given the House’s current dynamics. The Republican Party’s leading presidential candidate, meanwhile, faces 91 felony charges across four criminal cases and a year of jumping from courtroom to courtroom in New York, D.C., Florida, and Georgia.
And then this weekend saw a unprecedented surprise attack against Israel.
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It’s a remarkable line-up of political challenges.
But hardly the most remarkable.
This very month, in fact, marks the 50th anniversary of what is surely the single wildest month of the US presidency: October 1973, a month that featured prominently in my WATERGATE book and saw the collision of four titanic, history-altering events.
The month began with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew—fifty years ago today, in fact—and his no contest plea to federal bribery charges; then there was the court battle over Nixon’s White House tapes that culminated in the Saturday Night Massacre, the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignation/firings of the attorney general and deputy attorney general; all of that took place against the backdrop of the US attempting to responding to the spiraling Yom Kippur War, a drama that threatened to spark a more global conflagration and brought the US military to DEFCON 3 levels, one of the two highest levels of military alerts during the entire Cold War. To top it all off, following Agnew’s resignation, Nixon nominated House minority leader Gerald Ford to the vice presidency, the first-ever use of the 25th Amendment and the only time in American history that someone has ascended to the vice-presidency absent an election.
Each of these events on their own would normally stand as one of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century presidency and yet all of them today are generally waved together under the vast umbrella of “Watergate.”
I wanted to mark this anniversary of this wild month with four newsletters recounting each of these milestone events, beginning today with Spiro Agnew’s resignation and court plea. This series is drawn in part from my WATERGATE book, as well as informed by some supplemental research over this summer I did with a superstar intern, Nina Howe-Goldstein, who tried to help me make sense of how all these events overlapped and influenced one another.
Spiro Agnew was one of the stranger picks in US history for the vice presidency, which is quite a statement for a post as long obscure and filled with odd characters as the vice presidency. His selection in 1968 by Richard Nixon had been a shock to nearly everyone, including almost Nixon himself, who had initially preferred others, like California governor Ronald Reagan. Agnew, the first-term governor of Maryland, had a reputation as something of a liberal and Nixon ultimately saw him as a fresh face who wouldn’t upset any part of the GOP coalition. Few seemed more surprised at Agnew’s selection than Agnew. As he told the ’68 Republican convention, “I stand here with a deep sense of the improbability of this moment.”
In office, though, Agnew found a niche as the administration’s attack dog. He rattled off quips and insults against elites, the press, and Democrats alike, at one dismissing inner-city neighborhoods by saying “if you’ve seen one slum you’ve seen them all.” As the Nixon administration advance, he blasted the press as “a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one.” Such remarks catapulted the vice-president’s previously low profile to the front ranks of the administration. Agnew was thrilled by the outrage: “Gangbusters!” he told speechwriter Pat Buchanan. A few days later, they teamed up again for Agnew to attack the Washington Post and the New York Times in a speech to an Alabama chamber of commerce. Agnew’s fiery and fierce anti-media, anti-elite rhetoric soon became his stump speech calling card, earning him the affection of conservative groups across the country and keeping the base fired up for Nixon. The press, Agnew said, were “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Then, in 1973, Agnew’s past collided with Richard Nixon’s future. By the end of the summer of 1973, the Watergate scandals—as I’ve argued Watergate was less a single event on June 17, 1972, than an umbrella for about a dozen interrelated but distinct corruption scandals—had reached a certain natural momentum.
The original burglary trial early in the year had ended with a dramatic note from James McCord alleging perjury that helped push for the appointment of a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, and the summer Ervin Committee hearings had seen eye-opening nation-riveting revelations from John Dean and Alexander Butterfield about the existence of a White House taping system. Then on August 6th, just when it seemed impossible for the White House to handle another scandal, the Wall Street Journal reported that a federal prosecutor in Baltimore was looking into bribery allegations against Vice President Spiro Agnew.
As FBI agents had pieced together, it was not a particularly complicated or innovative bribery and extortion plan: After being elected county executive in Baltimore in 1962, Agnew had insisted on a three to five percent kickback on county contracts. The cash payments arrived regularly, usually in plain white envelopes, handed over in person. (If you want more of the Agnew story, Rachel Maddow has an excellent podcast about it.) Agnew had participated in the scheme not only as a county executive in Baltimore, but also as Maryland governor and even—shockingly—as vice president, accepting payments in the White House complex itself, as well as in the hotel suite at the Sheraton Park where he lived. (When he became vice president, the key conduit simply called Agnew’s secretary to set up hand-offs, telling her he had “information” to deliver.) Prosecutors had based part of their case on the Secret Service visit logs, which carefully—and unknowingly—recorded the precise dates and times of the meetings and payoffs. As far as prosecutors could tell, he had used the money in similarly ordinary ways; there was no lavish lifestyle or dark secrets lurking in Agnew’s day-to-day spending. He was just a run-of-the-mill crook who had ended up vice president.
(Amazing aside: Nina went back and interviewed some of the former prosecutors this summer, and it appears that perhaps Agnew might have used some of the money to buy jewelry for a paramour, a detail considered then too salacious to make public. In fact, the prosecutors back in 1973 consciously shied away from tracing the Agnew money trail too deeply, fearing that they might something they didn't want to know. As one of them told Nina, “With all due respect to Ken Starr, whatever Agnew did was his business.")
Agnew had become aware of the investigation as early as February 1973, as word moved through Baltimore circles that federal prosecutors were digging into kickback schemes. And over the months ahead, rather than being cowed or chastened, he engaged in an audacious effort to obstruct justice, rally political support, and forestall consequences. In April, he’d asked the White House for help in shutting down the probe. (“The vice president called me over today and said he had a real problem,” H.R. Haldeman had recorded in his journal on April 10th.) Agnew had wanted Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, to put some pressure on Maryland’s senator, Glenn Beall, whose brother, George, was the US attorney investigating the case.
While Haldeman—just weeks from his own ignominious White House exit—declined to intervene, he relayed the conversation to aide John Ehrlichman, who on April 13th warned Nixon about the situation. Ehrlichman recalled too an odd report from March 1970, from when Agnew had tried to seize control of federal government contracts being awarded in the mid-Atlantic; at the time, he and Haldeman had thought it was simply the vice president trying to carve out a larger profile for himself in the administration. Now, they realized with horror that Agnew had been trying to set himself up to continue his bribery and kickback scheme on a national level.
Over the months ahead, Agnew pressed Nixon multiple times to intervene and Nixon made multiple efforts to do so. At one point, Alexander Haig—who replaced Haldeman as chief of staff that spring—even enlisted the head of the Republican National Committee, George H.W. Bush, to contact the older Beall brother. (“Senator Beall wasn’t as responsive as he might have been, although he’s damn upset about it,” Haig reported back later.) By June, Agnew told Nixon directly, “I’m going to be indicted, it looks like.” The next month, Attorney General Elliott Richardson told Haig and the White House, “They say up in Baltimore that they have enough evidence to charge the vice president with 40 felony counts for violations of federal statutes on bribery, tax evasion, and corruption.”
On August 1st, Maryland US Attorney George Beall officially notified the vice president that he was the target of the investigation. Chuck Colson helped line up a lawyer, and five days later, the allegations leaked in the Wall Street Journal: Agnew had received $1,000 a week in kickbacks for six years as Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor, and he’d taken some $50,000 in payments as vice president too. “Damned lies,” he maintained in a press conference.
As Watergate had deepened, the president had long joked that his number two’s ferocity and unpleasantness was his best insurance policy against impeachment—not even the most rabid Democrat preferred Agnew over Nixon—but that’s where the compliments stopped. In fact, he’d never much liked Agnew. They didn’t get along personally, and Nixon, who had been vice president himself, thought the former governor had underperformed at every turn. If he’d behaved like Agnew while Dwight Eisenhower’s #2, Nixon grumbled, “Ike would have fired my ass.” Now, they were facing the possibility of a double impeachment—a political disaster that if not properly managed and sequenced would deliver Democratic House Speaker Carl Albert to the White House to serve out the remainder of Nixon’s term.
As summer moved into fall, the White House and Justice Department began to confront the the challenge of how best to push the vice president of the United States out of his own government.
With options dwindling, Agnew’s ferocity rose. In late September, he used a speech to the National Federation of Republican Women in a Los Angeles to take the offensive. “Small and fearful men have been frightened into furnishing evidence against me,” the vice president ranted to the 2,000 sympathetic audience members. “I will not resign if indicted!” The audience roared with chants of “Fight Agnew fight!” and waved signs declaring, “Agnew for President.” The speech worried both Nixon’s circles, who feared their vice president’s growing connection with the party’s most rabid conservatives, and the Justice Department, who saw Agnew’s speech as an assault on their rule of law. Nixon found himself squeezed—how could he not defend his own attorney general and Justice Department, but how could he attack his own vice president?
Haig continued unsuccessfully to push Agnew to resign. “The vice president was tough, cold, and aggressive in his demands,” Haig recalled, “a large, smooth, bullet-headed man, impeccably groomed and tailored in the Washington style, and when he turned off his considerable charm he was capable of conveying a somewhat menacing impression.” The situation got so tense that Haig joked to his wife that if he disappeared, she “might want to look inside any recently poured bridge pilings in Maryland.”
Agnew and Watergate, although separate scandals with entirely unrelated players, had merged as a political problem, and Nixon knew he needed to relieve himself of Agnew before he could focus on his own challenge. Watergate was spiraling for him; October opened with a guilty plea by campaign aide Donald Segretti to three misdemeanor campaign law violations, a confession that would later serve as the foundation for a perjury charge against another campaign aide, Dwight Chapin, who had repeatedly told the FBI he had little contact with Segretti. Nixon himself was locked in a high-stakes court battle with the Watergate Special Prosecution Force over access to the White House tapes—Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, was busily transcribing them herself that fall As one late September meeting with the president on Agnew wrapped up, and as his attorney general headed to the door, Nixon changed the subject: Once Agnew was gone, he intended to fire the special prosecutor.
The end came, as ends often do, unexpectedly quickly. And this brings us to October 1973 and the events of 50 years ago today.
The final hours of Agnew’s presidency unfolded even as war broke open in the Middle East. Henry Kissinger had begun his shared role as national security advisor and the nation’s 54th secretary of state on September 22nd and was just asleep in his suite at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on Saturday, October 6th when an aide awoke him with news that Egyptian air forces and armored vehicles had launched a massive, sustained attack on Israel in the Sinai peninsula. The fight, coming just as Israel began to mark Yom Kippur, quickly turned dire—officials were away, military units unready—as it found itself under siege from a large Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria. Hundreds of aircraft and thousands of tanks battled across the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, as Egypt seized the eastern bank of the Suez Canal to Israel’s north and Syrian tanks advanced ten miles into the Golan Heights on its north. Nixon was back in Key Biscayne, and Kissinger rushed to Washington to chair a National Security Council crisis group meeting; he and Haig, who was down in Florida with the president, agreed that Nixon should not rush back to the White House also, a move that might appear to ratchet up the sense of geopolitical crisis. That first set of decisions set the tone of the rest of the conflict; over the days ahead, while Nixon and most of his inner-circle found themselves consumed by Watergate and Agnew, Haig and Kissinger would all-but independently navigate the war in the Middle East together. (More on this in another essay to come, as Nixon’s depression and drinking spiraled over the course of October’s dramatic events!)
On October 4th, Haig cornered one of Agnew’s top aides to tell him simply, “The clock is running.” The vice president had neither support on Capitol Hill, nor the unconditional backing of the president. When Haig added, “The president has a lot of power—don’t forget that,” the vice president knew it was the most direct warning he was likely to get that Nixon was done with him.
The prosecution and defense struggled to find an acceptable middle ground. The Justice Department wanted prison time, but Agnew saw that as a deal-breaker. “He would resign only if he could do so with no possibility of confinement and he could resign with dignity,” his defense lawyer recalled years later. All nine of Maryland’s federal judges had recused themselves from the case, so a judge from the neighboring district in Virginia was appointed. On October 8th the judge summoned the parties to the Old Colony Motel in Alexandria, Virginia, for a day of covert negotiations in Room 208—the government and defense lawyers perched on chairs and the sofa. Private conferences were held in the bathroom. They went through so many rounds of discussion that the various proposals were known by the drafter’s initials and numbers; “HEP #3,” became the outlines of a deal, named after the third draft of a proposal by Henry E. Peterson, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division.
On October 9th, Attorney General Richardson surprised Haig by calling to say that after much thought, he’d decided he could stomach allowing Agnew to avoid jail if he resigned, pleaded guilty to a minor charge, and allowed the evidence against him to become public. The change-of-heart, one of the prosecutors later explained, “had to do with the top-priority importance to the country of getting him out of the vice-presidency.” Nixon’s own battles were growing; the tension was too great for the government to hold. The attorney general felt the larger cause of justice was served by removing Agnew from office. “I am in a lonely spot over here,” Richardson told Haig. “I am going to make clear to my own people that this is the result of my own prayerful consideration.”
That night, prosecutors stayed up late preparing a detailed, 40-page recitation of the case against Agnew, summoning witnesses to the courthouse all through the evening and night to run through what amounted to an assembly line of evidence. (In an age before word processors, the prosecutors literally cut the transcribed statements apart with scissors and reassembled them with tape.) The attorney general and Peterson arrived around 2 a.m., bringing fresh doughnuts and coffee for a final push. They finished just ahead of their early morning deadline and US marshals raced a copy by police escort—lights flashing and siren screaming—to Agnew’s team in Washington, by 8:05 a.m. The whole process unfolded in total secrecy.
That morning in Washington, Nixon hosted a briefing for lawmakers on the unfolding Arab-Israeli war. The members of Congress found him in an oddly jovial, almost manic mood, no matter the political and geopolitical storms engulfing his White House. He couldn’t stop interrupting Kissinger’s presentation to make fun of his aide’s reputation as a lothario. “We had a lot of trouble finding Henry,” Nixon teased. “He was in bed with a broad.” The secretary of state and national security advisor appeared nonplussed and continued presenting, only to have Nixon interrupt again: “Which girl were you with? It’s a terrible thing when you’re with a girl and the Secret Service comes looking for you.”
Scribbling in his notes at the meeting, House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill wrote, President is acting very strangely. In their car ride back to Capitol Hill, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Thomas “Doc” Morgan, also lamented to O’Neill the president’s apparent distraction, but wrote it off as generalized stress: “He’s in real trouble, but I guess if we had his problems, we’d be the same way.”
When O’Neill got back to the Hill, he went to the House floor. There a presidential messenger handed him a letter while he was mid-conversation with another congressman. O’Neill slipped it into his pocket absent-mindedly as they spoke, and pulled it out later while he was smoking a cigar in the rear of the House chamber.
The letter, from Agnew, informed the House of his resignation.
At 2:01 p.m. on the afternoon of October 10th, Spiro Agnew, wearing a light blue suit, walked into a Baltimore courtroom; in an adjacent room, an aide noted his arrival and gave the signal for a letter of resignation to be delivered to Kissinger in Washington. It was critical, everyone had agreed, that the resignation be sequenced first, so history wouldn’t record a sitting vice president pleading out in court. Richardson and Peterson represented the US government at the prosecution’s table alongside Maryland US Attorney George Beall, prepared to take on the full burden and public criticism of the lax plea arrangement. US marshals then sealed the courtroom. Agnew pleaded “no contest” to a single count of tax evasion.
“You fully understand the charge?” the judge asked.
“I do, your honor,” the now former vice president said, although later in the proceedings he denied all the other government’s charges.
In a press conference after, Attorney General Richardson made clear that he believed leniency was in the interest of full justice. “I’m keenly aware first of the historic magnitude of the penalties inherent in the Vice President’s resignation from his high office and his acceptance of a judgment of conviction for a felony,” he said. “To propose that a man who has suffered these penalties should in addition be incarcerated in a penal institution, however briefly, is more than I as head of the Government prosecuting arm, can recommend or wish.”
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Agnew avoided being fingerprinted or photographed; instead, he was quickly whisked out of court and taken, stricken, to a local funeral home. It had been a tragic 24 hours for the family; his half-brother had died the day before. The Agnews, in grief and shock on multiple levels, dined on linguini with clam sauce that night in Baltimore’s Little Italy.
Back in Washington, Agnew’s staff was informed of the resignation; a weeping secretary confirmed the news when an AP reporter called moments later, leading to a surreal bulletin: Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned today, his secretary said. The law-and-order vice president had pleaded no contest to federal charges, just months after the law-and-order attorney general had himself been indicted. Everyone wondered: Would the law-and-order president be next?
The irony of the case was such that after all of Nixon’s jokes about Agnew being his insurance policy against impeachment or assassination, it was Nixon who served as Agnew’s insurance policy: Thanks to the president’s own scandal, Spiro Agnew got off easy. “[Agnew] was forgotten instantaneously by the public and the press, and I do not recall ever hearing his name mentioned in the White House again,” Haig noted in his memoirs.
Indeed, Haig’s observation in his memoirs, written in the early 1990s, have only become more true with passing time. Today, we’ve all but forgotten Agnew’s resignation and his vice-presidency, but as we’ll see in the coming weeks and essays-to-come, it was Agnew’s bribery scandal and resignation that in some ways unlocked all the rest that was to come with the downfall of Richard Nixon. It’s not too much of an exaggeration that had either Agnew either fought through his indictment or never been indicted in the first place, Nixon might well have served out his second term right through January 20, 1977.
More to come in the weeks ahead on October 1973, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the wildest month in presidential history….
PS: As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, if you’d like to preorder my UFO book — out a month from Saturday! — you can get a signed/inscribed copy and a special “challenge coin” honoring the Pentagon’s once-secret UFO hunting programs. We’ve got about 50 challenge coins left!
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