- 16 chapters
- Acknowledgements, A Note on Sources, and Notes
A big reason this book is possible is that a lot of material was available for researchers. Nixon was notorious for having the White House wiretapped. Others kept notes and even audio diaries. A lot of documents were preserved, some in attics to hide them from an FBI that was more interested in helping Agnew than in the truth. Maddow and Yarvitz went through a lot of that material with close attention. They also interviewed men involved in the story including the Baltimore prosecutors, Agnew's defense attorney, and others. As the authors write,
"Bag Man is the product of hours of sit-down interviews with many of those involved in the Agnew case, historical research conducted at archives and libraries across the country, and original reporting" (267).
The result is this book that reveals in detail Agnew's greed, evil, and malfeasance.
This is not just a political book. This is a seriously good and engaging narrative. The book reads like a good true crime tale with drama, intrigue, tension, and corruption. We know the story ends with Agnew's resignation, but the drama is in exactly how we get there. This book also reads like a great political thriller, and all of it is true. This is a book that in the right hands could make a good political drama film.
As I mentioned, the narrative is good and engaging. The story takes us from Agnew's rise to vice president under Nixon to Agnew's fall from grace and his sort of attempts to remake himself after leaving D.C. We also get the story of the prosecutors and federal agents putting the case together under pressure. The Watergate scandal was blowing up at the time, and the prosecutors after Agnew knew that it was very likely that Nixon would be impeached and removed. It was imperative to remove Agnew from the line of succession to avoid on crook being replaced by a bigger thief. That drama and tension make for a great story.
Another reason to read this book especially now is that Agnew's story has parallel lessons for today, especially after the U.S. survived the disastrous Trump presidency. If you think Trump's, and the GOP's, tactics of bullying, blustering, attacking the press, etc. were bad and never seen before, well hang on because Spiro Agnew basically wrote the book on that sort of behavior. If I did not know better, I might have said Trump copied Agnew's playbook, but I highly doubt Trump read this book (or any other book for that matter). Still, the lessons are there for those willing to study and learn. The authors write,
"Ultimately, Agnew failed to save himself. But he left a scorched-earth battle plan for any corrupt officeholder that followed:
Attack the investigation as a witch hunt.
Obstruct it behind the scenes.
Attack individual investigators in personal terms.
Attack the credibility of the Justice Department itself.
Attack the media informing Americans about the case.
Punch back. Hard. Until either you are broken or the system is" (244-245).
Other politicians between then and now used pages of this playbook, but Trump really scorched the earth much as Agnew attempted to do. Both men also had strong and loud political bases, including large segments of Republican women. This story not only reveals what really happened back then. It also sheds light on our current times, and it shows how vulnerable the U.S. is to bullying corrupt populists. Sadly it also reinforces that in the U.S. it really is "and justice for some." Those in higher positions of power and/or wealth have little to worry about things like jail time. Though Agnew went on to other deals and schemes, he ended up a broken man. Trump will likely go on to other schemes and grifts, but his luster is certainly faded. He is becoming damaged goods. Unlike Agnew, he does not have a deal to spare him jail time, well, at least not as of this blog post. We'll have to wait and see.
Overall this is a solid work of research and history combined with a great narrative that you just have to keep reading. I stayed up way late to finish this one, and I do not do that for just any book. If you are interested in U.S. history and politics, and perhaps also understand the current times in the U.S. a bit better, you need to pick this book up now. This was excellent, and I am happy to recommend it to anyone.
5 out of 5 stars.
* * * * *
Additional reading notes:
Agnew's story defined:
"Agnew's is a tale of a thoroughly corrupt occupant of the White House whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who then clings to high office by using the power and prerogative of that same office to save himself" (18).
Another legacy of Agnew:
"The vice presidency of Spiro T. Agnew marked the birth of the bruising, know-nothing confrontational conservatism that has been eating the lunch of seemly, Kiwanis Club Republicanism ever since" (27).
A trait Agnew and Trump had in common was their passion for golfing:
"Spiro Agnew managed to turn his 'goodwill world tour' into a taxpayer-funded taste test of the world's finest fairways-- and all with the news cameras rolling. While Richard Nixon watched, in horror, back home" (135-136).
This book qualifies for the following 2021 Reading Challenge: