There are countless presidential scandals in U.S. history, but very few of them have resulted in resignation or impeachment — which is precisely why MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was drawn to the story of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s first vice president, who resigned in 1973.
Maddow notes there are many misconceptions concerning the former vice president — including the notion that his “big sin” centered on taxes.
“When I tried to sort of thumbnail in my mind what happened in the Agnew resignation, everything I thought about it was wrong,” she says. “I had assumed that it was a Watergate-adjacent scandal, that the FBI was looking into Watergate-related crimes and they stumbled upon something in Spiro Agnew’s taxes. … All of those things were completely wrong.”
Maddow and her former producer Mike Yarvitz created the podcast Bag Man to revisit Agnew’s story. Though his resignation was officially linked to tax evasion, they say that Agnew had engaged in bribery that dated to the early 1960s, when, as Baltimore County executive, he demanded kickbacks in exchange for local engineering or architecture contracts. He continued the practice even after being elected governor of Maryland in 1967 and then vice president in 1969.
A few days after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Republican governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, strode into a conference room in downtown Baltimore. In the hours after King’s death, violence had broken out in the city; along with Washington and Chicago, it was soon occupied by the United States Army. In response, Agnew called together the black community on April 11 for “a frank and far-reaching discussion.”
It wasn’t a discussion. It was a trap. The governor tore into the crowd for standing by while rioters ransacked stores and set cars on fire. They claimed to speak for racial harmony, he boomed, but when the violence began, “You ran.”
Within minutes, most of the audience members had stormed out; at the door, they found a scrum of reporters, whom Agnew had tipped off. Within hours, Agnew’s confrontation was national news; within days, this once-obscure first-time governor was being assailed as a racist by the left and hailed as a rising star in the Republican Party. That summer, Richard Nixon picked him as his running mate.
.. Fifty years later, we remember Spiro Agnew, if at all, as a bumbling vice president who later pleaded no contest to tax evasion, resigned in disgrace and ended his career funneling military surplus to Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceausescu. But his rise during the spring of 1968 is instructive because suddenly it feels so familiar: a white Republican who claimed to speak against radicalism and for the forgotten man, but in fact ran on exacerbating racial animosity. Far from a bit player, Agnew marked a watershed moment in American history, when the Republican Party committed itself to the shift from being the party of Lincoln to the party of white racial backlash.
.. By the late 1960s, the Republicans were in a bind. Black voters, once loyal to the party, had fled to the Democrats, who had largely shed their Southern, racist faction in favor of civil rights liberalism. Racial conservatives in the South and working-class districts in the North were there for the picking, but aligning with outright racists like George Wallace was a dead end
.. The answer, party strategists realized, lay in the thorny questions raised by the civil rights revolution. It was easy for most whites to get behind ending Jim Crow in the South; it was harder for them to accept fair housing legislation or school busing, things that touched suburban
.. Opportunistic Republicans pounced.
.. Early on, Agnew positioned himself as a racial liberal — he won the governor’s office in 1966 by running to the left on civil rights against George P. Mahoney, a pro-segregation Democrat. But his mood soon turned. He became obsessed with black “agitators”; he had state law enforcement spy on civil rights activists
.. Like many conservatives in both parties, Agnew was convinced that the wave of rioting in the late 1960s wasn’t the expression of black frustration over urban unemployment, discrimination and police brutality, but was the result of a conspiracy by black leaders. “The looting and rioting which has engulfed our city during the past several days did not occur by chance,” he told his audience that day in Baltimore.
.. Nixon moved further to the right that spring and summer, abandoning his previous sympathy for urban blacks and adopting a fierce law-and-order stance.
.. Nixon’s campaign that fall was built on what would be called the Southern strategy, but as the historian Kevin Kruse has noted, it was really a suburban strategy.
.. he deployed a range of more subtle instruments — antibusing, anti-open housing — to appeal to the tens of millions of white suburbanites who imagined themselves to be racially innocent, yet quietly held many of the same prejudices about the “inner city” and “black radicals” that their parents had held about King and other civil rights activists.
.. Though he beat Hubert Humphrey by just 0.7 percentage points, Nixon dominated the suburbs
.. He heralded a new kind of virulent racial politics in America, one that pretends to moderation and equality but feeds on division and prejudice — one that, 50 years later, we are still unable to move beyond.
More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.
Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority.
.. Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media
extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rusher, talk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.
Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power.
.. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it.
.. Trump has some built-in advantages in his war on the media. Confidence in the media was in decline long before Trump entered politics
.. in September 2017 that 37 percent of the public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the mass media, down from 53 percent in 1997.
.. The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.
.. Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it
leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including
- the judiciary,
- the intelligence community,
- immigrants, and
- members of certain races or religions.
.. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.
.. motivate it to want to call out the changing norms that it sees around it, and to defend the role of important democratic institutions when they are attacked. But when the press is itself one of those institutions, it finds itself a part of the story in ways that it is unaccustomed to being, and it has to weigh the potential loss of credibility that might come with an aggressive self-defense.
.. “The best way for the press to react to Trump’s undemocratic behavior is to continue trying to do their jobs the best they can,”
.. Ladd specifically warned against “reacting to Trump by becoming more crusadingly anti-Trump.”
Trump has successfully “put the mainstream media in a difficult position,” according to Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago:
If the media directly address the accusations of fake news, they ironically run the risk of dignifying the accusations. But if they ignore the accusations, they miss the opportunity to prove their professionalism to those who have grown skeptical.
.. Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment is an integral part of a much longer series of developments in which both parties have demonstrated a willingness to defy democratic norms, although the Republican Party has been in the forefront.
For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.
.. Fishkin and Pozen cite the work of Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, to define constitutional hardball as “political claims and practices”
that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings. Constitutional hardball tactics are viewed by the other side as provocative and unfair because they flout the ‘goes without saying’ assumptions that underpin working systems of constitutional government. Such tactics do not generally flout binding legal norms. But that only heightens the sense of foul play insofar as it insulates acts of hardball from judicial review.
Republicans on the far right, in particular, Fishkin and Pozen write, have been willing to engage in constitutional hardball because they are drawn to “narratives of debasement and restoration,” which suggest
that something has gone fundamentally awry in the republic, on the order of an existential crisis, and that unpatriotic liberals have allowed or caused it to happen.
The severity of the liberal threat, in the eyes of these conservatives, justifies extreme steps to restore what they see as a besieged moral order.
.. As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.
.. Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.
.. Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls
to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.