Bagman, a podcast by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, is not only providing an amazing peek into history during the #Nixon Presidency but is certain to keep the listeners riveted. A film is in the making, written by Adam Pearlman and Mike Yarvitz and with writer, director, producer, Ben Stiller. Bagman tells a true story of one of the most brazen bribery and extortion scandals ever to happen at the scale it did. But lest you believe this was about the #Watergate scandal, it was NOT. This was an entirely independent crime concurrently happening at the same time that the country was occupied with the Watergate scandal.
The subject of this scandal, the “individual 1” was not Nixon but who then? The year was 1973. Just the previous year, Richard Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew had handily defeated their opponent Senator George McGovern of South Dakota in a total landslide, receiving all but 18 of the 538 electoral votes. For the time being, let us keep the name of the chief perpetrator a suspense here. Despite President Nixon’s initial lack of knowledge about this crime, he soon learned about it and participated in covering it up with support of several Republican senators, including future President George W. Bush.
Besides telling the incredible story of the chief criminal, the podcast also focuses in equal measures on a team of young federal prosecutors, Tim Baker, Ron Libman, and Barney Skolnik who started this investigation miles away from DC, in local corruption happening in Maryland where they found that local officials were taking thousands of dollars in cash kickbacks from companies that were awarded federal contracts. While the country was increasingly riveted by the Watergate scandal, these prosecutors were far away from the White House. But as they got deeper into the money trail it led them directly inside the White House.
As these prosecutors began collecting evidence, they found that their case was becoming rock solid. If it was any other individual, that person would be indicted and in jail in no time. However, given the status of the perpetrator and the venue where the crime was opening occuring, they were stumped in how to proceed. We have often heard the expression that behind every successful man, there’s a woman. But perhaps behind a criminal man there are hundreds of women, enabling him and here was a criminal sitting at a top leadership level in the country and enjoyed high popularity among women from the Republican party.
These prosecutors took the case to their boss, George Bell and together all four of them drove to Washington D.C. to see Nixon’s AG Elliot Richardson. They fully expected to be told by Elliot Richardson something that would amount to shutting down the investigation. Elliot Richardson is the same AG who made history later that precipitated what came to be known as the Saturday massacre in the Nixon Presidency. At that time, President Nixon asked Richardson his AG to fire the special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Richardson refused to do so which led to him being fired by Nixon and then other events followed. But that came later. At this time, Richardson met with the four prosecutors from Maryland with the stunning news of a totally independent crime taking place in the White House. Richardson gave them full cooperation to continue their investigation.
As the investigation progressed, the perpetrator realized that he was in an incredibly deep quagmire. He got his assistant to call an attorney and keeping the name of the client a secret, the attorney was requested to come to a secret location. The attorney was informed that the client was someone at very high level in the Government. How high, asked the attorney? Very high, came the answer. A Congressman? asked the attorney. Answer: higher. Q: A senator? A: Higher. Q: A cabinet member?
As the indictment seemed imminent, the news broke that “Washington was stunned today by the disclosure that the Vice President, Spiro Agnew is under criminal investigation by federal authorities in his home state of Maryland on serious charges of bribery, extortion and tax evasion. The country was already embroiled in the chaotic Watergate occurrences when this shocking news about the Vice President broke.
Let us not forget that President Nixon and Vice President Agnew had won in a landslide and if they were both to go down then who would become the President? A secret 19 page contingency plan remained locked inside the personal safe of the Democrat Speaker and Congressman from Oklahoma, Carl Albert, as he feared he may be first in line of succession during this tottering presidency and scandals.
Meanwhile, Agnew went to appeal to Congress to impeach him. He felt that would be a better fate than being indicted criminally. He was laughed out of there. During all this while the prosecutors were in total agony as they were racing against time. Just as the Nixon Presidency was unraveling, Nixon’s exit looked increasingly likely and that meant the next in line of succession would ascend to the Presidency UNLESS they sped up the investigation and brought charges or reached some kind of a deal to get Agnew out.
And while President Nixon supported his VP Agnew and even participated in attempts to obstruct justice and shut down investigation into Agnew’s criminal conduct, he now perceived Agnew as a threat to himself and therefore wanted Agnew out. Not to be outdone, Agnew on the other hand, went on national television and confessed that he feared for his life on account of his own President and President’s law enforcement agencies. Can it get more juicy and shocking than this? Every juicy detail and most of private conversations are corroborated in the podcast with cross references and many from the tapes that Nixon himself had planted.
This podcast marvelously recounts the details of this scandal concurrently happening at the same time while Nixon’s own karma was bringing him down. It is so riveting that once you start listening, you will not want to stop until the end. I highly recommend it – it is a piece of history so beautifully narrated, incredibly well researched, impressively presented and packed with information and details, some of which has never before come to light. This is a must-hear podcast not only because it brings important piece of history to light very comprehensively BUT there are also many lessons for the present and likely for the future, at anytime, when our democracy comes under threat.