Last week I ran across a discarded advance “review” copy of an uncoming book by Jules Whitcover entitled Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. I couldn’t resist a stroll down a distant memory lane to a period of scandal, official mendacity, polarization and an unpopular war not entirely unlike our own. I was particularly entranced by Whitcover’s tick-tock account of Agnew’s forced resignation as vice president, likely drawn from the 1974 book he wrote with Richard Cohen (now out of print) about that particular incident.Unlike Nixon’s undoing by Watergate, which rolled out slowly over many months, Agnew’s resignation, at the time at least, seemed like a bolt from the blue. But its genesis was in a state contractor kickback scheme in Baltimore County, Maryland, which probably predated Agnew’s tenure as County Executive and certainly continued afterwards. Indeed, federal prosecutors were targeting Agnew’s Democratic successor as County Executive when one of their key witnesses alleged he had continued to pay off Agnew during his two-year governorship, and briefly, during his vice-presidency, with the final payment being ten large in cash stuffed into a brown paper bag, delivered personally to the Veep in his White House office. After repeated and futile efforts to get Nixon to quash the investigation, Agnew negotiated a deal in which he admitted to a single tax evasion charge and resigned his office, while obtaining assurances he would not go to the hoosegow. The deal enabled Agnew to spend the rest of his life claiming he did nothing wrong beyond accepting campaign contributions from the contractors. He was, he said often, the victim of a dual conspiracy between those who wanted to remove him from the presidential succession in order to make Nixon’s removal politically possible, and Nixon himself, who mistakenly thought throwing his Veep to the wolves might save his own hide. But as Whitcover (all too summarily) explains, the real smoking gun in the Agnew case was an IRS investigation of his finances that resulted in a State of Maryland demand for two hundred thousand bucks in back taxes on his illegal income–a demand Agnew satisfied via loans from his maximum buddy, Frank Sinatra. I don’t know why the Agnew saga hasn’t been the subject of a big movie. It certainly has all the drama you’d ever want: the unlikely rise of an obscure local Baltimore pol who gets elected county executive and then governor thanks to Democratic splits; his selection by Nixon as a compromise Veep choice mainly because of his combined “moderate” record and his late-career race-baiting; his startling emergence as a right-wing superstar, thanks in part to the skills of Nixon speechwriters Bill Safire and Pat Buchanan; Nixon’s constant, never-consummated efforts to replace him with Democratic apostate John Connally; his gradual development into a complete loose cannon isolated from Nixon but becoming his likely successor; his Vegas-based celebrity posse, including Sinatra; and then the whole disaster of his ouster, ultimately derived from his hunger for a degree of wealth he saw all around him but never enjoyed. There’s even a love interest, in the form of allegations (oddly echoed in Agnew’s own novel about a disgraced Veep, The Canfield Decision) that he was carrying on an expensive affair with someone in the administration. At some point, you’d expect that the parlor game of judging whether George W. Bush or Richard Nixon is the Worst President Ever would extend to a comparison of Dick Cheney and Spiro Agnew as contenders for the title of Worst Vice President Ever. Maybe then Spiggy will get his posthumous Hollywood tribute.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
It’s hard to keep up with the growing evidence of the horrors Trump plans to implement in a second term, but I wrote about one item that really struck me at New York:
There have been many credible reports that a second Trump administration would feature an assault on the federal civil-service system in order to reduce “deep state” resistance to his authoritarian ambitions — or, to use his terms for it, to “drain the swamp” — while stuffing the higher levels of the federal bureaucracy with political appointees. Those of us who are history-minded have immediately thought of this as threatening a return to the “spoils system” of the 19th century, which was more or less ended by enactment of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 (signed into law by Republican president and reformed spoilsman Chester Alan Arthur).
But the more we know about Team Trump’s plans, this understanding of what they want to do in staffing the federal government looks increasingly inadequate and anachronistic. The spoils-system beneficiaries of the distant past were by and large party foot soldiers rewarded for attending dreary local meetings, talking up the the party’s candidates in newspapers and forums, and, most of all, getting out the vote on Election Day. No one much cared what they believed in their heart of hearts about issues of the day or how they came to their convictions. It was enough that they put on the party yoke and helped pull the bandwagon to victory.
As Axios reports, one questionnaire used late in the first Trump administration to vet job applicants and another distributed by the Heritage Foundation to build up an army of second-term appointment prospects show a far more discriminating approach:
“The 2020 ‘Research Questionnaire,’ which we obtained from a Trump administration alumnus, was used in the administration’s final days — when most moderates and establishment figures had been fired or quit, and loyalists were flexing their muscles. Questions include:
“’What part of Candidate Trump’s campaign message most appealed to you and why?’
“’Briefly describe your political evolution. What thinkers, authors, books, or political leaders influenced you and led you to your current beliefs? What political commentator, thinker or politician best reflects your views?’
“’Have you ever appeared in the media to comment on Candidate Trump, President Trump or other personnel or policies of the Trump Administration?”
Similar questions are being asked for the Talent Database being assembled by the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 — the most sophisticated, expensive pre-transition planning ever undertaken for either party.
The Heritage questionnaire makes it especially clear that being just any old kind of Republican isn’t going to be enough. It asks if applicants agree with a number of distinctively MAGA issue positions, including:
“The U.S. should impose tariffs with the goal of bringing back manufacturing jobs, even if these tariffs result in higher consumer prices. …
“The permanent institutions of family and religion are foundational to American freedom and the common good. …
“The President should be able to advance his/her agenda through the bureaucracy without hinderance from unelected federal officials.”
One insider told Axios that both the 2020 Trump and 2024 Heritage questionnaires have a common and very particular purpose:
“An alumnus of the Trump White House told us both documents are designed to test the sincerity of someone’s MAGA credentials and determine ‘when you got red-pilled,’ or became a true believer. ‘They want to see that you’re listening to Tucker, and not pointing to the Reagan revolution or any George W. Bush stuff,’ this person said”.
This represents a really unprecedented effort to place the executive branch under the direction of people chosen not on the basis of merit or experience or expertise, and not on party credentials, but on membership in an ideological faction that is also a presidential candidate’s cult of personality. As such, it’s more dangerous than a return to the partisan habits of a bygone era.