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
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By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.