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Rachel Maddow Presents – BagMan – Episode 1: An Unsettling Secret (transcribed by Sonix)

Rachel Maddow: When Richard Nixon tapped Spiro Agnew — Ted, to his friends — to be his running mate in 1968, this was the Ted Agnew the country was introduced to. Agnew was a fresh face in national politics. He wasn't much known at all outside of Maryland where he had just been elected governor. Heck, he wasn't even all that well-known in Maryland. But he was an effective politician. His quick rise out of nowhere was thanks in large part to his my-kind-of-man personal image. He was the son of Greek immigrants. He was an outsider. He forged a reputation as a straight shooter, hard work, honesty, integrity.

Female Voice: Well, I like him because he's honest. He's really honest.

Male Voice: The one thing that I can definitely say is Ted Agnew would make a perfect administrator for the State of Maryland.

Female Voice: Well, I think he's going to be our next governor.

Male Voice: He's my kind of man.

Rachel Maddow: Agnew got elected Baltimore County Executive in 1962. Four years after that, he became the Governor of Maryland. And two years after that, he found himself being tapped by Richard Nixon to be Vice President. A virtual unknown in national politics, a man who Nixon himself barely even knew. Here's a reporter asking Nixon how Agnew reacted when Nixon called him to offer him the gig.

Reporter: Mr. Nixon, was Mr. Agnew surprised when you called him? What does a Vice Presidential nominee say?

Richard Nixon: I think the best indication of surprise is when a lawyer has no words. Governor Agnew, as you know, is a lawyer and is a very articulate man, as you saw in his press conference. I'd say there's about 20 seconds before he said a word.

Rachel Maddow: Nixon had had a really hard time figuring out who to pick as his running mate that year. He had considered a close friend or two. He had considered one guy who ran against him in the primaries, a guy by the name of Ronald Reagan. But, ultimately, Nixon had decided on Agnew. And the process had been stressful. And, actually, the initial reaction to the pick was not great.

Rachel Maddow: This was a TV ad that was run by the Hubert Humphrey campaign during the 1968 election. This was it. No words. Just a man laughing hysterically as the camera slowly pulled out to reveal words on the TV screen that read "Agnew for Vice President?"

Rachel Maddow: Spiro Agnew was a literal laughingstock when the 1968 presidential campaign got underway. But as much as the Democrats might have wanted to keep laughing at him, Agnew soon became sort of a rock star on the right. He was blunt. He was politically incorrect. He loved trashing liberals, and the press, and minorities. He shot down hecklers at his events with glee. He described them as spoiled brats who never had a good spanking.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: Somewhere somebody failed you. Your churches must not have gotten through to you because you don't even know anything about the golden rule. I'm frankly ashamed of you. And I think you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

Rachel Maddow: During that campaign, Agnew stepped in it a number of times, often on the issue of race and on ethnic stereotypes.

Male Voice: Spiro Agnew took a day off from campaigning following weekend speeches in Hawaii. And one of his Monday appearances before a racially mixed audience on the island of Maui, he replied to criticism of his having used slang labels "Polack" and "Jap," and referring to Americans of Polish and Japanese ancestry.

Rachel Maddow: Agnew's lack of filter when it came to racially-insensitive remarks, it sometimes got him in trouble with the press. But big picture, the campaign actually saw it as a plus. Rather than hurting him, that stuff actually seemed to solidify his support on the right. Agnew the political outsider who didn't care who he offended, that was a feature, not a bug.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: And if you tell me that the hippies and the yuppies are going to be able to do the job, I'll tell you this: they can't run a bus, they can't serve in a governmental office, they can't run a lathe in a factory. All they can do is and sleep or kick policemen with razor blades.

Rachel Maddow: Spiro Agnew pushed the limits. He was deliberately outrageous. He defended his over-the-top rhetoric during that campaign by saying that he never hit first, he just hit back. He told reporters, "I guess, by nature, I'm a counter-puncher. You can't hit my team in the groin, and expect me to stand here, and smile about it."

Rachel Maddow: A counter in the White House. How exactly does a politician who is a self-styled counter react when his own political survival is directly threatened? When the full weight of his own Justice Department comes crashing down on him?

Rachel Maddow: This is a story that is not well-known, but it really should be, especially maybe now. It's the story of a criminal occupant of the White House, whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department, who then tries to hold onto power by obstructing the investigation into his crimes, by smearing and threatening the prosecutors who are investigating him, and by trying to convince his legion of supporters across the country that none of the allegations are true, that it's all just a big witch hunt. And if that sounds familiar, it's because history is here to help. I firmly believe it.

Rachel Maddow: I'm your host Rachel Maddow. And this is Bag Man: The Wild and Untold Story of the Presidential Line of Succession, Impeachment, Indictment, and Panic in the White House.

Male Voice: Good evening. Washington was stunned today by the disclosure that Vice President Agnew is under criminal investigation by federal authorities in his home State of Maryland.

Male Voice: Not only is it Watergate, but he's the Vice President, and we have quite evidence of corruption.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: I will not resign if indicted. I will not resign if indicted.

Male Voice: The constitutional problems raised by the Agnew investigation are bewildering. We've never had a problem like this one before.

Chris Hayes: Hey, it's MSNBC's Chris Hayes. If you enjoyed Bag Man, be sure to check out my friend, Rachel Maddow, on my podcast, Why is This Happening?, where I get the opportunity to dig deep into the forces behind the stories playing out in the news in order to understand why certain cultural and political phenomena came to be. Rachel joins me to talk about covering the news in this unprecedented political moment. We also talk all about Bag Man and how this incredible podcast came to be. So, click on over and check out Why is This Happening? and you can listen now wherever you get your podcasts.

Rachel Maddow: Episode 1: An Unsettling Secret.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: Ultra-liberalism today translates into a whimpering isolationism in foreign policy, a mulish obstructionism and domestic policy, and a pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order.

Rachel Maddow: Spiro Agnew doesn't exactly loom large as a political figure in US history. His name barely registers as a political trivia question these days. But when Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew won the White House in 1968, Spiro Agnew — even though he doesn't get the credit for it — he basically created the mold for the modern iteration of confrontational conservatism in America.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: But you know how it is with radical liberals, you zing one of them, and call his hand, cite his voting, quote his speeches, tell America the harm he's done, and he howls like a coyote with his tail caught in a snake hole.

Rachel Maddow: Even though he was now Vice President of the United States, there had been no transformation from candidate Agnew into a less divisive public official Agnew. If anything, he got even more aggressive.

David Brinkley: He was asked why he — more than other politicians — was accused of dividing the country. Agnew said it was because he was the foremost destroyer of liberal dogma, that when liberals are attacked, they salivate like Pavlovian dogs.

Rachel Maddow: Spiro Agnew was a flamethrower. He loved defending the press. His whole political brand was about offending liberals, and Democrats, and minorities. The more political norms he blew through, the stronger he got with the Republican Party's hardline base. And that was the only base and the only audience he ever tried to cultivate. Democrats were mystified. Republicans loved it.

Rachel Maddow: After one comment in which Agnew publicly denigrated black leaders across the country, one of the most prominent African-American members of Congress, William Clay of Missouri, took to the floor of the House to deliver a condemnation of Agnew that was almost not safe for work.

Rachel Maddow: He said about the Vice President, "He is seriously ill. He has all the symptoms of an intellectual misfit. His recent tirade against black leadership is just part of a game played by him called mental masturbation. Apparently, Mr Agnew is an intellectual sadist who experiences intellectual orgasms by attacking, humiliating, and kicking the oppressed." Imagine if there had been C-SPAN back then for that. But the group that Agnew seemed to reserve the most venom for, his favorite target of all, was the press.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: The purpose of my remarks tonight is to focus your attention on this little group of men who not only enjoy a right of instant rebuttal to every Presidential address, but more importantly, wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues in our nation.

Rachel Maddow: During the first term of the Nixon Administration, Vice President Agnew took it upon himself to try to discredit the American news media. And all presidents — presumably most vice presidents too — they all undoubtedly hate the press. They all think they're covered in a way that isn't fair. But Agnew set out on an overt campaign to try to turn the country against the press in a way that nobody had really done before from the White House.

Rachel Maddow: In a series of speeches in 1969, with the seal of the Vice Presidency underneath him, Agnew delivered prepared attacks on the news networks, which he portrayed as a danger to the nation, as biased and untrustworthy.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: A raised eyebrow, an inflection of the voice, a caustic remark dropped in the middle of a broadcast can raise doubts in a million minds about the veracity of a public official or the wisdom of a government policy, when a single commentator or producer, night after night, determines for millions of people how much of each side of a great issue they are going to see and hear, should he not first disclose his personal views on the issue as well?

Rachel Maddow: Agnew's assault on the press was sort of a shock to the system at the time. The President of NBC News took the rare step of appearing on NBC's nightly newscast to push back.

Julian Goodman: Evidently, he would prefer a different kind of television reporting, one that would be subservient to whatever political group happens to be in authority at the time. Those who might feel momentary agreement with his remarks should think carefully about whether that kind of television news is what they want.

Rachel Maddow: The Vice President seemed to be stirring up something dangerous in the country. The Washington Post wrote in December 1969, "One little noted and wholly unintentional result of Vice President Agnew's speeches against the press and television is a renewed wave of public expression of anti-Semitism. It was noticeable at once in this city where local television stations were swamped for three days after Agnew's first speech with obscene phone calls protesting 'Jew-Commies on the air.'"

Rachel Maddow: One Jewish newspaper editor in Louisville, Kentucky reported at the time that he was, "buried under an avalanche of sick anti-Semitic mail." A leading Jewish organization said anti-Semitic groups across the country were "Using Agnew's speeches to justify their hate campaigns and urging their followers to support him." And it's not that Spiro Agnew himself ever directly espoused any of those beliefs, but something about his rhetoric seemed to give his supporters license to express these views that they hadn't felt free to express before.

Rachel Maddow: His attacks on enemies of the administration became so heated that Democrats, and even some Republicans, started to warn that if he didn't tone down his rhetoric, somebody was going to get hurt. Here's Arkansas Democratic Senator William Fulbright.

William Fulbright: He intimidates people. I don't think there's any doubt about him intimidating. He inspires other people to do radical actions. I think of threats through letters, and telephone messages, and so on is an outgrowth of this kind of a spirit.

Rachel Maddow: That was Spiro Agnew, the political figure. He was a lightning rod. He was a demagogue. He had a devoted base inside the Republican Party that he seemed to be able to control in ways that other politicians couldn't, in ways that seemed even dangerous at times. And he was about to bring all of that to bear on members of his own Justice Department who had just discovered that Agnew, in addition to all of that other stuff, also happened to be an active criminal. Stay right there.

Female Voice: A three pointer at the buzzer. The big political speech everyone's posting on social media about.

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David Brinkley: Richard Nixon chose Governor Spiro Agnew of Maryland for his Vice President. Until two years ago, he was unknown outside Maryland County politics.

Rachel Maddow: When Richard Nixon tapped Spiro Agnew to become his Vice President, Agnew was on a very fast rise in Republican politics. When Nixon picked him to be VP, Agnew had been Governor of Maryland for just a couple of years. Before that, he was a local elected official. He was Baltimore County Executive. So, Agnew emerged onto the national scene, basically, out of nowhere. But his rise in Maryland, in famously corrupt Maryland, that came with some secrets that would slowly start to be revealed right at the height of the Watergate scandal.

Garrick Utley: Good morning. The place: the Senate Caucus Room in Washington. This is day four of the Senate Watergate hearings.

Rachel Maddow: That spring of 1973, as the country was in the grips of Watergate fever, a team of young federal prosecutors based in Maryland had just launched a brand new investigation that had nothing at all to do with Watergate.

Tim Baker: It was based solely on just kind of rumors.

Rachel Maddow: That's Tim Baker. He's one of the people at the heart of this story. He was an assistant US attorney in Maryland in 1973. And the rumors that he's talking about there were basically whispers that Maryland politics, at the time, had a real bribery and corruption problem. And that spring, Tim Baker, along with two of his fellow prosecutors, they decided they were going to dig into those rumors. Ron Liebman was another prosecutor on that team.

Ron Liebman: In essence, it was follow the money, get the documents, follow the money.

Rachel Maddow: If the Watergate era had a theme song, this was it, right? The FBI, and congressional investigators, and intrepid reporters from The Washington Post, they were all busy following the money.

Garrick Utley: And that brings us to the third major element in the Watergate story: money. Cash. Cash given to the President's re-election committee secretly and, in some cases, illegally.

Rachel Maddow: Following the money led to almost all of the most interesting stuff in the Watergate scandal, but in their unrelated, contemporaneous investigation in Baltimore, these young federal prosecutors from the US Attorney's office in Maryland, they too were following the money.

Barney Skolnik: Investigate, which is like, you know, it's like throwing catnip. I mean, you know, "Oh, okay, fine. You know, we'll investigate."

Rachel Maddow: That's Barney Skolnik. He was the senior prosecutor on this three-man team. There are some people in this story you will come to know and love. Top of that list is these three young, scrappy federal prosecutors. They're all around 30 years old at the time. They're trying to take a bite out of political corruption in their state.

Rachel Maddow: What Barney Skolnik, and Tim Baker, and Ron Liebman all started to find when they started following the money in Maryland was a scheme, a bribery scheme, where local elected officials took thousands of dollars in cash kickbacks from companies that got public contracts. It was exactly the way that you imagine it, businessmen putting cash into plain envelopes, handing those envelopes full of cash to elected officials, and then walking away with a job to design that local bridge or that county building.

Rachel Maddow: These three young prosecutors started lifting this rock in Maryland. And what they found underneath it was an underworld of longstanding, local corruption. Basically, small-time officials who were on the take. That's what this case looked like to them in early 1973. Watergate may have been gripping the nation. President Richard Nixon looked like he might end up in deep trouble, but these guys had this local investigation going that was world's away from all of that. Until suddenly, it wasn't.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: I, Spiro Theodore Agnew, solemnly swear …

Rachel Maddow: Because that spring, Richard Nixon's Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who came from that swamp of Maryland politics, he started hearing rumors of his own about this team of investigators who were now poking around in his old neck of the woods. And upon hearing that, Spiro Agnew did something that was sort of suspicious. He went to go see the Attorney General of the United States himself to ask the Attorney General about this local investigation that was under way in Maryland.

Rachel Maddow: At the time, the Attorney General didn't even know about that investigation yet. But that little visit from the Vice President, that sent alarm bells ringing with these three prosecutors in Baltimore because, at that point, as far as they knew, their investigation had nothing at all to do with the sitting Vice President. Here's Tim Baker and Ron Liebman.

Tim Baker: I immediately thought to myself, "Why is he so upset? He's upset because he's got something to hide." So, I say in this meeting, "We're going to get Agnew."

Ron Liebman: I remember Tim Baker telling me and Barney, in so many words, that he smelled a rat. It was way beyond our horizon. But Tim, to his eternal credit, smelled it first. He saw something.

Rachel Maddow: There sleepy little investigation in Maryland was about to change the country. What these young prosecutors were about to discover was that the country didn't just have a criminal President in power, but a criminal Vice President as well, who, of course, was next in the line of succession.

Tim Baker: We have evidence that Vice President Agnew took bribes as County Executive Governor and even as Vice President.

Ron Liebman: Not only is it Watergate, but he's the Vice President and we have hard evidence of corruption.

Tim Baker: Fifteen $100 bills he gave Agnew in the basement of the White House. This was in the White House.

Barney Skolnik: It really was, "We're all in this together, and we got to figure out what to do for the country because this is some heavy shit."

Rachel Maddow: This isn't just the story of a political corruption scheme that got exposed. It is that, but it's also a story of how exactly a criminal occupant of the White House reacts and lashes out when his own Justice Department starts to zero in on him for his criminal behavior.

Spiro "Ted" Agnew: Because of these tactics which have been employed against me, I will not resign if indicted. I will not resign if indicted.

Rachel Maddow: Spiro Agnew rose to national prominence as a lightning rod, as a flamethrower, as someone who wasn't afraid to smear his opponents and roll around in the mud. He was quite willing to be dangerous to the country if it suited his own purposes. And ultimately, he employed all of that for this fight, to fight back against an investigation and a small team of investigators who were not only threatening to remove him from the White House, they were threatening to throw him in jail.

Martin London: And that's really — to use a legal expression — that's when the shit hit the fan.

Rachel Maddow: That's Marty London. He was Spiro Agnew's defense lawyer. We will spend a little more time with him later in this story. You're going to love him. This scandal has somehow gotten itself forgotten. It barely registers, but it's wild. A sitting White House occupant under criminal investigation from his own government, pulling out every stop to survive, including obstructing that investigation and trying very hard to shut it down.

Barney Skolnik: I mean it was, you know. That's why get sort of emotional about it.

Tim Baker: The pressure, and it was big pressure, the pressure was, "Get the guy out of the line of succession."

Ron Liebman: We were determined. You know, we're kids, but we we were determined to follow this case through.

Rachel Maddow: Part of the reason we wanted to make this podcast now is because this is a story that I think is worth hearing for the first time, particularly right now. But it's also because, now, there's new stuff to know about it. The prosecutors themselves haven't even been aware of the full story all these years. They're going to hear it all right here for the first time.

Tim Baker: Good night. No, I didn't know this.

Barney Skolnik: Oh my Lord.

Ron Liebman: 45 years later, and my blood still boils when I read stuff like that.

Rachel Maddow: For the last several months, ace producer Mike Yarvitz and I have been digging back into this story, going through the archives, and interviewing the people who were involved in it. What we learned is that when law enforcement gets on a collision course with the White House, specifically with a criminal in the White House, who is a self-styled counter-puncher, who seems to be able to command at will an entire base of supporters across the country, when that kind of collision happens, what we've learned is that things get pretty thoroughly insane pretty quickly.

Rachel Maddow: I'm Rachel Maddow, and that's all ahead on Bagman.

Rachel Maddow: Bag Man is a production of MSNBC and NBC Universal. This series is executive produced by Mike Yarvitz. It was written by myself and Mike Yarvitz. Editorial and production support from Jonathan Hirsch and Marissa Schneiderman from Neon Hum Media. And you can find much more about the story on our website, which is

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