Historians, young and old, can't get enough of trying to understand the mind of President Richard Nixon. He is perhaps the most complicated and then loathed figure to ever occupy the Oval Office.
Combine that with his vice president, the later admitted bribe-taker Spiro Agnew, and you have even more to study about these bewildering politicians.
You get both men up close in a new book by Jules Witcover aptly titled Very Strange Bedfellows. It is wrapped up neatly in page after pagepettiness, deception, crass maneuvering, and the uncontained ambition of two men we will never see the like of again. The American people should hope so anyway.
(Full disclosure: Witcover and I have been friends for more than 30 years. I admire his work as a reporter, newspaper columnist, and author of more than a dozen books.)
By using White House tapes, diaries of the players' face-to-face interviews with scores of principals, and his own knowledge of the era, Witcover's narrative tells us:
- Nixon seriously considered Agnew as a Supreme Court justice, to be replaced in the vice presidency by Texan John Connally, his hero. He called Agnew a "great lawyer." The move never happened, and we learned later that Agnew had taken dirty money from contractors at the county and state levels in Maryland and then even as vice president. Who can forget those brown envelopes delivered to his office stuffed with cash?
- Agnew suffered for lack of attention and was a brooding figure largely ignored by Nixon. At times, Agnew was sent on foreign trips to get out of the White House's way. At home, Nixon's aides preferred he be used to lash out at Democrats.
- Nixon's top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who would both go to prison in the Watergate scandal, despised Agnew, who pouted when he got messages or orders from underlings, demanding to hear from the president himself.
- Nixon's well-known penchant for two-faced actions is described in rich detail. He defends Agnew to some aides and then rips him to others, sometimes on the same day. Nixon's insecurity is displayed on many pages.
- Nixon expected Agnew to behave as he did as vice president for eight years under Dwight Eisenhowera fawning partner and a hatchet man when necessary. Agnew was a willing hatchet man but never close to a partner in the Nixon White House, which became a bunker.
Agnew wound up pleading no contest, resigned from office, and was replaced by Gerald Ford. Agnew looked to rich Hollywood pals like Frank Sinatra to keep him afloat until his death.
Nixon, of course, resigned in disgrace in 1974 as an unindicted coconspirator in the Watergate scandal. As the crimes were unraveling, Nixon delivered those marvelous words in a press conference in Orlando: "I am not a crook."
It turned out that not only was he one but so was his surprise choice for veep in 1968a former moderate Republican largely unknown outside Maryland, where he was elected governor largely because the Democratic choice was a racist.
Those aforementioned historians will not be generous to this pair. In fact, they will wonder what American voters were thinking when they elected them twice.