Nixon and Agnew: The oddest of the odd couples in politics

Jules Witcover has done it again.

The veteran political reporter and columnist has produced insightful books on politics and history with metronomic regularity for more than three decades — he’s written a dozen by himself and co-authored five others, four with former columnist partner Jack Germond. Now he has chronicled the bizarre relationship between President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Witcover is uniquely qualified for the task, as he demonstrates in Very Strange Bedfellows. He covered both Nixon and Agnew before, during and after their years in the White House, and wrote books on each that chronicled their rise and precipitous fall from power. But this time, he exploits a treasure trove of firsthand material that was unavailable to him earlier, most notably the secret Nixon White House tapes, as well as Agnew’s papers and various memoirs.

“While the [Nixon] tapes have been principally scrutinized in documenting the Watergate scandal and cover-up that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, they also include a host of largely overlooked conversations dealing with the Nixon-Agnew political marriage and ultimate divorce,” Witcover writes. 

And what a revealing portrait of Nixon, his top aides, and Agnew emerges from those tapes — which were recorded from February 1971 to July 1973 before being discontinued after the Senate Watergate hearings revealed their existence. This material sheds new light on perhaps our most psychologically complex president and our most corrupt vice president. Agnew’s desperate efforts to save himself from the kickback scandal that drove him from office only nine months before Nixon’s historic forced departure make for absolutely riveting reading.

“All these materials also document Nixon’s relentless but ultimately failed attempt to replace Agnew with former Texas Gov. John Connally, object of his great admiration, first as vice president and then as a potential successor in the Oval Office,” Witcover explains.

Although Nixon reluctantly kept Agnew on the ticket while winning a second term in 1972, their partnership was unraveling well before that. Witcover begins with an anecdote from early 1971 in which Nixon, through an aide, tells Agnew he wants him to fill in for him at the annual Gridiron Dinner. But Agnew refuses to do it unless Nixon asks him personally. Finally, after much back-and-forth, Nixon sends Agnew a handwritten note asking to substitute for him, and Agnew goes, later admitting he “had a marvelous time.”

Astonishingly, Agnew later wrote that he would rather have been Lyndon Johnson’s vice president “because if anything had gone wrong, probably he himself would have picked up the phone and said, ‘Agnew, what the hell are you doing?’ Or he would have said, ‘I’ve got a hell of a problem. Come over here. I want to talk to you about this.’”

Agnew added, “Unfortunately, I could have no such man-to-man talk with President Nixon. Absolutely none. I was never allowed to come close enough to participate with him directly in any decision. … He preferred keeping his decision-making within a very small group. I was not of the inner circle.”

Many other books have explored the Machiavellian intrigue among Nixon and his top advisers, including most recently Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger. But none has done as good a job of illuminating the total breakdown of communications, the paranoia and the bitterness between Nixon and the man who for more than five years stood next in line to succeed him.

I covered Agnew’s first speech as Nixon’s running mate in 1968, at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco. I was impressed by the little-known Maryland governor whose choice as Nixon’s running mate inspired Knight Ridder’s Bob Boyd to write, “Spiro Agnew, the name that launched a thousand quips.”

Today, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Agnew, given his disgraceful attacks on Democrats and the media, not to mention his corrupt ethics. But he emerges from the pages of Witcover’s book as the one who should have filed for divorce from Nixon, rather than the other way around.

It’s a terrific book, and proof that the 79-year-old Witcover, who lost his job as a columnist for (The Baltimore) Sun after 24 years in 2005, is still at the top of his game.