Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew by Jules Witcover. (Amazon, B&N, Powell’s) A few weeks ago I posed a trivia question here: Who said this about whom? “[X] is the greatest man this country has produced since John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee.” The answer is Strom Thurmond, speaking about Spiro Agnew. That tidbit is from the book Very Strange Bedfellows, by journalist Jules Witcover. I’ve mentioned before my deep interest in the Nixon-Ford era. But I think this book would be worth reading by anyone interested in the presidency and especially the vice-presidency.
It should definitely serve as a cautionary tale for whoever will be helping this year’s presidential candidates choose their running mates. Obviously, don’t pick a crook, but if the top name on the ticket is a crook, too, judgment may be skewed. But a lot of Nixon’s problems with Agnew were of Nixon’s own making. Despite Nixon’s resentment of his own perceived mistreatment as Eisenhower’s vice-president, he treated Agnew pretty poorly, shutting him out of the inner circle and routinely communicating through emissaries rather than face-to-face. Conveniently for Agnew, this kept him insulated from Watergate, but it also wounded his pride and made him go off-message a few too many times for Nixon’s liking.
Nixon seriously considered dumping Agnew for John Connally, which raises the possibility of lots of interesting counter-factuals. Agnew was too ambitious and too peeved to quit for Nixon’s pleasure, and by the time his legal problems forced him to resign, Nixon was so deep in Watergate trouble that he didn’t have enough support in Congress to install Connally as Agnew’s successor. Although a figure of scorn and ridicule today, it’s fascinating to see how popular Agnew was (especially in the right wing of the GOP) as “Nixon’s Nixon.”
I enjoyed the book a great deal as pure history, and it also offers crucial lessons for picking running mates. The presidential candidate has to choose someone who could be a credible president him- or herself. Nixon, of course, was fanatically paranoid about getting upstaged or out-toughed, and never seriously thought Agnew should be president. Consequently, he never trusted Agnew with any meaningful responsibilities. That’s the other lesson. The presidential candidate has to either pick someone who is completely comfortable being #2 and waiting his or her turn (like Nixon or Bush I), or who isn’t going to be constantly hyping his or her own stock for a future run (like Dick Cheney), or else pick someone whom the candidate can work with and trust. Otherwise, you’re just asking for a mess.
Of course, much of this depends on the president’s personality and ego. So picking a running mate inevitably tells us a lot about how the presidential candidate sees him- or herself. I’m extremely interested in seeing who this year’s candidates choose. I’ll offer my worthless predictions. For John McCain, I’ll say (in order) Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and my dark horse, Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman. For Barack Obama, I think Virginia Sen. Jim Webb seems like the favorite but is really at best a dark horse, for a lot of the reasons James Fallows mentions here (the upshot: there’s almost no reason for Webb to want it). In no particular order, I’ll guess New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Gen. Wesley Clark, or John Edwards.
Anyway, I liked Very Strange Bedfellows a great deal and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject. It’s probably more about Spiro Agnew than most people need to know, but it is a well-researched and well-written account of a pretty bizarre period in American history. Let’s just hope this year’s candidates don’t make the same mistake Nixon did.
(Previous 50 Book Challenge reviews)