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VERY STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew

The cautionary last chapter of Jules Witcover’s fantastic Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, published in 2007, could not have anticipated the national debut of Sarah Palin, but one is left to wonder if history might have been different if Senator John McCain had perused it before the fateful day of August 29, 2008. Witcover’s brief examination of vice presidential selections since the disastrous tenure of Spiro Agnew might have been enough to snap the 2008 Republican nominee out of whatever delirium it was that led him to announce the Alaska governor (who makes Agnew seem statesmanlike) as his running mate. Then again, maybe the old maverick read Witcover’s withering reminder about the consequences of ill-informed, dice-rolling veep picks (Agnew, Eagleton, Ferraro, Quayle) and chose Palin anyway. One thing is for certain, though – had Very Strange Bedfellows been first published during the general campaign in the fall of 2008, the author would have found himself on permanent rotation on the cable news programs.

Mr. Witcover, a veteran newspaper reporter and author, has written and co-written many great political books over the decades (including two previous books on Agnew), but this book may well be his masterpiece. It is a thoroughly entertaining, informative and engrossing read that captures the weirdness of the Nixon-Agnew “marriage.” Even if the prospective reader considers him or herself steeped in the arcana of Nixonia and Watergate, this book is too good to be passed up. And—make no mistake—there are details and quotes from the White House tapes that will surprise and delight even the biggest Nixon know-it-all.

But it is the manner in which the author weaves all of the different accounts of the Nixon-Agnew relationship that make the book not only an entertaining classic, but a gift to historians. Indeed, Witcover seamlessly meshes the press accounts of the era, declassified White House tape recordings, key player memoir recollections, H.R. Haldeman diary notes and his own perspective and analysis to provide the reader with a 360 degree view of those ironic law and order champions, Nixon & Agnew.

Some of the tiny, humorous details that make Very Strange Bedfellows such an enthralling good time are the following:

Nixon’s stony reaction when his 1960 running mate Henry Cabot Lodge told him, years later, that the stories about how he took a nap every afternoon during the campaign were untrue.

The 1970 Gridiron dinner musical comedy performance by Nixon and Agnew in which they made light of the so-called southern strategy that helped win the White House in 1968. The gag involved Nixon playing favorite musical arrangements of past presidents on a piano only to be loudly interrupted by Agnew playing “Dixie” from another piano.

Nixon’s ridiculous assertion to his White House advisers that Agnew would be a “damned good judge” on the U.S. Supreme Court (at the time Nixon was trying to figure out a graceful way of dumping Agnew from the 1972 GOP ticket).

Nixon’s embrace of the phrase “rap sessions” when told of adviser John Ehrlichman’s ludicrous idea of sending the combative Agnew on a speaking tour of college campuses.

Nixon’s private fulminations about the press in reaction to Agnew’s open warfare with the fourth estate: “You know, God how I handle the bastards. I know they’re all bastards. I dislike them much more than Agnew could [have] ever dreamed of disliking them, because of their philosophy. But I stand here and take it and take that bullshit at any time and nobody ever knows it. Correct? …I [took it] for eight years as vice president and two years in the House, four years in the Senate I never let them know. The only time I ever kicked ‘em was after the governor’s [campaign in California in 1962]. And I’m gonna kick ‘em again some day…”

H.R. Haldeman’s diary entry regarding Agnew’s poorly timed and oddly chosen celebrity “seconder” for his convention nomination in 1972. The context of the Haldeman diary note below is that Agnew’s re-nomination occurred during the same period as the controversy over Democratic nominee George McGovern’s vice presidential selection of Thomas Eagleton who, it was discovered, had a history of mental illness and electroshock therapy.

“We had a 90 minute flap with the VP regarding his seconding speeches, because he decided yesterday to have Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist, be one of his seconders, and they went ahead and asked her. This obviously would be a disaster, in that it would look like he got his own psychiatrist to prove he isn’t nuts like Eagleton…” (Dr. Brothers’ invitation to provide a seconding speech was rescinded).

Agnew’s unspoken, internal dialogue (as quoted from his own 1980 memoir) when John Ehrlichman informed him (with Nixon sitting silently in the background) that they saw as his primary project for the second term working on the Bicentennial: “The Bicentennial? I could hardly believe my ears.”

Nixon’s use of the term “pimping” on a White House tape during which he was advising Agnew to stay above the fray of the media during the heat of Watergate coverage: “Don’t give them any opportunity to say you’re pimping for the president, see my point.”

The note that accompanied Nixon’s gift of Agnew’s cabinet chair to him after he resigned in disgrace in 1973 (the chair, by the way, was government property, not Nixon’s): “I particularly wanted to make a personal gift of that chair which I hope you will take as a token of both friendship and esteem…” In reality, Nixon spent much of his five year presidency scheming to replace Agnew as his heir apparent.

In addition to the above examples, there are numerous other hilarious and bizarre stories running throughout the 412 pages of Very Strange Bedfellows. The book is a remarkable achievement that will undoubtedly stand the test of time as the definitive history of the dysfunctional five year “marriage” of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

VERY STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew
By Jules Witcover
Copyright 2007
Public Affairs, New York
412 pages

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