Richard Nixon was obsessed with his own physical health, unusually proud of his ability to ward off illnesses large and small. And as president, let the record show, he really had proven healthy as a horse. Early in 1973, right around the time of his sixtieth birthday, Nixon had reportedly asked his aides to find out if any other president in the history of the Republic had gone through an entire term without taking a sick day—as he had. He had earned the right to brag. And he did. “I’ve been blessed with a strong physical makeup,” the president said. “I never had a headache in my life.” Give the man a gold star.
That extraordinary run of presidential good health was interrupted on July 12, 1973. The president woke that morning with a “stabbing” pain in the right side of his chest. Summoned to the presidential bedroom that morning, Chief of Staff Alexander Haig grew alarmed by what he saw. “[Nixon’s] skin was pasty, his eyes bloodshot and feverish, his voice weak, his breathing shallow,” Haig wrote. “He coughed spasmodically and the pain this caused him showed in his face. He sat up in bed, clutching his chest, and I noticed that his pillowcase was spotted with blood.”
Loath to mar his perfect attendance record, Nixon tried to tough it out. He hauled himself out of his sickbed and put in a full day’s work. But by nightfall, the White House medical staff was nervous; they rushed Nixon to the hospital, where doctors found his fever had spiked to 102 degrees. The diagnosis was pneumonia. The prognosis was, well, wait and see. Haig was even more shaken than he had been that morning. He’d served in the military for more than twenty years, and had seen a thing or two in that time, in both Korea and Vietnam; he said the president’s condition looked “life-threatening.” This assessment remained entirely private.
Nixon ended up hospitalized for a full week, and the evening newscasts filled with updates on his condition: he was suffering “pain in his right lung”; he wasn’t sleeping much; his temperature was still too high. Nixon’s doctor addressed the media from the hospital, telling the American people in somber tones that the president was “a sick man.”
It’s never a good thing to have a president hospitalized, much less for an entire week. And this was no ordinary time. This was July 1973. The Summer of Watergate.
The day after Nixon was rushed to the hospital, a White House aide named Alexander Butterfield informed the Senate committee investigating Watergate of a recording system in the White House, revealing the existence of thousands of hours of tapes of the president’s conversations. The tapes could be incriminating. The White House staff was concerned. The Senate committee was concerned. The special prosecutor was concerned.
But one man was more concerned than anyone else in the nation’s capital, and that man was Attorney General Elliot Richardson.
What if this illness was something worse than garden-variety pneumonia? What if Nixon’s illness really was life threatening? What if the president was cracking under the strain of Watergate? There were what-ifs enough to keep Richardson up all night. Because just ten days earlier he had been told that the next man up, Vice President Spiro Agnew, appeared to be running an active criminal operation, taking thousands of dollars of cash bribes, from inside the White House. Oh my God.
“Richardson was quite worried about the overall mental and physical health of Nixon,” says his former aide J. T. Smith. “There were rumors that (a) he was drinking heavily, and (b) he was out of his mind. [Richardson] knew it wasn’t a good scene, to the point where he didn’t think it tolerable to have Agnew remain in the line of succession.” Richardson and his own team at the Justice Department already knew the stakes. George Beall and his team knew. A few key witnesses like Lester Matz knew. But no one else in the country knew just what kind of man was Spiro Agnew. And the fact of a very unhealthy President Nixon lying flat on his back in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, added urgency to the mission of ousting Spiro Agnew from office. Speed mattered more than ever now.
“It really was ‘We’re all in this together and we gotta figure out what to do for the country because this is some heavy shit,’” Barney Skolnik recalls. “We’re talking about the summer of ’73; Watergate hearings are going on. everybody was conscious that Nixon, aside from being a ‘crook,’ in his memorable word, might not last.”
In the midst of those very heavy prospects, some good news ended up rolling in the door at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore. The prosecutors had brought on board another key cooperator, Jerome B. “Jerry” Wolff. By the middle of July, Wolff was helping to lock down the case against Agnew. He was an engineer by trade and had paid a few kickbacks to Agnew when he was county executive in Baltimore County. When Agnew became governor, he recruited Wolff to be the chairman-director of the State Roads Commission. The appointment had upset one of their mutual friends, a big-time real estate developer and mortgage broker named I. H. “Bud” Hammerman. Wolff had been doing the engineering on Bud Hammerman’s private projects in Maryland, and Hammerman didn’t want to lose him to some state government sinecure. But Agnew essentially told Hammerman to quit his whining. “You won’t lose by it,” he told the developer. And then he made sure of it. Agnew concocted a scheme by which he, Wolff, and Hammerman would all profit from Wolff’s new state job, at least in the short run. At least until they got caught.
It was Hammerman who came knocking on Jerry Wolff’s door to outline the key elements of Agnew’s plan. It wasn’t exactly rocket science; it was based on a longstanding game that was already in play at the statehouse. Engineering firms had been paying kickbacks for state contracts for years, and they knew exactly who had to be paid. The authority to grant each and every contract for road and bridge construction was vested in the State Roads Commission, subject only to approval by the governor. The governor controlled the whole thing. This was like Baltimore County, only bigger. So Agnew wanted to scale up his operation, and to scale up his efforts at concealment. “It was explained to him you want a ‘bag man,’” Liebman says. “You don’t want to take directly; you want to insulate yourself.” It was the prudent course. If accusations were made, Agnew would have some distance between himself and the contractor paying the bribe. He could plead ignorance or, at the very least, retain plausible deniability. Hammerman was to be Agnew’s bag man.
When Hammerman laid out Agnew’s plan to Wolff, the new head of the State Roads Commission was all in. Wolff would oversee the bidding process, award the contracts, run it by Agnew, and then alert Hammerman as to the winners. Then Hammerman would collect the kickback.
“Over the course of 18 to 20 months, the scheme was fully implemented,” Skolnik, Baker, and Liebman would report. Wolff kept Hammerman informed as to which engineers were to receive state contracts, and Hammerman kept Wolff informed as to which engineers were making cash payments. It was soon generally understood among engineers that Hammerman was the person to see in connection with state roads engineering contracts. Engineering firms would inform Hammerman of their interest in obtaining state work, and Hammerman would reply that he would see what he could do. In some cases, an engineer would specify the particular work in which he was interested; in most cases, the engineers would not specify any particular job.
“There was no need for Hammerman to make coarse demands or to issue threats because the engineers clearly indicated that they knew what was expected of them. The discussions were generally about ‘political contributions,’ but the conversations left no doubt that the engineers understood exactly how the system worked—that is, that cash payments to the governor through Hammerman were necessary in order for their companies to receive substantial state contracts.”
When Wolff and Hammerman were still engineering their three-man extortion ring, Wolff suggested that they split the proceeds evenly among themselves. Agnew was not enthusiastic about the proposed arrangement. He didn’t see why Wolff should get any of the money, he told Hammerman. Governor Agnew settled on this: He would take 50 percent. Hammerman and Wolff could split the rest between themselves. So Agnew pocketed 50 percent of the bribe money; Jerry Wolff got 25 percent; Bud Hammerman kept the remaining 25 percent.
“The deal was the contractor would pay Hammerman,” Liebman says. “He’s holding the money and paying the money directly to Agnew.”
Hammerman opened up a safe-deposit box at a local bank and would deliver the money to Agnew as needed. The two men worked out a coded language, just in case their phones were tapped. Each thousand dollars they took in was a “paper.” When Governor Agnew was in need of cash, he’d call Hammerman and ask how many “papers” he had, and his bag man would then deliver however much he wanted.
Agnew, in addition to going through Bud Hammerman, occasionally took money directly. From old discreet pals like Lester Matz and Allen Green. Why give up a percentage to the bag man, even if Bud was a friend? “He was greedy,” Liebman says of Agnew, “absolutely greedy.”
From the book BAG MAN: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up & Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz. Published by Crown, in imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.