In October 1973, the Nixon administration was deep in scandals from its various forms of corruption. Vice President Spiro Agnew was under investigation for the bribes he had taken as Maryland governor and vice president. News of the probe had become public and Agnew did a slow burn about the publicity.
At a Los Angeles convention of the National Federation of Republican Women, Agnew stirred up the faithful by attacking his own administration and Nixon’s assistant attorney general Henry Petersen, who was technically in charge of the investigation but actually had little to do with it (it had been conducted mostly out of the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office). It was Agnew himself who had asked that Petersen be brought into the investigation, apparently believing Petersen would cover for him.
Agnew, who had become a hero of the right and had led Ronald Reagan in surveys of Republicans, stood before the Republican women and roused them with a ringing defense.
“I am clearly and clearly and unequivocally innocent of the charges….I will not resign if indicted. I will not resign if indicted. I will not resign if indicted.… I have found myself the recipient of undefined, unclear, unattributed accusations.”
For zealots, facts must always yield to belief, and Agnew’s audience went wild. Some of the women climbed onto their tables to cheer, others kicked over obstacles to get to him when he was leaving the hall. “It was amazing,” one of Agnew’s aides said. “Ordinarily you don’t worry about losing control in an audience of women.”
Then Agnew went back to the east and resumed plea bargaining with prosecutors. After the high of acclaim came the low of facing the law. Eleven days later he agreed to be convicted of tax evasion and resigned the vice presidency.
For several days during the ranch standoff, newspeople sought Cliven Bundy’s thoughts, network cameras surrounded him, gun bearers protected him. Then after the standoff ended and the cameras went home, the Las Vegas Sun ran a story under the headline, “Future Uncertain in Bundy-BLM Dispute.” It may have been the least accurate headline of the entire dispute. There’s actually no doubt what comes next. It may have been possible in the middle of the Nevada desert to use force the way a gunman in a liquor store does. It won’t be in courtrooms. The Wire carried a more accurate headline: “The Fight Over the Bundy Cows Will End as Civics 101, Not Fort Sumter II.”
Bundy presumably has bank accounts. He certainly has land and property. If he doesn’t want to pay the money he owes taxpayers for grazing his cattle, he will pay in other ways. Inexorably, relentlessly, the feds squeeze deadbeats. Indeed, some observers wonder why the Bureau of Land Management didn’t do it that way in the first place, and do it years ago at that. “Well, I would have preferred that the government take a judgment and record it in the county and move via a writ of execution to levy on land, cows, equipment, etc., and possibly notify the brand inspector,” one leading Nevada attorney told me. All those options will now come into play, if the dilatory BLM gets off its hands.
And it won’t be just Bundy who will suffer. It’ll be those around him, too, including members of his family and those who depend on him for jobs.
It is truly sad. I remember once covering the confiscation of a man’s airplane by Internal Revenue in the Spanish Springs Valley north of Sparks. He had fallen under the influence of one of those loons who believes that the income tax is illegal and had lost in court and was financially devastated as a result.
In the St. George News in Utah, columnist Dallas Hyland faulted “the horrific counsel [Bundy] must have received from friends … who, like now, did him no service whatsoever pontificating to the point of absurdity with value-laden language that, while it ratchets up the emotional sentiment of some people, sways courts or federal agencies not one bit.” Worse, Bundy listened to former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who has a government philosophy that has failed legally in every situation.
Bundy and his manipulators on the occasion of the ranch standoff won a transient victory with guns that they’ve never been able to win at the polls. Now, after the acclaim, will come the low of facing the law. The mills of the law grind slowly but they grind exceedingly fine.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.