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Let's remember and celebrate past heroes as we deal with current presidential crisis

In this 1973 file photo, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew tells newsmen in Washington Wednesday that the charges of him being involved in a kickback and bribery scheme are "false, scurrilous and malicious." He said we must draw a distinction between rumor and fact.
In this 1973 file photo, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew tells newsmen in Washington Wednesday that the charges of him being involved in a kickback and bribery scheme are "false, scurrilous and malicious." He said we must draw a distinction between rumor and fact. (AP)

In the midst of President Donald Trump’s screwy and alarming Twitter tirade over the weekend in connection with Jeanine Pirro’s suspension, his depiction on “Saturday Night Live” and the Federal Communication Commission’s failure to punish his enemies, I found some real comfort and hope in the past.

No, not as a retreat from the ugly reality of the current presidential crisis that worsens by the week as Trump gets stranger and seemingly more insulated from reality with every passing day. I found comfort in stories of righteousness and courage by men and women in past presidential crises, particularly Watergate.

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I also saw clearly what we in the media can do to help in these troubled times in telling stories both of the heroes and those who behaved badly like George H.W. Bush. More on him later.

The insight came from two media experiences I had over the weekend: appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday on a panel with Dan Rather and finally catching up with MSNBC’s outstanding seven-part podcast, “Bag Man,” on the resignation of former Maryland governor and vice president Spiro Agnew.

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When Rather, who covered Watergate for CBS News, was asked to compare Trump and Richard Nixon in terms of dirty deeds aimed at punishing his enemies, Rather said, “President Nixon tended to work through surrogates and behind the scenes. President Trump is out front.”

I was struck by the modesty and restraint of Rather’s words, given that he was a prime target of some of the dirtiest “behind the scenes” dealing by Nixon who used bare-knuckled surrogates like special counsel and “hatchet man” Chuck Colson to try to get Rather.

Nixon’s henchmen privately pressured CBS president Frank Stanton and founder Bill Paley with threats of FCC actions against the local stations CBS owned around the country if Rather was not reined in or taken off the story. But Rather stood his ground.

The battle erupted into public view in 1974 when Rather rose to ask a question of Nixon at a convention in Houston to boos and cheers. When Nixon sarcastically asked Rather is he “was running” for something, Rather fired back with, “No sir, Mr. President, are you?” But, sadly, it seems as if Rather’s righteous stand during the dark days of Watergate is not so widely remembered today.

I made a note as I left the CNN studio to remind readers and fellow media workers this week of Rather’s righteous behavior when others were buckling under. We need to be reminded in times like these of what it takes to do the right thing.

Sunday night, I listened to the last four parts of the brilliant “Bag Man” podcast about the Baltimore-based federal investigation of Agnew that led to his resignation as vice president in 1973 when Nixon was only months away from also resigning under the threat of impeachment in Watergate.

This was as moving and inspirational podcast as I have ever heard.

There are a number of righteous men in it, some not so widely known, including three young prosecutors working out of the Justice Department’s Baltimore office in 1973 investigating Agnew: Barney Skolnik, Tim Baker and Ron Liebman. Their boss was the U.S. Attorney in Maryland George Beall.

In 1973, Agnew went to Nixon to ask for help in shutting down the investigation of Agnew and the bribes and kickbacks he received from his days as Baltimore County executive straight up to his time as vice president.

Nixon and his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, decided to try a little leverage to get Beall to shut down the investigation by leaning on Beall’s brother, Glenn, a U.S. senator from Maryland, whom Nixon claimed was in his debt. The man Haig and Nixon selected to apply the leverage: George H.W. Bush, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Yes, that “Poppy” Bush, the one the hagiographers describe as so decent, fair and honorable. “Bag Man” describes him as helping to try and obstruct justice on behalf of Nixon and Agnew. And they have documentation of his visit to Glenn Beall from a document placed in his papers by George Beall, which are part of his archived records at Frostburg State University.

But what a moment of great honor and courage by George Beall, a Republican, to withstand that pressure from the highest persons in his party at a time when they were desperate, demanding and dangerous.

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At one point in “Bag Man,” listeners hear Nixon on an Oval Office tape asking Haig if they can “destroy” one of the Maryland witnesses against Agnew. That’s the world in which these acts of honor took place.

If you have not yet listened to “Bag Man,” do so as soon as you can. The points of connection to the increasingly dangerous reign of Trump are impossible to miss.

Here’s the takeaway that matters most: Too many of us think the Founders gave us a republic that is so perfectly imagined that it will last forever without our help. It won’t.

Without men and women standing up and risking their careers and futures to challenge autocrats, crooks and wannabe despots, it can and will fall. We were at one of those times in the early 1970s, and we are there again, and all of us need to look to these past role models for what it takes to survive.

Media need to tell those stories as MSNBC, Maddow and executive producer Mike Yarvitz did in “Bag Man.”

Some parts of the media are doing great work. CNN has one of the two most famous reporters from Watergate, Carl Bernstein, on payroll, not just reminding viewers of the past, but working on investigations and reports about Trump’s White House.

A CNN special on Nixon Sunday night, “Tricky Dick,” was the highest rated show on cable news, showing there is an audience for this history.

Slate has contributed another great podcast on Watergate in “Slow Burn.”

“History is here to help,” Maddow says more than once in “Bag Man.”

She is right. But history is not something we do very well in the media — or as a culture.

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