Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Short, Unhappy Candidacy of Tom Eagleton

We've reached the point in the presidential campaign when challengers select their running mates and incumbents (presumably) decide whether to keep theirs.

As I have said before, I don't expect Barack Obama to drop Joe Biden from his ticket — even though, as always, there are those in the president's party who advocate that — so there is probably little for Democrats to gain from this.

But Mitt Romney would be well advised to pay attention.

Forty years ago, only two weeks had passed since the McGovern–Eagleton ticket had been nominated by the Democrats to challenge the Nixon–Agnew ticket in the fall.

Things had gotten a little out of hand at the convention, and the presidential nominee wasn't able to give his acceptance speech until well after most people on the American mainland had gone to bed.

Most people, even the most optimistic of the Democrats, probably did not think that McGovern had much of a chance of defeating Richard Nixon. Nixon's approval ratings that summer ranged from the upper 50s to the low 60s.

When a president enjoys that kind of popularity about four months before the election, it usually suggests that a landslide is on the horizon — and Nixon's approval numbers in the summer of 1972 exceeded Reagan's in the summer of 1984 and were roughly the same as Clinton's in 1996.

(Both Reagan and Clinton were re–elected.)

Nevertheless, while Democrats might have been resigned to the idea that they were going to lose, they had reason to believe, as they left their convention in Miami, that they could win eight or 10 states — not just the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, which is all the Democrats won that fall.

There was reason, in other words, for Democrats to believe that the nation would not tune them out before Labor Day, that their presidential ticket could at least keep up the pretense of being competitive long enough for their congressional candidates to get a foothold.

But that was before the train wreck of the Eagleton candidacy.

I guess the potential for the train wreck was there all along. The day after he clinched the presidential nomination, McGovern approached just about every big–name Democrat about the second spot on his ticket, and all turned him down. Time was running short so McGovern took the advice of Sen. Gaylord Nelson and offered it to Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton.

Nelson wasn't the first to suggest Eagleton, only the latest. As McGovern observed in an op–ed piece he wrote for the New York Times four years ago, Eagleton clearly wanted the spot. He had been lobbying for it, but McGovern was hesitant to offer it because "I didn't know Eagleton very well."

His first choice had been Sen. Edward Kennedy, but Kennedy turned him down and recommended Eagleton. McGovern's next choice was Sargent Shriver, who also turned him down and also recommended Eagleton. Similar stories unfolded with almost every person who was offered the spot on the ticket.

For awhile, the possibility of offering the spot to TV news anchor Walter Cronkite was discussed. Cronkite, as McGovern observed, had been named the most admired man in America, and the idea of having him on the ticket was "intriguing."

Eventually, McGovern and his staff dismissed the idea as "too unrealistic."

"I later learned from Walter that he would have accepted," McGovern wrote. "I wish we had chosen him."

Of that, there can be no doubt.

Despite whatever misgivings he may have had, McGovern offered the spot to Eagleton, who had assured the nominee's political director that "there was nothing in [Eagleton's] background that would be considered troublesome." He offered the spot to Eagleton 15 minutes before his deadline for announcing his choice.

But haste makes waste, the old saying says, and Eagleton had concealed a few things.
  • It turned out that Eagleton had been treated for exhaustion and depression — including electroshock therapy.
  • He had been taking strong anti–psychotic drugs.
  • When McGovern saw a copy of Eagleton's medical records, he noted words like depression and suicidal tendencies.
Times have changed. In 2012, Americans are more tolerant of many things than they were in 1972.

And the revelation of a history of depression might not carry the same stigma today that it did then.

But the reaction that Eagleton encountered was hostile, fearful. In hindsight, it was inevitable that McGovern would have to drop his running mate.

But it wasn't that simple. There were complications.

He was hesitant, McGovern said later, to remove Eagleton from the ticket immediately because his daughter had suffered from depression, and he was concerned about how she would react.

That has a noble sound to it, but it was hard to reconcile with public actions — not unlike when Nixon's former attorney general and Watergate co–conspirator, John Mitchell, announced he was stepping down as director of Nixon's re–election campaign to spend more time with his wife.

[Bob] Woodward asked several members of the [Washington] Post's staff ... if they believed the resignation was unconnected to Watergate. They did.

The next day, metropolitan editor Harry Rosenfeld frowned and told Woodward, "A man like John Mitchell doesn't give up all that power for his wife."

Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein

All the President's Men (1974)

Similarly, I suppose, a man doesn't give up a major party's vice presidential nomination unless the rattling from the skeletons in his closet becomes too noisy.

In late July 1972, McGovern infamously announced that he was supporting his running mate "1000 percent," but, by the end of the month, Eagleton was off the ticket, and Shriver agreed to replace him.

In military parlance, McGovern had surrendered the high ground to Nixon — and virtually without a fight.

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