From Eagleton's Papers: 1972 Revisited

By Ganey, Terry | St. Louis Journalism Review, October-November 2007 | Go to article overview

From Eagleton's Papers: 1972 Revisited


Ganey, Terry, St. Louis Journalism Review


Throughout his public life former United States Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) had an extensive and sometimes close relationship with the press.

Years before he died last March, he told friends that if he hadn't been a politician, he probably would have been a journalist. After his Senate career ended, Eagleton wrote regular opinion pieces for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But it was in the days surrounding the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, that Eagleton's dealings with the media attracted national attention. Disclosures by reporters that he had been treated for depression and exhaustion and had electroshock therapy became such an issue that it forced Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern to drop Eagleton from the ticket, about a week after he was selected.

Eagleton's reputation was further hurt by allegations from columnist Jack Anderson that he had been arrested in Missouri for drunk driving. Anderson later retracted the allegation, after the damage had been done.

Eagleton's papers were filed with the Western Historical Manuscripts Collections at the State Historical Society at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Buried in the collection are documents that raise a key question about McGovern's selection of Eagleton as a running mate. Did McGoveru know of Eagleton's health problems before selecting him for the No. 2 spot?

McGovern, an anti-Vietnam War senator from South Dakota, had sewn up the Democratic presidential nomination at the party's convention in Miami. By July 13, rumors were percolating over who might be his running mate.

After Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) turned McGovern down, a call went out to Eagleton at the Ivanhoe Hotel. McGovern asked him to be on the ticket. McGovern's campaign director, Frank Mankiewicz, asked Eagleton if there were any skeletons in his closet, and Eagleton replied in the negative. Eagleton did not consider his prior health conditions to be a "skeleton."

Eagleton wrote later: "In essence, the sin for which I have been seriously criticized was that sin of not telling McGoveru or Mankiewicz about my previous health problems .... I was not plagued by haunting memories of my medical past. In no way do I consider my previous health as illegal or immoral or shameful."

Eagleton and McGovern were forced to hold a joint news conference in which Eagleton explained his three hospitalizations and the fact that he had undergone electroshock therapy. He recounts in his narrative that although previous presidents had known physical problems, "a problem related to the mind--a depression treated with electroshock--was something untested in the public."

There are several notes in the file that indicate McGovern's staff was made aware of Eagleton's health history before his selection as McGovern's running mate. The situation developed because of Eagleton's eagerness for the vice-presidential nomination, the haste with which the selection was made and Eagleton's contention that neither he nor McGovern believed the health issue would become that controversial. Eagleton told McGovern he believed the controversy helped the ticket because it showed Eagleton was a fighter.

So, did McGovern know about Eagleton's treatment for depression and exhaustion and his electroshock therapy prior to selecting Eagleton? SJR reached McGovern recently on his cell phone as he traveled to give a speech in South Dakota.

"I knew nothing about it. Nobody told me anything. Maybe some of my staff knew something, but I was never told anything."

The first he knew, McGovern said, was when he read about it in a newspaper in Miami during the convention.

He said the main concern after the disclosure was that it would become a campaign issue and detract from his candidacy.

"That was the feeling," he said. Asked what the main problem was with disclosure of Eagleton's health history, McGovern said, "We didn't know much about mental illness at that time . …

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