Politics and Mental Illness: The Campaigns of Thomas Eagleton and Lawton Chiles

By Strout, Lawrence N. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1995 | Go to article overview
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Politics and Mental Illness: The Campaigns of Thomas Eagleton and Lawton Chiles

Strout, Lawrence N., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


On July 13, 1972, a 42-year-old U.S. Senator from Missouri stood before the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach to accept the Party's vice presidential nomination. Thomas Eagleton characterized being chosen as the vice presidential nominee as surprising, and resoundingly declared that the country needed to not only elect George McGovern as President, but "to elect Democrats to public office at every level" (Eagleton 643). Twelve days later, Eagleton, after Washington bureau chief of Knight newspapers Bob Boyd and reporter Clark Hoyt had uncovered his history of mental illness, held a news conference and disclosed that three times between 1960 and 1966 he had received psychiatric care, including electroshock treatment, for "nervous exhaustion and fatigue" ("Log" 14). And after repeatedly vowing to stay in the race, and receiving the "1,000 percent" backing of McGovern, on July 31 at a Washington, DC joint McGovern and Eagleton news conference, the Missouri Senator announced that he had agreed "to step aside" to avoid dividing the party (McGovern and Eagleton 643). Eagleton's failure to disclose up front his medical history and fear of the stigma attached to mental illness were two of the contributing factors to his rapid demise as a national candidate. Former ambassador to France, Sargent Shriver, replaced Eagleton on the Democratic ticket. But, incumbent President Richard Nixon and his Vice Presidential running mate, Spiro Agnew, soundly defeated the McGovern/Shriver ticket in the November 1972 election.

On April 12, 1990, a 60-year-old former U.S. Senator from Florida announced in Tallahassee that he was coming out of retirement to seek the Democratic nomination for Governor. Lawton Chiles, within 24 hours of declaring his candidacy, was contacted by reporters asking about rumors being circulated by Republicans that he had been treated for clinical depression. Chiles acknowledged immediately that he had been taking Prozac--a frequently used drug to battle depression--since the previous December (Elliott Newsbank). He went on to say that when he chose not to run for re-election to the Senate in 1988 because of "burnout" it was diagnosed later as depression and was remedied with Prozac. Despite the revelations about Chiles' mental illness, he easily won the Democratic nomination, and in November of 1990, defeated incumbent Bob Martinez for Governor.

The differences in the rhetoric surrounding each candidate's disclosure of mental illness, both by the candidates and in the news media, perhaps illustrate changing attitudes toward mental illness. These two men, 18 years apart, who each had received the latest treatment available for depression, faced very different fates even though they were in very similar situations. Eagleton was a U.S. Senator and Chiles a former U.S. Senator, each with a proven track record with the voters of their respective states. Each ran for a public office they had not sought before. Neither Eagleton nor Chiles disclosed their mental illness until the news media learned of the story, and at that time, the campaign was already underway. The main difference was that one was a candidate for national office and the other for state office. However, comparing each case is still instructive in exploring America's changing attitude towards mental illness, as reflected in the rhetoric of the candidates and in the news media.(1)


In early July of 1972 George McGovern revealed the choice of U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate. Newsweek, with a story titled "Tom Who? A Man Named Eagleton," Time, with "Eagleton: McGovern's Man from Missouri," and U.S. News and World Report, with "Eagleton Sees United Party Emerging from Diversity," provided readers with insights about who this Missouri Senator was. Newsweek focused more on the "veepstakes" and how Eagleton became the choice, Time chronicled in some detail his rise to the rank of U.

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Politics and Mental Illness: The Campaigns of Thomas Eagleton and Lawton Chiles


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