Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Eagleton Affair: Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern, and the 1972 Vice Presidential Nomination

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Eagleton Affair: Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern, and the 1972 Vice Presidential Nomination

Article excerpt

The most defining moment in Tom Eagleton's public life involved his abbreviated Democratic nomination for the vice presidency in 1972--the only vice presidential nominee ever forced to resign from the ticket. The Eagleton affair still appears in the popular literature, along with the Eagleton question--meaning the one that Democratic nominee George McGovern did not pose to his prospective running mate, only to discover that the Missouri senator had undergone electroshock therapy. As a metaphor, the Eagleton question has even recently reappeared in Sports Illustrated in connection with, of all things, the University of Miami's quest for a football coach. The feature story's opening paragraph referenced the affair in discussing the athletic director's probing questioning of a top coaching candidate so as to avoid the pitfalls of the McGovern selection process (Smith 2007, 64). Most recently, Eagleton's name came up again following the controversial selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican party's vice presidential choice in 2008.

The Eagleton affair has all the elements of a Greek tragedy--it inflicted pain on two decent men and altered their political careers in ways that circumscribed their goals and ambitions. Both George McGovern and Tom Eagleton revealed human frailties because of mistakes in judgment--McGovern by acting impulsively, indecisively, and carelessly and Eagleton by placing ambition ahead of openness and good judgment. Eagleton would come out of the ordeal far better--even becoming a hero, especially in his home state of Missouri--but the emotional scars of that exposure and his resignation remained with him to the end.

The debacle of 1972 also called into question the slapdash ways in which political parties selected their vice presidential candidates, the criteria employed in the selection process, and, above all, the role that past medical conditions can play in excluding one from consideration for an office potentially one heartbeat away from the presidency. For the most part, the selection process has been improved since then. Although much has been written about the Eagleton affair, much more can be said about it since the opening of the Eagleton Papers and the availability of other sources.

The Miami Convention

The last thing on Senator George McGovern's mind when he reached Miami Beach for the opening of the Democratic National Convention on July 10 was the selection of a vice presidential running mate. The South Dakota senator, a proverbial long shot for his party's nomination, had overcome overwhelming odds in the primaries by leading an insurgency that threatened to overturn party control long held by urban bosses, organized labor, and traditional party leaders whose cold war mentality had enmeshed the United States in Vietnam. The neopopulist McGovern embraced a new liberalism dominated by an antiwar element composed of youths, intellectuals, feminists, people of color, and the poor. Not only did they want the Vietnam War ended immediately and amnesty provided for war resisters, but also they sought a reduction of military spending and American commitments abroad, a new fiscal and economic policy committed to eliminating poverty, and legislation to further eradicate racism and sexism. Most of all, they promoted the opening of the party to previously excluded Americans who would now play a leadership role. In the process, the soft-spoken McGovern epitomized sincerity, moralism, and idealism long missing in national politics, much in contrast to the incumbent president, Richard M. Nixon (Miroff 2007).

The most serious challenge that McGovern faced at the Democratic National Convention involved a decision that the party credentials committee had made two weeks earlier when it overturned the winner-take-all McGovern victory in the California primary and proportionally gave the non-McGovern candidates 151 of McGovern's 271 delegates, thus denying McGovern the necessary majority votes for the nomination. …

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