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 .... had we known about it, we could have explored it and made a judgment."

"I want to help in any way I can," Eagleton said when McGovern first called him.

Eagleton's end of the telephone conversation was tape-recorded by KMOX (1120 AM)'s Bob Hardy who had been waiting with Eagleton in the hotel room all afternoon. A transcript of Hardy's recording of Eagleton's part of the discussion is among Eagleton's papers.

"I'm flabbergasted, George. Are you kidding me? Why, ah, before you change your mind, I hastily accept." Eagleton said. "Oh, my god, George, well, I'm as pleased as I could be. I'm honored, I'm flattered, and, uh, will do whatever I can. I hope I don't let you down."

At one point, Hardy said, "Congratulations, senator, what's your reaction?"

"Well, I'm flabbergasted."

"You're shaking."

"Well, I can't believe it. As you know, we've had a, uh, a long vigil here today."

Within moments of the call, Chris Condon of KSD-TV (Channel 5), and St. Louis Globe-Democrat political reporter Jack Flach were in the room to climb on the details of one of the biggest political stories in St. Louis history. And while the St. Louis media seemed to be on top of the story at that point, soon journalists from outside the area would take control.

One of them was Clark Hoyt of the Knight Newspapers' Washington bureau. He was dispatched from the convention to St. Louis to begin collecting material for an Eagleton profile. One of his first stops was the files of the Post. He found clips that showed Eagleton had suffered from a periodic "gastric disturbance."

On July 17, while Hoyt was still in St. Louis, information was passed to him that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression. The information included the name of a hospital where Eagleton was treated. Hoyt and his reporting partner, Robert Boyd, wrote a two-page memo that outlined their findings.

"Mr. X gave us the name of a physician who was allegedly present during the treatment," the memo said. "The physician refused to discuss the matter with us in any detail but tacitly confirmed it.

"Independent of the above information, a top Missouri Republican leader connected with the committee for the re-election of the President volunteered that Eagleton was treated for nervous exhaustion or a nervous breakdown at the Menninger Clinic in January 1965."

Too much heat

The reporters sought from the McGovern campaign corroboration or explanation of Eagleton's condition. They were told they would get a private interview with Eagleton and that he would hold a news conference after the Knight stories had appeared.

But within two days, the arrangement fell apart. Eagleton and McGovern held their news conference to disclose the medical history. As a sort of "consolation prize," Hoyt and Boyd got a private interview with Eagleton while on his way to the Rapid City, Iowa, airport. Although Hoyt and Boyd had surrendered their scoop to the McGovern Eagleton camp, they nevertheless shared in the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1973.

Two days after Eagleton's announcement that he had undergone shock treatment, Anderson reported on the Mutual Broadcasting System radio network that Eagleton had a long record of arrests in Missouri for drunken and reckless driving.

"Shit, pure unadulterated shit!" Eagleton said, according to a manuscript that he later wrote, part of a memoir he intended to have published. "He's a goddamned liar, but there it was. Eagleton the former mental patient was now also Eagleton the drunk driver," Eagleton wrote.

Eagleton believed the turning point in his ability to remain on the ticket with McGovern took place on the day of the Anderson broadcast. That same day the Washington Post published an editorial calling for him to withdraw.

On July 30, Eagleton appeared on the CBS television program "Face the Nation." Anderson was on the program too and apologized for the story, but said he would not retract it without further investigation. A day later, Eagleton and McGovern held a joint news conference in which they said the continuing controversy over whether Eagleton was fit for the No. 2 position on the ticket was dividing the campaign.

"We have jointly agreed that the best course is for Sen. Eagleton to step aside," McGovern said.

Anderson's main source for his story was True Davis, a millionaire banker who had unsuccessfully opposed Eagleton for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Missouri in 1968.

On Aug. 1, Anderson met with Eagleton in his Senate office. Anderson agreed to retract his story and apologized to Eagleton in a joint appearance with him in a corridor where reporters had gathered. Eagleton said he was satisfied with the retraction and "the book is closed."

Well, not really. Eagleton's office continued to monitor what Anderson said. Robert Kingsland, a top aide to Eagleton, shadowed Anderson on his visit to Columbia a few months later. By that time, Republican Richard M. Nixon had won re-election to the White House.

Kingsland wrote an internal memo: "Anderson struck me as a pompous ass .... Throughout his entire performance he sounded like a third-rate demagogue who was convinced he had a pipeline to God."

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