The Eagleton affair: Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern, and the 1972 vice presidential nomination.

Author:Giglio, James N.

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. As a result, McGovern's chief challengers, Hubert H. Humphrey and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, remained in contention until delegates on the opening night of the convention restored the winner-take-all rules of the California primary, which in effect gave McGovern the nomination. But the McGovern organization had expended considerable energy and time to accomplish this.

Consequently, McGovern was further distracted from selecting a running mate. Instead, he had elected to rely on his own intuition that a reluctant Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts would accept on the basis that no one, out of obligation, could turn down an invitation from the presumptive presidential nominee. But in fact Kennedy did. What had made Kennedy so appealing, despite the potentially damaging Chappaquiddick incident, was his continued immense popularity. McGovern's backup choice, Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, had also rejected an offer contingent on Kennedy's refusal prior to the national convention. (1)

On July 13, the final day of decision making, McGovern finally asked Frank Mankiewicz and Gary Hart, his two top staffers, to convene some 20 staffers, advisors, and supporters to compile a list of possible candidates that rapidly went to 22 names. The final list contained Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota; Governor Pat Lucey of Wisconsin; Sargent Shriver, John E Kennedy's brother-in-law and former director of the Peace Corps; Larry O'Brien, former postmaster general in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and Democratic Party national chairman; Ribicoff (the group may have not known of his earlier rejection); Boston mayor Kevin White; and Tom Eagleton. After receiving the list, McGovern called the well-regarded Mondale, who declined because he was running for reelection in a race that he would surely win. Lucey was rejected because of his wife's acerbic personality. President Kennedy's former press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who assisted in the McGovern campaign, made a strong pitch for Shriver, which convinced McGovern to have Salinger and Mankiewicz call Shriver's Washington office. When asked whether Shriver could be reached, an aide responded that he was in Moscow on business. That removed him from the list along with O'Brien, who was ruled out because he was a professional politician who had never held elective office.

At this point, the focus turned to Kevin White, most promoted by Gary Hart, who referred to White's successful administrative experience, his reputation as an effective campaigner, and the balance he would provide to the ticket as a Catholic and a New Englander. When McGovern sought Senator Kennedy's approval, however, the latter told him that he could not campaign for the ticket "with as much enthusiasm if White were on it." McGovern later wrote that Kennedy felt so strongly about it that he said he might reconsider accepting the vice presidential nomination (McGovern 1977, 197). Only an hour and a half now remained before the 3:00 P.M. filing deadline. Yet the ever-hopeful McGovern gave Kennedy 30 minutes to rethink his original decision not to run. At the same time, Gordon Weil, a McGovern staffer, called Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, who blasted White as an incompetent and suggested that the entire Massachusetts delegation would walk out of the convention if he were chosen, most likely because of White's opposition to the McGovern delegates during the Massachusetts primary.

By then, after taking more time than allotted, Senator Kennedy indicated that he would not accept the nomination and that he had softened his position on White, who had already been ruled out. With an extended deadline of 4:00 P.M. fast approaching, a disappointed McGovern then offered his support to trusted friend, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who had already promised his wife that he would remain in the Senate. Nelson ended the conversation by saying that Eagleton was "the guy I would pick if I were in your shoes" (McGovern 1977, 198). Mondale and Kennedy had raised Eagleton's name as well. Left with few alternatives, McGovern responded, "Well, o.k., get Eagleton on the phone," followed by, "Do you know Eagleton at all?" (2) The call was placed at 3:35 P.M. It was the first time that McGovern had seriously considered him.

Relatively unknown to McGovern, the 42-year-old Eagleton was on a fast track politically. Born in South St. Louis, Missouri, on September 4, 1929, he had graduated from St. Louis Country Day School at the age of 16 in 1946, and cum laude both from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1950 and from Harvard Law in 1953. While practicing law in St. Louis in early 1956, Eagleton married Barbara Ann Smith, the attractive blond daughter of a conservative Republican who thought Eagleton too liberal. That same year, Eagleton was elected circuit attorney of St. Louis, an office comparable to prosecuting attorney elsewhere. In the next 12 years, Eagleton became the youngest Missourian ever to serve as circuit attorney, state attorney general, and lieutenant governor. His distinguished record catapulted him into the Democratic race for U.S. senator in 1968. He defeated incumbent Edward Long, who had been tainted by allegations of unethical behavior, in the primary and won the election that fall. Youthful, handsome, and intense, the 6-foot, 172-pound Eagleton developed a reputation as a captivating campaigner and a proponent of the "new politics" associated with Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern.

Eagleton and his entourage had arrived in Miami on Saturday, July 9, the day before the opening of the convention. The senator had no illusions about contending for the nomination, even though he very much sought it. In a recent national television interview, he had indicated that he would enthusiastically serve on the ticket, despite having been a Muskie backer until the latter withdrew from the race in Miami. In spite of sharing similar positions...

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