Thomas F. Eagleton Withdraws from Vice Presidential Race Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The withdrawal of U.S. vice presidential candidate Thomas F. Eagleton from the 1972 Democratic ticket because of a history of mental illness was the controversial beginning of the end for Senator George McGovern’s presidential campaign; he lost in a landslide against incumbent president Richard Nixon.

Summary of Event

“One rock in the landslide” is how U.S. senator Thomas F. Eagleton described his contribution to the overwhelming defeat of Senator George McGovern in the 1972 presidential race. This political episode was so momentous that Eagleton’s later significant legislative achievements were overshadowed by his removal after eighteen days as the vice presidential nominee in 1972. He was removed by presidential nominee George McGovern after revelations that Eagleton had received psychiatric treatment, including electroshock therapy, for depression in 1960, 1964, and 1966. [kw]Eagleton Withdraws from Vice Presidential Race, Thomas F. (July 31, 1972) Eagleton, Thomas F. McGovern, George Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Thomas F. Eagleton[Eagleton] Eagleton, Thomas F. McGovern, George Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Thomas F. Eagleton[Eagleton] [g]United States;July 31, 1972: Thomas F. Eagleton Withdraws from Vice Presidential Race[01440] [c]Politics;July 31, 1972: Thomas F. Eagleton Withdraws from Vice Presidential Race[01440] [c]Government;July 31, 1972: Thomas F. Eagleton Withdraws from Vice Presidential Race[01440] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;July 31, 1972: Thomas F. Eagleton Withdraws from Vice Presidential Race[01440] [c]Social issues and reform;July 31, 1972: Thomas F. Eagleton Withdraws from Vice Presidential Race[01440]

Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, left, announces the withdrawal of his running mate Thomas Eagleton from the campaign.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The 1972 scandal had an inauspicious beginning. Eagleton was a last-minute selection for vice president on the Democratic ticket. As Eagleton would later reveal, he was so far down the list of potential candidates that even Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame was considered a more viable choice. Although not unusual for its time, choosing a vice presidential candidate so late in a campaign was further exacerbated by the failed courting of the reluctant Senator Ted Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. After the Kennedy option was closed, McGovern’s campaign staff had to scramble to find another choice.

Campaign staff sought the advice of several prospective candidates on the approved list, one being Gaylord Nelson, U.S. senator from Wisconsin. Nelson refused the offer but told McGovern’s staff that there was no more attractive candidate than Eagleton of Missouri.

Initially, Eagleton was thought to be an unlikely choice for vice president. He was only forty-two years old and in his first term as senator. In addition, he was an early supporter of Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine in the Democratic primary and criticized McGovern for supporting “amnesty, abortion and the legalization of pot.” There also were rumors of an alcohol problem, which were later found to be untrue. Eagleton posted sixth on the list of potential candidates.

After further consideration by the McGovern campaign staff, Eagleton was considered an attractive candidate—Irish Catholic, young, bright (Amherst College and Harvard Law School), witty, handsome, and, as shown during his tenure as attorney general of Missouri, firm on law and order. He was known as a Franklin D. Roosevelt liberal with the solid support of labor and was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War.

During the late afternoon of July 13, McGovern called Eagleton and offered him the number two position on the ticket. Before McGovern could finish his sentence, Eagleton said, “George, before you change your mind, I accept.” Campaign staffer Frank Mankiewicz then took the phone and asked Eagleton if there was anything in his background that might embarrass the campaign. Eagleton said there was nothing.

The media began investigating Eagleton’s background, revealing that three times he had been hospitalized for depression and had twice received electroshock therapy. McGovern staffers, through anonymous tips, became aware of this issue shortly after the Miami Democratic convention but did not tell McGovern. Mankiewicz and Gary Hart, later U.S. senator from Colorado, met with Eagleton to discuss the problem and, after a frank and full airing of the affair, Eagleton offered to resign. Mankiewicz said no, that McGovern must be told and McGovern must decide.

On July 25, Eagleton was asked by reporters about rumors that he had a history of mental illness. In fact, the media began to report that he had a “nervous condition.” Eagleton responded that he had been treated for “nervous exhaustion” in the past and was frank and forthcoming when asked about specific treatments, acknowledging that they included psychiatric counseling and electroshock therapy. The treatments worked, he said, and his mental illness “was like a broken leg that healed.” Since those early episodes of depression he learned to pace himself and became successful in his political career, which included positions as St. Louis City solicitor, Missouri attorney general, lieutenant governor, and U.S. senator. Doctors had given him a clean bill of health, and his professional effectiveness was never questioned.

McGovern responded to these revelations by announcing that he was “1,000 percent for Tom Eagleton,” telling the press that Eagleton was “fully qualified” to be vice president and, if necessary, president. Critics, however, charged that in a nuclear age, the nation could not afford to have someone with a history of mental illness decide if and when to use nuclear Nuclear weapons; weaponry. It certainly did not help that Eagleton’s depression was referred to as a “nervous condition” by the media. In addition, mental illness carried a heavy social stigma. Even supporters of Eagleton worried that the voting public would never accept him in such a leadership role. Pressure from within the campaign, especially from campaign manager Hart, according to Eagleton, as well as pressure from major donors, led McGovern to force Eagleton to withdraw from the ticket. Eagleton withdrew on July 31 and said he did so for “party unity.” No later accusation would bother Eagleton more than the one claiming that he deceived the McGovern campaign.

Showing great grace and courage, Eagleton campaigned hard for the newly formed McGovern ticket with Sargent Shriver. His efforts were to no avail, as the Democratic ticket did not carry Missouri or any other state except Massachusetts. Richard Nixon won his second term in a landslide victory. McGovern supporters blamed the scandal for the magnitude of the loss. After leaving the ticket, Eagleton received sympathy and support from political colleagues as well as one prominent foe. On August 2, Nixon sent a personal, handwritten letter to Eagleton’s thirteen-year-old son, Terry. In the letter, Nixon praised the senior Eagleton’s “courage, poise and just plain grits he showed against overwhelming odds.”

McGovern’s handling of the Eagleton affair hurt his campaign; however, how much so is difficult to measure. That Eagleton’s personal background was not properly vetted led to charges of campaign incompetence. For some critics, McGovern’s decision to remove Eagleton smacked of insensitivity, at best, and called into question McGovern’s image as a person of decency. In an April, 2006, interview, McGovern said that if he had to do it over again, he would have kept Eagleton on the ticket. He admitted that little was known about mental illness in 1972, and that a lack of information and understanding about depression led to a mistake in his judgment.

Eagleton survived the controversy and went on to serve with distinction in the Senate for eighteen years. He was a leading sponsor of the original 1974 War Powers Act (although he ultimately voted against a watered-down compromise version), the first Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the 1973 Eagleton amendment halting the bombing of Cambodia, which effectively ended the Vietnam Vietnam War War. It is the latter he regarded as his top legislative achievement.

Upon his retirement from the Senate in 1987 he received the highest praises from both his Democratic and Republican peers, and was referred to often as “the conscience of the Senate.” He served the remainder of his life as teacher and mentor to students at Washington University in St. Louis and as a partner in the St. Louis law firm of Thompson-Coburn.

Impact

The Eagleton episode led to microscopic vetting of potential running mates in U.S. politics. No longer are vice presidential candidates selected without a thorough background check. Personal, professional, social, and medical histories are now scrutinized by campaign staff long before the names of potential running mates are leaked to the press. It is also possible that the Eagleton affair put more focus on the vice presidency as a significant and powerful office, for no other reason than being “a heartbeat away” from the presidency. Vice presidential running mates are now chosen not simply for adding electoral appeal to a party’s ticket but also for the possibility that they might serve as president.

Mental illness, especially depression, received added attention after the Eagleton episode as well. At the time, mental illness still carried a heavy social stigma, leaving few sufferers, especially politicians, willing to talk about the disease. Mental illness is now more understood by the American public, discussed more in public, and revealed as a part of the life of celebrities and other public figures, which has had the effect of releasing some of the social stigma surrounding the disease.

Whether or not Eagleton or, for that matter, someone such as former U.S. president Lincoln, Abraham Abraham Lincoln, who also suffered mental illness, would be shunned as a potential running mate remains a question for debate. Some still argue that mental illness, unlike other diseases, uniquely disqualifies a person from holding the vice presidency or presidency. Others argue that given what is now known about mental illness and given medicine’s ability to treat and manage the disease, one should no longer be disqualified from high political office simply because they suffer from, or have suffered from, depression or other types of mental illness. Eagleton, Thomas F. McGovern, George Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Thomas F. Eagleton[Eagleton]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miroff, Bruce. The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. Political scientist Miroff argues that McGovern’s handling of the Eagleton affair damaged his reputation as competent and decent. McGovern’s presidential image was one of compassion, thoughtfulness, and of not being Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Novak, Robert D. The Prince of Darkness: Fifty Years of Reporting in Washington. New York: Crown Forum, 2007. Longtime Washington reporter Novak reveals controversial secrets from sources inside the 1972 McGovern-Eagleton campaign. From notes taken during the Democratic presidential primary of 1972, Novak discloses that Eagleton was a forceful critic of McGovern. Novak had disclosed Eagleton’s negative comments about McGovern in 1972 but not the source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1972. New York: Atheneum, 1973. From the dean of political journalists, White offers insightful commentary on the political implications of the “buffoonery of the Eagleton affair.” White casts a generally sympathetic view of Eagleton, describing the McGovern campaign staff’s handling of the situation as confused, rushed, and incompetent.

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