The Eagleton Affair: Joshua Glasser on George McGovern and ‘The Eighteen-Day Running Mate’
Joshua M. Glasser, author of The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis discusses the doomed presidential campaign of George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton in the 1972 US presidential election.
Interview with Joshua M. Glasser
Published this month, Joshua M. Glasser’s The Eighteen-Day Running Mate tells the story of the failed presidential ticket of George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton, and the truth behind the dramatic derailment of a candidate in the 1972 US presidential election. On the 40th anniversary of the events, and in the run-up to this year’s election, Glasser writes an intimate portrait of a campaign undone by anonymous tips and fear of public perception, both relevant and resonant with politics today.
Yale sat down with Glasser to discuss the details of the campaign and the consequences of what happens when the private lives of politicians are brought to the forefront of public attention.
Yale University Press: July 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the ‘Eagleton Affair’, in which Senator Thomas Eagleton was removed from presidential candidate Senator George McGovern’s ticket after disclosures about Eagleton’s history of mental illness, which included three hospitalizations and treatment with electroshock therapy. How did you become interested in this story?
Joshua M. Glasser: I first honed in on the story when I came across Eagleton’s New York Times obituary shortly after his death in March 2007. I found it absolutely riveting. It seemed a window into our national political culture in a period with some striking similarities to our own, not to mention a fascinating, if heart-rending human and political drama. It struck me as the type of narrative I’d love to read in a book, if only there was one.
YUP: McGovern first said he was “1000% percent” behind Eagleton and would continue to support him as his vice presidential candidate. Less than a week later, their ticket was disbanded, with Eagleton officially stepping down on July 31, 1972. What happened in that brief span to change McGovern’s mind?
JMG: The press had always been fond of saying that McGovern was a decent man, perhaps even too decent to be president, and McGovern’s initial decision to stand by Eagleton stemmed in part from an impulse to reach out to his teammate in the midst of what was bound to be the biggest test of his life. But McGovern was also a politician who desperately wanted to be president, and with his aides and much of the press badgering him with claims that Eagleton’s candidacy was untenable, McGovern finally gave in. In essence, he came to understand Eagleton’s mental health history as an issue that the campaign could not overcome, even with time. There was also the ethical dilemma—was Eagleton fit to handle the duties of the vice presidency and, if necessary, the presidency, especially in the nuclear era?
YUP: McGovern’s own daughter Terry struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. Could that have factored into his response to the Eagleton news?
JMG: Yes, Terry definitely figured into McGovern’s impulse to support Tom Eagleton. Throughout her teens, Terry had experimented with hard drugs and alcohol and struggled with her own case of clinical depression, spending as long as six months in the hospital shortly before ’72. In a letter to his aides a few years after the election, McGovern wrote that Terry’s past was “perhaps a central reason” why he reacted so strongly in Eagleton’s defense.
YUP: Back in Eagleton’s hometown of St. Louis, the local press had heard about his hospitalizations earlier but had handled the news with discretion. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, reported his family’s explanation that stomach troubles were the reason for Eagleton’s hospitalizations, and the paper avoided pursuing other, more sordid rumors about the politician. This is arguably very different from how today’s media would respond to such news about a political candidate. What contributed to the St. Louis press’s hands-off response?
JMG: The St. Louis press had a tradition of restraint that saved Eagleton from serious investigation, especially into the allegations that he struggled with alcoholism. They only pursued those rumors that appeared to impact a politician’s performance on the job, and in the case of Eagleton, nothing other than his very occasional absences for a gastric problem suggested that he had any health problems that would impact his work. Eagleton was known as an extremely hardworking and able public servant—a sort-of wunderkind of Missouri politics—so the press gave him a pass because he continued to live up to this reputation. While in town for a few days to cover Eagleton’s 1968 campaign for the Senate, one Time magazine reporter did perceive Eagleton to be somewhat erratic, or manic. He picked up on the shock treatments and noted this discovery in a lengthy memo to his editors back in New York. The reporter stressed that the electroshock was unconfirmed but nonetheless worth digging into if Eagleton ever rose to the national stage.
YUP: The process of the Eagleton’s undoing as a candidate began when anonymous calls were placed to McGovern’s advisors. The anonymous caller was never identified. Are there theories about who it is?
JMG: Yes, there are several theories, though they differ in specifics. The most prominent and seemingly plausible of them share common elements—that the caller was a college-aged McGovernite from the Detroit area who had connections to the medical community in St. Louis, most likely to a doctor or nurse who was present when Eagleton received treatment. Though it may seem odd that the caller would be a McGovernite, he said he phoned the Detroit Free Press and the campaign because he was confident that Republicans were in possession of such details, and he was eager to alert the McGovern campaign so it could make a switch before it became too late. Then again—as the Nixon Tapes and other documentation reveal—the Committee for the Reelection of the President (CREEP) did have some knowledge of Eagleton’s past, and CREEP’s members were contemplating how to use it. So it is certainly possible—though not confirmed—that the caller was actually a Nixonite posing as a McGovern supporter. Remember, these anonymous calls came within a month of Watergate.
YUP: Electroshock therapy sounds scarring. Why did Eagleton receive shock treatments? And is the practice still used today?
JMG: In a post- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest world, most people envision electroshock as a horrifying procedure, but in truth, as administered today—with patients under anesthesia and taking muscle relaxants—there’s no violent thrashing and no visible, pulsating electric currents bursting from the patient’s skull. In fact, you can hardly tell it’s happening. In the United States, over one hundred thousand people receive what’s now termed electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, each year. To understand why Eagleton received electroshock, it’s important to situate him in his time, place, and role. He needed treatment at a time when the psychotropic drugs available could have debilitating side effects. Talk therapy takes time, and electroshock did not have the same negative connotations in St. Louis at that time that we tend to associate with it today. If Eagleton lived back east, perhaps he would not have received electroshock, but he might not have improved as quickly and thus never had the opportunity to become a U.S. senator.
YUP: Was this campaign arguably the first in which the personal life of a candidate became a front-and-center issue to this extent?
JMG: The injection of the personal into U.S. presidential politics dates back to the age of Jefferson, if not before. But in terms of a personal medical history, yes, this campaign was the first. Miraculously FDR’s health never became an issue in his elections. Neither did Kennedy’s struggle with Addison’s disease and other debilitating ailments that left him highly medicated. The Eagleton Affair was the first time a candidate’s health took center stage and dominated the national discourse. In the years since, doubts about candidates’ health have continued to surface—most memorably with Ronald Reagan, Paul Tsongas, and John McCain—but mental health has never come to the forefront quite like it did in 1972.
Joshua M. Glasser is a researcher for Bloomberg Television in New York. He graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, Eagleton’s alma mater. He lives in the Bronx, NY.