The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, by Joshua M. Glasser (Yale, 392 pp., $26)
The day after Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern won the Massachusetts primary in 1972, reporter Robert D. Novak called around for comments. One of his sources, a liberal senator, provided a memorable quote: “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot.” When they find out, the senator continued, “he’s dead.”
Novak tucked the line into the fourth paragraph of the syndicated column he shared with Rowland Evans. McGovern, a left-wing senator from South Dakota, became the guy for “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid,” and this “triple-A” tag dogged him for months. The snappy label recalled “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” the alliterative putdown Republicans tried to use against Democrats in the 1884 presidential election.
The triple-A quote was controversial for its substance, because although McGovern supported an amnesty for draft dodgers and endorsed legal abortion, he did not in fact call for drug legalization. It was also controversial for its anonymity: Novak refused to name his source, who spoke on background (i.e., he allowed Novak to use his words but to identify him only as a “liberal senator”). Critics charged Evans and Novak with invention: “I guess sometimes they sort of soup things up to get a good story,” said one of McGovern’s staffers — an accusation that Timothy Crouse conveyed with approval in The Boys on the Bus, a popular account of the 1972 political press corps.
For 35 years, the origin of the triple-A quote remained a secret. Then, in 2007, Novak finally revealed it: Thomas Eagleton, the Missouri senator who had gone on to serve as McGovern’s running mate for 18 tumultuous days before being booted from the ticket amid concerns about his mental health. For years, Novak, irritated by the claim of fabrication, had pleaded with Eagleton to go on the record. Eagleton always refused and Novak felt honor-bound — until Eagleton’s death broke the seal of confidentially, and Novak at last gave up his source.
Joshua M. Glasser glides past this episode in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, his otherwise thorough and engrossing account of the doomed McGovern-Eagleton partnership. Yet by dropping his readers into the middle of a campaign in crisis, he imparts lessons for both then and now: McGovern was ill suited for national leadership, and the vetting of vice-presidential candidates is a serious business.
Thomas Eagleton, age 42, was considered a safe pick. As a civil-rights liberal who opposed the Vietnam War, he satisfied the base of his party. As a Missouri senator with strong ties to labor, he was supposed to win over the working class in a swing state and beyond. And as a pro-life Catholic — back when it was possible for an elected Democrat to be such a thing — he was meant to appease socially conservative voters who frowned on McGovern and the New Left but had not yet abandoned the party of FDR.
In reality, Eagleton was a liability. Three times in the 1960s, he had checked into hospitals. Explanations varied from exhaustion to a stomach ailment. Yet the actual reason, kept hidden from the public, was depression. Treatment included electroconvulsive therapy, better known as shock therapy. Glasser’s sober account of the procedure will cause many readers to wonder what the fuss was all about, but at the time the technique was poorly understood. A harsh depiction in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the novel by Ken Kesey, shaped negative perceptions. And, as the political adage says, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
McGovern and his staff knew almost nothing about Eagleton’s medical history — and Glasser’s tick-tock chronicle of July 13, the day McGovern settled on Eagleton, is both a fascinating piece of political history and a devastating portrayal of executive irresolution. One of McGovern’s problems was a delegate-counting flap that rendered his nomination uncertain until the Democratic convention in Miami Beach. Only after clinching the nomination just before midnight on July 12 could he announce a vice-presidential selection. Under party rules, he had until 4 o’clock the next afternoon to make a choice. If he missed this deadline, control of the nomination would shift to the delegates.
Before the convention, McGovern had wanted to run with Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, despite the fresh memory of Kennedy’s craven performance at Chappaquiddick in 1969. Although Kennedy demurred, McGovern refused to quit his pursuit of JFK and RFK’s kid brother. On July 13, McGovern wasted precious hours trying to persuade Kennedy to change his mind.
Kennedy held firm. He suggested Eagleton, who was on McGovern’s list but not at the top — and would not have been on it at all if McGovern had known him as the author of the notorious triple-A quote. After Kennedy, McGovern reached out to Walter Mondale, the Minnesota senator who would run with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Mondale turned him down and recommended Eagleton too. Still uncertain, McGovern pitched the idea of Idaho senator Frank Church but backed off when his staff objected. At one point, Boston mayor Kevin White appeared likely to carry the day — a McGovern aide wrote White’s name on official filing papers — but White fell from favor. Even CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was in the mix, though McGovern decided not to ask because he feared the embarrassment of a refusal. (“I’d have accepted in a minute,” said Cronkite, many years later.)
At 3:05 p.m., as the deadline loomed, McGovern phoned Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson to offer the nomination. Nelson took half an hour to call back. He also declined, adding that he’d go with Eagleton. So at 3:45 p.m., McGovern made the call that people had been telling him to make all day. “I thought it over carefully,” he said to Eagleton, in words that can be described most generously as a white lie. “I’d like you to accept the vice-presidential nomination.” Eagleton jumped at the chance: “Why, ah, before you change your mind, I hastily accept.”
Ideologues of both left and right often explain their defeats by citing tactical mistakes: It’s not that voters rejected them or their ideas, but that the dunderheads in charge of advertising, debate preparation, or whatever messed up. Diehard McGovernites who succumb to this temptation point to this moment, when McGovern picked Eagleton without the benefit of a proper vetting, as the fatal error.
What the incident actually reveals — and Glasser tells it with admirable objectivity — is that McGovern was weak and waffling. It’s a cliché to say that a presidential candidate’s most important decision is a running mate, but there’s an awful lot of truth to it. When the choice fell to McGovern, he fantasized about Kennedy, let his staff overrule him on Church, and just plain dithered. He didn’t present the profile of a man equipped to answer the White House phone at 3 a.m., to use a theme one of his low-level volunteers, Hillary Rodham, would develop in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
In the days ahead, the problem grew worse. As reporters poked into Eagleton’s background, they began to uncover the truth about his hospitalization. Questions about Eagleton’s mental fitness and credibility flared into controversy. Would he crack under pressure? Had he tried to deceive his own constituents? Should he have warned McGovern about his vulnerability?
McGovern faced considerable pressure from Democrats to dump Eagleton. One of the small delights of reading Glasser’s story is to witness the obnoxious behavior of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Democratic court historian. In a letter to McGovern, he blasted Eagleton’s “betrayal of you and his party” and, in a cruel metaphor, urged “a surgical excision.” Schlesinger, of course, had served in the Kennedy administration, enjoying a front-row seat to what may have been America’s most medicated presidency. Perhaps he knew the dangers.
McGovern avoided a final decision for as long as possible, vacillating all the way. He announced that he was “1,000 percent” behind Eagleton. McGovern also tried the passive-aggressive ploy of planting a story with newspaper columnist Jack Germond that he wanted Eagleton to withdraw, in the hope that Eagleton would read it and decide to quit on his own. A last-minute interview with Eagleton’s psychiatrists probably made the difference: They warned that Eagleton wasn’t up to the demands of the presidency.
On July 31, McGovern ejected Eagleton. He eventually ran with Sargent Shriver, still striving for at least a bit of Kennedy mojo, as Shriver was married to a sister of Jack, Bobby, and Ted. The McGovern-Shriver ticket suffered one of the most lopsided defeats in history, losing every state except Massachusetts. Even Barry Goldwater had won more electoral votes in the blowout of 1964. It seems that in their hearts, Americans knew Eagleton was right: The candidate of amnesty, abortion, and acid was just too radical.
McGovern stayed in the Senate for eight more years, until he was swept away in the Reagan deluge of 1980. Eagleton outlasted him, evidently without any nervous breakdowns, and retiring on his own terms in 1986. In assessing McGovern’s failure in 1972, Eagleton concluded that he was “one rock in that landslide.”
Was McGovern wise to oust Eagleton? Glasser stays scrupulously neutral. McGovern, for his part, has expressed conflicting opinions. “If I had to do it over again, I’d have kept him,” he said in 2006. In his 1977 memoir, however, he seemed eager to blame his rout on Eagleton, echoing the words of his 18-day running mate: “Landslides begin with a single rock.”
It seems that the triple-A candidate hadn’t considered the possibility that he was the first rock.