The wayback machine: Tom Eagleton


“I assume that everyone here is impressed with my control of this convention in that my choice for Vice President was challenged by only 39 other nominees. But I think we learned from watching the Republicans four years ago as they selected their vice-presidential nominee that it pays to take a little more time.”

That was Sen. George McGovern starting off his speech to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. It wasn’t exactly a stemwinder; little about his bid to be president was. Even Minnesota voted Republican that year, the last time it’s done so at the top of the ticket.

A few minutes before that speech, 42-year-old Sen. Tom Eagleton stood on the podium, his arms raised in triumph. Not long after, Eagleton was bumped from the ticket after it was revealed he had been hospitalized three times for treatment of depression.

In a sign of strength that it no longer has, the nation’s major newspapers — the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times — called for — and got — Eagleton’s resignation.

The McGovern candidacy was doomed no matter what he did. If the South Dakota senator had stuck with Eagleton, there’d be questions about his fitness for office. When he dumped Eagleton, it launched questions about McGovern’s judgment.

Last month, the now-85-year-old McGovern reflected on the what-he-should-have-dones:

In view of the fact that we knew it was going to be a very tough battle with Nixon and he would use every technique possible to win re-election, we might have been cautious about going ahead with Sen. Eagleton if we had known that he had had a 15-year history of depression, mental illness that would almost make him incapacitated during those periods. It’s not that he should be punished for that, but we at least should have had that information before we made a final judgment. And that was what caused all the confusion about what to do with it.

Today, 2008, people have a much better understanding of mental illness and especially depression than they did 36 years ago. I didn’t know much about it myself. I don’t claim to have been an expert on clinical depression. Abraham Lincoln struggled with it most of his adult life. At one time he said, “I’m the most miserable man.” Another time he talked about being “the saddest man on the planet.” It’s a terrible affliction that can really put you down. And so we would have, I think, before we made a final decision on Sen. Eagleton, if we had known about this history of illness, we would have had time to talk to the doctors, talk to the psychiatrist, talk more to Sen. Eagleton than we did.

Eagleton died last year.

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