Saturday, November 03, 2012

Decent, but not too decent

Thomas Eagleton and George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami

The Democratic Presidential Ticket…for the moment.  The Democratic nominee for President, George McGovern (right) and his Vice Presidential pick, Thomas Eagleton, at the 1972 convention. Less than three weeks later, McGovern would be looking for Eagleton’s replacement, a story told in Joshua M. Glasser’s sobering and cautionary The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis.

If you were voting in the New York Democratic Presidential primary in 1972, you didn’t vote for your preferred candidate. You voted for a slate of delegates from your Congressional district pledged to that candidate. That year Pop Mannion headed a slate of seven potential delegates pledged to George McGovern.  The other slate on the ballot was headed by the boss of the Albany political machine, Dan O’Connell, and included six other stalwarts of the Democratic establishment, and they were all pledged to…Uncommitted.

Uncommitted won in a walk.

They never did commit.  Not to McGovern, at any rate. At the Democratic convention, McGovern carried the New York delegation but not unanimously.  In the end, if I’m remembering it right, seven New York delegates voted for Scoop Jackson.

Twelve years later, I’m in grad school in Iowa, and George McGovern is running for President again, mainly as a protest candidate trying to get his fellow Democrats to focus on issues dear to his heart, like hunger and poverty.  He came to the University to speak and when he finished I chased after him because I wanted to tell him about Pop’s quixotic support for him back in ‘72.

I caught up with him in a stairwell, much to the bemusement of the two aides with him, and introduced myself.  McGovern himself seemed a little wary.  I guess he wasn’t used to people wanting to talk to him---his was a very lonely campaign that year---but he stopped and let me shake his hand and I started to tell him in a rush what I wanted to tell him, how Pop had been a fervent supporter and how his slate had been beaten by Uncommitted.

“Where was that?” McGovern asked.

“Albany, New York.”

He looked thoughtful for a second then said, “That was O’Connell and his people, right?”

I was taken aback.  I didn’t expect him to even know about what went on in the politics of upstate New York, let alone remember it a dozen years later.  But of course he remembered.  And it wasn’t the sting of defeat still smarting that kept the memories fresh.  It was that the consummate politician that he was remembered because as a consummate politician he knew that he always had to keep count.

It was also that those seven Uncommitteds represented one of McGovern’s several big problems in 1972.  Old-school Democratic establishment types didn’t like or trust him.  Not just because he was the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” And ten points to anyone who knows the ironic source of that characterization.  But because his reforms of the Party’s nominating process were muscling them out in favor of women and minorities and younger, more liberal Democrats of all sorts and conditions.

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate book coverAnd that, as Joshua M Glasser lays out the story in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, helps explain how McGovern wound up with Thomas Eagleton as his running mate coming out of the convention and why it took as long as it did for McGovern to dump him after the news began to come out about Eagleton’s history of depression and the electroshock therapy he underwent to treat it, a decision McGovern turned out not to be too decent to make.

It was politics, plain and simple.

In the days after McGovern’s death on October 21, many of the news stories eulogizing him emphasized his great and undeniable decency to the point, though, of asserting that he may have been too decent for contemporary American politics.

As the son of another decent man who was also a consummate politician (and, never mind the loss in the primary, a mostly winning one), I object to that characterization.  It implies that there is something fundamentally indecent about being a successful politician or that McGovern somehow managed to be successful in spite of himself or that he was not a successful politician.  Obviously, in the fall 1972, he wasn’t.  Before that?  Even one campaign after that?

George McGovern, a liberal Democrat, got himself elected Congressman from the very Republican and conservative state of South Dakota.  He did that by building the Democratic Party in South Dakota, practically from scratch and single-handed.  He got himself re-elected by beating back a challenge from a popular former governor.  He lost in is his first try for the Senate, but then won the seat in 1962.  He got himself re-elected in 1968 and re-elected again in 1974, only two years after South Dakota, along with forty-nine other states, had rejected its native son for President in a landslide of historic magnitude.  He lost his Senate seat in 1980, a casualty of the Reagan sweep, and except for that symbolic run for President in 1984, was done with running for political office for the many years of life he had left to him.  But that’s still a lot of political success for someone too decent for politics, and the point is that the people of South Dakota not send him to Washington for two terms in the House of Representatives and three in the United States Senate because they thought he was a decent guy.

They thought he was a decent guy who would get the job done for them.

They expected that he would represent their interests and wishes and be a skilled enough politician to get legislation passed and money allocated that would advance those interests and realize those wishes. And McGovern was glad to represent them.  But South Dakota was a farming and ranching state and identified itself, accordingly, as rural, small town, Western, and, befitting a state of independent businessmen---ranchers, farmers, and the owners of the businesses that served them---and Republicans, pro business and therefore anti-union.  Unions were big city, Eastern, anti-business, Democratic, and corrupt and corrupting.  To represent South Dakota, McGovern had to be strongly pro-agriculture, which was easy, and, not anti-union, at least not aggressively so, but not the friend of labor most establishment Democrats were at the time. He kept his distance from labor leaders and when he saw union interests conflicting with the interests of his constituents he voted for the latter and against the former.

Naturally, union leaders and their friends and allies among party establishment types like the Uncommitted slate from Albany did not look kindly on McGovern’s candidacy.  But McGovern needed union support, union money, union workboots on the ground, union votes.  And that’s how he came to pick Eagleton.

McGovern’s ideal running mate was Ted Kennedy. Polls showed that McGovern’s best odds in the general election were with Kennedy on the ticket.  But Kennedy turned him down, repeatedly.  Glasser doesn’t go deeply into Kennedy’s reasons. He relays what Kennedy told McGovern: He’d promised the family that as the last surviving brother he would stay out of Presidential politics.  And he points out that it was only three years after Chappaquiddick, which was probably a big reason Kennedy chose not to run for President himself.  But it’s also likely that Kennedy had sized up McGovern’s chances against Nixon and decided to keep himself untainted by being part of a losing team for his own eventual run in ‘76 or ‘80. McGovern had others in mind, he barely knew Eagleton, despite having served with him in the Senate for three years.  But the others turned him down too, and so did the obvious choices among McGovern’s top rivals for the nomination, Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie. Meanwhile, his staff was looking around for someone who could appeal to the same constituencies as Kennedy.  Someone pro-labor and someone labor was pro in return.  Someone young.  Someone Catholic.

The was the junior senator from Missouri. Tom Eagleton.

And…Eagleton was a product of the St Louis Democratic machine.

He wasn’t well-known outside Missouri, but Party bosses inside the state could vouch for him to Party bosses in other states.

Among the more interesting sections of The Eighteen-day Running Mate are the ones devoted to Eagleton’s swift rise in Missouri politics through a mixture of hard work, talent, family connections, and the skill and the willingness to play the game without becoming beholden to the wrong the people.  Eagleton was every bit the politician as McGovern.  He may not have been quite as decent a guy.

But before getting into anything else: The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is a cautionary tale for anyone nostalgic for the days when conventions decided who’d be the Parties’ nominees.  McGovern arrived in Miami in ‘72 well ahead of his rivals (who included, besides Humphrey and Muskie, Scoop Jackson and George Wallace.  That was also the year Shirley Chisholm ran.) in the delegate count but still short of the number he needed to win the nomination.  McGovern and his staff had to work desperately hard to to round up the extra votes and just as hard to keep ones they had in hand from straying.  Deals had to me made and unmade. Promises were exchanged, favors called in.  Without having any of the obvious and popular favorites to offer, the Vice-Presidential pick became part of the wheeling and dealing, which made it difficult for McGovern’s people to identify and settle on a candidate. With the first roll call vote looming, they were scrambling and when Eagleton was finally offered the spot and accepted, they were left with very little time to vett him.  In the end, they may have done even less due diligence than John McCain did when choosing Sarah Palin.  “Vetting” amounted to little more than Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern’s political director, calling up Eagleton at his hotel in Miami and asking a few perfunctory questions that Eagleton later distilled as, “Any skeletons in your closet?” and more or less taking Eagleton’s word for it when he said there weren’t.

Eagleton wasn’t lying. Not in his own mind, at any rate.  He just did not believe his having suffered from what he considered separate and isolated bouts of depression—as though depression was like the flu and something he was susceptible to---in the past but not anymore---as far as he was concerned, he was cured---and having been treated with intensive electro-shock therapy as skeletons.  He believed it was nobody’s business but his own.

Eagleton was rushed to the nomination pretty much on his own say-so that he was fit for the job.

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is not an insider account of the 1972 Presidential campaign in the vein of Game Change or Theodore White’s The Making of the President series.  It’s a straight-forward, sober---and sobering---history of how a particular set of professional politicians tried to do their jobs during a period of crisis for them, not a gossipy account of how the game is played.  There is no gossip.  What could have been treated as gossip is only included because in this case the personal is inseparable from the political.  And the most personal was the source of the political problem: the state of Tom Eagleton’s mental health.

People in 1972 knew that Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both suffered from serious depression.  But would they have judged that Eagleton deserved the same understanding and benefit of the doubt as a Lincoln or a Churchill?  Put that way, it doesn’t seem likely, does it?  And it didn’t seem likely to McGovern’s advisors.  But what was more worrisome than the depression itself and the possibility that it might recur if Vice-President Eagleton became President Eagleton was how it had been treated.

Electroshock did not have the best public image.

It was barbaric.

It was the tool of mad scientists and torturers.

It was a method of last resort used only on the craziest of crazy people.

It didn’t work.

So it was thought people thought.

Which was ironic because electroshock therapy represented a more advanced or at least advancing view of mental illness, which was to see it as an illness with definite physical symptoms if not causes that could be treated medically.  In the East, where Freud reigned supreme, mental illnesses---defined mainly as neuroses of various sorts---were assumed to be mental and their causes were assumed to be traumas to the psyche that had to be revealed by probing into a patient’s subconscious and unconscious under the guidance of a therapist who helped the patient talk his or her way around mental blocks and defenses to the root of the problem and, it was to be hoped, that would allow the patient to get control of the neurotic symptoms if not actually result in a cure.  Talk therapy was fashionable.  Anybody who was anybody saw a shrink, including, for a time when he was Vice President, Richard Nixon, a fact that wasn’t generally known but wasn’t exactly a state secret either.  But it was more than a fashion.  It was the method.

Contrary ideas had to go west, then, for a hearing.  And many of the doctors and neuroscientists willing to listen were gathered in the teaching hospitals of the Midwest, like the ones where Eagleton sought help.  His doctors didn’t see electroshock as an extreme measure.  They saw it as an effective alternative to to the psychotropic drugs available at the time, of which there were few that worked and all of them had debilitating side effects. His doctors would have advised electroshock in almost the same way they’d have advised an operation to remove a tumor.  Eagleton would have had good reason to think that having had electroshock was nothing to be ashamed of (which isn’t to say he didn’t worry about what voters might think. He kept not only his treatment but his episodes of depression secret from voters back home.) and good reason to think it had worked, that he was cured.  In the several years between his last treatment and McGovern’s offering him a place on the ticket, he hadn’t suffered any more episodes.

He had good reason to think that because it was behind him it had no bearing on whether or not he was qualified to be Vice President of the United States.

He didn’t have good reason to think everybody else agreed with him, and he knew it, and although he didn’t feel he was lying to Mankiewicz when he said their were no skeletons rattling in his closet, good Catholic boy that he was, he must have known it was a Jesuit’s truth.  He may not have been lying, but he was being deceptive, and when it came out, as it did in a hurry, McGovern had good reason for feeling he’d been deceived.

Glasser manages to be detailed and informative on the perceptions of mental illness and its treatment in the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s without losing his narrative thread.  The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is ultimately a dual political biography and portrait of two basically decent and well-intentioned but ambitious and determined men not being seen at their best. Glasser works hard at remaining objective---truly objective, not political journalist “Astronomers say the earth revolves around the sun, though some disagree objective.” He reports what as far as he's been able to determine actually happened, while withholding judgment...until judgment is called for.

Eagleton comes off as the more flawed and less admirable man, vain, dissembling (with himself as much as with anyone else), self-absorbed, selfish, and often immature. He seems to have had a habit of presenting himself in speeches as if he was talking about some other Tom Eagleton, a plucky, put-upon kid brother to himself he loved and admired and felt sorry for.

But Glasser seems more forgiving of Eagleton's flaws than of McGovern's, perhaps because he recognizes that McGovern was the better man and, as people are inclined to do with better men and women, expects more of him.

McGovern, as Glasser sees him, could be vain and self-deceptive in his own right. He was a decent man, but his problem wasn't that he was too decent for politics. His problem was that he was too proud of his reputation for decency for his own political good. He would hold off making a pragmatic political decision until he'd persuaded himself that it was the morally correct decision and he didn't blame himself for mistakes and failures if he could find a way to blame someone else for letting him down by not doing the decent thing as he saw it. He was compassionate and sympathetic towards Eagleton. His daughter Terry suffered from severe depression and, Glasser suggests, McGovern felt that giving up on Eagleton would be like giving up on Terry, something he would never do. He knew right away he needed to cut Eagleton loose and he had good grounds to do it. However Eagleton had convinced himself that he hadn't technically lied to Mankiewicz, he had in fact been deliberately deceptive.

But McGovern put it off in the hope that Eagleton would make the decision for him by doing the decent thing and withdrawing from the ticket. When Eagleton didn't and even began maneuvering to make it impossible foe McGovern to get rid of him, McGovern grew angry and resentful, but he still delayed in no small part in order to protect his image and his self-regard. When Eagleton finally got the push, instead of getting credit for patience and understanding, McGovern had created the impression that he was weak, indecisive, ultimately untrustworthy, and most damaging of all, exactly what cynics suspected, a posturing and self-serving hypocrite.

All these years later, it's probably impossible to know how much of an effect those eighteen days had on voters' perceptions of McGovern and on the election. Polling wasn't what it was to become and contemporary political reporting is unreliable because, as Timothy Crouse would soon reveal in The Boys on the Bus, the political press corps was well on its way to becoming what it is now, if it wasn't always what it is now, cynical, trivia-minded, horserace obsessed, easily  distracted and bored, self-referential, convinced that what they gossiped about over lunch was what the American people were thinking about and caring about, and just plain not all that smart when it came to covering the issues at stake in a Presidential election. My own very unreliable recollection is that McGovern wasn't hurt as much by the fiasco with Eagleton as by the pathetic farce that followed as McGovern went begging for a credible replacement and was turned down by all and sundry until the Kennedys took pity on him and gave him Sargent Shriver.

But Glasser’s not all that concerned with questions along those lines, except in how they figured in the thinking of McGovern, Eagleton, and their advisors in the moment as they struggled to work their way through the mess they were in.  In fact, the larger campaign and the issues at stake and what took place on the political and national and international scenes before the convention and after Eagleton's departure from the ticket are mostly left unexamined or only cursorily so.

As a result, Richard Nixon makes only a cameo appearance, Watergate gets barely  a mention, the war in Vietnam is hardly discussed except as an issue that was important to McGovern personally and politically, and the cultural and political upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s that gave the impetus to McGovern's candidacy and were to a great measure its whole reason for being and which made it so alien and such a threat to Nixon’s Silent Majority---the anti-war movement and the rise of identity politics among women, African Americans, Hispanics, and gays---are kept offstage, sometimes reported on but never coming openly into view.

But this is because Glasser needs to keep his focus narrow to keep it sharp.

Glasser assumes his readers know, probably all too well, what else was going on around the very specific set of events that are his subject. The job he's given himself in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is to tell a particular story that is interesting and dramatic in its own right apart from its place in a larger history of those or these times. Whatever lessons there are to draw from this, whatever connections there are to be made to events then or now Glaser leaves up to us.


In political science’s Department of How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin, students and scholars debate just how much influence a Presidential candidate’s choice of running mate have on the election.

I remember being glad and feeling…reassured when Bill Clinton picked Al Gore. To me, it said Clinton was serious about being President. It wasn’t just the economy, stupid. He was thinking about the national security and the environment and how to get get things done in Washington where Gore, although it’s hard to believe now, was highly regarded, something like the Democrats’ Paul Ryan, except he actually knew what he was saying.  And I always considered Gore’s choice of a running mate a mistake. Joe Lieberman might have corralled the ticket some votes in Florida (not enough, as it turned out), but he was already a notorious quisling, having given aid and comfort to the Republicans during the Impeachment Crisis by being the only Democratic Senator to publicly condemn the President for his affair with Monica Lewinsky and he did it on the Senate floor.  Gore, I thought, had picked Lieberman as a signal that he was his own man and had cut himself free from Bill Clinton, which, as far as I was concerned, meant he was cutting himself free from a major reason I was voting for him, to continue what Bill Clinton had started.  John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards left me cold, but I was never much impressed by Edwards.  That’s not 20-20 hindsight.  Ask Pop Mannion. Once, when I was visiting the old homestead shortly after the Republican justices on the Supreme Court stole the 2000 election for George W. Bush, Pop and I were speculating on who the Democrats could run in 2004 who’d have a chance against Bush. Pop asked me what I thought about Edwards and I said he reminded me too much of a television evangelist.  But when Kerry picked him, I figured the points in Edwards’ favor were that he was young, Southern, and working class and he was meant to balance out Kerry’s elitist, New England, not exactly hip anymore image.  But when Barack Obama tapped Joe Biden I was genuinely perplexed.  Here, though, is where I made my bloomer, and it was the same bloomer I made when thinking about the other VP choices. I thought the object was always and mainly to impress me in my ill-fitting guise as an average voter or, at least, an average Democratic voter.

It’s still a question how much Sarah Palin hurt John McCain in 2008.  I think the prevailing wisdom is settling on the idea that the damage was actually more of the shooting himself in his own foot variety.  By rushing to pick someone who turned out to be so obviously and frighteningly unfit for any political office, let alone the one that put her next in line for President, without any serious attempt to vett her, McCain showed himself up as rash, reckless, thoughtless, and so desperate to be President he was willing to foist this idiot and lunatic on the nation.  But here’s the thing.  That idea began to develop after McCain had already shown himself up as rash, reckless, thoughtless, and desperate when the economy collapsed in mid-September.  When it became clear what a horror show Palin was---and thank you, Tina Fey, because the political press corps was smitten and took years to become truly unsmitten---it confirmed what people were concluding about McCain based on his own behavior.  But for a few weeks after the Republican convention, Palin helped McCain by firing up the base and keeping attention off of him, until he called it back himself.  And I believe she continued to be a help right up until the election because she kept the base from abandoning him.

This is the insight I gained from The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.  In trying to figure out the effect of a candidate’s choice of running mate on the election, first look at which constituency or constituencies within the candidate’s own party the choice was made to win over.  I’m not sure it’s been all sorted out in McCain’s choice of Palin.  At the time, it was assumed by the Political Press Corps---and said by some inside the campaign---that the hope was that a woman on the ticket would appeal to women in general and disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters in particular.  If that was the reason, then Palin was bad for McCain from the start, because women did not like her.   If the idea was that her supposed maverickyness complemented and highlighted his reputation as a maverick, then that didn’t work out quite they way it was expected.  But if she was there to whip up enthusiasm for the ticket among the Right Wing rank and file, then she definitely did her job.

When Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, Democrats couldn’t contain their glee.  They believed that Ryan’s reputation as a ruthless Social Darwinist intent on destroying Medicare and, eventually, Social Security---that is, that people knew and despised Ryan as, in Charles Pierce’s immortal words, a zombie-eyed granny-starver---would sink Mitt with just about any constituency you could name.  But they forgot to name three within the Republican Party.

Christian Right. The Tea Party Right. And the Corporatist Right.

All three got Mitt’s message. 

The general voting public probably takes note of the VP pick but then folds him or her into their image of the guy at the top of the ticket.  For good, ill, or nil, he or she becomes part of the Presidential candidate’s identity. It’s just that Mitt Romney has turned out to be pretty adept at avoiding having an identity.  He’s been more of his own logo for the brand of Super Save the Nation Oil (With All New Secret Ingredients) he’s selling. Most voters, I suspect, have forgotten Paul Ryan’s part of the mix.

But those three core constituencies hear Mitt’s real sales pitch loud and clear:

“Don’t worry about what I did back when I was governor of Massachusetts or things I had to say and have to say to appear moderate in order to fool the Lamestream Media.  When I’m President, you will have my attention and my gratitude. I will owe you. And Paul Ryan will be there to make sure I pay you back.”

And that, the second part of it, with different and better intentions, is very similar to the message George McGovern meant to send to core Democratic constituencies with his choice of Thomas Eagleton:

“When I’m President, you will have my attention and my gratitude. I will owe you. And Tom Eagleton will be there to make sure I pay you back.”

As Glasser makes clear in The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, it was politics, pure and simple, and not decency, that dictated that message. The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is a riveting and enlightening account of how it happened that the message never had a chance to get delivered.

And, tragically, decency had little to do with that either.

Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon at the 1972 Republican National Convention

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis by Joshua M. Glasser, publshed by Yale University Press.  Available in hardback and for kindle from Amazon.

Top photo courtesy of Yale Books.  Bottom photo courtesy of the Nixon Library.


Related Mannion Re-run: Richard Nixon as the object of their affection, my review of Thomas Mallon’s novel Watergate.

Also: Is Decency in Politics Always Doomed? by Rick Perlstein and George McGovern: Too Decent to be President by digby.

Decent, but not too decent originally posted at


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