09/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How McGovern Picked his VP after Ted Kennedy and Many Senators said No Thanks

It's been a bit less than two years since I interviewed George McGovern for my book, Clinton in Exile, on Bill Clinton's post presidency. McGovern and Clinton are good friends--in 1972 while a Yale law student, Clinton worked for McGovern organizing the state of Texas--although the friendship was frayed by McGovern's switching his endorsement last May from Hillary to Obama. (See my post on this subject.)

After eight years of George W. Bush, McGovern, who lost every state but Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia), in what has to count as the biggest debacle in presidential contest history, looks good.

In 458 words he describes a sea change over 38 years in the way campaigns are run.

We are finally finished with the nonstop cable and web pontificating/handicapping of who will be the vice presidential picks. In 1972, McGovern went to his convention in Miami having not yet selected his running mate. He hit the phones from his hotel, calling around the way someone who is going to give a speech at a local chamber of commerce might place some calls to find a local luminary willing to introduce him. The difference is that someone looking for a lead-in to a local speech to 50 people wouldn't wait so long.

Even though Maine Senator Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey--who led the ticket to defeat in 1968--had already said no to running as McGovern's number two, the South Dakota senator exhibited a surprising lack of urgency. McGovern recalls that he had arrived in Miami on the Sunday before the convention, but didn't meet with his staff about the VP pick until Thursday--the day after he was nominated.

"We had until 4 p.m. to find a vice-presidential nominee," he writes. That very day. One can only wonder if McGovern and his advisers broke for lunch.

That morning McGovern had telephoned Ted Kennedy who "declined." McGovern thought he might like Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver, the architect and first director of the Peace Corps, but McGovern couldn't reach Shriver because he was in the Soviet Union. (Was there no way to cable him or call him on a landline?)

Next McGovern called Walter Mondale, who also declined to take the number two spot (but accepted four years later when Jimmy Carter asked him).

Then comes the most wonderful paragraph:

"Then I turned to Abe Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut and another longtime friend. He said it would be an honor to be the first Jew on the national ticket of either party, but he was about to marry. `I just can't cancel a honeymoon and take on a national campaign.'"
McGovern finally found a live one in Boston Mayor Kevin White, but White was not acceptable to the Massachusetts delegation.

The person whom McGovern says was "openly campaigning for the post" was Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton, who had come recommended by a few people--Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Wisconsin senator Gaylor Nelson (who had also turned McGovern down).

So McGovern settled on Eagleton..

At a time when vice presidential candidates are vetted within an inch of their public and private lives--with the exception, it seems of Joe Biden who is being blasted in news articles today for alleged conflicts of interests involving his son, a lawyer/lobbyist, and some legislation the father supported--Eagleton, who was offered the job at 3:45, with 15 minutes to spare in McGovern's deadline, was apparently simply taken at his word. Eagleton assured McGovern's political director, Frank Mankiewicz, that, as McGovern recalls, "There was nothing in his background that would be considered troublesome."

After 18 days and despite a promise to back Eagleton "1000 percent," McGovern dropped Eagleton from the ticket after news stories that the Senator had undergone electroshock for treatment of depression overtook the campaign. McGovern then went with Shriver, who was finally home from the Soviet Union and easily reachable.

This piece is so packed with nuggets--it could win any contest to tell a lot in the least words--that I can't restrain myself from quoting another.

McGovern recalls that "Mankiewicz ...said with a wry smile: `Walter Cronkite was just named the most admired man in America. How about him?' We let this intriguing possibility pass as too unrealistic. I later learned from Walter that he would have accepted. I wish we had chosen him."