THE BLOG
03/14/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

A Senator Remembered for the Wrong Reason

Earlier this month, the St. Louis University School of Law paid tribute to the late Sen. Tom Eagleton by hosting a celebration of the Missouri Democrat's life of public service. Eagleton, who died on March 4, 2007 at the age of 77, is best remembered for having been forced to step down as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1972 after it was learned he'd been hospitalized for depression in the 1960's.

But that's both unfair and unfortunate, according to St. Louis University Law Professor Joel Goldstein. "Tom Eagleton deserved to be remembered ... as a skillful political leader who combined high ideas with a mastery of his craft, and who served America with the courage, excellence and integrity we should demand of our political leaders," Goldstein wrote in a tribute to Eagleton.

Goldstein cited Eagleton's role in introducing the amendment that ended the Vietnam War and his efforts to curtail presidential power to make war unilaterally, as well as helping pass the historic Clean Air Act of 1970 and legislation to combat government fraud and waste as evidence that he deserves to be ranked with Thomas Hart Benton and Harry S Truman as one of Missouri's greatest senators.

But I remember Tom Eagleton for a different, more personal reason, which is that he was the central figure in one of the most dramatic, and saddest, stories I ever covered, which was the week-long trip I took with him in July 1972, after Sen. George McGovern chose him as his running mate at the Democratic National Convention in Miami.

It began on July 24, when Eagleton flew with a passel of reporters from Washington to Custer, S.D., and held a news conference with McGovern in the shadow of Mount Rushmore to announce that he had undergone electroshock therapy treatment for mental health problems three times in the 1960's.

My notes from that press conference at Sylvan Lake Lodge in the Black Hills show that Eagleton was about to commit political hari-kari.

"There have been some rumors circulating as to my health," he said, referring to a story written by Clark Hoyt of the Knight-Ridder newspapers, who broke the story of Eagleton's hospitalization.

He added, "I think that's a legitimate question," then went on to say, "On three occasions, I have voluntarily gone into treatment as the result of nervous exhaustion and fatigue ... I must say I drove myself too hard. ... I was hospitalized in Barnes Hospital in St. Louis for about four weeks."

McGovern looked on, increasingly uncomfortably, as Eagleton explained he was hospitalized again in 1964 for four days at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a third time in September, 1966 for three weeks, also at the Mayo Clinic.

"In the past six years, I have experienced good, sound, solid health," Eagleton declared. "I believe I've learned how to pace myself."

McGovern, who had known nothing about Eagleton's mental health history, said, "I'm fully satisfied that no member of the Senate is more sound in body, mind and spirit. I would stand by my choice if I'd known all of this."

Anyone who saw Eagleton and his wife leaving the press conference as a grim-faced McGovern stood by knew that it probably killed any hope that Eagleton could help McGovern defeat President Nixon, and that it would impossible for McGovern to keep him as his running mate, even though he said at the time he was still a thousand percent behind Eagleton.

But the Black Hills press conference was only the beginning of the story. From there, we flew with Eagleton to Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco, Jefferson City, Mo., and back to Washington, and at each stop, McGovern's "thousand percent" support was eroding.

No sooner than we'd departed for Los Angeles, the rumor mill kicked in at a fever pace, and by the time we arrived in Honolulu, McGovern's thousand percent support had dwindled to about 500 percent, and Eagleton seemed resigned to his fate. "I now understand that I made a mistake," he told a news conference at a hotel on Waikiki Beach.

And when we arrived in San Francisco, Eagleton denounced a report by columnist Jack Anderson that he had once been arrested for drunken driving, and declared, "I will stay in the race and I will remain as aggressively healthy as I am today." But the New York Times' Johnny Apple accurately predicted to a group of us reporters at dinner at a restaurant on Nob Hill that Eagleton was toast.

We flew on to Jefferson City, Mo., where Eagleton's supporters held a rally for him, but it was a futile effort. By the time we arrived back in Washington on July 31, McGovern had made it clear that Eagleton had to resign, and had named Sargent Shriver as his replacement (Ironically, McGovern had offered the nomination to Shriver's brother-in-law, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who turned it down, before picking Eagleton.)

Richard Nixon didn't need the Eagleton fiasco to defeat McGovern by a landslide, but it helped. McGovern never recovered from his ill-fated choice of a running mate.

After leaving the Senate and returning to St. Louis, Eagleton said he didn't miss the Senate, except for not being able to participate in the debate on the "horrible, disastrous Iraq war that ... will go down in American history as one of our greatest blunders."

Too bad Tom Eagleton isn't still around to make his wise voice heard about the war he so accurately described.