Top positive review
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Engrossing, very well-written book
on July 24, 2012
The story of George McGovern's first vice presidential running mate in July 1972 is one of the saddest chapters in modern American politics on many different levels. Tom Eagleton was recommended to McGovern by several respected politicians and advisors and seemed to have lots of enthusiasm and drive to accomplish results. Unfortunately what very few people knew was that Eagleton had mental health problems, to the extent he had been hospitalized for those problems and treated with electric shock therapy, a history that the national media could not help but quickly and ultimately uncover and dissect relentlessly, which would virtually ensure significant damage to the McGovern presidential campaign after it was revealed. It didn't take long for Eagleton to be placed under the microscope and his entire vice presidential candidacy lasted fewer than three weeks.
I remember when these events occurred 40 years ago right after the Democratic convention wrapped up. However, the author of this book reports new information as to how Eagleton ultimately stepped down from the ticket, that when the storm of controversy over Eagleton's fitness to hold high office ensued, McGovern and Eagleton had a meeting in which Eagleton phoned his psychiatrists and turned the phone each time over to McGovern. According to the author, both doctors told McGovern that Eagleton was not fit to be president: "I don't like to think about that prospect" responded one doctor; the other doctor expressed amazement that Eagleton had managed to hold up thus far after four years in the Senate plus the last week of controversy after his psychiatric history was revealed. (This differs from prior accounts of the conversations between McGovern and Eagleton's doctors, and McGovern told the press he was satisfied with Eagleton's health.) At this point Eagleton told McGovern he would remove himself from the ticket if he would be a detriment. The impression in these pages is that he knew that he was never fit to run on a national ticket and the game was up. The author points out McGovern had no ability to actually terminate Eagleton as his running mate.
Eagleton's motives are confusing. I think anyone studying this will believe that Eagleton was highly motivated, but obviously knew based on his past "exhaustion"/depression episodes and hospital treatments that he needed to be strongly in control of his own pacing, not having others setting the course, and thus would realistically be unable to bear the weight of the presidency. Other sources reported that Eagleton's wife asked him before the call came from McGovern to be the VP nominee if he didn't expect that the press would reveal his past psychiatric treatments and he responded "probably." In recent years it was also disclosed that in April 1972, Eagleton was the then-anonymous source cited by columnist Robert Novak, who told Novak McGovern's true nature wasn't known and called him the proponent of "Acid, Abortion and Amnesty", which was widely repeated and detrimental to McGovern's image. If Eagleton had that type of perspective toward McGovern just a few months before the convention, and felt his psychiatric history would "probably" come out during the course of the campaign, he obviously didn't have much concern about how this would damage McGovern's candidacy. Eagleton was ambitious and obviously he wanted to advance himself, and being elevated to a vice presidential level would be an honor. The problem is that this personal opportunity for him was just that, without consideration of the office, the nation or the presidency. Whether Mankiewicz quickly asked Eagleton if he had any "skeletons" in his background or had several additional questions doesn't matter, Eagleton responded "no" to the main question, which was a lie that cannot be explained away. Reading White House transcripts from the Nixon oval office released in later years, the sad truth is that Nixon and Haldeman accurately summed up the situation, that Eagleton lied to McGovern and that he was unstable and unfit for high office.
Despite this sudden calamity, McGovern really was trying to be decent to Eagleton in the face of media revelations, which is shown repeatedly in these pages, initially supportive of Eagleton despite almost immediate calls by campaign officials for Eagleton to step down. He suffered a lot of the blame in the press at the time for both his selection of Eagleton after his medical history was discovered, and for the days he then spent listening to people on both sides of the issue and taking the time to ask questions. He was slammed for his handling of the affair, but this all happened so quickly over a few weeks that it's difficult to claim McGovern was "indecisive" on the matter when such a short amount of time passed between disclosure and Eagleton's resignation from the ticket. McGovern didn't make a knee-jerk decision as some would have had him do, which is actually the quality of a leader. While McGovern was taking this in, Eagleton was cursing McGovern privately ("screw McGovern...I'm going to tell everyone he's a no-good son of a bitch") and insubordinate in conversation with McGovern ("don't shit me, George!"). What does a presidential candidate do just a few weeks after the convention when the man you selected is suddenly discovered to have these type of issues?
Ultimately, if in fact Eagleton's psychiatrists informed McGovern the devastating information that Eagleton was not mentally capable of handling the weight of the presidency, and warned of the consequences of his even running for Vice president, what other option remained? The author says McGovern never revealed what the psychiatrists told him at the time and tried to preserve Eagleton's career in the process, to his own detriment.
Author Joshua M. Glasser has done an outstanding job researching and assembling all this information about McGovern and Eagleton's brief political partnership. I see he is only age 25, born 15 years after the 1972 presidential campaign, so it's all the more impressive. His writing style is excellent. The book is totally engrossing and I was unable to put it down as I continued reading from start to finish, in a couple sessions. It's filled with interesting background information on McGovern and Eagleton both before and after July 1972, and both men are treated fairly here. I highly recommend this book to all those interested in the 1972 McGovern campaign, and all those who enjoy history on the presidential electoral process.