“Political memory can be terribly simplistic.” So says Joshua Glasser in his new book, “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.” He’s absolutely right, and his fantastic new book is an attempt to get beyond the overly-simplistic version of McGovern’s pick of Eagleton. What most of us can recall is that on his way to getting trounced, George McGovern picked Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton to be his running mate. Within a few days, Eagleton disclosed he had a history of mental illness and electroshock treatment. McGovern first backed him “1000% percent” and then turned around and dumped him. And then instead of just trouncing McGovern, Nixon gave him one of the worst electoral defeats in presidential history.
But now I know that simplistic version of events does a terrible injustice to Tom Eagleton, to George McGovern, to their families and to the political operatives who worked for both men. This book is a testament to the fact that what really happens in politics is so much more human than we ever really think it is. Yes, “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate” is a political story. But much more than that, it’s a book about morals and about how human beings respond to difficult and emotional events. Glasser gives us junkies the politics we need, but he never strays too far from the human aspect of this unforgettable moment in history.
In this book, Tom Eagleton is a sympathetic and courageous figure who battled a serious mental illness and faced up to it in the public eye. Today, in almost all circumstances, that would be something to celebrate. But in 1972, his mental illness was a question mark. Words like “electroshock” conjured images of lobotomies and Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” At times, I really felt for Eagleton. Here’s this ambitious guy who rises, quickly, to the United States Senate. When he’s sworn in, he’s thinking of his father, who always wanted to be a Senator. And he’s on top of the world. When McGovern starts contemplating Eagleton, his ambition kicks into overdrive. Probably in his gut, Eagleton knew, given his health history, that he should say no. But he can’t. It’s the opportunity to run on a national ticket. When you are ambitious, and maybe when you are insecure of yourself, it doesn’t take much of a push from someone else to try for the next rung, even when you know deep down it may not be the right step.
Eagleton’s mistake was not disclosing to McGovern his illness and health history. Then again, Glasser’s version makes it clear how insanely disorganized the VP selection was. After holding on to ridiculous desires to score Ted Kennedy as his VP, McGovern quite literally picked Tom Eagleton with minutes left on the deadline. The vetting started after the pick was announced. Obviously, the process has changed in forty years.
Glasser reserves plenty of the blame for McGovern and his vacillations and his staff’s inability to push the candidate to a decision point. Most people will tell you the value of a Veepstakes is it is an insight into how the candidate makes decisions. Americans got that insight into McGovern and disliked it, resoundingly. Somewhere between compassionate and hyper-political, McGovern’s sent mixed messages. He wasn’t entirely at fault—from early on, McGovern knew he was in a damned-if-you-do-or-if-you-don’t kind of moment. But he damaged his own brand as he took the nation through a tortured decision process.
McGovern had to make a political decision about a human and complex issue. Glasser discloses that McGovern heard clearly from several of Eagleton’s doctors that it would be a mistake to keep him on the ticket—not politically—but because his health was actually a serious concern. If McGovern won, it’s possible that Eagleton could one day become president, and the doctors said that was dangerous. But because Eagleton had deftly navigated the public relations of the event, and because McGovern didn’t want to toss a guy and disclose dark and potentially damaging information while he did it, McGovern was forced to make the decision in a political context. It made George McGovern look small.
Glasser summarizes it near the end of the book: “In the end, it appeared to many that the seemingly backhanded and spineless manner in which McGovern compelled Eagleton to withdraw probably hindered McGovern’s shot at the presidency more than keeping Eagleton would have hurt it, in large part because it ultimately contradicted the public’s expectation of his behavior.”
Some would also say Eagleton made a mistake by not recognizing his mental illness may have been a disqualifier for the presidency. Hard to judge in hindsight, but Glasser wisely points out that we’ve had plenty of presidents with documented histories of mental illness—he quotes a Duke University study as saying that of the 37 U.S. presidents in office from 1776 to 1974, “49% of them met criteria indicative of a psychiatric disorder… 8% are suspected to have been bipolar.” A footnote could have elaborated more specifically on which presidents, but alas, no.
A history book tells a true story. A really good history book can describe a moment in time in a way that the reader feels like he or she is part of that moment. And that’s what I loved most about this book. After every chapter, I felt like I could put myself in the minds of the main characters and ask myself the question, “What would I have done?” And the most interesting question that I can reflect on is this: If I were Tom Eagleton, and that phone call came at 3:45pm on the day of the VP nomination, what would I have done? Would I have said yes?
George McGovern went on to be perceived as a Democrat who was ahead of his time. (Incidentally, I’m unclear how he actually lost, since today you can find very few people who admit to voting for Richard Nixon in 1972.) Within a year, the country had serious buyer’s remorse. Eagleton had a long career in the Senate and contributed much more than he’ll ever be remembered for.
Maybe he could have survived on the ticket. Most believe they still would have lost. McGovern today says he made the wrong decision to dump Eagleton. But he’s a touch sympathetic too. Caught between New and Old Politics, McGovern was navigating a minefield in his own party and it distracted from the fight against the CREEP.
This book is about judgment under pressure, about ambition, about mental illness, and lastly about politics. I could see reading this in an ethics class and have an exhilarating discussion. If you are a political person, you owe it to yourself to revisit this event and remember it not simply, but as the complex and unusual, and human, eighteen-days that it was.