The Eagleton Fiasco of 1972

Eagleton was the 1972 Democratic VP nominee for all of 18 days.

Eagleton was the 1972 Democratic VP nominee for all of 18 days. hide caption

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Perhaps the biggest indignity for Eagleton was that they spelled his name wrong on this button.

Perhaps the biggest indignity for Eagleton was that they spelled his name wrong on this button. hide caption

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Republicans had a field day with the Eagleton flap.

Republicans had a field day with the Eagleton flap. hide caption

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The late Paul Wellstone was the only Senate Democrat in a tough election to vote against war in 02.

The late Paul Wellstone was the only Senate Democrat in a tough election contest to vote against the war in 2002. hide caption

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Muskie

Thirty-five years ago today, Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine wins the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. But his margin of victory was far less than expected. hide caption

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If everything you know about national political conventions comes from watching them over the past decade or two, then, boy, do I have a story for you.

Conventions weren't always scripted, or predictable, or (dare I say) boring. In the old days — and God, do I sound old here — there was excitement. And sometimes, tension. Every now and then, something would happen that no one expected.

But while we political junkies live for these moments, they aren't always good for the parties involved. Flashback to Miami Beach, in 1972, as the Democrats were meeting to name a nominee to take on President Richard Nixon.

Four years earlier, as the Vietnam War raged on under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, Democrats held their convention in Chicago. Along with mayhem in Southeast Asia, there was mayhem on the streets of Chicago. The Democrats were about to nominate as their standard bearer Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's loyal, pro-war vice president, even though Humphrey had not competed in a single primary. And the delegates were about to endorse Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam when they ratified the party's platform.

Something was wrong here. Everyone — not least of all, the Democrats who had gathered to choose Johnson's successor — knew the conflict was a lost cause. Meanwhile, between the protests in the streets and the overreaction from Mayor Richard J. Daley's police, the nation witnessed a party in complete disarray.

The post-election reforms instituted by Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) made sure that, starting in 1972, delegates would be decided in primaries, not backroom deals, and that primaries — not smoke-filled rooms — would determine the nominee. The fact that McGovern, a strong opponent of the war, would win the nomination — helping, along the way, to curtail the power of such longtime Democratic leaders/bosses like Daley — was one reason why many in the Democratic Old Guard refused to unite behind their presidential candidate.

After winning the Democratic nod on July 12, McGovern went through the motions of finding a running mate. His first choice, Sen. Edward Kennedy (MA), stuck to his guns and refused all entreaties. Eventually, McGovern settled on Sen. Thomas Eagleton, a little-known, pro-labor, Roman Catholic liberal from Missouri. In this new, small-d democratic convention, Eagleton was nominated for vice president along with six others: former Gov. Endicott Peabody of Massachusetts, Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, state Rep. Frances Farenthold of Texas, NYC advertising executive Stanley Arnold, Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey, and Clay Smothers, a journalist from Dallas. Then, once the balloting for VP began, others — real and not so real — picked up votes: Martha Mitchell, Archie Bunker and Jerry Rubin, among them. Eagleton wasn't declared the winner until 1:51 a.m., and his and McGovern's acceptance speeches didn't begin until well after 2 a.m.

It gets worse.

Thirteen days later, Eagleton conceded what Democrats and journalists had been whispering about for days: that he had been hospitalized three times in the 1960s for depression and stress, and that he had undergone electric shock therapy. Despite the furor, McGovern insisted that he would not remove Eagleton from the ticket, declaring that he was behind him "1,000 percent."

That "1,000 percent" lasted until July 31, when, after a national uproar and following a meeting with McGovern, Eagleton withdrew from the ticket under pressure. He was eventually replaced by Sargent Shriver, the former director of the Peace Corps and ambassador to France under Johnson and Nixon.

To be sure, there was much more to Tom Eagleton — who died Sunday at age 77 — than his 18-day tenure as the 1972 Democratic nominee for vice president.

Eagleton was a major figure in Missouri Democratic politics for decades. (His father, Mark Eagleton, ran for mayor of St. Louis in 1953; the button at far right, below, is from that campaign). Tom Eagleton was elected statewide five times: as attorney general in 1960, lieutenant governor in 1964, and three terms as a U.S. senator, beginning in 1968. He played a key role in the passage of the War Powers Act, which limited presidential power, and was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and the 1970 bombing of Cambodia.

Eagleton buttons

But the Eagleton nomination was a nightmare for the Democrats, who may not have been able to beat Nixon that year regardless of whom McGovern chose. The episode proved that the failure to thoroughly examine a potential running mate's past could have devastating consequences — as the Republicans almost witnessed with Dan Quayle in 1988.

In 1972, as in 1968, the Vietnam War consumed the nation, as well as the Democratic Party. Today, it's Iraq, as the first of this week's questions shows:

Q: Thanks for your list [Feb. 8 column] that showed how every Democrat in the Senate voted in 2002 on going to war in Iraq. If I recall correctly, Paul Wellstone (D-MN) was the only incumbent Democrat who voted "no" on the war who was up for re-election that November. Which brings me to my question: Which Democrats in the House voted against the war authorization resolution, and did any of them lose their bids for re-election that fall? — David Nelson, New York, N.Y.

A: Wellstone wasn't the only Democratic senator up in 2002 who voted against the war. Dick Durbin (IL), Carl Levin (MI) and Jack Reed (RI) also all voted no that year. But Wellstone was the only one to do so who was in a competitive race; he was in a nip and tuck contest against Republican Norm Coleman. Wellstone, of course, died in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 2002.

As for the House Democrats, 126 voted no. Only one of them, Jim Maloney of Connecticut, was defeated for re-election in November.

Q: Regarding your Feb. 21 column about the Chicago mayoral race, do you think another reason that Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr. decided not to take on Mayor Richard Daley was the strong possibility of a Democratic majority in the House? — Lenny Kleinfeld, Los Angeles, Calif.

A: Perhaps, but I think the real reason was that Daley just seemed unbeatable. I think that if and when Daley ever leaves City Hall, at least one of these congressmen will run for mayor. Remember: Even though Democrats control the House, two members — Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady — are running for mayor of Philadelphia this year in the May 15 primary. And I suspect that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who sought the mayoralty in New York City in 2005, will try again in 2009, when incumbent Republican Michael Bloomberg is ineligible to seek a third term. Serving in the House majority is certainly more rewarding than being in the minority, but I suspect either would pale in comparison to heading up a major U.S. city.

TRIVIA QUESTION: Who was the last member of Congress to become mayor of New York? (Answer below)

MAYOR CULPA: Last week's column listed the mayors and ex-mayors who have run for president, but there's one I forgot. Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman goes back to the distant past for one I left off the list: Tom Vilsack, who was first elected mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1987. Vilsack, as you may remember, sought the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

EARLY WIN: The Feb. 21 column talked about presidential hopefuls who announced their candidacies two calendar years in advance, notably then-Rep. Phil Crane (R-IL) in 1978, who, I wrote, was the first to do so. Not so, says Carl Leubsdorf of The Dallas Morning News, who reminds us that Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, announced on Dec. 12, 1974.

FROM THE E-MAILBAG: Bonnie Andrews of Redmond, Wash., in response to last week's column, wants to know "why the Democratic candidates need to apologize to the majority of Americans who were in favor of the invasion of Iraq in the first place. The real apology needs to come from the American people who voted for Bush a second time. The damage to Iraq, and to our country, will take a long time to heal."

There was a hypothetical question from Stephen Dennis in the Jan. 10 column about what would have happened if Gerald Ford defeated Jimmy Carter in 1976. Dennis wanted to know if a Ford administration (which included such men as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) "would have been more effective than the Carter administration in dealing with the Iran hostage crisis." Alex McDonnell of Wynnewood, Pa., suggests that Dennis "should ask George W. Bush: How have Cheney and Rumsfeld performed in Iraq?"

And for Mike Moore of Kent, Wash., the issue is "whom would I most like to have a beer with? For me, that would be Barack Obama or Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani strikes me as ebullient and outgoing, and Obama is capable of what I'd expect of any good company — thoughtful conversation, intelligent, and a great sense of humor. Too many of the other candidates are overly concerned with saying the right thing to the right crowd and trying to avoid saying the wrong thing ... so overly concerned, that conversation and company would be more of a chore than it ought to be."

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: The "Political Junkie" segment on Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in show, continues to run every Wednesday on NPR at 2:40 p.m. Check local listings to see if your NPR station carries TOTN. If not, you can listen to the program on the Web at npr.org. This week: The passing of Tom Eagleton, the mouth of Ann Coulter, and the sudden unemployment of several U.S. attorneys. Special guest: Peter Brown, the assistant director for the Quinnipiac University Poll, which has begun a series of surveys in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

PODCAST UPDATE: Last week's plug for our "It's All Politics" podcast discussed the appropriateness of the "humor" we present each week. Not to worry, writes Brook Soltvedt of Madison, Wisc.: "May I say that the dreadful puns, the silly giggling, and other general goofiness are exactly what I love about the podcast. It may not be humor, strictly speaking, but it does appeal to the nerdly funny bone. Or, should I say, MY nerdly funny bone."

Wait. It's not humor?

Anyway, on to this week's podcast. Should Scooter have testified? And why does he no longer call Yankee baseball games? These and other pointless topics may very well come up in this week's episode. Check out the new edition every Thursday afternoon.

TRIVIA ANSWER: The last member of Congress to be elected mayor of New York was Democrat Ed Koch; he was elected for the first of his three terms in 1977.

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Campaign History: The big news out of New Hampshire is not that Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine won the Democratic presidential primary — that was long expected. The surprise is that he receives only 47 percent of the vote, compared to the 38 percent won by Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who was barely known in the state only a few months earlier. Finishing third is Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, lagging well behind with just 6 percent of the vote. On the Republican side, President Richard Nixon coasts to a 68 percent victory, topping Congressmen Pete McCloskey of California, who captures 20 percent, and John Ashbrook of Ohio, who wins nearly 10 percent (March 7, 1972).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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