The Eagleton lessons
The Kansas City Star
Close associates of former Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton lament that all anyone beyond the state seems to remember about their hero is his brief foray as running mate on George McGovern’s 1972 Democratic presidential ticket.
McGovern compelled Eagleton to withdraw soon after the press discovered that Eagleton had been treated for depression with electroshock therapy in the previous decade, and this dubious achievement hogged most of the ink in Eagleton’s obituaries following his 2007 death.
As many of Eagleton’s friends saw it, his catastrophic vice presidential candidacy seemed to dilute the many achievements that otherwise defined his remarkable career in public service.
Yet the lessons of Eagleton’s 18-day run are worth uncovering today more than ever — and not just for what they teach us about campaign crisis management and communications, vice presidential selection, and public perceptions of mental illness. Rather, the human and political drama of Eagleton’s vice presidential candidacy is what first entices people to Eagleton’s story, soon inspiring Americans to explore his life beyond this brief window, as the episode did for me.
I suspect many will see Eagleton as a model for what they should seek in their leaders, especially at a time when our country is as divided as it is today.
Two years after Eagleton retired from the Senate, he was invited back to Capitol Hill as one of two senators chosen to address the legislature in its original chambers on the occasion of its bicentennial. “The government’s life force — what makes it work and endure — is our capacity to accommodate differences and to find a way beyond parochial, partisan, and ideological concerns to live together as a free nation,” Eagleton said in his 1989 address.
Eagleton had retired in part out of frustration at a Senate increasingly overwrought with the ideological rigidity of leaders such as Jesse Helms and Howard Metzenbaum, and compromise and pragmatism are at the heart of the Eagletonian lesson.
Throughout his career, Eagleton defined himself as a “constructive” and “practical progressive.” He did not fathom himself above a few “hold your nose” votes to cement his electability, and he adjusted his stance on gun control to continue serving the public.
But while Eagleton knew when he needed to compromise, he was at his best when he spoke his conscience, even if it meant breaking with most of his party. Though fiercely antiwar in the Vietnam Era, Eagleton never relinquished support of the draft. “An all-volunteer army will be a poor boy’s army,” he said. Since his days in the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office, Eagleton helped pioneer protecting the rights of the accused and the fight against wiretaps, which didn’t make things easier for him as a prosecutor, but his morality demanded he act.
Eagleton’s Republican Senate colleague from Missouri, John Danforth, synthesized this quintessentially Eagletonian quality. “What has set Tom Eagleton apart from the rest of us is not his intellect and his energy, as impressive as they are,” he said. “It is his moral passion, his capacity for outrage, his insistence that justice be done, that wrongs are made right.”
Eagleton was pro-life in all senses of the term: against the death penalty and against abortion. He refused to let the human impulse to “get even” justify taking another man’s life, even a murderer’s, and the realist in him acknowledged too many imperfections in the American criminal justice system to stomach the execution of even one innocent man.
Eagleton opposed abortion for much of the same reasons he fought the death penalty. “No man, no court, no legislature can play God,” Eagleton wrote. “We are created in His image, instructed to do His work, but not chartered to make His decisions.”
But whatever one may make of Eagleton’s positions, he backed them up with levelheaded reason and keen understanding and respect for the rule of law, never demeaning his arguments with histrionics. He repudiated the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision for overstepping the Constitution’s enumerated rights in imagining a so-called right to privacy to protect abortion.
Though Catholic, Eagleton said he was “compelled by logic — not theology — to speak out in favor of an amendment to the Constitution,” and he cosponsored one such Human Life amendment in 1983 with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. The Hatch-Eagleton Amendment stated, “The right to abortion is not secured by this Constitution.” It became closest of all other such attempts at ever passing.
Eagleton’s finesse as a compromiser brought better luck in helping win passage of Clean Air and Clean Water acts and in handwriting the 1973 amendment that was to stop U.S. bombing of Cambodia, ending American participation in the Vietnam War.
As Missouri hosts a bitter fight for a Senate seat — not the exact one that Eagleton held, but still very much the same — it’s worth remembering the Eagleton example. His memory and model are the type of heritage that Missourians, and indeed all Americans, should aspire to nurture on Capitol Hill.
Joshua M. Glasser is the author of The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, recently published by Yale University Press. He is an associate producer for Bloomberg Television in his hometown of New York City. Glasser graduated from Amherst College, Eagleton’s alma mater.