Great mistakes in politics (No2) – The Thomas Eagleton debacle

In the run up to the 1972 USA Presidential election Republican incumbent, Richard Nixon, looked unbeatable. This was going to his second and last term as President so he was determined to win by a landslide.

The Democrats were in disarray at this point due to a loss of direction during the 1960s. Edward Kennedy would have been the natural choice for their candidate but the Chappaquiddick scandal was still fresh in the publics’ mind. Eventually after a hard-fought primary campaign George McGovern won the nomination despite (or perhaps because of) taking a lot of left-wing stances on controversial issues. This upset his fellow Democrats who felt that McGovern couldn’t possibly win against Nixon. An anonymous Democratic Senator told the journalist Robert Novak, “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead”. This quote resonated in the press and quickly McGovern became known as the candidate for “amnesty, abortion and the legalization of pot”, not huge vote winners in 1972. Robert Novak recently revealed that the anonymous Senator in question was Thomas Eagleton.

It gets worse though. McGovern needed a Vice President candidate to help balance the ticket. Because his campaign already seemed doomed six other politicians including Edward Kennedy turned him down. However, not knowing that it was Eagleton who had attacked McGovern in the press, several recommended him for the job. Running out of options McGovern  eventually asked Eagleton who accepted despite his earlier criticisms of the McGovern campaign.

At this point McGovern and his staff asked Eagleton the usual questions, along the lines of “Is there anything in your private life that might cause problems if the press got hold of it?”. Eagleton promised that there wasn’t and was duly accepted as the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate. As it later turned out though, Eagleton suffered from severe depression, had undergone electro-shock therapy and was currently on a range of medications to deal with extreme mood swings. When the press got hold of this McGovern quickly began to lose support. He first claimed he was going to back Eagleton 1000% but within three days asked him to leave the campaign. This indecision made him look weak and indecisive and his poll ratings never recovered from it.

McGovern eventually lost to Nixon by a landslide, although as he famously later noted within a few years Nixon was forced out of office by the Watergate scandal and most of his cronies were in jail. While Nixon was always going to win in 72 the Eagleton debacle was the final nail in McGovern’s coffin. Polling done at the time suggests Eagleton’s mental health issues weren’t actually the problem with the voters. What was though was the fact that he had repeatedly lied about it and McGovern’s flip-flopping on how to deal with it.

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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8 Responses to Great mistakes in politics (No2) – The Thomas Eagleton debacle

  1. This was bad, but at least he didn’t pick Ed “The Man From Maine” Muskie.

    • I think that was part of the problem, that there were so few decent Democrats for him to choose as the VP candidate. Ed Muskie was a broken man after the primaries. Hubert Humphrey was damaged good and Gene McCathy wouldn’t have balance the ticket, the same goes for Jerry Brown. McGovern was really is a lose/lose situation by this point. It’s ironic considering what would happen to Nixon less than two years later.

  2. You are correct about that. I always thought John Lindsey would have been an interesting pick.

    • I’d forgotten all about John Lindsay. I think if he’d made the switch from Republican to Democrat a few years earlier he might have been in with more of a chance. Also the problems associated with New York city at this time probably had an impact. He was a great camapigner though by all accounts.

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