July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
On July 12, in Miami Beach, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota won the Democratic nomination for President after a prolonged struggle. With the nomination finally wrapped up, McGovern began a deliberate, painstaking search for a running mate. The next day he announced his choice: Thomas Eagleton, a freshman senator from Missouri who might have qualified to be called obscure if he had been a bit better known.
Pundits expressed surprise at the selection, but it would have been an even bigger surprise if anyone important had taken the job. With President Nixon’s popularity soaring and much of McGovern’s own party only half- heartedly behind him, the campaign was a sinking ship that no ambitious politician would knowingly board.
Some people remembered William Miller, second banana in the disastrous Goldwater campaign of 1964, who had gone straight to oblivion after his ticket’s one-sided defeat. More to the point, most people did not remember Miller, which is why a few years later he would be making American Express commercials that played on his anonymity. McGovern had offered the number-two slot to Ted Kennedy (who declined, citing family responsibilities) and Gov. Reubin Askew of Florida (who said his continued presence in the Sunshine State was critical). Other Democrats, realizing that there was more prestige to be had in rejecting the offer than accepting it, spread word that they, too, had turned down their party’s nominee.
On July 25 Eagleton confirmed rumors that he had been hospitalized three times between 1960 and 1966 for nervous exhaustion and fatigue, twice undergoing shock treatment for depression. (He later attributed the 1960 hospitalization to inactivity after a busy campaign, which suggests that he would not have dealt well with the Vice Presidency.) Eagleton insisted that he had been cured and suffered no lingering effects, and McGovern declared that he was behind his running mate “1,000 percent.” Eagleton went a step further, saying that anyone who thought he would step down was “2,000 percent wrong.” A week later Eagleton withdrew from the ticket.
As collectors scrambled to buy up McGovern/Eagleton buttons, weary campaign staffers began casting about for an even bigger nonentity, preferably one with no political career to be ruined. Edmund Muskie, who had acquired valuable experience as a losing vice-presidential candidate in 1968, flirted with McGovern but turned down his offer because of “family duties and the interests of my growing children.” McGovern tried again with Askew and Kennedy, who apparently did not feel the Eagleton fiasco had improved the ticket’s chances, and at least three other senators, none of whom relished the prospect of breathing life into a corpse. Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia was considered but said he was “not interested.” Also on the short list was Gov. Patrick Lucey of Wisconsin, who would fill the number two spot in John Andersen’s even more quixotic 1980 campaign.
On August 5 McGovern finally found a volunteer: R. Sargent Shriver, a Washington, D.C., lawyer. Associates said he was eager to get into politics, and party regulars talked hopefully of his connections (his wife was a Kennedy) and experience (he had directed the Peace Corps and been ambassador to France). Shriver had never run for office, but campaign staffers, making virtue of necessity, said that it just confirmed McGovern’s break with old-fashioned politics. More important, Shriver actually wanted the job. In the end, however, none of the maneuvering mattered, as the ticket went down to ignominious defeat, winning but 40 percent of the popular vote and taking only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in the Electoral College.