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Twenty-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Eagleton Has Landed

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.

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