The Episode that Put the Vice Presidency in Focus

Joshua Glasser, credit Diane Silverman

In light of tonight’s Vice Presidential debate, Joshua M. Glasser, author of The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, provides some insight into the importance of the role of the Vice President, the selection process, and its relevance to public opinion, despite its changing historical and current perception in the American political mindset. Be sure to check out the Goodreads giveaway of Glasser‘s book; the contest is open to members until October 22, and follow The Eighteen-Day Running Mate on Facebook for more updates!

Joshua M. Glasser—

“No skeletons rattling in your closet?”

“Right,” Thomas Eagleton affirmed.

The junior senator from Missouri had just been offered George McGovern’s 1972 vice presidential nomination fifteen minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline for selection, and he was—frankly—ecstatic.

But, in truth, there was something in Eagleton’s past that could very reasonably be deemed a skeleton: he had been hospitalized for depression and treated with electroshock therapy over the previous decade. Earlier in the week of the Democratic National Convention, Eagleton had discussed with his wife whether to disclose this information should he—a long shot—actually get the vice presidential nomination. They ruled “no.” Eagleton felt he had put his mental health issues behind him, and he construed his past history as details the campaign could move beyond if revealed.

But, even if—as Eagleton was to insist—he didn’t consider his past mental illness to be a “skeleton,” he had just committed a miscalculation of epic proportions. Indeed, the campaign could not transcend Eagleton’s past history of depression and electroshock, and Eagleton would last only eighteen days as running mate.

The Eagleton crisis incited Americans to examine the vice presidency and finally acknowledge the office’s importance—which at the time seemed to rest largely in the possibility (and the likeliness) that the vice president might actually become president. In 1972, three of the country’s last five presidents had stopped by the vice presidency on their way to the White House, two of them reaching the Oval Office by the death of the president.

In the aftermath of the Eagleton crisis, the Democratic Party formed a commission chaired by former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to evaluate the running mate selection process and recommend alternatives to the last-minute scrambling that had characterized recent vice presidential picks. As Humphrey framed it, they needed to design a process for ensuring the job went to “the most qualified person available to assume the powers and responsibilities of the presidency should an emergency arise.” But the commission could not forge a solution that answered the preparedness question while preserving the positives of existing practices for picking a running mate. For one, the traditional mode of selection lets presidential nominees recalibrate for the general election by choosing a partner who might help him fill gaps in his appeal by virtue of a running mate’s particular gender and/or racial, religious, geographic, or political makeup. Rightly or wrongly, campaign strategists often view the vice presidential decision as their greatest opportunity to unify the party after the slog of the primaries and reach out to disaffected voters of either party. And the choice lets campaigns make their own calculations of how best to balance the candidate’s personal, practical, or political holes and weaknesses. (In McGovern and Eagleton’s case, Eagleton was ideologically compatible with McGovern on key issues like the Vietnam War and civil liberties, but he was also a youthful, swing-state Catholic with close ties to labor and respect from the party establishment—traits that McGovern was lacking.)

Recent presidential nominees have been aided by another factor: time, which McGovern did not have. In 1972, the Democratic Party debuted new, much more open nominating procedures, whose novelty led to the unruly and draining convention that ended in McGovern’s vice presidential blunder. After 1972—with the new procedures now tested, challenged, and eventually resolved—Democratic candidates haven’t had to arrive at their conventions unsure of whether they had the nomination, granting them a window to test their personal comfort and compatibility with prospective running mates. Republicans have benefited from a similar gift, though they haven’t always made the most of it. In 2008, for example, John McCain depleted this window by obsessing about naming Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate before having to scrap those plans and go for Sarah Palin with little time to vet her. The notoriously game-changing episode had echoes of McGovern, who had his heart on Senator Ted Kennedy before settling for Eagleton when a series of backup options declined to join him.

Yet, today, the vice presidency is no longer merely limbo or backwaters it once was. America’s second vice president, Thomas Jefferson, had earlier said of the job, “[It’s] the only office in the world about which I am unable to decide in my own mind whether I had rather have it or not have it,” and centuries later Lyndon Johnson likened it to “being naked in the middle of a blizzard with no one to even offer a match to keep you warm.” But now, the role’s worth is nearly undisputed, as evidenced by the chorus of politicians trying out to be Romney’s second man (or woman). George W. Bush’s number-two Dick Cheney often seemed like number-one, widely credited with driving the administration’s agenda. And President Barack Obama grants Vice President Joe Biden that last word with him on all major policy decisions and has even given him an open invitation to all Oval Office meetings, as John Heilemann reported in a recent New York magazine profile.

Improvements in psychotropic medication since Eagleton’s day means his condition, bipolar II disorder, is often stabilized without resorting to electroshock, raising the question of whether he could survive a national campaign today. Regardless, the Eagleton affair is not just a cautionary tale rife with lessons for all aspects of campaign management; it’s an inspirational story of political rehabilitation and resilience. Eagleton was to win reelection to another two terms in the Senate and retire on his own volition, thanks largely to the tenacity, courage, and graciousness Eagleton demonstrated through his confrontation with a political “hurricane.” As President Richard Nixon wrote Eagleton’s son after the ordeal, “The political man can always come back to fight again.” That’s still true. And another constant? The vice presidential choice is crucial, and perhaps more so today than ever before.

Joshua M. Glasser
is the author of The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, now available from Yale University Press. He is also an associate producer for Bloomberg Television in New York and a magna cum laude graduate of Amherst College, Eagleton’s alma mater. He lives in New York City.

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