August 4, 2012

The publication of this account of George McGovern’s costly blunder in the 1972 presidential campaign raises the question: What was the most incompetent major-party presidential campaign of the 20th century? No doubt strong cases can be made for William Jennings Bryan in 1908, John W. Davis in 1924, Alfred M. Landon in 1936, Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, but for my money it’s a tossup between McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Who can forget the 1988 attack ad to end all attack ads, in which Dukakis was shown riding in a tank, his ludicrously helmeted head barely appearing above the top? He may have been the first candidate almost literally laughed into defeat. By the same token, who can forget the extraordinary incompetence that resulted in Thomas Eagleton’s selection as McGovern’s running mate and his dismissal a mere 18 days later?

These days the selection of vice presidential candidates is an incredibly — probably excessively — prolonged and elaborate process, designed not so much to determine his or her compatibility with the presidential nominee as to make sure there are no embarrassing skeletons in the running mate’s closet, though John McCain skimped on the process in 2008 and paid for it with the complicating presence of Sarah Palin on his ticket. This seems a tedious business now, but if Nixon had been more careful in 1968, Spiro Agnew wouldn’t have been inflicted on the country; and if McGovern had done his due diligence in 1972, he wouldn’t have had to suffer the irreparable, self-inflicted damage of repudiating his chosen candidate. To be sure, his defeat probably was a foregone conclusion, given the electorate’s skepticism about his left-of-center views — not to mention the dirty tricks that Nixon’s henchmen were up to — but the Eagleton episode made the campaign that followed essentially pointless.

In any case, all this is now rehashed at considerable length by Joshua M. Glasser in “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.” Glasser, a researcher for Bloomberg Television, is a very recent graduate of Amherst College (Eagleton’s alma mater). He must be awarded a few points, I suppose, for having done such extensive research at so early an age, not to mention managing to make a book out of it, but it is difficult to believe that the book will be of much interest to any except the most hardened political junkies, and even these will find almost nothing in it — nothing important, at least — that they don’t already know. For all the interviews he has conducted and the documents he has read, Glasser has nothing to add to what this unfortunate event already has taught us.

Because the 1972 election took place four decades ago, it probably is necessary to sketch in the central details of the story. McGovern, who turned 50 that summer, was the junior senator from South Dakota and an impassioned opponent of the Vietnam War. It was a time when the rules of presidential politics were beginning to change, quite possibly for the worse, as the rank and file were wresting control, through the primaries, away from the bosses who previously controlled the nominating process. McGovern was the candidate of the rebellious young on college campuses and their older sympathizers, and they came out in the primaries to vote for him, pushing him past Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey and into the nomination.


‘The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign Crisis’ by Joshua M. Glasser (Yale Univ.)

He was (and still is) by all accounts a decent man with heartfelt convictions, but Glasser writes that his “decency also included an aversion to confrontation that led to confusion and inefficiency.” Though Gary Hart, Frank Mankiewicz and other members of his staff worked hard to keep the campaign on course, McGovern often let it veer this way and that. This was what happened when, having secured the nomination at the convention in Miami Beach, he set about the business of choosing a running mate. To all intents and purposes, there had been no advance preparation, certainly nothing to compare with the massive dossiers that prospective nominees order up on any and all possible vice presidential candidates today. At the convention McGovern was presented with a short list of choices that included Mayor Kevin White of Boston; Sens. Walter Mondale, Abraham Ribicoff and Eagleton; and two old Kennedy loyalists, Sargent Shriver and Larry O’Brien. McGovern wanted Ted Kennedy, but the heir to his late brothers’ legacy was still tainted by memories of the fatal accident at Chappaquiddick and was, in any event, contemplating his own presidential campaign four years hence.

The conversation swung this way and that, with first one man and then another moving into the lead. There was much enthusiasm for the 41-year-old Eagleton, of Missouri, who was known, in the words of his press secretary, as “an ebullient, exuberant, optimistic, outgoing, friendly personality,” but there were also “rumors about alcoholism and a family history of mental illness.” These were considered but dismissed with little serious discussion and only perfunctory investigation. Eagleton was chosen, the two candidates made the obligatory triumphal appearance before the convention, and the campaign got underway.

It ground to a halt almost immediately, as various journalists — most notably Clark Hoyt, then of the Miami Herald — began to look into, and soon enough to confirm, rumors that not only had Eagleton been treated for mental illness but that these treatments had included shock therapy. Though this was highly regarded in medical circles as “the most effective means of treating severe depression,” it was also a problem because “its similarity in name and appearance with the electric chair invites a link between the two procedures in the popular imagination.”

For a while McGovern stood loyally beside his man — famously, and no doubt fatally, declaring himself “a thousand percent behind Tom Eagleton” — but as the evidence piled up, it was clear that McGovern and his staff had done an incredibly sloppy background check and Eagleton himself had been less than candid about his medical history. Then Jack Anderson, the muckraking newspaper columnist, got into the act, claiming to have uncovered “evidence of Eagleton’s history of drunk driving”; though he eventually retracted this transparently false charge, the damage had been done. Claiming that “the public debate over Senator Eagleton’s medical history continues to divert attention from the great national issues that need to be discussed,” McGovern dumped him from the ticket and turned to Shriver.

Beyond the obvious ones, there are no important lessons to be drawn from this rather shabby tale. No participants in it had much to be proud of. No doubt it helped make the selection of vice presidential nominees more thorough and orderly, but it’s possible that the process has now been taken to extremes. The move toward citizen participation in the nominating process that helped McGovern win his Pyrrhic victory has now put tea party zealots in control of the Republican Party, with consequences for the country that are likely to be felt for years, and has also put their counterparts on the left in control of the Democratic Party.

Glasser has not managed to make a very good book out of this mess. His research may be thorough, but his prose never rises above the lower levels of journalese, at times sounding like an unwitting parody of Time-style at its ancient worst: “round-faced, brown-haired Bennet”; “powerful San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto”; “young CBS reporter Leslie Stahl.” Perhaps obsessive political junkies will be able to sail past all that, but I found it hard going.

yardleyj@washpost.com

THE EIGHTEEN-DAY RUNNING MATE

McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign
in Crisis

By Joshua M. Glasser

Yale Univ. 381 pp. $26