In Politics, a More Upbeat Mood About Depression

Thomas Eagleton, left, with George McGovern, who dumped him as his vice presidential running mate in 1972.
Thomas Eagleton, left, with George McGovern, who dumped him as his vice presidential running mate in 1972. (1972 Photo By Associated Press)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006

A politician with clinical depression? What kind, the staggering bipolar variety? The fluttering veils of gray known as dysthymia?

He's on medication? Is it a mild dosage of Prozac, a few milligrams of Zoloft? Heavyweight dosages of lithium?

Twenty, thirty years ago, it wouldn't have mattered. Any open admission of an illness associated with asylums would have been the kiss of political death. It was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" territory. Ask Tom Eagleton.

But much has changed about the stigma around mental illness, mood disorders and their role in American politics since Eagleton was dumped from the vice presidential spot on the 1972 ballot after it was learned he had undergone electroconvulsive therapy. Back then, they said it was for "nervous exhaustion."

Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan's announcement yesterday that he was dropping out of the Maryland governor's race because of clinical depression startled observers, but mainly because the 50-year-old Duncan had been in public office for more than a dozen years with little indication of depressive behavior.

He said yesterday that his family has a history of depression, but he did not elaborate on details of his condition or treatment. He said he had begun medication on Monday.

It made for dramatic politics, changing the shape of an election. But too much has changed for it to be a political obituary. Call it a political asterisk.

"Without knowing more about him, his illness or the medication, it's just impossible to say what should happen next," says Bob Boorstin, who held several senior positions in the Clinton administration while on medication for bipolar illness. "There's been a sea change in public attitudes [toward politicians with depression], but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing for a particular person to continue in public life."

Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Cook Political Report, said perhaps the only sign that things might not have been well in the Duncan camp was that his campaign had not been as aggressive as many had expected.

"I kept waiting for him to shift this thing in high gear," she said yesterday. "They started with some ads, but that's not really him, his energy. I'm going to say that this [diagnosis] explains some of that."

Still, she said, that did not mean that it necessarily cast a larger shadow.

"Depression is one of these issues that can be dealt with. You have to sort of figure it out, the whys and the treatment, and then you can be okay. . . . I don't think it disqualifies him from future public office, if that's what he wants."

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