Through the Looking Glass of Veep Picks

A disastrous choice from 40 years ago helps shed light on Election 2012

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Anthony Korody / Getty Images

Democratic presidential nominee Senator George McGovern, right, and his running mate Senator Thomas Eagleton, during their campaign in 1972

It was July 1972, and in the Black Hills of South Dakota, two men sat across from each other in Cabin 22 at Sylvan Lake Lodge, near Custer. They were the nominees of the Democratic Party for President and Vice President of the United States, and they were players in a drama that would soon force the No. 2 off the ticket, creating history’s most powerful case study against hasty or uninformed vice-presidential choices.

(MORE: Who Should Romney Pick for Vice President?)

The story of Thomas Eagleton’s brief nomination as George McGovern’s running mate looms large in political memory because of the revelation in the days after the Democratic National Convention in Miami in 1972 that he had undergone electric-shock therapy to combat depression — a fact kept from McGovern and thus from the Democratic delegates.

In an engaging new book about the episode by Joshua M. Glasser, The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis, we are transported back to the hectic hours of the 1972 race, to the great hopes of the liberal New Politics and the cold realities of the Nixon White House (the Watergate break-in had occurred in June). The conventional interpretation of the Eagleton episode is that it led to the exhaustive vetting process that subsequent campaigns have used to avoid their own Eagleton moments. That’s what’s unfolding now in the Romney camp as it prepares to announce the GOP nominee’s choice for Vice President.

In the case of 1972, McGovern had really wanted Ted Kennedy, but the last brother refused. Senators Walter Mondale of Minnesota and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin also declined. The tribal complexities of Democratic politics sidelined Boston Mayor Kevin White. That left Eagleton, an attractive, young (at 42) liberal Catholic from a border state.

(MORE: The ‘Veepstakes’ Begins: A Brief History of Vice-Presidential Vetting)

McGovern did not know Eagleton well, but time was running out on the Thursday of the convention. The call was made to Eagleton’s hotel rooms — which were filled with aides and a radio reporter from St. Louis who tape-recorded Eagleton’s side of the conversation with McGovern in which the nomination was offered. Frank Mankiewicz of the McGovern campaign got on the phone after the offer was made and asked Eagleton, “No skeletons rattling in your closet?”

“Right,” said Eagleton.

The hasty nature of the pick was of a piece with the political style of 1972, the year when floor activity pushed McGovern’s acceptance speech to about 3 a.m. Eastern time. The McGovernites wanted to change politics, to take power from the bosses and certainly from the Nixonites, and so a certain amount of chaos was inevitable — and in character. (“I’ll tell you one thing,” said a Kennedy aide. “If [Eagleton had] pulled this on a Kennedy, we’d find his body at the base of the cliff in the morning.”)

When word of Eagleton’s medical history surfaced in the ensuing days, McGovern hesitated to take action for the most humane of reasons: McGovern’s own daughter Terry suffered from depression and alcoholism. As he sat with Eagleton, he was torn between the political and the moral. “I could not in effect punish [Eagleton] for being a victim of depression,” McGovern later wrote.

In the end, McGovern had to take action, and Eagleton was replaced by Sargent Shriver after McGovern realized that he could not risk putting Eagleton in a position where a relapse could prevent him from performing his duties in office.

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An additional conclusion from Glasser’s book, though, is that the vice-presidential choice — and the process that leads to that choice — can shed interesting light not only on what presidential nominees hope to avoid (a disaster) but also on the inescapably human element in politics. Four years ago, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin came from the Arizona Senator’s gambling side; Barack Obama’s of Joe Biden from the Democratic nominee’s clinical assessment of what the ticket needed in November and what someone with Biden’s wide experience could bring to a White House led by a young President.

For Romney, the choices of Senator Rob Portman of Ohio or former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota could signal that he is at heart more comfortable in the party of George H.W. Bush than of George W. Bush.

What was telling about those 18 days in 1972 was McGovern’s personal decency but ultimate political realism. When we know Romney’s choice, we’ll be able to see, at least in part, what he values — an invaluable window on GOP nominee who remains opaque to many.

GRAPHIC: The Romney Veepstakes