Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why candidates hate VP surprises

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
August 5, 2012 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
The Democratic ticket in 1972, of George McGovern (right) and vice-presidential pick, Senator Thomas Eagleton. Eagleton left the race after 18 days following revelations about his depression.
The Democratic ticket in 1972, of George McGovern (right) and vice-presidential pick, Senator Thomas Eagleton. Eagleton left the race after 18 days following revelations about his depression.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: In 1972 George McGovern picked Thomas Eagleton as running mate
  • Eagleton didn't mention mental health issues to McGovern, which would prove disastrous
  • Romney's vetting of potential VP has roots in incident. Candidates very cautious now
  • Greene: Shriver replaced Eagleton, McGovern lost. Lesson? In VP pick, do no harm

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents" and "Running: A Nixon-McGovern Campaign Journal." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" Sundays during the 5 p.m. (ET) hour.

(CNN) -- Outside, there was an old black dog next to a tree. The dog kept barking.

Thomas Eagleton, in a little pine-paneled auditorium/recreation hall in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was, with understandable reluctance, discussing his medical history, and his halting words kept being interrupted by the sounds of the dog's barks.

It's curious what sticks with you when you recall turning-point moments in presidential election history. Forty summers ago Eagleton, a U.S. senator from Missouri, had been selected by the Democratic candidate for president, George McGovern, to be his running mate. The offer to Eagleton had been made on the telephone during a hectic Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach; the conversation between McGovern and Eagleton had lasted less than two minutes.

Eagleton, during the conversation, did not mention to McGovern that on three occasions he had been hospitalized for treatment of depression, and that on two of those occasions he had undergone electroshock therapy. In seeking help, Eagleton had done what people of compassion and wisdom -- including politicians -- often advocate for those who are suffering from his kind of anguish. They counsel that mental illness is as real as any other kind of illness, that it can be effectively treated, and that there is no stigma in trying to get better.

But presidential politics is a take-no-prisoners game, and a vice president is always that one famous heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Eagleton had flown to South Dakota, where McGovern was on a post-convention vacation, to belatedly break the news to the candidate, and then to the public. It was a day that would forever change the way presidential candidates select their running mates.

Opinion: Being VP is just like being a lesser Kardashian

Right now Mitt Romney is in the process of choosing his own running mate, and the intense, virtually forensic, scrutiny his advisers have undoubtedly been giving the various prospects has a direct link to the McGovern-Eagleton drama of 1972. The hasty way that ticket came together has served as a cautionary tale for candidates in the ensuing years; two recent books about Eagleton -- "The Eighteen-Day Running Mate," by Joshua M. Glasser, and "Call Me Tom," by James N. Giglio -- have revisited the story in the context of 21st-century presidential politics, and a recent front-page story in the New York Times drew a straight line between the Eagleton affair and the way running mates are vetted today.

For those of us who were there in that rustic auditorium in 1972, the memory, in many respects, is that of a day of deep human sadness. Eagleton was a headline name, yes, but he was also a man, and to be within those walls on an otherwise quiet day in the Black Hills was to witness moments bleak and melancholy.

McGovern, a U.S. senator from South Dakota, was spending his vacation in a cabin in a state park. We who were assigned to cover him were lodged at an unprepossessing place at the bottom of the hill in the nearby town of Custer -- it was called the Hi-Ho Motel -- and the week was supposed to be uneventful. McGovern was there to relax, not to make news.

Cheney: Palin VP choice was a mistake
Candidates lack military service
Pawlenty on being vice president

The campaign staff of McGovern's opponents on the Republican side, President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, was portraying McGovern as soft and weak; McGovern, who as a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II had flown 35 combat missions over enemy lines and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, was having to fend off the implication that he was somehow spineless. The controversy he didn't see coming was Eagleton's health issues.

This was in a pre-Twitter, pre-Internet, pre-cellphone era; there weren't even telephones in the guest rooms at the Hi-Ho. When we were told that the candidates would like us to come up the hill to the state park, we thought it must be for a so-called photo opportunity, and nothing more.

Eagleton and McGovern arrived at the auditorium with their wives. Eagleton moved among tourists who were standing outside, shaking hands and signing autographs. McGovern, though, looked pensive. He walked into the auditorium without saying a word to anyone.

McGovern opened the session by saying what a pleasure it was to have Tom and Barbara Eagleton in the Black Hills. The few of us present barely took notes. Some of the tourists from outside had wandered into the back of the auditorium, and when McGovern introduced Eagleton, they applauded. Eagleton made a mild joke:

"I don't know if the applause is because McGovern quit talking, or because I got up to talk."

And then he said it.

The hospitalizations. The electroshock treatments.

It was such an incongruous moment, in the bucolic setting. It came out of nowhere. Eagleton began to perspire, and the dog's barks echoed off the wooden walls, and seconds began to feel like days. "I don't relish standing here before these lights and 30 or 40 newsmen, discussing my health," Eagleton said. "This isn't the most pleasant moment of my life."

And he acknowledged that he had first discussed all of this with McGovern only hours before, here in the state park.

The country, and the world, weren't watching; there was no live telecast. The reporters had no quick way to get the news out -- no phones handy. Network television correspondents had to put their footage into helicopters to be flown to Rapid City, South Dakota, the closest place from which to transmit video. What had just happened was like a violent flash of lightning, with the delayed thunder, we all knew, soon to come.

It did. Once reporters got to telephones down the hill in Custer, and the news thus reached the rest of the country, the McGovern campaign publicly avowed support for Eagleton, but the presidential campaign was, in effect, over. People from all over the United States were sending telegrams -- the speediest way to express an opinion -- to McGovern, many of them brutal in tone. The one Western Union telex receiver in the area was not up in the state park with McGovern, but in the makeshift press room of the Hi-Ho. So on the same machine on which the reporters were receiving messages from their offices, they were seeing the telegrams meant for McGovern. It wasn't pretty.

Eagleton stepped down from the ticket within a week, and was replaced by Sargent Shriver. The McGovern-Shriver ticket lost to Nixon and Agnew in the largest landslide in presidential history. You never can know how things will work out, though; both Nixon and Agnew would resign from their offices before their terms were finished, and McGovern would eventually leave the Senate after losing one of his reelection bids. Within 10 years of that somber day in the Black Hills, the only person from either original ticket still serving in national political office would be Eagleton. He would be a senator from Missouri until his retirement in 1987; after that he would return home and resume his life as a widely respected member of the St. Louis community until his death in 2007.

The lessons of that long-ago summer? Probably just that presidential candidates these days, in choosing their running mates, tend to keep in mind the same thing that beginning medical students are always taught:

First, do no harm.

As if that is easy.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT