Political dangers of picking a US vice presidential candidate

The selection of a US vice presidential candidate is fraught with political danger as George McGovern's disastrous 1972 pick so dramatically illustrated, writes Steve Donoghue.

Thomas Eagleton, left, and George McGovern, then a presidential candidate, at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida.
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As has been remarked by virtually every man who's ever occupied it, the vice presidency of the United States is a very odd office. It has some of the pomp of the presidency, but almost none of the power - in fact, the vice president has basically two constitutionally enumerated powers: to decide tied votes in the Senate and to assume power in the event a sitting president dies.

And yet the position is coveted, on the strength of two possibilities: if the president dies, the vice president becomes the most powerful national leader in the world, and as president he now has all the advantages of an incumbent. These factors hold a strong allure.

Presidential candidates often seek a running mate who will, in common parlance, "balance the ticket" - and that balancing can be geographical, or it can be ideological, as in the current presidential campaign, in which Mitt Romney has picked arch-conservative Congressman Paul Ryan to shore up support from the arch-conservative group controlling the Republican Party. Candidates George W Bush and Barack Obama both picked as their running mates older politicians, whose presence was meant to offset impressions of inexperience.

The right choice sends a message to voters that the ticket can handle anything. Conversely, the wrong choice can say damning things about the candidate's judgement.

Senator George McGovern, who died last month at the age of 90, had more reason than most to know the dangers involved in choosing a running mate: 40 years ago, it was just such a choice that effectively derailed his run for the presidency. It's a story that served as a warning to all future candidates - a story that's told with considerable energy and dexterity in Joshua M Glasser's book The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.

McGovern, a preacher's son from Avon, South Dakota, had already run for president in 1968, in tribute to recently assassinated candidate Robert F Kennedy and only after first clearing the whole idea with RFK's brother, Ted Kennedy.

McGovern failed to gain the Democratic Party's nomination - it went to Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon in the subsequent election - but the following year, an earthquake struck US national politics: in July 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy's car went off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, and the young senator swam to safety while one of the staffers of his brother's campaign, Mary Jo Kopechne, remained trapped in the car and drowned. Kennedy was able to salvage his senatorial career, but the tragedy removed a presidential front-runner from the table.

Glasser deftly traces McGovern's run for the 1972 nomination, his assembling of a team - including Gary Hart, a 34-year-old Denver lawyer, and savvy political director Frank Mankiewicz - and his positioning of himself as an outspoken liberal with an honest, inclusive campaign.

"[It's] conceivable that while I might be the most left-leaning candidate," McGovern said, "I am also the most reconciling candidate."

Once he secured his party's nomination, the question became: who would best "balance the ticket"? Here, Glasser's book becomes a fascinating inside look at how personality mixes with procedure.

There were many candidates, of course, and Mankiewicz and the McGovern team made list after list. An elated McGovern first offered the vice-presidential slot to Ted Kennedy, who turned him down, citing "overriding personal considerations" (the enormous likelihood of President Nixon's re-election might have been one of them). Several party officials advocated that McGovern not make a pick himself, but rather leave the selection to the Democratic Convention. Former Massachusetts governor Endicott Peabody suggested himself, "the number one man for the number two job", and so on.

Other names were put forward: Birch Bayh of Indiana, Frank Church of Idaho, Walter Mondale of Minnesota, Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut, Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, even the CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was considered, but eventually ruled out, because McGovern's aides doubted he'd accept (Cronkite, as staunch an opponent of the Vietnam War as McGovern, later said, "I'd have accepted it in a minute. Anything to help end that dreadful war.")

McGovern initially wanted the candidate to be somebody he knew and understood; Fred Dutton, a long-time Kennedy adviser, watching the nominee's reluctance to be handled by his staff, quipped, "No major presidential candidate in modern history has successfully pulled off being both the jockey and the horse - both the candidate and the man who is already running the campaign." Thus McGovern briefly settled on Boston's intellectual and fiercely ideological mayor Kevin White, who at one point got a phone call that was just a preposition or two away from an explicit offer. But McGovern's people were warned by John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, that White was unpopular with the Massachusetts delegation, every member of which threatened to leave the convention if White got the nomination.

Eventually, the scramble got around to Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton, whose mercurial nature ("… the slightest frustration could instigate the wildest of irritations") had proven popular with voters in his home state.

Glasser stresses the sometimes overlooked fact that Eagleton was an honourable man, someone who "stood up for his values, no matter whether his stances were classified as typically Democratic or Republican positions".

Faint rumours swirled around Eagleton - talk of mood swings and hospital stays for stomach problems - but reporters in the early stages of his career had adhered to a decidedly non-21st-century clannishness, as Glasser writes: "The Missouri media had a tradition of restraint that saved Eagleton from investigation; they avoided scrutiny of a man's private life if it did not seem to interfere with his performance on the job."

Such an investigation would have revealed political dynamite: Eagleton suffered from depression, and his hospitalisations for the condition had included electroshock therapy. These sessions, plus periods of relaxation and the unflagging support of his wife, had allowed Eagleton to consider himself effectively cured. "I'm flabbergasted, George," Eagleton said when he got the call from McGovern, "Are you kidding me? Why, ah, before you change your mind, I hastily accept."

When Mankiewicz got on the line - and asked him point-blank, "No skeletons rattling in your closet?" - Eagleton said nothing about his treatments for depression.

"To Eagleton," Glasser writes, a touch unconvincingly, "his hospitalisations were a thing of the past, and he strove to keep them that way. If he considered his mental health disqualifying, Eagleton would never have promoted the idea of his candidacy."

Glasser takes the line that a full-hearted confession of his past would have been impossible for Eagleton - he took the candidate's call in a crowded hotel room that was quickly engulfed in cheers when the reason for the call became known. "For a man who had concealed his hospitalisations for nervous exhaustion and depression throughout his professional career," Glasser writes, "to suddenly disclose matters he clearly considered private in the presence of his staff, friends, and a radio reporter ... among others, seemed absurd."

As Eagleton aide Doug Bennet later put it: "You don't say, 'Gee, wait a minute. I'd better stop and think about this debilitating disease that I don't have anymore', you say 'Great, I'll do it'." (In time, Bennet would characterise this as "one of the colossal failures of political judgment, I guess, of all time").

The euphoria of the moment notwithstanding, the rumours were confirmed almost immediately. Eagleton offered to leave the ticket in an instant. McGovern, "reacting as a person rather than a politician", and personally conflicted because his daughter Terry also suffered from depression, at first vowed to stick by his running mate. But in 1972 depression carried a deep stigma and as more and more editorials called for Eagleton's removal from the ticket, the hard decision became inevitable. Eagleton was dropped (the choice fell to Sargent Shriver after all), and McGovern's opponents made much of the change.

In the short term, it hardly mattered: Nixon won re-election in a staggering landslide. McGovern left the Senate shortly thereafter (Eagleton would stay for 14 more years) but remained sporadically politically active. His enemies, then later his friends, and at times the man himself came to see his particular brand of liberalism as out of step with the changing times - a view that seemed underscored by the election of the conservative president Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Glasser indefatigably interviewed both McGovern and almost all the survivors of the 18-day candidacy, and the resulting work is not only a minor classic of US governmental history but a telling benchmark on society's attitudes towards depression. "I didn't know anything about mental illness. Nobody did," McGovern told Glasser in a 2006 interview. "If I had to do it over again, I'd have kept him."

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.