An exhaustive review of the FBI's involvement in the Democratic Party's disastrous 1972 presidential election campaign has found no evidence that the agency leaked information about vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton's treatment for depression, a disclosure that led to his removal from the ticket—and to the demise, many historians say, of the campaign of George McGovern.
Richard Nixon won re-election that year in a landslide only to resign in disgrace less than two years later after being caught up in the Watergate scandal.
During the investigations that sent several Nixon aides to prison, there were reports from inside and outside the government that a White House that became infamous for "dirty tricks" might have relied on connections in the FBI to leak information about Eagleton's medical history to the press.
Only 18 days after Eagleton received the vice presidential nod, the Missouri senator held a press conference admitting that the rumors that had begun swirling in the media were true. He had undergone electroshock therapy for depression, he said, and he was removing himself from the ticket. While it was unclear where the leaks originated, newspaper reports at the time suggested that the FBI had a file on Eagleton detailing his psychological treatment.
After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concluded in an article on Sunday, however, that there is no direct evidence that the FBI ever had such a file. In three internal investigations conducted by the agency in the year and a half after Eagleton's revelation, the FBI also found no indication that it had provided assistance to the Nixon campaign. "A thorough review of Bureau files has disclosed we have never investigated Senator Eagleton and have never furnished a report concerning him to the (Justice) Department," one memo stated. "Further, there is no record in Bureau files that we were aware of Senator Eagleton's illness."
In 1974, Clarence Kelley, who had taken over as director of the FBI after the election—and who was an acquaintance of Eagleton's in Missouri—wrote a letter to Eagleton saying just that. "No investigation of you has ever been conducted by the FBI," Kelley said. "Further, no information was ever received by the FBI pertaining to your health prior to the press disclosures regarding same in July 1972. Also, no information concerning that subject other than press information has come to our attention since July 1972."
Though the paper trail seems to have gone cold, many former aides in both the McGovern and Nixon campaigns continue to believe officials at the FBI were somehow involved in the Eagleton leak—even if there is no evidence of their actions. "Given the context of the times, I would discount the internal memoranda heavily," Gary Hart, the McGovern campaign director, told the Post-Dispatch. "It's very possible that somebody at the middle levels may have been involved in things that the people at the top knew nothing about."
Former Nixon aides wholeheartedly agree. "This is exactly the way . . . those guys played the game," says John Dean, a legal aide to Nixon who was convicted of several felonies and served as a prosecution witness during the Watergate trials. "They were constantly doing these cover-your-ass memos in the Bureau about these kinds of things. And it could have been done so out of channel that some of the people could have legitimately written those memos."
McGovern himself, in an interview earlier this month with U.S. News, expressed sadness that Eagleton felt the need to remove himself from the campaign after the disclosure of his private medical history. When the first press reports about Eagleton's depression emerged in 1972, McGovern promised to back his vice presidential pick "1,000 percent," and Eagleton's decision to step down devastated the campaign. "He just had an illness that frightened people," McGovern said. "It would have been an uphill fight all the way. But to have a blow like that come on the first thing I did after I was nominated . . . We never recovered from that."
Nixon went on to win 49 states.
Eagleton, meanwhile, was re-elected twice in Missouri after the 1972 election debacle, serving as senator until 1987. He died last year.