Even before he was dumped as George McGovern's 1972 Democratic running mate after negative stories about his undisclosed shock therapy treatment, the late Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton didn't think that McGovern would beat Richard Nixon, running for reelection. What's more: he thought he could hide his repeated shock therapy treatments for depression.
New details about the 18-day episode in July 1972 from a Missouri State University biographer reveal how the scandal escalated and helped to doom McGovern's presidential bid, eventually resulting in an election blowout in which McGovern, teamed with Sargent Shriver at the end, won only Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts.
According to the new biography Call Me Tom, Eagleton wanted to be McGovern's running mate even though he didn't think the liberal Democrat would win.
According to his wife Barbara, Eagleton wasn't worried about giving up his Senate seat when he took a chance on McGovern. Said his wife, according to author James Giglio, "Are you crazy to give up our senate career for the nomination?" The senator "smilingly responded, 'Don't worry about it because you know [McGovern] is not going to make it.'"
Giglio writes that Eagleton still wanted on the ticket because he was loyal to the party and because he could help win over labor. Also, Eagleton had his own eye on the presidency and running as a vice presidential nominee would help.
The book reveals that some in the McGovern campaign had heard rumors of Eagleton's shock therapy for mental depression, but apparently didn't think it was a big deal until revealed in news stories.
In fact, Eagleton himself thought that since he had been in good health for a while, it wouldn't be an issue in his campaign. Again, his wife Barbara asked the hard question. "Won't your health history come out?" she asked, according to the book. Probably, he answered, but he was willing to risk that it would not fully leak out, "especially the shock therapy thing and that he would be able to ride it out," writes Giglio.
But as rumors increased, aides moved into defense postures, dispatching officials to secure medical files at two hospitals. It was later during the 18 days he was the nominee that Eagleton revealed he had hospitalized three times from 1960-1966, twice receiving shock therapy to reduce depression.
Eventually, McGovern and Eagleton held a press conference during which Eagleton discussed his treatment and McGovern offered up his historic quote that he still backed his running mate "1,000 percent." But days later, Eagleton quit the ticket, under pressure from the McGovern campaign. He remained an effective Missouri senator, winning elections in 1974 and 1980.