MERCER: George and Tom: A look at a political mess in ’72That story is about how George McGovern, then a U.S. senator from South Dakota, won the 1972 Democratic nomination for president and chose Thomas Eagleton, then a U.S. senator from Missouri, as his vice presidential nominee.
PIERRE — Jonathan Yardley, book critic supreme for The Washington Post, basically blew off the story told by Joshua Glasser in “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.”
Proof that even Pulitzer winners screw up sometimes.
Yardley, who marks his 73rd birthday this year, complained in an August review that Glasser is simply telling again a story everybody already knows.
That story is about how George McGovern, then a U.S. senator from South Dakota, won the 1972 Democratic nomination for president and chose Thomas Eagleton, then a U.S. senator from Missouri, as his vice presidential nominee.
The 18 days in the title of Glasser’s new book refers to how long it took McGovern to drop Eagleton as his running mate.
The trouble with Mr. Yardley’s assertion is that any voting-age person currently younger than 40 wasn’t even alive when the McGovern-Eagleton fiasco happened.
That’s a lot of folks. Their number swells when you throw in all of the people who were 10 and younger during that strange July.
Glasser is one of the youngest among them. He started work on the book three summers ago, in August 2009, as he prepared to start his senior year at Amherst College.
He said he became interested two years before that, when his mother showed him an obituary for Eagleton, after the former senator’s death in 2007 at age 77. Eagleton was an Amherst alumnus.
Glasser began with a senior thesis. His work grew into a powerful and important book that is well-researched, well-edited and well-written. Yale University Press published it this summer. He now is a researcher for Bloomberg Television and lives in the Bronx, New York.
What makes the book so essential, at least for anyone who cares about South Dakota politics, is the deep look it takes into how McGovern so badly botched such a big decision, and how Eagleton stonewalled him.
For 18 days Eagleton refused to provide McGovern and campaign aides with the actual medical records showing his history of hospitalizations for depression including electro-shock treatments.
McGovern didn’t want Eagleton. He wanted Ted Kennedy. He tried to get Kennedy, and a handful of other prominent Democrats, to be his running mate until he was down to less than one hour to announce his decision.
Eagleton didn’t offer up his secret when asked by a McGovern aide. That very night and the next morning rumors were already moving quickly. McGovern, trapped by haste and delay and failure to conduct basic reconnaissance, initially stood with Eagleton after learning of the rumors.
But when newspapers broke the story, campaign donations quickly dwindled and McGovern’s mind was made up. He gradually moved away from supporting Eagleton and tried various ways of media manipulation to suggest Eagleton should step down.
Eagleton would have none of it until McGovern forced a meeting labeled as “a showdown” from which they jointly announced Eagleton would be leaving the Democratic ticket.
Glasser has used many books, historical documents, publications and original interviews which he conducted with key figures, including McGovern. To his credit, Glasser provides solid backgrounds regarding depression and electro-shock.
Further, he comes at the story from Eagleton’s side, McGovern’s side and President Richard Nixon’s side. He is empathetic without being sympathetic. He lets the facts tell the story.
For George McGovern and Thomas Eagleton, it’s not a favorable story.
Glasser shows polling results that strongly indicate McGovern directly hurt his candidacy for president against Nixon in a small but severe way, as 6.4 percent of the voters shifted from McGovern to Nixon.
The same data also indicate the public perception turned strongly against McGovern as a human being. The actual election results showed how strongly. Nixon won the national popular vote with 61 percent to McGovern’s 38 percent.
McGovern won only Massachusetts, losing even his home state of South Dakota.
McGovern won re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1974, but Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Abdnor ousted him from the Senate seat in the 1980 election. Eagleton meanwhile won re-election in 1974 and 1980, then retired in 1986.
What Joshua Glasser has written would make a fascinating cable-TV or theater movie. The difficulties would be in casting, because the story requires too many characters with self-defeating flaws.
There are too many first-hand accounts in Eighteen-Day, and too much depth, and too little evident bias, for anyone to make much of a claim against its accuracy.
There are some surprises, which will remain unmentioned here, for readers to find. A subtheme of the book of course must be the tragedy of Terry McGovern, daughter of George and his wife, Eleanor.
This book is an unintended counterweight to the McGovern myth-making of the past decade or so by the South Dakota Democratic Party. Yet the book isn’t a hack job. Glasser is repeatedly complimentary and deferential to McGovern and Eagleton.
In the end, however, the facts fall where they must. That is the great value.
George McGovern made a final choice without putting much thought into that choice after McGovern’s offers had been rejected by other men he wanted ahead of Eagleton. And Thomas Eagleton refused to tell the truth and accepted an offer he vainly refused too long to relinquish.
Get this book. Read this book.
And on a closing note, the only thing seriously wrong with “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton and a Campaign in Crisis” is that South Dakota State Historical Society Press didn’t publish it.
Joshua Glasser’s serious, well-crafted work is the kind that SDSHS Press needs — and on this topic, South Dakotans deserved.