Thomas F. Eagleton - Senator

ECT Treatments Led to Losing the Vice Presidential Nomination

Thomas Eagleton
Thomas Eagleton. Anthony Korody / Getty Images

In 1972, Richard Nixon was president and Senator George McGovern had won the Democratic nomination to oppose Nixon in the upcoming election. McGovern chose Senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate - a position Eagleton wanted very much.

But Eagleton knew there was something in his past that could be a problem: he had been hospitalized for depression and had undergone electroshock treatments. According to his biographer, James N.

Giglio, Eagleton thought he could keep most if not all of his psychiatric history out of the public eye and could "ride out" any negative publicity.

It didn't work out that way. The information did get out. Reportedly, McGovern was told by psychiatrists that Eagleton's depression could recur and could "endanger the country" if he took over the presidency. The media made much of his "shock therapy." And just 18 days after being selected as the vice presidential candidate, Eagleton was forced to withdraw his name from candidacy. McGovern's presidential bid was hurt by the furor as well, and Nixon won re-election by a landslide - only to resign himself less than two years later in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

A TIME magazine poll at the time asked: "What effect did the news that Eagleton had undergone psychiatric treatment for nervous exhaustion have on your choice for President?" In the results, 77% said the news had not changed their opinions, but there are a couple of interesting things about this poll.

First, it could have - but did not - ask about Eagleton's diagnosis of depression or his treatment with ECT. And second, Nixon was already by far the more popular candidate. Voters who already planned to vote for him - undoubtedly a large percentage - would mostly have said their votes wouldn't change for reasons that had nothing to do with Eagleton.

Thus the poll results are quite deceptive - they don't accurately represent how people viewed Eagleton in light of his prior psychiatric treatment at all.

Thomas F. Altman, writing in The New York Times, gives additional perspective on the 1972 debacle. Eagleton was hospitalized for depression three times prior to 1972, receiving electroconvulsive therapy the third time. He also experienced hypomania. From Giglio's biography of Eagleton, Call Me Tom, comes this quote from one of his friends: "Sometimes he was funny, sometimes he was frightening, sometimes he created some stirs about that. How much of what was going on was alcohol and how much bipolar? My guess is the fundamental problem was bipolar."

Altman reports that Eagleton was formally diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder in the late 1970s, and that the diagnosing doctor believes he had bipolar disorder all along.

Eagleton's Senate career was far from derailed by the controversy. He was re-elected twice more, retiring from the Senate in January of 1987. From then until his death in 2007 he worked in public affairs and as a professor in his home state of Missouri.

Biography of Thomas F. Eagleton:
Call Me Tom by James Giglio

How the Voters Feel About Eagleton. TIME. 7 Aug 1972.
Bedard, Paul. History Shocker: Eagleton Saw McGovern Losing. US News. 18 Oct 2011.
Altman, Lawrence K. Hasty and Ruinous 1972 Pick Colors Today's Hunt for a No. 2. The New York Times. 23 July 2012.

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