According to one senator who has been through the process, being vetted as a vice presidential nominee is like having a colonoscopy using the Hubble Telescope. Certainly it's a safe bet that before Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, his team checked out every aspect of Ryan's life – personal, professional, financial – that could potentially embarrass the campaign. What Romney didn't want – what every presidential candidate in the last forty years has worked hard to avoid – was to tie himself publicly to Paul Ryan, only to find that Ryan had some terrible secret that would necessitate dropping him from the ticket. In short, he didn't want to end up with a Thomas Eagleton problem.
Eagleton is the tragic figure at the center of The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, the timely and impeccably researched new history by Joshua M. Glasser. In 1972, Eagleton was a forty-two-year-old rising star in the Democratic Party – a senator from Missouri with good looks, energy, charisma, and strong liberal principles. George McGovern, the senator from South Dakota who was that year's Democratic nominee, knew that Eagleton desperately wanted to be on the ticket.
But as Glasser shows, drawing on a wealth of memoirs, interviews, and documents, Eagleton was far from McGovern's first choice. That was Ted Kennedy, who polls showed was the only vice presidential pick that could substantially improve McGovern's prospects. On the Wednesday of that year's Democratic Convention, having just fended off a technical challenge and won the nomination, McGovern called Kennedy and begged him to accept the number two spot. Kennedy refused, as did several other of McGovern's top picks. Finally, with just minutes to go before the 4 p.m. deadline for submitting a nominee to the convention, McGovern called up Eagleton, who enthusiastically accepted.
It was not until after McGovern got off the phone that his adviser, Frank Mankiewicz, had the chance to ask Eagleton the question that, common sense dictated, should have come first. "No skeletons rattling in your closet?" "Right," Eagleton replied. What else could he have said, having already accepted the nomination in front of an excited crowd of advisers and reporters? But it didn't take long for Mankiewicz and future senator Gary Hart, McGovern's top aides, to start hearing troubling rumors about Eagleton's past.
An anonymous caller told both the campaign and the newspapers that hospital visits made by Eagleton had not been stomach related, as he claimed. In fact, he had been treated on two occasions for manic-depression and had received electroshock therapy. Glasser traces the fallout of the revelation on a virtually hour-by-hour basis. At first McGovern, whose own daughter and wife had received psychiatric treatment, stood by Eagleton, rashly telling reporters that he supported him "one thousand percent." But the backlash from the public and this own supporters kept growing, and finally, after talking to some of Eagleton's psychiatrists, McGovern decided that his mental health was too fragile to be entrusted with the vice presidency. This flip-flop, Glasser argues, fatally damaged McGovern's reputation for both sincerity and competence, and helped contribute to his monumental defeat that November.
Glasser brings out the full human drama and political intrigue of this historic episode, which forever changed the way presidential candidates pick their running mates. Never again, one might think, would a candidate make such a pick recklessly, without doing due diligence, at the risk of torpedoing his own reputation. And then you remember Sarah Palin.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org.