Sunday’s passing of Sen. Thomas Eagleton marked the end of a life of enormous political grace. Though best known for his 18-day stint as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in the 1972 election, what remains to be unpacked from Eagleton’s legend is how his political courage reflected a progressive — even revolutionary — stance on mental health issues.
Shortly after the public learned that that Eagleton had been hospitalized three times for psychiatric treatment, presidential candidate George McGovern clumsily dropped Eagleton as his running mate. With McGovern’s chances of toppling incumbent Richard Nixon bleak from the onset, abandoning Eagleton forfeited a golden opportunity for a historical moral victory on his part. Yet McGovern’s character cannot be faulted; a political campaign is a machine with explicit goals, often leaving little room for bravery and loyalty. His motivations lay with the public’s and insecurities about a medical condition that was mysterious and poorly understood.
Nonetheless, McGovern admitted last April to the press that were he to do it over again, he would have kept Eagleton as his running mate: “I didn’t know anything about mental illness. Nobody did.” Though many of our presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and John Adams, have had mental health issues, publicity about this nuance of American history is limited. Eagleton’s illness had been confirmed by medical experts not only as relatively common and universal but also by no means a permanent disability. The public’s deep misconception and stigmatization of mental health issues in 1972 is self-evident, but it did not represent the first time mental health had been played as a card in a political campaign. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right” was cruelly thrown back in his face when his opponent called into question his mental health. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” painted Goldwater as unbalanced and dangerous for the public, distracting from the key issues in the campaign.
What will be celebrated someday about Sen. Eagleton is his resolve during those last sweaty days in July 1972 — when he maintained his confidence in his ability to serve his country and his firm conviction in a truth that society had yet to fully embrace: that his illness was a curable disease worthy of not only our compassion, but our full appreciation that it was not the key feature in his candidacy. He maintained his dignity in the face of collapsing support and unforgivable pressure from party leaders, campaign contributors and McGovern’s staff. Eagleton’s sanity was not broken in the face of the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and — two days later than the others, to be sure they were right — The New York Times. Eagleton refused to allow a past diagnosis to qualify his future, an attitude inspirational to the millions of Americans with mental health issues who dream just as fervently as everyone else. Not until McGovern told Eagleton that his “1,000 percent” support had crumbled did Eagleton withdraw for the sake of party unity.
Eagleton’s grace stemmed from maturity. He understood prejudice, that it manifests itself when we make an issue out of something that is not an issue, whether it be race, sexual orientation or medical history. Certain that mental health was not a concern, he refused to make it one. Sadly, when the 1972 election swung from being a referendum about the Vietnam War to a prejudiced and fear-based discussion about a medical condition about which public had few facts, any rational conversation of qualification was impossible. The country was worse for it, paving the way for Spiro Agnew to continue in the vice presidency for another year before his own resignation. The 1972 election is an example of a country losing its ability to select mindfully the best contender — an American tragedy. Eagleton knew. Even still, today’s general public remains hesitant to embrace mental health awareness, but the liberal-minded are confident that Eagleton’s validation is inevitably on its way.
Following his departure from the Democratic ticket, Eagleton campaigned enthusiastically for McGovern and his own replacement, R. Sargeant Shriver. The Democratic team emerged victorious in Massachusetts but failed to replicate this triumph in any of the other 49 states. Eagleton returned to the Senate for another 15 years and assumed a primary role in legislating an end to the bombing in Cambodia and American involvement in Vietnam. He facilitated the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. In his post-Senate career, he returned to Missouri and served as a distinguished political commentator.
Though his vice-presidential candidacy had been shattered by a lack of information about mental health, Eagleton did not take it upon himself to declare it as a personal significant issue in his later years. Perhaps this was to prove his subtle point that it wasn’t one.
Carol Duh is a senior in Trumbull College and a fourth-year intern at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.