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Thomas Eagleton: A Heartbeat Away From a Bipolar President?

It was my senior year in high school, and I still remember it well. Senator Thomas Eagleton left the Democratic ticket for the vice-presidency of the United States because of his emotional and mental health history. Did it have to happen? Let’s take a look.

Senator Eagleton, from Missouri, first took his seat in the United States Senate in 1968. As was later revealed, between 1960 and 1966 he admitted himself into the hospital three times for what was described as physical and nervous exhaustion. Reportedly, he received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) twice. His diagnosis was likely bipolar disorder.

Most of this flew under the radar – at least for a while.

Now before we move on with Senator Eagleton’s story, here’s a bit of presidential perspective…

  • A recent Duke University study submits approximately 50% of our presidents endured an emotional or mental health disorder. And it’s thought that 50% of these endured their disorder during their presidency.
  • Out of many, it’s believed these were some of the presidents…

Abraham Lincoln – depression, Ulysses Grant – social phobia and alcohol abuse, Richard Nixon – alcohol abuse, Franklin Pierce – depression and PTSD, Calvin Coolidge and Thomas Jefferson – social phobia.

So it was the summer of 1972; and the liberal senator from South Dakota, George McGovern, won the democratic nomination for the presidency. When it was time to choose a running-mate, numerous politicians turned him down. Finally, Eagleton was suggested for the ticket, and he was chosen with precious little in the way of background checks.

Making matters so much more worse for everyone, on their way to their first meeting with McGovern, Eagleton and his wife decided his hospitalizations would be kept secret. Reportedly, he promised McGovern he’d bring his medical records to the meeting. He didn’t.

The secrecy pact also meant he wouldn’t be revealing his use of the antipsychotic, chlorpromazine (Thorazine), as well as his ECT treatments.

McGovern obtained some leaked medical records and, reportedly, read things like manic depression and suicidal tendencies. Interestingly, McGovern balked at making any decisions regarding Eagleton because his own daughter was enduring depression and he was concerned what effect dumping Eagleton would have on her.

After putting up quite a bit of resistance, which included telling McGovern no one would ever know about the Thorazine because the prescription was issued in his wife’s name, Eagleton agreed to leave the ticket. But there was one condition. McGovern was to state that Eagleton’s health was fine and he had no concerns regarding his emotional and mental situation.

When it was all said and done – Eagleton left, Sargent Shriver (a Kennedy in-law) replaced him, and the ticket got blown away by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

Amazing, don’t you think? Reference my mention of Nixon at the beginning of the article. And let’s not forget about his resignation in the midst of scandal.

It’s interesting to note that a Time poll revealed that 77% of respondents indicated Eagleton’s emotional and mental health circumstances would have no impact upon their vote.

But frequent press references regarding Eagleton’s “shock therapy” became too much to hold off.

Thomas Eagleton returned to the Senate in 1974 and was re-elected in 1980. He didn’t seek re-election in 1986; returning to Missouri where he was an attorney, political commentator, and professor. Eagleton died at the age of 77 in 2007.

Quite a story, don’t you think? And it begs so many questions…

  • Does a psychiatric history like Thomas Eagleton’s disqualify someone from the vice-presidency or presidency?
  • Would it have made a difference if Eagleton had been honest about his circumstances from the get-go?
  • If we were to be presented with a similar situation, with a more forthcoming candidate, in 2012; would things be different?
  • What did Eagleton in? The times? His dishonesty? Stigma?

What other questions – or answers – would you offer? Please share with us in the comment form.

image credit ect.org

  • karen

    great food for thought. think of how many of our politicians (and others) who just won’t get the help they need because of this fear?? one would think the stigma would be over by now………

    • Well, one would certainly think and hope the stigma would be over by now, but I think we all know it’s nothing to count on. As someone who endures emotional and mental health disorders, I can ask this question. Realistically, are there enough checks and balances in place should, say, the president severely decompensate in the midst of a national or international emergency? I’m really referring to a first strike scenario.

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  • BigGuy

    Eagleton and his wife lied to McGovern face to face. Eagleton showed poor judgement thinking that his past mental illness would stay hidden. Lying to McGovern was wrong. Denial is the best way to handle allegations of mental illness even now, but a candidate for vice-president has to know that all of his (or her) past will come to light.

    McGovern’s heroism and strength of character were and are unimpeachable. In 1972, he refused to discuss his WW2 record in his speeches or in his advertising since he felt “The real heroes didn’t come home.” McGovern led 35 bombing missions over Germany and did not lose a single man. Very, very few war pilots were any where near as successful.

    If their war records were compared during the campaign, Nixon planned to thank McGovern for his service and to acknowledge what McGovern accomplished. Nixon planned to lay it on thick so that listeners instead of honoring McGovern for his service, would instead think that McGovern had NOT lived up to the potential McGovern had shown during the war, unlike Nixon who had outperformed most all American politicians after WW2….

    • Thank you for visiting Chipur and contributing, BigGuy. And I really appreciate the history lesson. Really very interesting…

      Bill