Former Senator, VP Candidate Thomas Eagleton Mourned

Monday, March 5th 2007, 6:22 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ He was a leading advocate of environmental reforms and a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam. Still, former three-term Sen. Thomas Eagleton had no illusions about how he would be best-remembered.

``In my obituary, it will probably be, 'Tom Eagleton, United States senator for Missouri, for a short time the vice presidential candidate on the McGovern ticket in 1972,' so that will be in my first paragraph,'' Eagleton told The Associated Press in a 2003 interview.

Eagleton, 77, who resigned as McGovern's running mate after it was revealed that his depression had been treated with shock therapy, died Sunday of a combination of heart, respiratory and other problems, his family said.

His death brought an outpouring of praise from Democrats and Republicans alike, including from George McGovern, who made the difficult decision in 1972 to remove Eagleton from the Democratic ticket.

``It's a real loss to the country,'' McGovern said in a telephone interview Sunday. ``No. 1, people liked him personally. They liked his enthusiasm. They liked his stories. They liked his ribbing and kidding. Republicans seemed to like him as well as Democrats.''

Former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., Eagleton's longtime friend and fellow St. Louisan, called Eagleton's death a great loss to Missouri and to him personally.

``Tom Eagleton was an outstanding public servant throughout his career in elective politics and beyond,'' Danforth said. ``As a United States senator, he was highly respected on both sides of the aisle. He was a person of high principle and consistent good humor.''

Eagleton was elected circuit attorney at age 26 in 1956, just three years after graduating from Harvard Law School. He was the youngest man ever elected to the position.

He was elected Missouri attorney general in 1960 and lieutenant governor in 1964 before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1968. He won re-election in 1974 and 1980, retiring after his third term.

He was thrust into the national spotlight in 1972 when McGovern, spurned by other choices for vice president, including Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, chose the 42-year-old Eagleton as his running mate. McGovern made the choice after he and aide Frank Mankiewicz interviewed Eagleton over the phone.

Eagleton recalled in the 2003 AP interview that the subject of mental illness didn't come up, and Eagleton said it didn't occur to him to mention his three hospitalizations during the early 1960s for ``nervous exhaustion and fatigue.'' His treatment included shock therapy.

He said he had not had any symptoms of depression for years and ``didn't think it was all that big a deal.''

Once word leaked of Eagleton's past, McGovern initially vowed to back him ``1,000 percent.'' But McGovern relented to pressure and six days later chose Sargent Shriver, an in-law of the Kennedys, to replace Eagleton.

McGovern lost to President Richard Nixon in November 1972, with Nixon carrying every state except Massachusetts.

McGovern said Sunday he erred in removing Eagleton, and felt that if he had kept him on the ticket, the Democrats could have won the election.

``My first reaction was to say I was going to stay with him,'' McGovern said. ``But gosh, the outcry across the country was pretty intense. We felt that since we were starting a new campaign we needed to get that off the front page and we needed to get Tom to step down.

``But I think that was a mistake.''

Eagleton told the AP in 2003 that he had no regrets.

``Being vice president ain't all that much,'' he said. ``My ambition, since my senior year in high school, was to be a senator. Not everybody achieves their ambition. I got to the level that I really had no great right to claim.''

McGovern and Eagleton remained friends, often chatting on the phone and writing. Eagleton said that after 1972, he ``got over the disappointment damned quick,'' and threw himself into his Senate work.

Eagleton remained in the Senate until 1987, serving on the Appropriations, Governmental Affairs, Ethics and Foreign Affairs committees. Generally considered liberal, he nevertheless criticized busing to achieve school desegregation and, as a practicing Roman Catholic, strongly opposed abortion.

``He made a difference on every issue he touched in the Senate, especially Vietnam,'' Kennedy said. ``He'll long be remembered for his outrage over the senseless bombing of Cambodia and for his leadership in the anti-war effort.''

After his retirement, Eagleton returned to St. Louis where he practiced law, taught at Washington University and did work as a television political commentator and occasional newspaper contributor. He was also an activist for St. Louis, playing a key role in luring the NFL's Rams to relocate from Los Angeles in 1995. The federal courthouse in St. Louis is named after him.

Eagleton is survived by his wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1956; two children, son Terence, and daughter Christy; three grandchildren; and one brother.