GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Sometime before the end of this month, when Republicans hold their convention in Tampa, Mitt Romney will almost certainly announce his vice presidential running mate. And right now, there's a good chance the finalists for that spot are wading through mountains of paperwork and answering deeply personal questions: questions about their finances, their past statements, friendships and medical histories.
And a lot of that tedious process has to do with something that happened 40 years ago this summer. It's the subject of a new book called "The Eighteen-Day Running Mate" written by Joshua Glasser. And it tells the story of George McGovern's fateful decision to place Thomas Eagleton on the Democratic ticket.
RAZ: In the middle of July 1972, thousands of delegates arrived in Miami for the Democratic convention. Now, while these conventions are, at least today, more or less scripted and choreographed events, back in '72, that was not the case.
GARY HART: We went to the convention very uncertain as to whether or not we could sustain our delegations.
RAZ: That's Gary Hart, former Colorado senator and presidential candidate. In 1972, he was George McGovern's campaign manager. Now, McGovern was the insurgent candidate. He wasn't the establishment's choice. And on his road to the nomination, he managed to alienate the party's old guard, people like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. So as Joshua Glasser explains in his book, McGovern needed a running mate who could unite the Democrats.
JOSHUA GLASSER: All their polling told them that Ted Kennedy was the guy they needed on the ticket. If they had him on the ticket, they would have a reasonable shot of actually beating Nixon come the fall.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Watching Ted Kennedy these days working his way through a crush of admiring Democrats, one could get the impression he's running for something. He insists, of course, he isn't.
RAZ: Kennedy was the party's torchbearer, an unapologetic liberal who railed against the Vietnam War.
TED KENNEDY: Still, the war goes on for the 415 American prisoners of war held in Hanoi. And they must be asking, what happened to the promise to end the war in 1968?
RAZ: When George McGovern's team arrived to Miami for the convention, the nomination wasn't assured, and so the campaign hadn't really started the process of looking for a running mate. All along, according to Gary Hart, McGovern assumed Ted Kennedy would be that man.
HART: And he thought he could persuade Senator Kennedy to do it, and up until the very, very last moment.
RAZ: But Kennedy kept saying no. And so the day the convention began, July 13, 1972, McGovern reached out to others - his Senate colleagues, like Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin and Abe Ribbicoff from Connecticut - and they also said no. But McGovern was working against a deadline. The nominating process was set to begin at 5 p.m. that evening, and he had to pick a VP nominee by then.
HART: I think under the pressure of time he called Senator Kennedy back and said: Look, Ted, I've got to make a decision. Are you going to be with me? And Senator Kennedy said: No, I don't think so. That's when we went to Eagleton.
RAZ: Gary Hart says Thomas Eagleton wasn't even on the initial shortlist, but he was an up-and-comer, the youngest ever attorney general in Missouri history, and by 1972 a U.S. senator who made a name for himself as a fiery opponent of the Vietnam War.
THOMAS EAGLETON: I came back from Indochina convinced that the president has taken a risk by allowing American soldiers and prestige to be held hostage to Saigon's survival.
RAZ: NPR's Ken Rudin recently wrote about that 1972 race on his blog, The Political Junkie. And he described how on the campaign trail McGovern had alienated big labor and working-class Catholics.
KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: McGovern, with real big trouble with Catholic voters, with labor support, looked at Tom Eagleton as almost like the perfect kind of candidate.
RAZ: Thomas Eagleton was a devout Catholic and a strong opponent of abortion. And on that first day of the convention, July 13th, McGovern called Eagleton to offer him the spot. They spoke for about two minutes over the phone. Again, here's Gary Hart.
HART: We went over names casually, didn't do any, quote, "background checking" - wasn't mandated in those days as it is now. Certainly, after '72, it came to be mandated. But people trusted other people's word.
RUDIN: The feeling back then was it's beneath a presidential nominee to ask somebody about health issues or personal problems or do you have a drinking problem?
RAZ: That turned out to be George McGovern's biggest mistake. And within a few days, rumors started to circulate beginning with a call to McGovern's headquarters in South Dakota.
HART: And the anonymous caller had said: Check into Senator Eagleton's background. He has a complicated medical background.
RAZ: As Hart remembers it, neither he nor McGovern's top aide, Frank Mankiewicz, knew anything.
Calls were made to the Eagleton staff to say: We got this call. What does it mean? And the response we got back was: We'll check into it and let you know.
Within hours, the McGovern campaign was getting those details. On three occasions in the 1960s, Eagleton was hospitalized for depression. And each time, he underwent electroshock treatment to help ease it. Several reporters were already onto the story, and so the McGovern campaign made a strategic decision: they would preempt any scoops and make those revelations public themselves.
HART: This was the height of the Cold War. And the key here wasn't how do we feel about mental illness or therapy or anything like that. The key was the, quote, "finger on the button."
RAZ: And that phrase, finger on the button, began to dog the McGovern campaign once those revelations about Eagleton's condition became public. The initial strategy was to address what happened, and Eagleton was forthcoming.
EAGLETON: On three occasions in my life, I have voluntarily gone into hospitals as a result of nervous exhaustion and fatigue. As a younger man, I must say that I drove myself too far, and I pushed myself terribly, terribly hard, long hours day and night.
RAZ: But despite his best efforts to address what had happened in an honest way, the pressure began to mount. Democratic Party stalwarts started to call on Eagleton to step down, so did a New York Times editorial. At first, McGovern stood by his running mate.
EAGLETON: It's hot here tonight, and Eagleton perspires even on Christmas Eve.
EAGLETON: But I'll tell you one thing. I can take the heat, and I'm gonna stay in the kitchen.
RAZ: At every campaign stop, Eagleton was asked whether he'd remain on the ticket. And each time, he was defiant.
EAGLETON: I'm not quitting. I'm not getting out. We're going to win this election, and I'm going to be the next vice president of the United States.
RAZ: But as the story dragged on, the polls began to look ominous for George McGovern. And many people on the campaign staff, including Gary Hart, were frustrated.
HART: And the hard part was we couldn't get the data. We couldn't get the medical reports. We couldn't talk to his doctors.
RAZ: So McGovern, under increasing pressure, asked to speak to Eagleton's psychiatrist. Here's author Joshua Glasser again.
GLASSER: Eagleton gets two of his doctors on the phone and lets McGovern speak with the doctors. And McGovern, based on those conversations, makes the medical decision that Eagleton can't go, that based on what they told him, Eagleton was too much of a risk to have his finger potentially on the metaphorical button.
RAZ: Just 18 days after he was picked to run with George McGovern, Thomas Eagleton arrived in Washington to hold a press conference.
EAGLETON: Ladies and gentlemen, I will not divide the Democratic Party, which already has too many divisions. Therefore, tomorrow morning, I will write to the chairman of the Democratic Party withdrawing my candidacy.
RAZ: Ninety-nine days later, Richard Nixon would defeat George McGovern in a landslide. It was the widest margin of victory in the popular vote in presidential history. Afterwards, McGovern spent another decade in the Senate. Thomas Eagleton went on to serve two distinguished terms as Missouri senator. He died in 2007.
GLASSER: The way Eagleton handled himself during those 18 days was very admirable, and it earned him tremendous respect from the people of Missouri. They didn't like the way he appeared to be treated by McGovern. And he was a very, very able and respected public servant.
RAZ: You can read more about those dramatic days in Joshua Glasser's new book. It's called "Eighteen-Day Running Mate." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.