George McGovern: the personal and political toll of mental illness
More than a quarter of American adults suffer from a serious mental disorder. Yet mental illness is viewed by many as cause for shame and scandal, fear and fury — as George S. McGovern knows all too well.
Photos by Tracey Landworth
The former South Dakota senator infamously lost his 1972 presidential bid to Richard Nixon after it became known that his vice presidential running mate, the late Sen. Thomas Eagleton, had a history of clinical depression, a fact that caught McGovern and his campaign team by surprise. On a more poignant and personal level, in 1994 McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, lost their daughter to alcoholism, a tragedy he chronicled in “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism” (Plume Books, 1997).
Looking back upon what the media dubbed “the Eagleton Affair” in his 1972 presidential run, McGovern recounted the yearlong grassroots campaign that won him the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Miami and what turned out to be a last-minute rush to name a running mate. Six colleagues — from Ted Kennedy to Walter Mondale — turned him down for reasons ranging from “My mother just couldn't take it” (Kennedy, referring to Rose Kennedy's grief following the assassinations of her son, John and Robert) to “I’m getting married tomorrow, and I don't know if my marriage will survive a presidential campaign” (Abe Ribicoff). Yet every one of them recommended Tom Eagleton, a talented, young senator from Missouri, who snapped up McGovern’s offer.
“There was no time to do what is now called ‘vetting,’” McGovern recalled of what turned out to be a fatal omission for his presidential bid. While Eagleton was encouraged to let the campaign know of problems like “booze, women, misuse of funds, anything you can think of that might be embarrassing to the national ticket,” McGovern recalled, “Tom said he couldn’t think of anything.”
Just days after the convention, news headlines screamed that Eagleton had secretly been in and out of hospitals for severe bouts of depression and electroshock therapy for more than a dozen years. It was true, Eagleton admitted. McGovern decided to stick by his choice. At a press conference standing with his running mate in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, McGovern recalled, “I told the country that Sen. Eagleton had suffered from depression, but he would be able to carry on the duties of the office of vice president.
“Then all hell broke loose. I was hammered from coast-to-coast for this ‘reckless decision.’” His campaign finance committee collectively resigned. Reeling, McGovern consulted experts on depression, among them, eminent psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger, who commiserated with him over his “deep trouble.”
“Dr. Menninger told me, ‘I’ve been lecturing American audiences on mental illness for 40 years, and half of the people in this country are scared to death of any kind of mental disorder — they shouldn’t be, but they are. I don’t see how you can win with that man on the ticket. On the other hand, almost every family has somebody with a mental problem — a cousin, a daughter, a cousin, a spouse — and they’re never going to forgive you if you ask Senator Eagleton to step down.’”
Ultimately, McGovern did just that, much to the delight of his opponent. “Then it became, ‘George McGovern is not only a nut in picking a running mate with an emotional disorder, but now it’s clear he can’t make up his mind,’” the former senator recalled.
Nixon won the election by a landslide 49 states.
“It was very hard on me to lose that presidential election,” McGovern said. But some two decades later, he suffered an even greater grief when his daughter, Theresa Jane McGovern, was found dead in a snow bank in Madison, Wis., at the age of 45. Stumbling from a bar in sub-zero temperatures, she had frozen to death, he said, tears forming at the corners of his eyes.
Punctuating an almost palpable sadness in the audience, he paused to quip about his book recounting the tragedy, “This is the only book I’ve ever written that became a bestseller. Most of my books (he has published nine others) are closely guarded national secrets.”
Describing in heartrending detail his daughter’s effervescent nature as a child and her lifelong struggle with alcoholism — including countless hospital stays, therapy sessions and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — he noted that, “Terry was the example of clinical depression in my family” and that she turned to alcohol to “medicate” her misery.
“Eleanor and I were expecting her home for Christmas,” McGovern recalled. When a knock came to the door of their Washington, D.C., home late one night in December, “I thought, well, maybe Terry has decided to come early.” But it wasn’t his daughter at the door; instead, a police officer and a priest were bringing news of Terry’s passing.
Speaking to a hushed audience, he said, “I know I said that losing a presidential race was tough … but losing your daughter is a lot tougher.”
McGovern himself suffered a bout with depression — a delayed reaction to his daughter's death, he said. In 1997, soon after then-President Bill Clinton recognized him for his longtime dedication to ending world hunger by naming him the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, McGovern ended up hospitalized with severe depression. He described the experience as so excruciating that “I would pray that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning — and I’m not exactly a praying man.”
That bout, coupled with his daughter’s death and the Eagleton debacle, has given him a deep-seated interest in the problems of depression and alcoholism.
“These are problems close to my heart,” he said. “I would do anything to try to advance better understanding of these illnesses and the people who suffer from them.” This includes promoting an understanding of mental health issues in the political arena.
“I would like to think that almost 40 years (after the ’72 campaign), Americans are a little more open,” McGovern said, “that maybe we could say, ‘All right, this person has a history of depression, but — it turns out — so did Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.’”
“We shouldn’t penalize people simply because they have an illness. It’s not fatal. It can be treated.”