Reelection Politicking


Nosing his father-in-law’s big car out into the Missouri countryside for a whirlwind weekend of reelection politicking, the senator seemed guarded, but cordial. But later, posing for pictures in front of the courthouse in tiny Troy (pop: 2,538) and pumping hands at a fair outside town, he quickly hit his campaigning stride. Casual and gregarious, melting into the crowds of well-wishers, Thomas F. Eagleton made small talk with a pro’s polished ease. The voters call him “Tom,” and they crowded near for a word or a touch. “You don’t look like that flaming liberal I’ve been hearing about,” twanged one rural Missourian approvingly, and that was just the way the senator wanted it.

It seems inconceivable that only two years ago Eagleton’s career lay about him in ruins. Plucked from obscurity when George McGovern picked him as his running mate, he was forced to resign less than three weeks later after it was discovered he’d been hospitalized repeatedly for “nervous exhaustion.” Surely, it seemed, Tom Eagleton was doomed to extinction in the predatory world of professional politics. But then, while McGovern went plunging to a smashing defeat—carrying only the city of St. Louis and two of Missouri’s 114 counties—Eagleton began enjoying a surge of popular sympathy.

“When Tom was dropped from the ticket it was a big plus for him in Missouri,” claims one local Democratic leader. “People took him to their hearts.” Adds Jim Simpson, a former sheriff of rural Shelby County: “Maybe if McGovern had gotten off the ticket instead, the Democrats might have done better.” A narrow winner when he first ran for the Senate six years ago, Eagleton now appears headed for a shoo-in second term victory over former Republican congressman Thomas B. Curtis, his opponent in 1968.

Even Eagleton himself, now a congenially rumpled 44, believes the humiliation of 1972 was “most certainly a blessing in disguise.” Once an anxious young man in a hurry—who had three times cracked his own endurance barrier and twice received electro-shock treatments—he had leapfrogged from one political office to the next. But while his successes merely spurred his ambition, his single failure seemed to change his perspective. “You find in adversity a strength you didn’t know you had,” he told an audience in Hannibal, Mo. recently. Although the senator had been discussing inflation, the double meaning was clear to all who were listening. Now, though he stutters occasionally and still radiates the same crackling nervous energy that marked all his earlier campaigns, he maintains he has “absolutely” given up any ambition of seeking higher office. “To achieve the Presidency you have to go through the cruel and inhuman torture of seeking it,” he says. “You have to have a lust for the office, not just a mild ambition. I don’t have it.”

Inevitably, like a sort of hit-and-run political accident victim, Eagleton still reflects wonderingly on that hectic afternoon in Miami when McGovern picked him to be his vice-presidential candidate. “I go to Miami as one of the 10 most obscure members of the Senate,” he muses. “I leave as Tom Who? and in three weeks, according to one poll, I’m the most popular figure in the country!” Now, if somewhat belatedly, he favors a total overhauling of the vice-presidential nominating process. “Any change would be an improvement,” he says. “One idea that intrigues me is that the candidates run together during the primaries. It would make campaigning easier, and people would know who they were getting.” Despite the recriminations that followed his departure from the McGovern ticket, Eagleton professes no bitterness. “I loved to campaign for McGovern in 1972,” he insists. “I wanted to show I wasn’t a sour grapes loser.” Today, he says, his relations with the South Dakota Democrat are “dutifully cordial.” (Like many others in Washington, Eagleton and his staff are aware of a forthcoming book by Eleanor McGovern, which reportedly lays much of the blame for the 1972 disaster on Eagelton.)

Eagleton is content with his life in the Senate, he says, and regrets only that politics robs him of time with his children—11-year-old daughter Christin and 15-year-old son Terry. His wife, Barbara, delights in the role of political helpmate and accompanies him on his campaign sorties. Plunging into crowds with enthusiasm, she is as acute as any cigar-chomping ward heeler at remembering names and faces from other campaigns. At home in a spacious house in suburban Bethesda, Md., the Eagletons avoid most large Washington parties. Sensitive about rumors he once had a drinking problem, the senator, like many other politicians, refuses to be photographed with either a drink or a cigarette (he is a steady smoker) and leads a modest, unexceptional social life. A lifelong St. Louis Cardinal baseball fan—Stan Musial is an honorary chairman of his campaign—he can conceive of only one career he might prefer to the United States Senate. “I could be a very happy commissioner of baseball,” he says. “But it would be a tough choice. I am very much at peace with myself and my profession.”

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