Eleanor Mcgovern Reveals What the 1976 Candidates' Wives Cannot: How Tough Campaigning Really Is

The largely unsung heroes of any presidential campaign are the candidates’ wives. But Betty Ford or Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan or Helen Jackson cannot complain, or even truthfully describe the toll that campaigning inflicts upon them, lest they hurt their husbands politically. Eleanor McGovern is under no such restraints. And as the 54-year-old wife of the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, she knows the agonies and triumphs of politics all too well. Although she describes herself as a homemaker, the mother of five now spends much of her time serving as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. In the McGoverns’ spacious Japanese-style Washington house, she talked about what it is like to be a candidate’s wife with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE.

What is the personal toll of being a presidential candidate’s wife?

There’s a great toll, physically and emotionally, but you don’t realize it much until it is all over. You go along at such a rapid pace that everything is almost a blur; you move along on sheer adrenaline. All your relationships with family and friends change. It’s really quite traumatic.

In what way does the relationship between the candidate and his wife change?

When you follow a campaign, you’re involved in each other’s lives on a truly different level. There is a relationship other than that of husband and wife. You are two people working for the same thing.

To what degree can a presidential campaign drive a couple apart?

You have the joy and rewards of doing the same thing, but you lose a sense of intimacy—at least temporarily. I still don’t know all of the things George did in the campaign, and he doesn’t know all the things I did. That’s how separated we were in that campaign.

What about lack of privacy? What was it like having your bedroom used as a campaign headquarters?

During the campaign, there was no privacy, and I did resent that. The few times I managed to be with George, people would forget that I was there, and come into the bedroom without knocking. I’d make a mad dash for the closet or the bathroom. One time, during the California primary, a young aide came in to tell George it was time to get up. I pulled the covers over my head. George said, “We’ll be up in five minutes.” The young man said, “We?” And George said, “Eleanor’s here.” The aide said, “No, she’s down in room so-and-so on another floor of the hotel.” He was really confused and embarrassed.

How did you cope with the hectic, irregular eating schedules?

We had to grab a sandwich on the run. The people who write campaign schedules don’t schedule time for a few minutes to yourself, nor time to eat—not even dinner. I pleaded until I was blue in the face for just a couple of hours in the late afternoon to soak in the tub, but I almost never got it. You have to wear the same clothes all day. You’re grimy and you need to change and wash, but you can’t.

Do you have any rules for survival?

Take every minute you can to go to the bathroom, whether you need to or not, because you may not get there for another four hours. I always carried high-protein sesame seed bars with me because I never knew when I was going to eat. I used to carry wheat germ and ajar of honey in my purse, but one day the jar broke. I decided not to do that any longer.

Did you lose weight campaigning?

Oh, yes. I was pinning my skirts in the back so they would fit. I lost about 10 pounds—one-tenth of my weight. It took me about a year and a half to get that back.

When it came to being buffeted by the crowds, did you ever feel in danger?

That was a great problem for me. I was bruised and battered many times because of my size. George would have liked me to stay with him, but the cameras would always zero in on him and hit me in the head. It really hurts, and it happened so many times. They just didn’t see me down there. Finally it got to where I would sneak to the edge of the crowd to avoid being hit.

Did you get bruises from handshaking?

No, I didn’t. I have a firm handshake, though I wasn’t aware of it until so many people told me. One man said it was because I put the pressure on first, and not the reverse.

When did the strain of campaigning get to you?

I didn’t realize how terrible it was until near the end. All of a sudden I collapsed with severe stomach pains and had to be hospitalized for a few days. Thank goodness we have our bodies to warn us that enough is enough.

Was there much strain on your children?

Four of our five children campaigned. They were not urged to do so. It was of their own volition. Our son Steve was the one who chose not to be involved. He went to live in Boston. He said he knew his father would be elected if he ran, and he didn’t want to live in the White House and have Secret Service people around. He felt he was losing his own identity. The children have gone through periods of great resentment of their father’s immersion in politics. They felt neglected. The most positive thing about the campaign was that it gave them a greater understanding of what political life is like and what it had been like for their mother and father for many, many years.

What impressed you about the rest of the country?

I found that we are not really a homogenized nation, as I had thought before. This is not a melting pot in the literal sense of the word. We do have ethnic groups that adhere to their own culture to a great degree. It makes it difficult to govern the country, but I think it enriches our culture.

What was the worst moment of the campaign?

There were two. First, when we realized we were in trouble because of the choice of Sen. Thomas Eagleton as the vice-presidential candidate. We knew whatever George did about the problem [Eagleton’s previously undisclosed history of depression and shock treatment], he’d lose. From that moment on, the joy of the campaign was over.

And the other worst moment?

The defeat, of course. It wasn’t the defeat as much as the realization that George was misunderstood. That’s worse than defeat.

Was it a painful personal blow?

Oh, yes. George has a marvelous capacity to forgive. I don’t have that. I cannot forgive the people who I think were just not fair to George in 1972. My head and my heart aren’t together on that at all. But the most difficult thing for me was to see George’s anguish. He blamed himself too much. It was terrible to see him go through this. But he had to.

Do you feel the campaign was a worthwhile experience?

Well, one learns to accept a defeat, a hardship, a heartbreak. That’s the only way to learn.

How long does decompression take after a campaign?

Our rule of thumb is that it takes as long to decompress as it took you to get into the term of hectic involvement, which is a year. I had to decompress in six months, because he was starting again to run for the Senate in 1974.

What would your advice be to the wives of current candidates?

It’s a personal thing that revolves around a woman’s interest in what her husband is doing. Not all are interested. I don’t know what I would tell a wife who is doing it just because her husband wants her to. That would be a very difficult role for me to be in.

What relationship do you think the people expect of the candidate and his wife?

If the American people want a perfect family relationship, it is unfair. I think a political wife should be who she wants to be. If she wants to stay home and be supportive of her husband, fine. The candidates certainly need support. They have so much hatred leveled at them, and their lives are endangered.

Did you worry about that?

I was startled when I came home just after the attempt on George Wallace’s life during the campaign and found the Secret Service giving George a bulletproof vest. That really jolted me. But you can’t dwell on it. You’re just too busy.

Would you do it all over again?

I would, but I wouldn’t look forward to it. You learn a lot about the country, you learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about your family. But I wouldn’t want to do it again.

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