Owning Up to Past Problems Does Not Doom a Candidate to Defeat : Politics: Analysts say something like the Thomas Eagleton debacle of the 1972 presidential campaign probably would not happen today.
Lawton Chiles mentioned Abraham Lincoln when he told the Florida electorate that he was being treated for depression. Chiles may be more like Thomas Eagleton than Lincoln, however, and that bodes well for his political future in Florida.
Sen. Eagleton, a Democrat, was forced off the 1972 presidential ticket after his previous “shock treatments” for depression became public knowledge. Yet, two years later, Missouri voters re-elected him to the Senate by a landslide.
Chiles also is well-known and well-liked in his state. Such familiarity, analysts say, is the key to the voters’ attitude toward a candidate who has acknowledged a past problem such as mental illness or alcoholism.
Tom Kiley, an adviser to the presidential campaign of Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 and to Eagleton’s 1974 Senate campaign, said that such troubles are legitimate issues because they bear on questions of judgment. They can be blown out of proportion when the voters don’t know a candidate well, he said.
When people feel they know a politician, “it’s a lot easier for them to weigh the information, put it in context and come to a conclusion about the role it should play in an election,” Kiley said.
Rumors that Dukakis suffered from depression swirled briefly around him shortly after he won the Democratic nomination. He suffered considerable damage by failing to squelch them promptly, largely because he was new on the national scene.
“People had no long-term familiarity and personal information to fall back on,” Kiley said.
Such is not the case with Chiles, who served three Senate terms before he quit in 1988, saying he was burned out and frustrated.
He found that leaving the capital didn’t cure his blue moods, insomnia and lack of appetite. Only when Chiles started taking Prozac, commonly prescribed for depression, did his spirits rise and his political drive return.
Chiles entered the Florida governor’s race in April and became the instant favorite over both Rep. Bill Nelson, his chief rival in the Sept. 4 Democratic primary, and Gov. Bob Martinez. Polls showed Chiles clearly in the lead even after people were told he was taking medication for depression.
Other candidates have been raising questions about Chiles’ mental state, both indirectly and head-on. “If Lawton is depressed sitting 18 years in committee meetings in Washington, if he spends about 13 minutes in the governor’s chair he may blow his brains out,” said former Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr., who is challenging Martinez in the GOP primary.
Eagleton’s Missouri constituents apparently were unperturbed that he had undergone electroshock treatments. They sent him back to the Senate with 60% of the vote just two years after he was forced to step aside as George McGovern’s running mate. His mental stability was not an issue in the 1974 campaign.
“It was obvious that voters didn’t have lingering concerns that needed to be addressed,” Kiley said. “He was held in high regard.”
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), the only psychiatrist in Congress, said that any candidate who raises mental health questions about an opponent is grasping for an issue. Candidates should be judged according to their performance under stress, not by the medication they’re taking, he said.
“Abraham Lincoln probably would not have been qualified for the presidency if this were a disqualifying problem,” McDermott said, referring to Lincoln’s well-known bouts with what, in the 19th Century, was called melancholia.
Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972, said that today’s voters find mental illness “a lot less frightening and therefore less of a stigma” now that it typically is treated with drugs rather than shock therapy.
He and other analysts say that voters in general have become more sympathetic to candidates fighting alcoholism, depression and other illnesses as such problems have become more openly acknowledged. Most families have had firsthand experience with such troubles, Kiley said.
More and more, candidates are being frank with the voters and counting on their understanding.
Kiley cited Ann Richards, the Texas state treasurer, a recovering alcoholic who won a hard-fought Democratic gubernatorial primary. The voters seemed to accept her explanation of her illness and treatment, Kiley said.
“Chiles is in a similar position,” he said. “He has great credibility, he’s widely respected. He can talk with great candor about this aspect of his background and expect to get the fairest possible hearing from voters.”
Mankiewicz said that the voters might be less touchy about Chiles’ mental health because he is running for a state, rather than a federal, office. “After all,” he said, “the governor of Florida doesn’t have his finger on The Button.”