Thomas Eagleton, 77; vice presidential candidate left race over health reports

Times Staff Writer

Thomas F. Eagleton, the former U.S. senator from Missouri who was forced to withdraw as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee in 1972 after admitting that he had been hospitalized for nervous exhaustion and had undergone electric shock treatments, died Sunday at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond Heights, a suburb of St. Louis. He was 77.

The cause of death was a combination of heart, respiratory and other problems, according to a press release from Thompson Coburn LLP, the St. Louis law firm where Eagleton was a partner.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 08, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Eagleton obituary: The obituary of former U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton in Monday’s California section stated that he delivered the Democratic Party’s response to President Nixon’s State of the Union address in 1971. Eagleton was one of 11 Democrats to respond to Nixon’s 1972 State of the Union address.

The senator had been in failing health for several years, the firm’s press release said. He entered St. Mary’s Hospital about a week ago.

Witty, bright and good-looking, Eagleton was not the first choice for the No. 2 spot on the ticket headed by South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. But he got the nod after several other candidates, including McGovern’s first choice, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, passed.


“With his good looks, style, youth, liberal views and Catholic religion, Eagleton is the closest thing to a Kennedy Missouri has to offer,” the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote at the time.

With his limited national exposure, Eagleton was just beginning to make a name for himself. He had delivered the Democratic Party response to President Nixon’s State of the Union address in 1971. On another occasion, he summoned up his quick wit to state that G. Harrold Carswell, Nixon’s rejected Supreme Court nominee, was “a man of remarkable mediocre attainment.”

Coming out of the party’s convention in Miami Beach, Eagleton was viewed by many as a good balance to the more reserved and professorial McGovern as they faced a tough battle against Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

But rumors began to surface about Eagleton’s health. McGovern ultimately summoned his running mate to his home in South Dakota, and the candidate conceded that he had hospitalized himself three times between 1960 and 1966 for “nervous exhaustion and fatigue” and on two of those occasions had received electric shock treatment and psychiatric care.


In a joint news conference called by McGovern, Eagleton detailed his hospitalizations at the Mayo Clinic and at a hospital in St. Louis and said that he had not told McGovern about them when offered the vice presidential nomination.

McGovern initially said he supported his running mate, applauding Eagleton’s “good judgment” in seeking medical attention when he needed it. He also said he was “1,000% for Tom Eagleton and I have no intention of dropping him from the ticket.”

The public’s view of the matter was mixed. In a Time magazine poll, 76.7% of respondents said the revelations would not affect their decision. But over the next few days, divisions in the party emerged as various media outlets, including the New York Times, urged Eagleton to withdraw. McGovern finally withdrew his support, and Eagleton, citing the need for party unity to battle Nixon, left the ticket.

In his place, McGovern settled on R. Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps and Kennedy’s brother-in-law, to complete the ticket. McGovern and Shriver went down to one of the most lopsided defeats in the history of presidential races, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. McGovern supporters blamed Eagleton for the overwhelming defeat. For his part, Eagleton said McGovern’s loss was due to a series of factors.


The controversy did little harm to Eagleton in Missouri. Voters sent him back to the Senate in 1974 and again in 1980. He decided against seeking another term in 1986.

Eagleton was born in St. Louis on Sept. 4, 1929, the son of a prominent local attorney, Mark D. Eagleton, and Zitta Swanson Eagleton. Tom Eagleton served in the Navy in the late 1940s before earning his bachelor’s degree at Amherst College. He later graduated from Harvard Law School.

Considered the “boy wonder” of Missouri politics, he was only 27 when he was elected city attorney in St. Louis.

In 1960, he became the youngest person to be elected attorney general of Missouri. Four years later, he was elected the state’s lieutenant governor, and in 1968 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.


In the Senate, Eagleton distinguished himself with his concern for the environment. He was one of the principal sponsors of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Eagleton also was a key Senate proponent of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act to improve educational opportunities for children with disabilities.

He would later say that the proudest moment of his Senate career came in 1973, when he successfully offered an amendment to a defense appropriations measure to cut off funding for the U.S. bombing of Cambodia.

Eagleton also was an early backer of the War Powers Act, which was designed to limit the president’s ability to prosecute war without congressional backing. But Eagleton ultimately voted against the measure, which was approved, saying that it had been watered down and would have no effect.


After deciding not to seek reelection, Eagleton returned to St. Louis, where he joined Thompson Coburn LLP. For many years, he was university professor of public affairs at Washington University in St. Louis.

He was active in civic affairs and in 1995 was chairman of FANS Inc., the successful effort to relocate the Los Angeles Rams to the Missouri city.

During sometimes tense negotiations over the team, one Rams executive asked what St. Louis was like. Eagleton reportedly eased the tensions in the room when he responded: “We’re like a raucous Des Moines.”

Eagleton wrote three books, most notably “War and Presidential Power: A Chronicle of Congressional Surrender” in 1974. At the time of his death, he was working on a memoir of his time in the Senate.


He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Barbara; two children; a brother; and three grandchildren.

His body was donated to the Washington University School of Medicine for research.

Memorial services are pending.

Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the Catholic Charities of St. Louis or the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.