Just over two weeks after his nomination, it was revealed that McGovern’s running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had received electroshock therapy for clinical depression during the 1960s. Eagleton had made no mention of his earlier hospitalizations to McGovern or McGovern’s staff, and in fact decided with his wife to keep them secret from McGovern while he was flying to his first meeting with the Presidential nominee.
Eagleton had promised to bring his medical records for McGovern’s review, but he did not. He initially concealed the fact that he was on Thorazine, a powerful anti-psychotic and when he did disclose his use of the medication he noted that it couldn’t be discovered by the press because it was issued under his wife’s name. McGovern spoke to two of Eagleton’s doctors, both of whom expressed grave concerns about Eagleton’s mental health. Ultimately, a portion of Eagleton’s medical records was leaked to McGovern, at which point McGovern saw a reference to “manic depression” and “suicidal tendencies.”
McGovern had failed to act quickly when he learned of the mental health problems (though not their severe extent) because his own daughter was seriously depressed and he wondered what effect dumping Eagleton because of his depression would have on her. Ultimately, Eagleton threatened that if McGovern tried to force him off the ticket, he would fight the move. Eagleton conditioned his resignation on McGovern’s releasing a statement, written by Eagleton, that Eagleton’s health was fine and that McGovern had no issues with Eagleton’s mental status.
Though many people still supported Eagleton’s candidacy, an increasing number of influential politicians and columnists questioned his ability to handle the office of Vice President. McGovern said he would back Eagleton “1000%”, and a Time magazine poll taken at the time found that 77 percent of the respondents said Eagleton’s medical record would not affect their vote. Nonetheless, the press made frequent references to his ‘shock therapy’, and McGovern feared that this would detract from his campaign platform. The episode had placed McGovern in a “no-win” situation. If he kept Eagleton, the selection did not look good for the decision-making ability of the McGovern team, while if he removed Eagleton, he appeared to be weak and vacillating.
McGovern subsequently consulted confidentially with preeminent psychiatrists, including Eagleton’s own doctors, who advised him that a recurrence of Eagleton’s depression was possible and could endanger the country should Eagleton become president. On August 1, Eagleton withdrew at McGovern’s request. This perceived indecisiveness was disastrous for the McGovern campaign.
A new search was begun by McGovern. Six different prominent Democrats declined to run as his vice-president: Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Abraham Ribicoff, Larry O’Brien and Reubin Askew. McGovern ultimately chose former Ambassador to France and former Director of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. He was officially nominated by a special session of the Democratic National Committee. By this time, McGovern’s poll ratings had plunged from 41 to 24 percent.
McGovern’s handling of the controversy was an opening for the Republican campaign to raise serious questions about his judgment. The Eagleton controversy also put the McGovern campaign off message and was speculated at the time to perhaps be a harbinger of what would become McGovern’s subsequent landslide loss.