Mr Glasser, a researcher for Bloomberg Television, and I spoke about the incident, and how it continues to reverberate in the present day. Interview after the Jump.
First, I would be careful about assigning too much weight to the role Eagleton’s sensitivity and work ethic played in leading to his depressions. Psychologists and psychiatrists still debate what exactly causes depression and bipolar disorder, which Eagleton had, but most people think biology, a person’s given brain chemistry, has more than a little to do with instigating depressive episodes. But, yes, you’re right, that’s how Eagleton justified his past treatment for depression with electroshock therapy, and his overwork on the campaign trail indeed likely did have some role in precipitating those episodes. Most psychologists and psychiatrists today believe—as some did back then, in the 1960s and seventies—that depression stems from a combination of brain chemistry and life experiences. They think some people are wired for it, and it will arise given a certain set of external, precipitating factors.
You’re also right to be cynical. The McGovern campaign in general and the Eagleton affair in particular each teach that it’s hard to be both a good guy and a politician, and both someone who’s entirely faithful to his or her ideals and a politician. And, as an aside, it would also even be pretty dangerous if we expected all our politicians to be unflinching in their commitment to ideological purity, for Congress would never get anything done without compromise, as McGovern and Eagleton both recognized. But, yes, the realities of political campaigning—especially the higher you go up the hierarchy—requires candidates to do things that aren’t so great or, as you said, pretty dirty.
2. Empirically, a history of depression doesn’t mean that one is incapable of governing effectively at the highest levels. Here’s a quote from one of Lincoln’s letters: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not.” And then there’s Churchill’s “Black Dog.” Was McGovern’s decision to drop Eagleton from the ticket based more on political pragmatism, or more on the actual belief that Eagleton would be a liability to the country once elected? Would you have done the same in his position?
Yes, you’re right. Both Lincoln and Churchill experienced depression, even in office, and they were both extremely competent leaders during times of immense stress. McGovern now says that, given what he now knows about Lincoln—having himself written a book about Lincoln—he would have kept Eagleton. But at the time, even though the press noted that Lincoln and Churchill both had depression, there was the sense that in the nuclear era—with the stakes so much greater—that the risks of quick, ill-advised decisions or a burst of irrationality from a leader would be that much more harmful. Was Eagleton the type of guy you’d feel comfortable with having his finger on the nuclear button? The unpredictability of depression, and the lack of knowledge, lack of understanding about its roots made this an impossible question to answer, almost as impossible to judge then as it is now. We don’t have many more conclusive answers now than we did then. And, while in retrospect we can say, "Well, Eagleton went on to serve another two terms in the Senate without any serious issues," there’s still no way of guaranteeing that he would have had the same absence of incapacitating relapse as vice president and, if necessary, under the unique challenges and stresses of the Oval Office. This is why it seemed Eagleton had become untenable politically. But McGovern also ultimately made a medical determination about Eagleton, though he was never able to justify it as such.
3. The revelation that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression was damaging enough, but the book makes it clear that it was the fact that he had undergone electroshock therapy that was the real coffin nail. What do you think it is about that particular treatment, electroshock therapy, that has made it so stigmatized? Or, more broadly, why is psychiatric treatment so much more stigmatized than physical treatments?
As one McGovern aide put it, depression is one thing, but depression treated with electroshock is quite another. And, as a member of the Eagleton team said, electroshock is "an assault on the senses.” Just the imagery of it is scarring—the entirely hyperbolic conception that visible jolts of electricity rock the patient’s brain, forcing him to convulse wildly enough to rattle the gurney. Of course this is a function of the name "electroshock" and Hollywood and popular culture playing with our imaginations, even before the movie version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest popularized these notions even more. This conception of electroshock does not convey how it was performed in Eagleton's time, especially not in Eagleton’s case, and it certainly doesn’t convey how electroshock—or ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) as it's now called—is performed today. But there’s still that fear of memory loss, and, even in Eagleton’s time, when electroshock was more frequent—there weren’t the psychotropic drugs such as Prozac that exist today—there was also the perception that treatment with electroshock suggests a condition far more serious and far more debilitating that a run-of-the-mil case of the blues.
To get to the second part of your question, mental illness is more stigmatized than physical ailments because it appears to many, even to medical professionals, that mental illness can negatively impact job performance, and also because it seems mental illness is behind a lot of the actual craziness, a lot of the horror that we see in the world, like the shootings at the Aurora movie theatre just the other week. Of course that's a very, very extreme example, but I think incidents like those contribute to the unfortunate general stigma. There's also the fact that mental illnesses are even more unpredictable than physical afflictions, and our knowledge about their roots, their causes, is still lacking.
4. It would be nice to think that, as a country, we’ve matured in the last forty years with respect to our opinions about the boundary between public/private, but of course, the case is probably the opposite. How do you think the episode would have played out in today’s political climate, if differently at all?
I think the Eagleton case presented a unique dilemma in that Eagleton's "skeleton" wasn't anything necessarily dirty, shameful, or corrupt, as he described the allegation, but it was one that seemed could impact job performance. In Eagleton’s case, the private was certainly relevant and merited the public evaluation that it received, as sad as it was. Eagleton most likely would not have been treated with electroshock today, given advances in psychotropic drugs, but the unpredictability remains, and psychologists and psychiatrists still dispute whether someone with bipolar II disorder is fit to be vice president or president. I think we'd still have heated debates, but the campaign's comport and explanation would determine whether or not such a candidate would last on a ticket. As the book shows, McGovern didn't handle himself so well, and made mistakes that if avoided could have kept Eagleton on the ticket.
5. We live in an age where just about everything we do is digitally archived and readily accessible, especially to those willing to do some digging. In another forty years, do you think the voting public will come to accept the fact that all candidates are going to come along with more baggage than they have in the past? In other words, what will it look like down the road when each candidate has a lifetime of Facebook pictures, Twitter feeds, email chains, blogs, etc, dogging after them?
I think the public realizes—especially in the post-Nixon, post-Clinton, post-Bush era, when the fallibility of our leaders is so plain—that no politician is perfect, no human being is perfect, and not even our presidents. Most people have done something that they're not proud of, like sending an ill-advised e-mail, or being caught in a less than flattering Facebook photo that maybe even shows underage drinking, or something like that. The public will accept stuff like this and get over it. But the "skeletons" that have doomed politicians in the past, such as dishonesty, adultery, and unpredictable mental illness—those will continue to doom politicians in the future, especially at the highest levels, because the public likes trust and the semblance of accountability.