Sen. Thomas Eagleton 1929-2007

Senator and statesman, Thomas Eagleton dies at 77
By Jo Mannies
St. Louis
Sunday, Mar. 04 2007


Retired U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton — a towering figure in national and state politics for half a century and the person for whom the federal courthouse downtown is named — died late Sunday morning.

He was 77. He had been ill for several months with various health problems. He died at St. Mary’s Health Center in Richmond Heights.

Colorful, blunt and candid, with a booming voice and ready recall of history, Sen. Eagleton exuded the aura of the statesman that adversaries and admirers agreed he had become.

At a time of polarizing partisanship, Sen. Eagleton was proud of his friendships across the aisle, notably with former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who served 10 years in the Senate with Sen. Eagleton.

Nationally, Sen. Eagleton, an early opponent of the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, made his mark as chief author of the federal War Powers Act, which limited the authority of the president to wage war without congressional approval.

He was known also for his brief stint in 1972 as the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. Sen. Eagleton was forced to step down when his electric shock treatments for depression in the 1960s became public.

Since 1997, McGovern has stated publicly several times that he made a mistake and should have kept Sen. Eagleton on the ticket.

In Missouri, Sen. Eagleton never lost an election, beginning with his victory in 1956, at age 27, for St. Louis circuit attorney. Within 12 years, he also won statewide contests for attorney general, lieutenant governor and U.S. Senate.

After serving 18 years and a few days in the Senate, Sen. Eagleton retired in January 1987 and declared that — while only 57 — he©ˆd never run for public office again.

He kept that pledge but continued to wield tremendous clout in state and regional politics and civic affairs.

In 1995, Sen. Eagleton was the public point man for the bipartisan political and business effort that wooed the Rams football team from the West Coast to St. Louis.

Even Sen. Eagleton was stunned by the local accolades, with football enthusiasts collaring him on the street, especially after the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000.

St. Louis also may never live down the senator’s witty description he used to sway the Rams’ owners. Asked about the region©ˆs nightlife, Sen. Eagleton quipped, “We’re like a raucous Des Moines.”

Sen. Eagleton also wrote at least 50 commentaries for the Post-Dispatch, in which he often was critical of whoever was in the White House. He was a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq, in line with his outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s.

In one of his last commentaries, published Nov. 3, 2005, Sen. Eagleton bluntly laid out what he viewed as the no-win situation facing the United States because of what he viewed as President George W. Bush’s “misadventures” in Iraq.

“Hubris is always the sword upon which the mighty have fallen,” the former senator wrote. “From here on, any president will have to level with the American people before going to war.”

Throughout his career, Sen. Eagleton was a strong supporter of labor and took a liberal stance on many social issues. The notable exception was his vigorous, lifelong opposition to abortion, and his criticism while in the Senate of court-ordered busing to desegregate schools.

He played a major role in the creation of the National Institute on Aging and in congressional action in the 1970s that allowed home rule and limited self-government for the District of Columbia.

His one failed quest was his desire, mentioned often and only partly in jest, to become the commissioner for Major League Baseball.

Politics in his blood

Thomas Francis Eagleton was born in St. Louis on Sept. 4, 1929, to Zitta and Mark D. Eagleton. His father later became one of the city’s most prominent civil trial lawyers.

A bright kid, Tom Eagleton was an honors student in school. He graduated from Country Day School in Ladue and, after a year in the Navy, earned a bachelor’s degree from Amherst (Mass.) College in 1950 and a law degree from Harvard in 1953.

In 1956, he married the former Barbara Ann Smith, daughter of a former paper company executive. The couple had two children: a son, Terence, and a daughter, Christin.

Sen. Eagleton once recalled that he had caught the “political bug” as a child, when his father was elected to the St. Louis School Board in the late 1930s.

When Sen. Eagleton began his political career in 1956, he was the youngest man in St. Louis history to be elected circuit attorney. That record still stands. His Catholic faith became an issue in 1960, when he waged a successful campaign for Missouri attorney general on the same ticket as a fellow Catholic who was the Democratic nominee for president, John F. Kennedy. Crosses were painted on Sen. Eagleton’s election posters in the Bootheel.

After one term as attorney general, Sen. Eagleton opted to run for lieutenant governor in 1964. He won but often quipped later that the state’s No. 2 post was really only good for standing at the window and “watching the Missouri River flow by.”

In 1968, he challenged incumbent Sen. Edward V. Long, a fellow Democrat, in a free-spending primary race in which True Davis, a millionaire banker from St. Joseph, was also a major contender. Sen. Eagleton won the primary and then went on to defeat U.S. Rep. Thomas B. Curtis, a Republican from St. Louis County.

Sen. Eagleton’s campaign platform took aim at the conflict overseas that his party’s presidents had launched. “The very first priority for any candidate for United States senator must be to help find a peaceful and honorable solution to the Vietnam War,” he wrote.

1972 — peak and valley

True Davis later apologized to Sen. Eagleton for being the source of national columnist Jack Anderson’s unsubstantiated stories that Sen. Eagleton had been charged with drunken driving. No proof was ever furnished, and Anderson later apologized.

The nastiness of that 1968 primary campaign carried over into the presidential race in 1972. That year, what should have been the peak of Sen. Eagleton’s career, spiraled into its lowest point. Sen. Eagleton became McGovern’s choice as his vice presidential running mate after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., publicly declined.

McGovern turned to Sen. Eagleton, both said at the time, because of their common views against the Vietnam War. Both also cited their mutual concern about the nation’s troubled urban areas, many of which had been crippled by race riots, and the already looming problem of lack of access to health care.

McGovern did not know that Sen. Eagleton had been voluntarily hospitalized for nervous exhaustion in 1960, 1964 and 1966 and had undergone electric shock treatment on two of those occasions.

Sen. Eagleton said that before McGovern picked him, he had been asked whether he had any “skeletons in the closet.” In an interview years later, Sen. Eagleton said that he had replied that he had no such “skeletons” because he had not considered his treatments to be in that category. He turned out to be wrong, as far as the McGovern camp was concerned.

Six days after the treatments became public, Sen. Eagleton stepped down. (McGovern ended up with Sargent Shriver as a running mate, and suffered a landslide election loss to incumbent Richard Nixon.)

The episode generated considerable sympathy for Sen. Eagleton back home in Missouri. He arrived to a tumultuous welcome at Lambert Field and handily won re-election in 1974 in a landslide over Curtis.

In 1980, Sen. Eagleton also won re-election — this time over St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary. But his victory was narrow, coming amid a national Republican landslide that carried Republican Ronald Reagan into the White House and swept aside many of Sen. Eagleton©ˆs longtime Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

That 1980 contest also produced another embarrassingly public personal episode involving the senator’s niece, Elizabeth Eagleton Weigand, the daughter of Sen. Eagleton’s brother, the late Dr. Mark D. Eagleton Jr. Sen. Eagleton held a news conference to disclose that Miss Weigand had tried to force him to pay her $220,000 for her minority interest in a family business. She threatened to make public false assertions about his personal life if he refused.

Weigand and her attorney, Stephen E. Poludniak, were convicted of the scheme shortly before the election.

Criticizing Reagan

After winning re-election, Sen. Eagleton spent his final term in the Senate focusing on local issues while strengthening his personal and professional ties with Danforth.

Among other things, Sen. Eagleton used his considerable clout to obtain federal money to rebuild Highway 40©ˆs Vandeventer Overpass and to connect Interstate 170 to Interstate 270. Sen. Eagleton also joined with Danforth to kill the long-authorized federal Meramec Lake and Dam project in the early 1980s, after Missouri voters had overwhelmingly rejected the plan in an advisory referendum in 1978. Sen. Eagleton earlier had supported the dam.

In announcing his plans to retire from office in 1986, Sen. Eagleton acknowledged to reporters that his lifelong love of baseball made him seriously consider applying for the then-open job of commissioner of baseball.

But he did not apply, he explained, because he wouldn’t resign his Senate seat while a Republican was governor, which was the case during most of the 1980s. Sen. Eagleton said that meant that a Republican would be appointed to replace him, and he couldn©ˆt stomach the thought.

During his final term, Sen. Eagleton was among the first voices in Congress to criticize President Ronald Reagan’s foreign and economic policies, and one of the few in the Senate to oppose Reagan©ˆs tax cuts, arguing that they were too deep.

During a speech in rural Missouri, Sen. Eagleton argued that the cuts would wrongly benefit wealthy Missourians like himself while hurting those who needed the government’s help.

“What manner of people are these who cut educational programs and at the same time push through tax credits for people who send their children to Andover, Exeter, Mary Institute, Country Day and John Burroughs?” asked Sen. Eagleton, himself a Country Day graduate.

“Once again, once again,” he roared with his booming baritone, “largesse to the rich!”

Stumping for Carnahan

During his retirement, Sen. Eagleton practiced law and became a favorite speaker at Democratic rallies. But he also joined with Danforth at several speaking events, where the duo made their case for more civility in politics.

Occasionally, Sen. Eagleton would resurrect his razor-sharp partisan skills. After the plane crash on Oct. 16, 2000, that killed the Missouri Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate — then-Gov. Mel Carnahan — it was Sen. Eagleton who held a news conference to quell growing Republican claims that it would be illegal for a deceased candidate to remain on the November ballot.

Sen. Eagleton bluntly jabbed at Republican incumbent John Ashcroft by declaring, “A U.S. senator who can©ˆt beat a dead man doesn©ˆt belong in the U.S. Senate.”

Sen. Eagleton’s rhetoric touched off Republican outrage but helped re-energize his party and became the most-quoted comment of the campaign. Carnahan went on to become the first candidate in U.S. history to be elected posthumously to the U.S. Senate. Last year, even while battling some health problems, Sen. Eagleton campaigned for Amendment 2, the ballot initiative to protect all forms of stem cell research allowed under federal law. Sen. Eagleton was the campaign’s honorary co-chairman along with Danforth, his old Republican friend.

Eagleton is survived by this wife Barbara, his two children and three grandchildren.

Services for Eagleton will be on Saturday at Saint Francis Xavier College Church, 3628 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis.

Comments (1)

Katherine T. NowackiOctober 9th, 2016 at 12:27 am

I have not been inclined to recognize priorities of two extremes created by political associations with Democratic or Republican parties as I perceive a conflict between these that runs really deep and which might have been also seen by former Vice-Presidential Candidate in 1972, Sen. Thomas Eagleton who, perhaps was denied his chance of a lifetime way too soon, upon recognition of his serious depression as a culprit in denial of such position of significance, supporting the leadership in the world carrying upon responsibility for associations depending on soundness of mind, in those long gone days which also resurfaced throughout the years while culminating its strength at the present time during Presidential campaign with facing its legacy both candidates, while being supported by closely encircling them clans of campaign association who reach for its own resources in whichever way they can while creating for consequences among those succumbing to not always ethical standards of care which sometimes resembles the law of animalistic behavior tending its territorial right of pre-supposed possession with jealous, human behavior that depends on devouring non-indigenous to its expectations, mind, sometimes not being able to defend itself off of the descending on it dark cloud depleting it of mindful reasoning reflective of unified states, these ideally should represent and as such while reflecting on the perceptions of candidates themselves who in turn recognize the world of genuine needs… It is a principle that represents also the world of the higher standards creating for the culture of medical doctors who need the immediate exposure to their patients in order to offer them a true diagnosis depending on the individual needs. If the governing body is altered according to expectations of a crowd seeing in such its opportunistic environments for its own chance for progress in enrichment, then such turns into a regress, as it often ascends with war directed against a principle of reasonable judgment, instead, when the original breach of such minds reflects only an extreme form of perversion disabling a whole society in the end while extending its controlling reach over the pre-supposed lesser minds of indigenous to it discovery with a similar, if not the same methodology as a result of confusion in the first place that has allowed it to become reality … The “system of checks and balances” creating for the very base of governing stratagem within advanced societies of the world is usually the first to be followed by the greater standard of agreement with the sound judgment descending from beneath the culture of the Universe with its indigenous reach as the final test for human concept while recognizing it upon the absolute need to transform its own consequence dwelling on borderline with extreme forms of acquisitive rights, while relating to primitive aspects of interpreting it forms of reasoning…
Sen. Thomas Eagleton, as if a given label to his surname reflected through recognition of the needs within the modern society dedicated to higher ethical standards as the guiding force in navigation of the world in direction representing the ultimate culture of the ideal, however improbable such might have seemed at the time of recognition of his inadequate health as the culprit that disabled the reach for such superiority in command of an advise to a leader, disabled upon his own consequence of decision made at that time… I do not know why, but I feel through the darkness of a pupil of the eye that creates the close up of a Donald Trump’s photograph, I have looked at just before I read the above article about democratic candidate, who attempted to change the world according to recognition of its urgency through continuity with the history of association with the President creating for belief in Camelot with his own quality of an unattainable ideal in mind, these days. Sometimes, it is the least expected outcome that may arrive upon recognition of the need for the alignment of two extremes upon just one summit as empowerment to greater standard of reasoning supportive of continuity in modern world expecting such guidance as the superior one and proving itself with a saying: Anything is possible while upon the ancient right of a passage with hieroglyphs in mind or the water signs evocative of Arabic writing and trusting such through the prism of a Ghost living in agreement with its guides upon intuitive control of mind based on experience of it all at the time allowed by continuity of alignment with superior time of life, regardless how depriving such might have turned out…

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