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Thomas Eagleton, 77; for brief, tumultuous time, he was running-mate

WASHINGTON -- Thomas F. Eagleton, a Missouri Democrat and US senator who spent two weeks as the vice presidential running mate of George S. McGovern in 1972 before leaving the ticket after revelations of his earlier psychiatric hospitalization for depression, died yesterday at St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights, Mo. He was 77.

The cause of death was a combination of heart, respiratory, and other problems, his family said.

Mr. Eagleton made his name as a crusading young lawyer and politician in his home state before winning election to the US Senate in 1968. He supported consumer protection laws and labor union rights, but it was his strong opposition to the Vietnam War that made him a natural political ally of McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat who had long denounced the war.

Witty, bright, and good looking, Mr. Eagleton was not the first choice for the No. 2 spot on the ticket, but got the nod after several other candidates, including his top choice Massachusetts Senator 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.

Future Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who was McGovern's campaign director, once wrote Mr. Eagleton's appeal was "primarily because he was Catholic, urban, and an unknown from a border state."

With his limited national exposure, Mr. Eagleton was just beginning to make a name for himself. He delivered the Democratic Party response to President Nixon's State of the Union address in 1971. Coming out of the party's convention in Miami Beach, Mr. Eagleton was viewed by many as a good balance to the more reserved and professorial McGovern as they faced a tough battle against the incumbent Nixon and his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew.

Although McGovern's staff knew that Mr. Eagleton had been hospitalized for fatigue, the campaign went ahead with the nomination on the assurance that his time under care was brief. They also believed they could present the vice presidential nominee as a man of relentless verve who once "campaigned [himself] right into the hospital."

However, under media questioning prompted by anonymous tips, Mr. Eagleton was compelled to reveal he had "voluntarily" hospitalized himself for nervous exhaustion and depression three times since 1960, usually after the campaign season. He also said his treatment regimen included psychiatric counseling, chemotherapy, and electric shock treatment. He said he was in "good, solid, sound health" for the 1972 race.

McGovern said he was "1000 percent" behind Mr. Eagleton but soon reversed himself. There had been a significant drop in campaign contributions and many calls for Mr. Eagleton's withdrawal. Mr. Eagleton said he would withdraw for party unity.

Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps founder and Kennedy family intimate, became the new vice presidential nominee. McGovern lacked the national prominence of many of his predecessors and few political observers thought the team could beat President Nixon. He and Shriver lost in a landslide, even with widespread opposition to the Vietnam War and early revelations of the Watergate scandal.

In a telephone interview, McGovern said last night he erred in removing Mr. Eagleton. He said Democrats could have won the election if he had kept him.

"My first reaction was to say I was going to stay with him," McGovern said. "But gosh, the outcry across the country was pretty intense. We felt that since we were starting a new campaign we needed to get that off the front page and we needed to get Tom to step down.

"But I think that was a mistake," McGovern said.

Mr. Eagleton told The Associated Press in 2003 that he had no regrets. "Being vice president ain't all that much," he said. "My ambition, since my senior year in high school, was to be a senator. Not everybody achieves their ambition. I got to the level that I really had no great right to claim."

Mr. Eagleton was reelected in 1974 by a wide margin and spent two more terms in the Senate. He served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Governmental Affairs Committee, and Select Committee on Intelligence.

He 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, bills that are seen as key to modern environmental protection.

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

Mr. Eagleton 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 US bombing of Cambodia. He later backed a War Powers Bill to limit presidential actions without congressional consent. Although the bill was approved, Mr. Eagleton questioned its effectiveness and later said the act was "deader than Queen Victoria."

Thomas Francis Eagleton was born in St. Louis. His father, a lawyer, lost a mayoral bid but served on the St. Louis police board and the board of education.

With his father, he attended political conventions and saw former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill deliver the "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Mo., in 1946 that warned of Soviet expansionism into Eastern Europe.

After Navy service, he graduated from Amherst College in 1950 and from Harvard Law School in 1953.

He became assistant general counsel to Anheuser-Busch Inc. in St. Louis before winning election in 1956 as St. Louis circuit attorney at 27. He followed with election victories as state attorney general (1960) and lieutenant governor (1964).

He leaves his wife, the former Barbara Ann Smith, whom he married in 1956; two children; a brother; and three grandchildren.

Material from the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this obituary.