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Reporter recounts the Eagleston story

On a cool July morning in 1972, Robert S. Boyd and I paced outside a small cabin in the woods near Custer, S.D. Inside, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, his running mate, Tom Eagleton, and their advisers were huddling over a big problem -- us.

Occasionally, the curtains at one window would rustle as someone peeked out to see if we were still there.

Eagleton, who died Sunday at 77, had just told McGovern the truth about what Boyd and I, two journalists from the Washington bureau of Knight Newspapers, had come to South Dakota to confront the campaign with. Our reporting suggested that Eagleton had a history of debilitating depression requiring hospitalization and electroshock therapy on at least two occasions.

Rather than allow the senator's history of depression to be revealed as a "scoop" by Boyd and me, McGovern and his campaign staff decided that Eagleton should call an immediate press conference and announce it himself.

What followed was surely one of the stranger press conferences in presidential political history. A bewildered traveling press corps that had come to the Black Hills of South Dakota to baby-sit McGovern while he vacationed before starting his fall campaign -- what a quaint concept today -- was summoned to a log building. A nervous, perspiring Eagleton said haltingly that he had been treated years earlier for exhaustion and depression.

Someone asked what the treatment entailed, and his answer included the words shock therapy.

As I recall, he said it so softly that some reporters didn't hear it the first time. Those who did instantly knew that a big story had landed on them.

But in that era before cell phones, the only telephone in the building was in use. A McGovern staffer was on his stomach under a table at the side of the room, cupping a hand over the mouthpiece and relaying to Gary Hart, McGovern's campaign manager in Washington, a running description of the news conference. Reporters had to race several miles back to the motel where they were staying.

Boyd and I got what McGovern's press secretary, Dick Dougherty, called the "consolation prize." We were invited to ride back to the airport in Rapid City with Eagleton. Still in the sweat-soaked sport jacket and open-collared shirt he wore at the press conference, Eagleton sat in the back seat of a car and answered all our questions reluctantly but graciously. He chain-smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, lighting one from another and throwing the butts out the window as we sped through a national forest. I had visions of a huge fire engulfing us before we got to Rapid City.

As we neared the airport, I closed my notebook and said I had no more questions. Eagleton slumped, let out a sigh and said, "Thank God."

Only then did I appreciate fully just what an ordeal he was going through. After he got out of the car, I realized I was soaked from his perspiration. Of course, his ordeal was only going to get worse until, at the beginning of August, Eagleton was forced from the ticket and replaced with Sargent Shriver.

Eagleton's subsequent career in the Senate and in later public life in Missouri confirmed what I quickly came to believe -- that this was a basically decent, honorable man who in a fog of ambition and excitement made a serious mistake by believing he could hide his mental health history from McGovern and the nation.

It wasn't the right thing to do, and it wasn't realistic.

Within hours of Eagleton's nomination in Miami Beach, an anonymous caller was telling young John S. Knight III, an editorial writing intern at the Detroit Free Press, about Eagleton's history. I happened to be flying to St. Louis to research a profile of Eagleton, who was little known outside his home state. Armed with information from the anonymous caller -- we later learned he had also called the McGovern campaign to warn them -- I was able to locate a doctor who had participated in one of Eagleton's treatments at Renard Hospital in St. Louis. The doctor slammed her front door in my face, but the words she used in refusing to discuss Eagleton -- "I can't talk to you about that" -- persuaded Boyd and me beyond any doubt that the story was true. Based on four days of reporting, we prepared a two-page memo that we took to South Dakota.

When our role in the Eagleton drama became known, Boyd and I received a lot of mail from people who deplored what we had done. They said we had set back the cause of mental health and had reinforced stereotypes that would prevent many people from seeking the help they needed.

I believe that Eagleton's mental health history was relevant to his fitness for the office he was seeking, a heartbeat away from control of the nation's military and nuclear arsenal, perhaps in a moment of international crisis. We don't know how well Eagleton might have stood up under such stress because he never authorized any of his doctors to talk to the press or the release of his medical records.

Although Eagleton will always be remembered for his mistake, I'll remember the senator and lawyer and family man who picked himself up from it and went on to a long and productive career in public service.