Tom Eagleton, 1929-2007

Tom Eagleton has died and the world is diminished by his passing.

I was fortunate to work for Senator Eagleton, first as an intern, then on his re-election campaign and finally on his staff in Washington, DC during the last several years of his final term. Beyond my parents and my wife, Tom and his wife Barbara stand as the most influential people in my life.

For those of you who have never worked in DC, interning in a Congressional office back in the late 70s meant being one of a more-or-less interchangeable parade of kids who showed up in June, opened mail, ran errands, answered the phone and then headed off back to college in August. In terms of contribution, we ranked somewhere beneath the robo-pen that signed the 500 or so letters a day we sent out and the fax machine (which back then was called the telecopier).

The experience was extraordinary – I once stood in the Oval office – and amazingly ordinary – I spent hours every day reaching into a box full of tiny paper roses, each one representing a Missourian opposed to abortion, deciphering the tiny handwriting on the tiny tag on the stem and typing the address on an envelope so that a letter reflecting Eagleton’s pro-life views could be sent to each one. By the end of the summer, I could tell you the zip code for most cities in Missouri. I misconnected Ted Kennedy twice in one afternoon and met Mike Wallace. When I was out delivering a “Dear Colleague” letter to the other offices, I spotted Senator Scoop Jackson of Washington, one of the recipients, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking the letter the last 1/4 mile. Amazingly, the man who had run for president twice and had served in Congress for nearly 40 years said, “Sure.” and tucked it into his coat pocket.

In other words, interns were – and I suspect still are – lower than whaleshit and not much more useful. The good ones made life a little easier for the permanent staff, the bad ones lived on as a series of, “Remember that intern a couple years ago who…” stories.

And, yet Eagleton took an interest in us. He remembered our names and made a point of introducing us to the people who visited the office. He asked our opinion about what was going on and actually listened to whatever we babbled in response. The Eagletons had us out to their house for dinner and the staff treated us like people.

Not surprisingly, for a kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do with himself, I got hooked on politics. Not so much the policy and issues, but the politics – the campaigning and the people, the give and take of compromise and coalitions. I loved the retailing of politics – one meeting at a time, one constituent interaction. I learned by watching Eagleton speak on the Senate floor, meet with autoworkers who were losing their jobs and farmers losing their farms, cut deals with people who were his political opposites in order to get real legislation passed. There could not have been a better teacher or curriculum anywhere. Tom Eagleton loved politics and politicians and I think it profoundly saddened him that so many of his fellow practitioners sullied the profession. His speech during the 1982 Harrison Williams expulsion debate was the work of a man who felt personally offended by Williams’ behavior.

Politics – and Eagleton – defined me for most of my 20s. I worked on his re-election campaign in 1980 and learned more about myself that summer than any period before or since. For those too young to remember, the 1980 election was the one that swept Carter from office and the Congress out of Democratic control for the first time since the 50s. More than half the Democrats (and almost all of the liberals) standing for re-election in 1980 – Stewart, Gravel, Stone, Talmage, Church, Culver, Bayh, Durkin, Morgan, McGovern, Magnuson, Nelson – went down to defeat.

I came back to DC in 1981 and worked in the office – on staff but probably still not carrying more weight than the robo-pen – and then back to Missouri in 1982 for the election cycle where I ended up running the Democratic campaign for 6th Congressional District seat.

One day in September the phone rang in the ratty little office we had in St. Joseph and Eagleton’s secretary told me he wanted to meet the next morning down in Kansas City. To make sure I didn’t miss the appointment, I drove the 35 miles that night and sat in the lobby for seven hours. Eagleton came down at about 6:30 and over coffee told me my guy was going to lose and that since I would be needing a job in a couple of months, I should plan on coming back on staff in DC on the condition that I go back to school and finish my degree (having managed to get myself kicked out of college – twice – for failing to complete the required courses).

Being 23 and an idiot, I tried to argue with the man trying to throw the life preserver: I thought my guy might pull it out in a Democratic year, I’m not enrolled, I don’t have the money, I won’t be able to go to school and work fulltime. “Bullshit,” said the man who predicted – exactly – the final percentage we got on election night, who called the president of George Washington University on my behalf to get me admitted, who lent me the money to pay for tuition and who assigned his administrative assistant (AKA the right hand of God) to make sure my work schedule was compatible my courses.

And, who did it in a way that let me keep my dignity. When I got my degree, Tom and Barbara let me take them out to dinner to thank them and when I offered to take them anyplace, just happened to pick the cheap Italian place a couple miles from their home that I could afford.

In 1984, I went to work for the Mondale for President campaign because Tom Eagleton endorsed his former Senate colleague early. I took a leave of absence from the Senate and worked in Iowa and Missouri through the primary and caucus season and then in Missouri for the general. We got killed in the general but Missouri went for Mondale in the caucuses because of Tom Eagleton.

After the election I went back to DC and back on Eagleton’s staff where I worked until the Senator retired in 1987.

So what made me so special? Not a damned thing. My family wasn’t friends with theirs, my parents weren’t big donors, and God knows I wasn’t a political wunderkind.

It’s what the Eagletons did. A couple years after me, he hired the kid who fixed his garage door one summer who was still in shock six months later. Tom kept on the payroll a woman who drove him – and everyone else – crazy simply because he knew that she’d fall apart without the job (he let her work 3:00 am – 11:00 am to keep the rest of us from falling apart). And, amazingly, almost every one of these hires worked out because Eagleton had a genius for spotting people with talent both obvious and hidden and – I suspect – because none of us could imagine letting him down.

The people Senator Eagleton gathered around him tended to be extraordinarily smart, hard-working, quick-witted and hilarious, all qualities Eagleton possessed in abundance. Some of the jokes he played on friends and colleagues took days to set up and involved vast conspiracies; if someone doesn’t cull from his papers a book of his funniest letters, it’ll be a loss for the ages. And, even though many of them eventually went on – to jobs in the Carter administration, to business or the judiciary or academia – I can’t recall any who went to work in other Congressional offices during Eagleton’s tenure and none of us ever really left. A phone call – the voice instantly recognizable as it rumbled through the receiver – and the clan assembled.

Eagleton retired in 1987, just as the Democrats finally regained the majority in the Senate, in part I think because of the negative impact that fundraising was having on the process and partly because I think alot of the fun had gone out of the Senate; most of his closest friends were swept out in the 1980 massacre and the destruction of bipartisanship was well under way. The Eagletons moved back to St. Louis and the staff moved on to the next phases of their lives.

And, I discovered that I didn’t like politics all that much. What I had liked, I figured out, was politics as practiced by Tom Eagleton. What I had enjoyed, I realized, was politics as practiced by the amazing group around him. Once I figured that out, it became almost inevitable that I wouldn’t stay in DC that long. I’d had the privilege of working for the best; there wouldn’t be much point in doing it for anyone else.

Over the last twenty years, I didn’t get to see the Eagletons much – a couple of weddings, a party or two, a funeral. I would get mail from him – I was flattered to be on the mailing list – about columns he’d written for the Post-Dispatch or lectures he’d given at Washington University or whatever caught his eye. The phone calls grew less frequent as his hearing loss – he’d been deaf in left ear for as long as I’d known him – worsened. It must have been hard for a man who loved connecting to people to have to sit in a pool of silence. And, despite urging by many of us, he never much caught the habit of e-mail.

The last time I saw Tom it was about a year ago when he was in town for Humphrey Institute event honoring Mondale. We sat in a conference room with the door shut so we could communicate by yelling. As always, Eagleton spent most of the time asking after my family and probing – gently – how I was doing.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has posted a loving obituary that is a fitting introduction to those of you who never knew him.

I will miss Tom Eagleton more than I can say. The state of Missouri, the Senate he loved, the country and the world will miss him more than they can know. There have never been enough like him. My thoughts are with his family and his many, many friends.

2 thoughts on “Tom Eagleton, 1929-2007

  1. Sen. Eagleton was the subject of one of the great quips of political history. He was nominated to run as VP with George McGovern against incumbents Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in 1972. The country was so divided then over Vietnam and Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, drugs, countercultures and challenges to authority it made today’s divisions seem simple. The Republican smear machine dredged up records that showed Eagleton had undergone shock therapy and called him nuts and unstable and other wonderfully compassionate things. Even though he’d been given a clean bill of mental health, Eagleton stepped down as VP nominee.
    Before Eagleton withdrew, McGovern, thinking of Spiro Agnew, one of the most reprehensible creatures to ever slither across the political stage (he accepted paper bags of bribe money in his White House office), said of the VP candidates, “At least we know ours is sane.”
    Nice tribute, Jon — you were lucky to know this man.

  2. Patty R says:

    Jon, a beautiful tribute to Sen. Eagleton. It also brought back lots of memories of those times. I still have my Mondale-Ferraro t-shirt!

    Thanks for sharing with us.

    Patty

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