Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in '72

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Ed: Well, Dr. Thompson, if you could explain these references... we just left you in the Jefferson County Jail, on a very dark and ominous note which I don't understand... I thought you were on the plane going back to Sioux City and that you were standing...

HST: Sioux Falls.

Ed: Sioux Falls, excuse me, and that you were actually standing in the cockpit with a joint in one hand and a glass of Jack Daniel's in the other. Were the pilots smoking dope? What was happening on this plane?... why was it called the Zoo Plane?

HST: Well, I would have preferred to write about this, but under the circumstances, I'll try to explain. There were two planes in the last months of the McGovern campaign. One was the Dakota Queen, actually it was the Dakota Queen II – like "junior" – the Dakota Queen Second. McGovern's bomber in World War II was the original Dakota Queen.

In the rear was a bar and a sort of mini press room where there were about five typewriters, a few phones – you could call from the plane to headquarters in Washington – you could call anywhere from the plane. But the atmosphere on the Dakota Queen was very... ah... very... reserved is the word.

Ed: The atmosphere was reserved? On the day before the election?

HST: Only on the Dakota Queen... the atmosphere on the Zoo Plane became crazier and crazier as the atmosphere on the Dakota Queen became more reserved and more somber. The kinkier members of the press tended to drift onto the Zoo Plane. The atmosphere was more comfortable. There were tremendous amounts of cocaine, for instance.

Ed: I'd like to interrupt you now to ask what was the prevailing mood of the McGovern staff at this point...flying back to Sioux Falls... a day before the election, November 6th?

HST: The mood of the McGovern staff on the Dakota Queen was very, very quiet. They had known for a long time what was going to happen. McGovern admitted knowing for at least a week.

Ed: McGovern admitted knowing for a week before the election?

HST: Yeah. I talked to him earlier that day on the way from Wichita to Long Beach and I could tell... he loosened up so much that it was clear something happened in his head... This was shortly after he told a heckler in I think it was... Grand Rapids, "Kiss my ass." He did it with very... considerable elan... He moved up right next to this guy and he said: "I have a secret for you – kiss my ass." Most of the press people missed it. He put his arm around him and whispered sort of quietly in his ear. McGovern didn't know anyone had heard him. Only two other people heard him – one was a Secret Service man, another was Saul Kohler, of the New house papers. McGovern thought he was saying it in total privacy. But it got out.

But by that time he didn't care... He was laughing about it, and when I asked him about it on the Dakota Queen, he sort of smiled and said... "Well, he was one of these repulsive people, one of the types you just want to get your hands on... McGovern was so loose it was kind of startling. He got very relaxed once he realized what was going to happen. Later he said that he'd known for at least a week, and Gary Hart later said he had known for a month.

Ed: Gary Hart later admitted he had known McGovern would lose for a month before the election?

HST: He told me when I stopped in Denver on the way to the Super Bowl that he'd sensed it as early as September, but when I asked him when he knew, he thought for a minute and then said, "Well, I guess... it was around October 1st..." According to Pat Caddell's polls they had known – when I say "they," I mean the McGovern top command – had known what kind of damage the Eagleton thing had done and how terminal it was ever since September. Pat said they spent a month just wringing their hands and tearing their hair trying to figure out how to overcome the Eagleton disaster.

Ed: By "the Eagleton disaster," do you mean the question of McGovern's competence in handling the affair?

HST: His whole image of being a... first a maverick, anti-politician and then suddenly becoming an expedient, pragmatic hack... kind of a... Well, he began talking like a used car salesman, sort of out of both sides of his mouth, in the eyes of the public, and he was no longer... either a maverick or an anti-politician... he was... he was no better than Hubert Humphrey and that's not a personal judgment, that's how he was perceived... and that's an interesting word. "Perceive" is the word that became in the '72 campaign what "charisma" was for the 1960, '64 and even the '68 campaigns. "Perceive" is the new key word.

Ed: What does "perceive" mean?

HST: When you say perceive you imply the difference between what the candidate is and the way the public or the voters see him.

Ed: What was the difference between the perception and the reality on the Eagleton Affair?

HST: The Eagleton Affair was the first serious crack in McGovern's image as the anti-politician. He dumped Eagleton for reasons that still aren't... that he still refuses to talk about. Eagleton's mental state was much worse than was ever explained publicly. How much worse, it's hard to say right now, but that's something I'll have to work on...

In any case there was no hope of keeping Eagleton on the ticket.

The Eagleton thing is worth looking at for a second in terms of the difference between perception and reality. McGovern was perceived as a cold-hearted, political pragmatist who dumped this poor, neurotic, good guy from Missouri because he thought people wouldn't vote for him because they were afraid that shock treatments in the past might have some kind of lingering effect on his mind. Whereas, in fact, despite denials of the McGovern staff in the last days of the campaign – when I was one of the five or six reporters who were pushing very aggressively to find out more about Eagleton and the real nature of his mental state – I spent about ten days in late September, early October, in St. Louis trying to dig up Eagleton's medical record out of the Barnes Hospital, or actually the Rennard Hospital in the Washington University Medical Center. Despite this, Mankiewicz denied knowing anything about it, because he'd promised to protect the person who told him about it in the first place...

I knew he was lying because I had all the facts from other people in the campaign whose names I couldn't use. I couldn't quote them, because I had promised I wouldn't say where I got the information. About three weeks after the election, though, Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post wrote a long series on the Eagleton Affair, and here's the way he explains how Mankiewicz reacted to the initial shock of this information about Eagleton... He's talking about the fact that two reporters from the Knight newspapers got hold of the information about the same time as Gary and Frank did. The same person who called them, called John Knight in Detroit, and two reporters from the Detroit Free Press – or the Washington bureau of Knight newspapers – flew out to Sioux Falls with a long memo on the Eagleton situation. They hadn't broken the story yet, but they were about to. They were trying to be... first they were trying to be fair with McGovern and, second, they were trying to use what they had to get more – which is a normal journalistic kind of procedure.

Ed: A normal what kind of procedure?

HST: Journalistic. If you have half a story and you don't know the rest, you use what you have to pry the rest out of someone.

Ed: Leverage.

HST: Here's what Mankiewicz told Haynes Johnson after the election was over, when it no longer mattered: "As Mankiewicz says, they had come up with a very incoherent and largely unpublishable memo full of rumors and unsubstantiated material – but a memo that was clearly on the right track." The memo contained such things as drinking reports and reports that Eagleton had been hospitalized and given electro-shock treatments for psychiatric problems. "But the real crusher," Mankiewicz said, "was a passage in the memo that had quotations around it as if it had been taken from a hospital record. It said that Tom Eagleton had been treated with electro-shock therapy at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis for, and this was the part that was quoted, 'severe manic-depressive psychosis with suicidal tendencies.' And that scared me."

That was Mankiewicz talking, and here's the explanation he gave for why he lied to all the reporters, including me, who had asked him about this... Because I knew... I had that exact quote from several people on the McGovern staff, who wanted to release it. They thought that if people knew the truth about the Eagleton situation – that there was no way he could possibly be kept on the ticket – that the "perception" of McGovern's behavior with Eagleton might be drastically altered. Eagleton would no longer be the wronged good guy, but what he actually was – an opportunistic liar.

Ed: An opportunistic liar.

HST: With a history of very serious mental disorders and no reason for anyone to believe they wouldn't recur. Here's what Mankiewicz... here's the reason Mankiewicz gives for not explaining this to the press at the time. This is Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post again: "Mankiewicz says 'he stalled furiously' with the newspaper representatives, appealed to their patriotism and promised them tangible news breaks. Both McGovern and Eagleton would have complete physicals later at Walter Reed Hospital, and challenge the other candidates to do the same and release the medical results. When that happened, he went on, he would try to arrange either an exclusive interview with Eagleton or give them a news cycle break on the Eagleton medical story."

Ed: What's a news cycle break?

HST: I don't know. That's the kind of language Mankiewicz used all through the campaign when he got confused and started treading water.

At that point Mankiewicz was afraid to say anything heavy to the press, and rightly so, I think. Look at what happened to Jack Anderson when he went on the air... on the Mutual Radio Network with a story of Eagleton's drunk driving arrests. Then he couldn't prove it. He couldn't get the records. He was told by True Davis, who had run against Eagleton in the Democratic primary for senator in 1968 in Missouri, that the records were in a box in an office in St. Louis, and Davis promised Anderson that he would get them immediately. So Anderson had every reason to believe that he would have the actual drunk driving records or xeroxes of them in his hands by the time he broke the story. After Anderson had broken the story both on the radio and in his column... his syndicated column... he got desperate for the records because he knew he was going to be challenged. At that point True Davis was the president of a bank owned by the United Mine Workers in Washington.

Ed: Tony Boyle's union? Hubert Humphrey's friend?

HST: Right. Davis told Jack Anderson that unfortunately the box containing the records pertaining to Eagleton's drunk driving arrests had disappeared from this room... some storage place in St. Louis... and contrary to what he told Anderson earlier, he couldn't produce them. So Anderson was left with a story that almost every journalist in Washington still believes to be true.

Ed: How does this get back to what we were talking about before?

HST: I wanted to tell you why Mankiewicz was afraid to break the... or help anyone else break the story on Eagleton's mental history. Jack Anderson got burned so badly on that, and was so embarrassed publicly that it appeared – for reasons he could never explain – that he was just taking a cheap shot at Eagleton, and Eagleton came off looking better than he had before Anderson had started. So Mankiewicz and Hart, along with McGovern... those were the only people who knew the details about Eagleton's mental disorders... They decided that they couldn't break the story. They couldn't help anyone else investigate Eagleton any further than Eagleton himself wanted to be investigated, or it would appear that the McGovern staff was deliberately leaking false information on Eagleton in order to make him look bad which would then in turn make McGovern look good.

Ed: Which what? Which in turn would make McGovern look good?

HST: Yeah, if Eagleton had turned out... if the records had been available... See, Eagleton never showed McGovern his medical records. He kept saying he would bring them to South Dakota.

Ed: Did McGovern keep asking him?

HST: Oh, yes. They kept... they couldn't believe it when he didn't show up with them in South Dakota.

Ed: He promised that he was going to bring them?

HST: He promised it for about ten days and finally he said that the psychiatrists wouldn't release them, the Mayo Clinic wouldn't release them, the Barnes Hospital wouldn't release them.

Ed: Why wouldn't the hospital release records to a patient?

HST: Well, the answer is... the question is the answer.

Ed: So the public perceived McGovern to be the bad guy, when in fact it was really Eagleton. And McGovern never recovered from that change in his image.

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