Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This Day in Electoral History (Eagleton Withdraws as McGovern VP Choice)

July 31, 1972—George McGovern would have faced an uphill battle for the Presidency in the fall in any case, but the full dimensions of his landslide loss to Richard Nixon began to become apparent when Senator Thomas Eagleton (pictured), dogged by revelations of past bouts with mental illness, stepped aside as his running mate.

Vice-Presidential selections over the past several decades have been—well, not reassuring. Dick Cheney just made headlines by stating the obvious: that Sarah Palin, though an “attractive” candidate, only had two years of experience in office, making her not the best choice for John McCain’s running mate. Of course, the ex-Veep did not comment on his ploy of eliminating all possible aspirants to become George W. Bush’s Vice-President, until the nominee, unimaginatively but inevitably, asked if he’d take the job. (See my prior post on Cheney’s clever “Hello, Dolly” strategy.)

Dan Quayle—as Alexander Pope wrote, “Why break a butterfly upon the wheel?” As for Joe Biden, he looks positively Presidential by comparison with these Republicans—and remember, this is a guy who a) has burnished his considerable reputation for running off  at the mouth in his term a heartbeat away from the Presidency, b) displayed, in his youth, great ingenuity in avoiding the draft that might take him to Vietnam, and c) saw his own early Presidential ambitions prematurely snuffed out after the revelation that he'd cribbed an entire campaign speech from British Labour Party politician Neil Kinnock.

A Ken Rudin blog post for National Post Radio makes the point dramatically: Since 1964, only seven Vice-Presidential selections can be regarded as pluses; 12 rate as minuses. Now, a couple of the choices here are debatable (Cheney, inexplicably, rates a plus), but all in all it balances out. It’s not at all pretty, but it all simply reinforces a point made by Theodore H. White nearly four decades ago in The Making of the President 1972: “In the Vice Presidency lies all the potential power of the Presidency itself—yet the choice is the most perfunctory and generally the most thoughtless in the entire American political system.”

But none of these compared to the Eagleton affair. His selection was performed in haste, reconsidered under duress, terminated with extreme prejudice—all while setting back the cause of McGovern.

It had been bad enough that somehow the U.S. Senator from Missouri ended up on the ticket in the first place, calling into question McGovern’s managerial ability. But when the Democratic nominee reneged on his initial stance that he was behind Eagleton “one thousand percent,” despite the revelation that the running mate had undergone electroshock therapy three times, another impression was fostered. "The seemingly backhanded and spineless manner in which McGovern compelled Eagleton to withdraw probably hindered McGovern's shot at the presidency more than keeping Eagleton would have hurt it," writes Joshua Glasser in a new account of the imbroglio, The Eighteen-Day Running Mate.

The circumstances behind Eagleton’s selection were as fraught as any ever existing for the Vice Presidency. Start with this simple fact: before he agreed to join the ticket, hardly anyone, it seemed, wanted the job. Ted Kennedy, McGovern’s first choice, turned it down a couple of times, including only one hour before the selection was to be made. So did Walter Mondale, Gaylord Nelson, and three other politicians. McGovern and his staff were down to the wire.

What led them to such a pass? This convention combined the worst features of the Old and New Politics. The Democrats had redefined the delegate-selection rules (by a committee chaired by none other than the future nominee himself), but the party confabs hadn’t yet morphed into the intensely scripted, trouble-free snorefests we know now. Party elders had not yet taken up the task of warning pesky also-runs from mounting challenges in an event televised to nationwide audiences.

McGovern, in short, was so busy heading off a first-ballot attempt to deny him the nomination that the last thing on his mind was picking a Vice-President. 

(In fact, on the final night of the convention, delegates still were involved in enough floor fights that his acceptance speech, on the theme “Come home, America,” was delivered at such an insane hour—almost before dawn, Eastern Time—that the only people who got to watch it in prime time were those on Guam.)

The name that came up repeatedly for McGovern’s advisers at first was Kevin White, but the Boston mayor's candidacy came undone when Kennedy indicated only reluctant support. Meanwhile, Eagleton’s name had been suggested by a couple of the candidates who turned McGovern down, making him a logical second choice. 

The subsequent disaster might have occurred for the simplest of reasons: Nobody, not even the nominee, really knew Eagleton or much about his history.

In the days of the “old politics,” Eagleton’s name would have been floated among the party poobahs—regional leaders, labor bosses, longtime government officials—and they would have offered all they knew about him—some insights, surely, not helpful, but others based on insiders’ knowledge of the man. 

This was not the case in the room of 22 McGovern staffers. Only three of these people actually knew Eagleton—and the new interest groups that powered “the new politics” (feminists, African-Americans, college students) had even less experience with him. The same, amazingly, was true of McGovern himself. Despite the fact that they were similar in background (liberal anti-war politics, Midwestern roots, lifelong Democrats who had served in the Senate together for four years), the two had probably conversed at most a half hour together.

What was known about Eagleton made him seem a perfectly plausible candidate, someone with appeal to groups that McGovern needed to hold onto: Catholics, unions, voters in Midwestern swing states such as Missouri. Those qualifications—and the lack of instinctive knowledge to suggest otherwise—meant that, as the clock ticked toward making a Vice-Presidential selection, the one McGovern aide who had heard only vague rumors about Eagleton drinking heavily and experiencing mental illness, when unable to substantiate the allegations quickly, dismissed them as being without merit. 

And so, without a background check, Tom Eagleton was introduced to the Democratic delegates, and America, as McGovern’s running mate.

A 29-year-old St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, Clark Hoyt, and his bureau chief, Robert Boyd, preparing a profile of the Vice-Presidential nominee, began to notice odd gaps in his history when going through morgue files at the paper—things along the lines of “Senator Eagleton has been at the Mayo Clinic for a physical exam, or Senator Eagleton has been exhausted and taking a rest, something like that,” Hoyt recalled in an interview 35 years later. When a source tipped the reporter off about Eagleton’s background—even providing the name of a physician who treated him—those inexplicable gaps began to make sense.

By this time, the McGovern campaign had also been tipped off by the source (who was fearful about what would happen once the Republicans knew about it). Eagleton, however, did not immediately fill the campaign in right away on the full details of the story—i.e., that he had been hospitalized for nervous exhaustion three times and been treated with electroshock therapy on more than one occasion.

A 1997 article by former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, decrying the stigma against openly seeking psychiatric help as the “last taboo” among politicians, cites the Eagleton affair as an example of the American electorate’s blinkered approach to the subject. As so often happens, however, Rich oversimplifies a complex subject. (When he left the newspaper of record a couple of years ago, the Times’ gain became New York Magazine’s loss.) Here are some reasons why the Eagleton imbroglio was not just an example of stigmatizing the mentally ill, but deserved to be a very big deal:
a   *Eagleton was not fully forthcoming with the man who would be his boss. Eagleton may have been technically correct that he never lied to McGovern or his staff, but he did not divulge the full dimensions of his treatment until the press essentially had the outlines of the story. (When asked what the Nixon campaign would find if they looked into it, he said they would only discover his exhaustion and melancholy--not mentioning his electroshock therapy.) This would not have boded well for their subsequent working relationship, had it continued. In fact, when McGovern campaign aide Frank Mankiewicz asked if he had any “skeletons in the closet,” Eagleton said he hadn’t, admitting later he had taken “a calculated risk” in not revealing all early on.  That left the McGovern campaign in a constant scrambling mode, never sure how much of what was being reported was true and how much exaggeration.

·         *Eagleton, by not being immediately candid about his past, gave the Nixon campaign what could have been a tremendous opportunity to destroy the Democrats. In a campaign already marked by dirty tricks (an aspect of Watergate I discussed in a prior post), Nixon’s operatives wouldn’t have needed much, if any, skullduggery to ferret out the truth of this situation. 

·        * Eagleton was sanguine to the point of self-deception about the nature of his illness. After the campaign, according to Theodore H. White, the senator explained to visitors that “My health just wasn’t on my mind, it wasn’t on my mind, it was like a broken leg that healed.” But, as Paul Tsongas would be about his cancer (then in remission) in 1992, he downplayed the real chance of a recurrence. He had not only been hospitalized, but hospitalized three times—once even after the conclusion of a stressful campaign. His susceptibility to another breakdown could not be explained away. Moreover, electroshock therapy, as practiced when Eagleton first received the treatment in 1961, was much more overprescribed and less regulated than it is today. The results could be devastating. (Ernest Hemingway’s suicide, which occurred the same year as Eagleton’s first treatment, was precipitated by electroshock therapy that deprived him of short-term memory.)

·         *Eagleton did not make available the records of his medical treatment. It might be argued that privacy issues weighed against their release, but such is also the case with records related to the finances and physical health of candidates, and Americans have begun to look askance at candidates who are reluctant to yield such information (as Mitt Romney is learning now in his refusal to reveal more than a year or two worth of his tax records). In 1972, Eagleton was asking Americans to examine him without knowing fully how he would react under stress. In an age of nuclear peril, this was an electoral non-starter.

·         *Eagleton ignored the fact that Americans expect officials with access to national security be mentally sound. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of John Tower came a cropper because of allegations related to heavy drinking. That tendency, though it didn’t concern the Texas senator’s colleagues too much while he was in the upper legislative chamber, worried a number of them very much when he was thrust into a higher position.That heightened standard continues to govern nominations and elections to high posts in this republic.

The pressure mounted on McGovern to sack Eagleton: dozens of newspapers called for him to be dropped from the ticket, and his campaign finance personnel resigned over Eagleton’s initial retention on the ticket. Mankiewicz and Gary Hart (then McGovern's campaign manager, later a candidate in his own right) both urged that Eagleton be dropped. The senator’s replacement, Kennedy brother-in-law (and stand-in) Sargent Shriver, could not help save the sinking McGovern campaign.

Nowadays, it is fashionable to regard Americans’ attitude toward mental illness 40 years ago as benighted. Perhaps it was, but likewise, treatment of the disease had not advanced very well, either.

Americans will need to evaluate the mental health of their leaders with the same sophistication that they evaluate physical health. Clinical paranoia and delusions, for instance, are less disabling than ordinary neurosis. Moreover, what might not be disqualifying in a lower office might hold very grave consequences at the highest levels of government.

In the years since the Eagleton affair, though some politicians (notably, former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles) have reacted to disclosures of clinical depression quickly and candidly, others (currently, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.) have, as Eagleton did, responded in a piecemeal fashion. They deserve compassion and understanding as they seek help, but the American electorate deserves from these prominent victims of mental illness candor and realism—both qualities in noticeably short supply among politicians.

Song Lyric of the Day (Van Morrison, on a Mental State Detrimental to Starbucks)

“And you know
I'm so wired-up
Don't need no coffee in my cup.”—Van Morrison, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile”), from his Saint Dominic’s Preview LP (1972)

Yes, a prior post of mine hailed this most exultant, roof-raising of tunes. But this month 40 years ago, Warner Brothers released “Jackie Wilson Said” as the lead single of the Saint Dominic’s Preview album by Van Morrison. I can’t think of a better choice, even though it never achieved the success of “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Domino.” (Equally inexplicably, it did not become a regular part of his shows until nearly a decade later.)

More’s the pity. I’m not sure why this musician—as legendary in concert as much for all-around cussedness as for his extraordinary talent—has ever managed to produce so many songs of joy, let alone so many love songs of unsurpassed tenderness. But never mind—just revel in this one, from its infectiously rousing opening a cappella vocalizing by Van the Man to the triumphantly affirmative sax at its closing. It’s one of those tunes of glory you wish would never end.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Theater Review: ‘Harvey,’ from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

For decades, the New York stage has been haunted by a large, looming specter associated with the play Harvey. No, I’m not talking about the invisible, 6 ft. 3 1/2" rabbit who becomes the central focus of protagonist Elwood P. Dowd—I mean Jimmy Stewart, perhaps the most beloved American film actor of them all, who created one of his signature roles in the 1950 screen adaptation of Mary Chase’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winner. So massive has been his shadow that the only person ever to attempt the role on Broadway since the film was released was Stewart himself, in 1970.

Give the Roundabout Theatre Company, then, credit for audacity. But you can’t leave it at that. After all, Adam Sandler was audacious enough to remake a film he shouldn’t have been allowed near: Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. No, also give the Roundabout credit for not mucking around with a play that didn’t need much fixing to begin with—and to hire a name actor with enough talent to make Elwood P. Dowd all his own without doing violence to the script or our memories.

Casting Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory might be considered a box-office hedge, but that didn’t make it bullet- (or critic-) proof. Amazingly, Parsons makes nary a misstep here. The rest of the cast is fine (sometimes exceptionally so), but without a fine Elwood, the center cannot hold. Fortunately, Parsons has made this sturdily constructed comedy (Chase rewrote it 50 times) a candidate for revival again. The Ghost of Jimmy Stewart can rest easy.

Parsons’ Elwood may have begun as a gentle tippler, but by the time the play begins, the character has gone way past permanent pickledom to what the Sixties generation longed to achieve but never quite got: permanent bliss. It is certainly not done without conscious effort, though: Watch the way Parsons seizes with an almost palpable hunger on stray acquaintances’ nonchalant offers to meet again someday (“How about right now?”), or the suddenly quiet reminiscence of a major realization in his life (“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ - she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”)

Scott Ellis has directed the proceedings with the same deft touch he showed with such other productions as Twelve Angry Men, Arthur Miller’s early, underrated The Man Who Had All the Luck, and The Rainmaker. In all of these, he spun gold from properties long believed to be outdated—and he has performed the same magical resuscitation act here. He has knit together the current show from three sources: Chase's original script, Stewart's 1950 film, and a version shown as part of The DuPont Show of the Month in 1958, with Art Carney as Elwood.

Mention should also be made of David Rockwell, who has done more than simply create what the script calls for: a home and mental institution for the well-heeled. Look closely and you’ll see a great visual gag that reinforces the show’s hilarious brand of whimsy: nearly 90 stuffed rabbits, all over the stage. All the solidity of established wealth and the medical establishment is made to give way before the indomitable force of imagination.

That’s the kind of light touch present so much in this show. Parsons’ clever star turn could have obliterated everyone here. Instead, the supporting players also receive their opportunity to shine, notably Tracee Chimo as Elwood’s superficial, boy-crazy niece; Rich Sommer (of Mad Men) as Wilson, the swaggering institution orderly; Charles Kimbrough and Carol Kane, as, respectively, the head of Chumley’s Rest and the wife whose inner goofiness is unleashed by Elwood; and Jessica Hecht as Elwood’s sister Veta, haunted not so much by the prospect of committing her sweet-tempered but reality-challenged brother but by the fear that “Harvey”—the mischievous pooka of Celtic legend—might, in fact, be real after all, because she thinks she sees him.

The production of Dracula starring Frank Langella 35 years ago should have driven a stake through the notion that nobody should ever risk comparison with an iconic performance. Catch Parsons before this show closes at the Roundabout's Studio 54 on August 5—and, if you can’t make it, hope that, like Stewart (who took over for the original lead, Frank Fay), he’ll see fit to reenact his stage triumph  for the large (or at least small) screen.

Quote of the Day (George Bernard Shaw, on Opera Acting)

“Operatic actors, so far from being free from mannerisms, wholly substitute mannerisms of the feeblest sort for acting; and as for variety of resource, there is not a penny to choose between the average prima donna’s treatment of any two of her parts, however dissimilar in conception. Her Lady Henrietta is exactly the same as her Marguerite; her Marguerite is not distinguishable by a deaf man from her Juliet, except by her dress and wig; and her Semiramis is only a swaggering Juliet. Even the few singers, male or female, who are specially celebrated for their acting, would be celebrated for their deficiency if they were placed in an equally prominent position in drama, and judged by the standard set by Ristori and Salvini.”—George Bernard Shaw, How to Become a Musical Critic, edited and with an introduction by Dan H. Laurence (1960)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Quote of the Day (Epistle to the Hebrews, on Abraham's Faith)

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God.” Hebrews 11: 8-10

The image here is Flemish Northern Renaissance painter Jan Provost's Abraham, Sarah and the Angel (1520)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Quote of the Day (Joseph Stiglitz, on the Price Paid by the Rich for Inequality)

“There are good reasons why plutocrats should care about inequality anyway—even if they’re thinking only about themselves. The rich do not exist in a vacuum. They need a functioning society around them to sustain their position. Widely unequal societies do not function efficiently and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable. The evidence from history and from around the modern world is unequivocal: there comes a point when inequality spirals into economic dysfunction for the whole society, and when it does, even the rich pay a steep price.”—Economist Joseph E.  Stiglitz, “The 1 Percent’s Problem,” Vanity Fair, May 31, 2012 (Web exclusive)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Photo of the Day: Near the Heart of Chautauqua

This picturesque home, recently restored, is one of the distinctive examples of Victorian architecture at the Chautauqua Institution, which I visited on vacation last week. Buckeye Cottage was named in honor of Lewis Miller, one of the founders of Chautauqua, who made his fortune with the Buckeye Mower. Geographically, there might be homes nearer to the heart of this community; as an example of its age and of the men who built this distinctively American institution, however, few sites on the grounds can surpass this structure.