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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Memories of Tom Eagleton

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2011 - Everyone knows Tom Eagleton was a U.S. senator, powerful progressive and civil libertarian. Many of us were lucky enough to also know him as a friend.

In James Giglio's new book, "Call Me Tom," (University of Missouri Press, 2011) Steve Glorioso calls Eagleton "... the most loyal politician I had ever known. This meant taking care of his people."

As one of those people Eagleton looked after, I can hardly claim to be fair and balanced.

In 1968, after three years of organizing civil rights and anti-war activities all over the U.S., I was both a full-time activist and doctoral student in history at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

For many of us, our work in the civil rights movement offered some evidence that social activism could bring about change. We saw progress as the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the deaths of Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act. We marched from Selma to Montgomery; and the Voting Rights Bill was passed. Hundreds of people went to jail and many died, but the system began to open.

The anti-war movement did not see the same kind of positive results. Peaceful tactics seemed to have little effect on the war machine. We marched, were jailed, burned our draft cards, but none of it made a difference. It felt like the more we marched, the more Americans were sent to die and kill.

But this Catholic, middle-class idealist, born and raised in Webster Groves I found in Thomas F. Eagleton a welcomed local hero around to rally around.

From the beginning of his 1968 campaign for U.S. Senate, Eagleton strongly opposed involvement in Vietnam, and his candidacy offered a meaningful alternative to marching in front of draft boards.

I hadn't met him, but I had read his position on Vietnam. Fresh from an anti-war campaign in Chicago, I called Eagleton's office and volunteered.

After an initial interview with Jim Murphy, I was ushered into Eagleton's office. We talked about my civil rights activity and work with SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). He had no concerns about my arrests in the civil rights movement or with my SDS activity, but reminded me of the conservatism in his state. This was the first of many times I saw him stick his neck out for people and ideas that were considered out of the mainstream.

With his firm handshake, he welcomed me aboard "There's plenty of work to do," he said in his always loud but affectionate growl. I immediately withdrew from school and went to work for a salary of, I believe, $100 a week.

Initially, I mostly wrote press releases prepared from position papers written by professors from Washington University, Saint Louis University and UMC. Many academics contributed their intellectual capital to his inspiring campaign, including Barry Commoner and Ralph Story of Washington University, David Leuthold from Columbia and, of course, SLU's legal expert Joseph Simeone.

Eagleton loved his staff. He demanded everyone abandon their workstations to take over the basement at Miss Hulling's. During these convivial, Socratic lunches, we would be interrupted repeatedly by local political leaders and well-wishers. The affection was always loud and mutual. Little did I realize that once you worked with or for him, even as a lowly press aide, he was your friend for life.

Our group of young men (all white, no women) were crowded into rented space above his father's law office, affectionately called "the dovecote" because of the anti-war politics of the crew. Steve Vossmeyer and Ed Quick were the brightest of the bunch and became close to Eagleton.

I looked like a young reporter, so was picked as an undercover spy for trips to the Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat newsrooms to pick up from "deep throat" sources new press releases from Eagleton's opponents, True Davis and Ed Long. Eagleton would then dumbfound the media with his rapid responses countering negative comments by Long or Davis even before their statements were in print. TFE took great glee in this.

Eagleton truly enjoyed the sport of politics and sometimes acted as thought it was a fraternity party. Among his pranks were "Aunt Hazel polls." His secretary Ruth Herbst would call his actual Aunt Hazel and ask if the percentage of her bridge club members had changed its preferences from Sen. Long to Eagleton. This "poll" would be dressed up as "scientific," and no one ever questioned the legitimacy of our polling, which always showed TFE was "closing the gap." Eagleton would laugh out loud.

He was a reader who carefully parsed everything that went out. He would catch every misspelling or exaggeration. His desk was piled high with books and position papers. He covered issues that may not have been major concerns in Missouri, such as the Biafra civil war. He was deeply knowledgeable about many issues, but primarily foreign policy.

In some areas he was quite conservative, particularly regarding the role of women. It was not until later in his career that he actively included women in key campaign positions. He became close to such political women as Betty Van Uum, Alberta Slavin, Robin and Jean Carnahan and Claire McCaskill. He never warmed to Harriett Woods, and she and many of her supporters never forgave his backing of Burleigh Arnold over Woods. But Arnold was a close friend, and Eagleton was very loyal to his friends.

What the average American saw in Eagleton's brief vice-presidential race we saw every day: hardworking intelligence and hands-on Robert Kennedy-like affection. No town was too far for a coffee with 12 Protestant church ladies. He must have spoken at every Rotary Club in Missouri. I watched him win over pro-war, pro-death penalty 70-year-old Protestant Main Street businessmen.

In 1968, his staff set up more than 680 campaign coffees. His team knew other candidates could and did beat him with money and TV time. But those candidates could never touch him in person.

Despite his crumpled suits and askew ties, he had that Bobby Kennedy charm, intelligence and idealism. He could discuss farm policy with farmers and transportation with urbanites. And he never talked down to people. He was never a Adlai Stevenson egghead. He made the difficult intelligible to the rest of us.

Likability is an underrated attribute. I've seen many lawyers win cases at trial because the jurors like them. We tend to trust people we like. People liked - no loved - Eagleton.

James Giglio is the first to write a full book on Eagleton. Giglio asks - and answers - how it could be that an urban Irish Roman Catholic, graduate of Country Day, Amherst and Harvard never lost an election in conservative Protestant Missouri.

He ran on his liberal values when Missouri was turning to the right. He had a deep intellectual commitment to civil rights and liberties. He publicly defended me when UMC tried to throw me out of school for organizing a strike of teaching assistants. He even endorsed me in 1972 when I first ran for state representative. He told me with a laugh that some of his staff told him he could gain nothing by endorsing for office his favorite former SDS chairman. But if you were one of his lads, you were for life.

He helped me join boards and become the founding director of Legal Services of Northeast Missouri. My story could be repeated from Mark Abels to Judges Bob Kingsland, Albert Stephan Jr., Ed Filippine and Scott Wright. His was a generous and kind bond.

Eagleton was the master of old-school politics -- the politics of handshaking, of talking directly to people and friendship. Even when he was white-haired, deaf and frail, he never lost his charm or sense of humor, and never forgot his friends.

For liberals, the late 1960s was a time of despair as many of our heroes were shot dead. We responded to Kennedy-like idealism and affection that seemed to be missing in the America circumscribed by the war in Vietnam, Watergate and the Weathermen. His votes on the Vietnam War and the War Powers Act were most important of course, but his humanity and kindness is what I remember most deeply.

Giglio's book quotes a teenaged Claire McCaskill who wrote to Eagleton and said, "You have always been what I want to be when I grow up ... and you still are."

How proud I am to have been one of his many friends.

Rory Ellinger is a state representative. 

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