Thomas Eagleton’s FBI File Offers Glimpse into Watergate Era
PDF: Tom Eagleton FBI documents (PDF includes 25 pages)
JULY 14, 1972- KANSAS CITY – Vice presidential nominee Thomas F. Eagleton greeting well-wishers on his arrival in Kansas City, where he spoke this morning to an audio-visual conference. The Senator flew to his home state from Miami Beach with the Kansas City delegation to the Democratic convention. (UPI Telephoto)
By Phillip O’Connor
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
St. Louis — Sitting in the coffee shop of the Las Vegas Desert Inn one morning in February 1958, Thomas Eagleton, one of the youngest prosecutors in the country and already a rising political star, regaled colleagues from Denver and Philadelphia with a story.
The 28-year-old St. Louis circuit attorney told how an FBI fingerprint examiner’s stilted way of speaking while testifying in a robbery trial in St. Louis had blown the prosecution’s case. Unknown to Eagleton, a fourth man at the table worked for the FBI.
Word of the slight made it all the way to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s longtime leader who fiercely defended the image of the agency he helped create. Hoover was a feared Washington figure, capable of wrecking careers.
Despite Eagleton’s repeated apologies, Hoover wasn’t in a forgiving mood. He called for a letter to be written “to the loud-mouth Eagleton.”
“See that our St. Louis Office deals most circumspectly with Eagleton,” Hoover wrote to subordinates.
Thus began what would be nearly four decades of intermittent connections between the FBI and Eagleton, who would become Missouri attorney general, lieutenant governor, U.S. senator, vice presidential candidate and elder statesman.
The Post-Dispatch obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents from Eagleton’s FBI file, including the Hoover missive, scrawled in the FBI director’s own scratchy script.
When Eagleton died in March 2007 at the age of 77, many of the documents in his FBI file became available for public review. The Post-Dispatch requested those records through the Freedom of Information Act. At least 28 pages were withheld by the FBI, citing privacy. Others had portions redacted to protect confidential informers, investigative methods, the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, among other reasons.
Some of the documents focus on Eagleton during the early 1970s. Despite a long, distinguished political career, Eagleton may be best remembered for the 18 ill-fated days he spent as the running mate of Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. Eagleton withdrew from the ticket after it was revealed that he had undergone psychiatric treatment, including electroshock therapy.
“It was like a stigma at the time, unfortunately,” said Edward Filippine, who was a campaign aide. “People didn’t understand depression. That was very devastating.”
As Eagleton’s rise in national politics collapsed, questions swirled about how his private medical history became public fodder during an intense, national election.
Among the questions, what role did the FBI play in disclosing the revelations about Eagleton?
As the Watergate scandal unfolded, some, including the media and a former U.S. attorney general, cast suspicion on the FBI.
At the time, the public was beginning to learn that for years the FBI had run a massive, covert and illegal domestic spying operation aimed at undermining political enemies, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and anti-war activists.
By the mid-1970s, congressional investigations would reveal secret and illegal programs involving not only the FBI, but the CIA, U.S. Army intelligence, the White House, the attorney general, and local and state law enforcement, directed against opponents of government domestic and foreign policy.
“If (the FBI) were doing things that were not legally or constitutionally right, then it’s wrong,” said Filippine, now 78 and a senior U.S. district judge in St. Louis. “If it was an election campaign and they were doing it, you would almost start to think that someone way up the line with the powers that be was directing them.”
Memos, correspondence and other information in the FBI files would appear to support the agency’s long-standing claim that it did not know that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression and exhaustion three times between 1960 and 1966.
“Our records show the FBI conducted no such investigation: received no request for such an investigation and had no information regarding Senator Eagleton’s medical history,” one memo stated.
The documents also appear to show that the agency only learned of Eagleton’s psychiatric treatment after Eagleton revealed the information in a news conference after his nomination. He withdrew days later on Aug. 1, 1972.
Over the next 18 months, FBI leaders requested at least three internal reviews to determine whether the bureau played any role in the affair, according to the FBI documents. But each internal review reached the same conclusion: The agency wasn’t involved.
“This would be a pretty strong piece of evidence that the bureau certainly believed it was not the source of the information,” said FBI historian John Fox, who reviewed the documents at the newspaper’s request. “The FBI appeared pretty convinced those records had not come from the bureau.”
But there are others who say that the existence of such documents doesn’t vindicate the FBI. Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator who served as campaign director for McGovern in 1972, said the records could have been an effort by bureau officials to create a paper trail to cover up any involvement. He noted that the election took place during an era when President Richard Nixon abused government power to move against political enemies.
“Given the context of the times, I would discount the internal memoranda heavily,” Hart said. “It’s very possible that somebody at the middle levels may have been involved in things that the people at the top knew nothing about.”
On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington.
Less than a month later, the already faltering McGovern campaign offered the vice presidency to Eagleton at the Miami Beach convention after several others declined.
Rumors of Eagleton’s psychiatric treatment long had been whispered about in Missouri political circles. On the night of the nomination, a Time magazine reporter approached an Eagleton aide on the convention floor and mentioned rumors of the hospitalizations.
“It was obvious to me that a number of fishing expeditions had started, but it was not possible to know how many or how intense they would be,” Filippine wrote in an internal campaign memo.
If the FBI was spreading the rumor, they weren’t the only ones.
Five days after the nomination, a Nixon supporter from St. Louis wrote a letter to Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, that alleged Eagleton had been in and out of a St. Louis mental hospital.
The letter, from Sam Krupnick, owner of a Clatyon-based advertising firm and Jewish community leader who died in 1991, made its way to Pat Buchanan, then a Nixon aide. Buchanan forwarded it to Charles Colson, then Nixon’s chief counsel. Buchanan, now a political commentator, wanted to investigate the information and meet to discuss the timing of its release.
“Perhaps it should come rolling out, in the fall or in October,” Buchanan wrote.
Colson, who later would be implicated in the Watergate scandal, responded: “No need to worry about it; I’ve already taken care of it.”
Meanwhile, within days of Eagleton’s acceptance, an anonymous caller phoned the Detroit Free Press and the McGovern campaign. The caller said he knew that Eagleton had been treated for depression and had received electroshock therapy. The caller said he was sure that the Republicans would use it in the campaign and believed the information should get out immediately.
Clark Hoyt was one of the reporters assigned by the Detroit newspaper’s owner to chase the tip. Hoyt said they were concerned at the time about getting beat on the story by Washington Post reporters who were looking into whether the Eagleton rumors were another dirty trick orchestrated by Nixon’s campaign.
Hoyt said he eventually learned the caller’s identity, but said he could no longer remember who it was. He said the person had worked in the medical field in St. Louis before moving to Detroit. Hoyt said he doesn’t think the FBI was involved.
“To the best of our knowledge, that was not the route of the information,” said Hoyt, now public editor for The New York Times.
Before Hoyt could get the story in print, Eagleton hastily called a news conference on July 25, 1972, in Custer, S.D., and disclosed his previous treatment.
“At the time, it seemed less important to figure out where the leak came from than how to respond,” said Douglas J. Bennet Jr., a former Eagleton aide who managed the vice presidential campaign. “Even if we had been able to determine the source, what could we have done?”
Still, Bennet, who went on to become an assistant secretary of state and president of Wesleyan University, said it would never have occurred to the campaign at the time that the FBI might be involved.
“It showed a tremendous amount of innocence,” he said. “We didn’t think even a political enemy would impose on his privacy.”
Two days after the news conference, a brief memo appeared in the FBI files from the bureau’s crime records division to Mark Felt, then the bureau’s No. 2 man. More than three decades later, Felt would reveal himself to be the Watergate source named Deep Throat (Felt died Dec. 18).
The FBI memo notified Felt that the bureau’s press office was getting questions about whether the FBI investigated Eagleton.
The memo concluded that “… the FBI does not routinely investigate vice presidential nominees and that Senator Eagleton has not been investigated by the FBI.”
Before long, the media began to expose the spying and sabotage directed by the Nixon campaign aimed at discrediting Democratic presidential candidates. Reports persisted about whether the FBI leaked information about Eagleton’s illness to the Nixon campaign.
Then, on the day before the November 1972 election, the New York Times reported that former Attorney General Ramsey Clark claimed to have seen an FBI file on Eagleton in 1965 that detailed his psychiatric treatment. Clark said he had seen the file while he was deputy attorney general, and Eagleton was being considered for an appointment as an assistant attorney general.
The morning the story appeared, L. Patrick Gray III, a St. Louis native serving as acting FBI director following Hoover’s death, penned a note to his underlings asking whether the story was true.
His assistant reported back the same day that an exhaustive search found no evidence of any such investigation of Eagleton. Gray called for an official memo to be prepared for the file.
“A thorough review of Bureau files has disclosed we have never investigated Senator Eagleton and have never furnished a report concerning him to the (Justice) Department,” the memo stated. “Further there is no record in Bureau files that we were aware of Senator Eagleton’s illness …”
Six months later, on May 17, 1973, the Washington Post once again implicated the FBI as being involved in some of the Nixon campaign’s clandestine activity. The story repeated Clark’s assertion that he had seen an FBI file on Eagleton. The story went on to say that “reliable sources said that material from the FBI files was provided to the White House and Nixon campaign aides during last year’s election campaign by Assistant Attorney General Mardian.”
Robert Mardian was a Republican party operative who worked for the Nixon campaign. Mardian already was under scrutiny for his role in the burgeoning Watergate scandal. In 1975, he would be convicted for hindering the investigation, a verdict overturned on appeal.
By now, William Ruckelshaus was acting FBI director. He asked that Clark be sent a letter pointing out that the FBI had never investigated Eagleton and asking Clark to prove his claim that it had. The records show that agents also tracked down Mardian in Arizona to determine whether he had provided any FBI information on Eagleton to the White House or Nixon campaign. Mardian denied any involvement. He died in 2006.
Clark never responded to the FBI letter. Reached in New York, Clark, 80, told the Post-Dispatch that he had no reason now to doubt what he claimed in 1972.
“I know that I had seen an FBI file,” Clark said. “I don’t see how I would have confused that at that time.”
John Dean, legal counselor to Nixon who was convicted of several felonies in the Watergate scandal and served as a prosecution witness, said Mardian had close connections in the FBI and had been extensively involved in covert political operations. Dean told the Post-Dispatch that he had no direct knowledge of Mardian having a role in the Eagleton affair, but said he would be “flabbergasted” if he didn’t.
“This is exactly the way Mardian and … those guys played the game,” said Dean, now an author and commentator living in California. Like Hart, Dean was skeptical about whether the memos absolve the agency of any involvement.
“They were constantly doing these cover-your-ass memos in the bureau about these kinds of things,” Dean said. “And it could have been done so out-of-channel that some of the people could have legitimately written those memos.”
By January 1974, Nixon’s presidency was unraveling. Former aides had been convicted, top advisers forced to resign, and the Watergate Committee and a special prosecutor were plowing through the Oval Office tape recordings that eventually would lead to the demise of his administration.
That same month, The New York Times published a story in which, once again, the FBI denied any involvement in the release of Eagleton’s records to the Nixon campaign before the information became public.
Now, Eagleton seemed to have grown weary of the issue.
The day the story appeared, an Eagleton aide contacted Clarence M. Kelley, a former Kansas City police chief who had replaced Ruckelshaus as FBI director. Kelley and Eagleton knew each other from their time in Missouri. The FBI records show that Kelley followed up with a memo to subordinates.
“Senator Eagleton had felt after the first flush of information released at the time he was considered as a vice presidential candidate that he would not pursue the allegations any further,” Kelley wrote. “With this revival, he now is of the opinion he should look into the matter and see what the basis is for the continued attack on him.”
The documents show Kelley ordered another review of FBI records. A few days later, Kelley wrote a letter to Eagleton.
“No investigation of you has ever been conducted by the FBI. Further, no information was ever received by the FBI pertaining to your health prior to the press disclosures regarding same in July, 1972. Also, no information concerning that subject other than press information has come to our attention since July, 1972.”
It was the last reference in Eagleton’s FBI file to the election or Watergate.
Filippine, the former campaign aide, said he has no reason to believe the FBI was involved in the Eagleton controversy and doesn’t think Eagleton did either.
Eagleton learned the name of the medical person he believed divulged his treatment to the media, Filippine said. Some, like Filippine, thought they should retaliate, but Eagleton wouldn’t allow it.
“What was revealed was the truth,” Filippine said. “That was something which Tom never hid. He took the position that what is, is, and I’m not going to jump on anyone else’s back for saying it.”
Mark Abels, a longtime press aide who eulogized Eagleton at his funeral, said he spoke at length with his former boss about the 1972 campaign and the scandal that followed.
“That whole thing in 1972 is an infinitely larger part of his life in everybody else’s perception than it was in his perception,” Abels said. “(To him), it was something that happens, and life goes on.”