By Phil O'Connor
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
STORY ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DEC 28, 2008:
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 Clayton-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, "
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
"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
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."