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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

ECT in Nixonland

I've just finished Nixonland, Rick Perlstein's history of the 1960s. Some things I learned: Richard Nixon was a genius, albeit an evil one; the 1960s never ended; Rick Perlstein is my new favourite political author.

The book also reminded me of a sad episode in the history of psychiatry.

George McGovern ran against Nixon as the Democratic candidate for President in 1972. He was essentially the Obama of the 60s generation: unashamedly liberal and intellectual, he unseated the "established" candidate, Hubert Humphrey, to clinch the Democrat's nomination after a bitter primary campaign thanks to his idealistic young grass-roots.

McGovern had difficulty choosing his vice-presidential running mate, and eventually chose a little-known Senator from Missouri, Thomas Eagleton (left in the photo). It seemed a safe enough choice. Until Eagleton's first press conference.

Eagleton revealed that he'd been treated in a psychiatric hospital for "exhaustion" - everyone knew he meant clinical depression - three times, and that he had received electroconvulsive therapy twice. McGovern hadn't known this when he picked him.

From there it was all downhill. McGovern initially said he backed Eagleton "1000%". But to some, the idea of putting someone who'd had shock therapy a heartbeat away from the Presidency was unacceptable, and after two weeks of gossip, McGovern dropped him from the ticket.

Perlstein notes that this move wrecked McGovern's image as the idealistic and authentic alternative to politics-as-usual. Polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly trusted Nixon over McGovern, even as the facts about Watergate were emerging. Nixon won a landslide.

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