ST. LOUIS — A newspaper review of more than 1,000 pages of internal FBI documents on Thomas Eagleton found no evidence that the agency leaked information about his treatment for depression, a revelation that ended his vice presidential campaign.
The public disclosure of his mental illness and shock therapy forced him to withdraw as Democrat George McGovern’s running mate in 1972. Some questioned whether the FBI, which had kept tabs on Eagleton since the 1950s, had shared his medical information to the media or others.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch requested Eagleton’s FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act after the former Missouri attorney general and U.S. senator’s death in March 2007. In a report published Sunday, the newspaper said it found no direct evidence countering the FBI’s longtime denials that it had gathered information on Eagleton’s treatment or had provided that information to others.
“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 indicate the agency didn’t find out about Eagleton’s psychiatric treatment until after he revealed the details himself during a news conference after his nomination.
During the next 18 months, FBI officials ordered at least three internal reviews to ensure the agency had played no role in the incident. All said they found no evidence of wrongdoing.
“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 Eagleton’s file for the newspaper. “The FBI appeared pretty convinced those records had not come from the bureau.”
But Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator who served as McGovern’s campaign director in 1972, said the memos could have been the agency covering its tracks. President Richard Nixon’s administration was known for using government power against his political foes.
“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.”
The FBI began a file on Eagleton in February 1958, apparently after the young prosecutor — speaking to colleagues while in a Las Vegas coffee shop — criticized an FBI fingerprint examiner’s testimony for helping derail the prosecution’s case in a St. Louis robbery trial. One of the others at the table worked for the FBI and Eagleton’s slight made it all the way to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The agency withheld at least 28 pages from the newspaper, citing privacy, and others had portions redacted to protect confidential informers, investigative methods and the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.
Campaign aide Edward Filippine said he doesn’t believe the FBI was involved and doesn’t think Eagleton did either.
He said Eagleton later learned the name of a health care worker who he believed leaked his treatment to the media, but he didn’t retaliate against the person and wouldn’t allow others to, either.
“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.”