Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Eagleton's Last Stand

Sylvan Lake, South Dakota
On July 29th, 1972, E. and I spent a night at Sylvan Lake Lodge in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We arrived there only hours after Presidential candidate George McGovern departed.

E. and I were en route from Massachusetts to California, having gotten married a month earlier. We mostly car-camped as we drove west in our tiny Saab Sonnett, which had no AC and no radio. It's hard to imagine in today's wired world how completely out of touch we were at times.

We did know, however, that George McGovern, a senator from South Dakota, was the Democratic nominee for President and that Thomas Eagleton was his running mate. A few days before we arrived in South Dakota, we stopped in St. Paul, Minnesota, where we stayed with Eric's cousin Gail and caught up on the latest news. It was there we learned that all hell had broken loose on Tuesday, July 25th, when Eagleton revealed to McGovern that he'd been hospitalized for depression during the sixties and had twice received electroshock therapy.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
We had no idea, though, that this revelation had taken place at Sylvan Lake Lodge, or that McGovern and his team had gathered there for a working vacation after the Convention. In fact, we had no idea we would wind up at the lodge ourselves. Our only plan while driving through South Dakota was to visit the Badlands and then head to Mount Rushmore. Once at Mount Rushmore, we admired the majestic sculpture of four U.S. Presidents, though E. regretted that Calvin Coolidge, his favorite President, was not among them.

At the Mount Rushmore visitor center, I came across a pamphlet about nearby Custer State Park, which included a mention of Sylvan Lake Lodge. It sounded appealing, especially since we had spent the prior night, our one-month wedding anniversary, in our tiny tent. E. agreed that a splurge was called for and I felt a twinge of anticipation as we drove along Needles Highway toward the lodge. Though we didn't have a reservation, we couldn't imagine they wouldn't have a room for us.

As it turned out, they had plenty of rooms. McGovern and his crew had cleared out that morning and the place was almost empty. The setting of the lodge was gorgeous, having been chosen by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, and the lodge had a rustic charm. The staff was mostly young and still filled with excitement about the political celebrities they'd just hosted. It thrilled me to realize that I was in the very place where so much political intrigue had so recently transpired. When McGovern had arrived at the lodge, only a few short days earlier, everything had seemed fine. By the time he departed, that very mornng, he had all but decided to dump Eagleton after initially standing by him.

While we didn't witness this firsthand, we did dine on buffalo meat in the same dining room where McGovern and Eagleton had eaten. We walked the same corridors where reporters had pressed the candidates for answers, and we felt the pathos of the situation all the more keenly for being in the place where it had just played out.

Eagleton resigns
Several days later, on August 1st, Eagleton finally resigned, at McGovern's request. Back then, I knew hardly anything about electroshock therapy, but I felt sorry Eagleton would be forever stigmatized by acknowledging his treatment. And I felt worried about McGovern, whom I supported. The situation had made him appear indecisive, given that he had at first declared he was behind Eagleton a thousand percent, only to ask for his resignation a few days later.

E. and I continued our journey across the country, lingering to marvel at the Grand Tetons, then visiting friends who lived in a tree house in the wilds of Idaho (this was, after all, the seventies). While there, we slept on a mattress under the stars, a far better accommodation than we encountered at our next stop, in the Nevada desert, where we opted for a bed-bug-infested motel rather than risk scorpions in our tent. By the time we arrived at E.'s parents' house on the Stanford campus, the Watergate coverup was well underway and Sargent Shriver was George McGovern's new running mate.

I hadn't thought about this story in years until the other day, when I found myself recounting it to a friend. Perhaps there's some lesson for our present political moment that caused it to come to mind. For me, though, it's primarily a wonderful memory of a time when I didn't worry about hotel reservations, or about what might be coming around the bend (other than scorpions), and was rewarded with a very special experience.

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