George McGovern sat next to me, each of us signing our new books for patrons of a Cambridge bookstore near Harvard. His line of earnest fans was a lot longer than mine. This was the second day of the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. I was thrilled to be sharing the event with McGovern.
We’d exchanged a few words, pleasantries really. I told him he’d won the very first vote I cast for president of the United States. About halfway through the book signing, he suddenly turned sideways in his seat, faced me and said: "If Eagleton had just told us, we could have dealt with it."
I was startled at McGovern’s sudden intensity. He really wanted me to know this. We hadn’t talked about Thomas Eagleton, the running mate dropped by McGovern after revelations about his psychiatric care. We really hadn’t talked about anything of substance, although McGovern had made up some nice things about me as he tried to get his fans to move over and stand in my line. He’s a very kind man.
"Yes, I know you could have dealt with it," was my feeble response.
My point here is that McGovern, a decorated war hero and experienced political leader, was still haunted — 36 years later — by the Eagleton affair. The botched vetting of his first crucial public decision was a ghost that would not leave.
You can bet that today, John McCain, his campaign team and Republican leaders are haunted by the same Ghost of Election Future that has stalked George McGovern’s noble past.
I don’t want to besmirch McGovern by making the Eagleton affair look like an exact equaivalent of McCain’s Palin problem. The circumstances are very different. Eagleton was a U.S. Senator who had held high-profile public office for 12 years. He was, we might say, from the very middle of "the lower 48," Missouri. He was no unknown political novice.
If anything, McCain will probably pay an even higher price (in terms of earned blame; he’ll lose just like McGovern) for his mistake than McGovern did. But I doubt they will dump her, although there remains the possibility of new facts that make her nomination impossible. Still, McCain and his advisers know that they are probably stuck with Sarah Palin. To jettison her as McCain’s running mate would mean the admission of profound and consequential errors of judgment. McCain’s candidacy would be doomed.
It’s not hard to imagine McCain out on the book-tour trail in 2009, turning to another author suddenly and saying, unprovoked, "If Palin had just told us about …" Well, he’ll have to pick what to blame. Her membership in a fringe, separatist party that advocates Alaskan secession? Possible abuse of office charges in connection with a feud with a former in-law? Her lie about the "bridge to nowhere (she supported it, and bragged that she didn’t)? Her ties to the law firm involved in the Ted Stevens ethics controversy?
What’s sad is that Sarah Palin doesn’t deserve this. She’s just a goofy governor of Alaska. I think she’s misguided on many issues. She is out of step with America’s needs. But no one deserves to become the kind of embarrassed historical footnote McCain is turning her into.
McCain’s the really villain here. He tied poor Sarah to the railroad tracks of the 2008 presidential campaign, holding her hostage for a few odd votes here and there. She’s going to get run over. McCain suffering will be slower, but just as deadly.