Amherst Magazine

Parting thoughts: An interview with Tom Eagleton

Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton ’50 died on March 4 at the age of 77. Below is an interview with Eagleton that appeared in the Summer 1986 issue of Amherst magazine.


Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, Democrat from Missouri, graduate of Amherst ’50 and Harvard Law School ’53, has announced that he will retire from office in January 1987 after having served three terms.

Eagleton will become University Professor of Public Affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. He will teach in the department of political science and The Center for the Study of Public Affairs. The soon-to-be-ex-Senator has said he will also resume the practice of law.

St. Louis is Eagleton’s hometown. His official biographical summary notes that the young Eagleton grew up in “an intensely political South St. Louis household,” and that he “was bitten early by the political bug.” He says one of his earliest memories is of a trip to the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Eagleton is, however, a lifelong Democrat.

He entered politics at the tender age of 27 when he was elected circuit attorney of the City of St. Louis, the youngest person to hold that office. In short order, Eagleton became chief prosecutor for the City of St. Louis and attorney general of Missouri. In 1964 he was elected lieutenant governor and in 1968, at the age of 39, U.S. Senator.

In his first term, the freshman senator became intensely involved in the debate over the American presence in Vietnam—“the only foreign policy debate in town” at the time, he remembers.

The Eagleton Amendment to Halt the Bombing in Cambodia (1973) helped lead to the eventual withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia. Eagleton was a principal author in the same year of The War Powers Resolution. His book, War and Presidential Power: A Chronicle of Congressional Surrender, was published in 1974.

Many Americans remember Senator Eagleton was the vice presidential candidate who was bumped form the ticket in Sen. George McGovern’s unsuccessful 1972 Democratic bid for the presidency. Eagleton steeped down after revelations in the press that he had been treated for depression.

A 1982 summary from Politics in America, an annual assessment produced by Congressional Quarterly, Inc., states, “It has taken years from Tom Eagleton to lose the celebrity image he gained in a few days as George McGovern’s running mate in ’72, but he has done it by settling back into the quiet career of workday productivity he had before the ’72 campaign.”

Among the signs of Eagleton’s workaday productivity are his role in establishing the National Institute of Aging and expanding services available to elderly under the reauthorized Older Americans Act (1978); Inspectors General Legislation (1978) which set up a system of internal audits and investigations into fraud and abuse of federal funds; and Home Rule for the District of Columbia (1973). Eagleton is ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

The following conversation took place in the senator’s Capitol Hill office on January 23, 1986, only days after the opening of the second session of the ninety-ninth Congress.


Senator Eagleton, I was hoping that you would talk about some general issues as you’re leaving the Senate in a year. Particularly I’m interested in your thoughts on the way in which Congress functions now as compared to the way it functioned when you came into the Senate. Whether you think that Congress is doing its job well. Also, I’d be interested in your reading of the political climate, with particular reference to the Reagan Administration — what, if anything, it has done to change the national mood, in what ways it reflects the national mood, those kinds of questions.

I’ll start off with a caveat. Every senator who leaves the United States Senate leaves with a tinge of cynicism: namely, that things were a lot better in the “good old days” than they are in the hectic, helter-skelter days of the present.

I remember when Senator Pastore of Rhode Island left back in the ’70s. I was riding with him on the little train that goes between the Capitol and the Senate office buildings. He said something to this effect: “Tom, I’m really glad I’m leaving. Things just aren’t the way they used to be around here. It’s so disorganized and so confused. I’m glad I’m going back to Rhode Island.”

I make some of those same comments now, 17 years after first coming to the Senate in 1969. Once again, I emphasize the caveat.

To me the Senate is, at the present time, in a state of chaos. We do not have structured and orderly procedures.

The most disruptive thing of all is this rather new Senate gimmick whereby any one senator can begin and continue indefinitely a filibuster on any little item that annoys that particular senator.

Of course, we had filibusters before. However, in bygone days we had a filibuster about very two or three years, usually on civil rights issues or some other issue of great significance. The Senate as an institution could prepare for them. Now, we have them about every two or three weeks. Sometimes there are two or three filibusters in a given week and most of them just on minuscule subject matters.

I remember, a year or so ago, the two senators from Illinois tied up the Senate for four days on the question of a highway project or some pork barrel project in Illinois. My God! Why should the United States Senate grind to a halt while two Senators talk on and on and on about some minor pork barrel project in Illinois?

Senator, what made this change”

What made this change is an individual who came to the Senate the same year that I came in, 1969. He’s not very famous. His name was Senator Jim Allen of Alabama. He is now deceased.

Jim Allen found a loophole in the Senate rules. He found that after “cloture” was invoked (cloture is the mechanism by which 60 senators can cut off debate) you can continue to stall the Senate by filing 2,000 amendments at the desk and then just call up each amendment. The Senate Rule on cloture didn’t take care of this bizarre loophole.

We seem to be stuck with this atrocious procedure. We’ve never been able to summon the courage and wisdom to change it and so, on your first topic, how the Senate functions, the answer is: we don’t function very well. I have filibustered your first two questions. I do so because I feel strongly on the issue. It is one of the reasons I am leaving the Senate.

On the committee level, too, we do not function very well. Why is that? Senators are on too many committees. We’re spread too thin. One year I was on 16 subcommittees.

For comparison, how many were you on when you first came here?

A few less. I would suspect when I first got here I was on maybe 10 or 11.

So, in one recent year, I was on 16 subcommittees. Many days four or five of those subcommittees would be meeting at the same time—for example, 10 o’clock in the morning. Therefore, I would pick one and ignore the others. It follows that if you can’t go to the subcommittee meetings, you can’t hear the witnesses. That puts you in a less advantageous position to understand the bill when the bill comes up for final consideration in the subcommittee. You’re not “up to speed” on it. Thus, I contend that we function very poorly on the subcommittee and committee level.

If I were redesigning the Senate, I would say that if you’re on a committee like the Finance Committee, which is the major committee of the Senate, then that is the only committee on which you can serve. It is so important and its scope of jurisdiction is so wide—taxes, trade, Medicare, etc.—that your time is totally consumed by service on the one committee.

Thus, I would determine a senator’s membership on committees by the depth of the jurisdiction of the committee at the scope of the problems that the committee faced. It would not be simple to do. But it is something we should do.

Is there a move afoot to limit a Senator’s committee assignment?

No, the Senate doesn’t like to reform itself because some people have vested interests in keeping things as they are. Senators, for instance, who like to filibuster, who like to obstruct, who like to hold things up, don’t change that rule. And we have some of those—the two most classic ones being Senator Helms of North Carolina on the Republican side and Senator Metzenbaum of Ohio on the Democratic side.

They love to stop legislation that they find personally obnoxious, and hence, they don’t want any changes in rules that would thwart their efforts to obstruct. Believe me, between the two of these guys, practically everything is obnoxious.

Then, there are some others who would object to changing the way subcommittees function. If you’re on a bunch of subcommittees, ostensibly that gives you more power. It certainly gives you more staff, and hence, many senators would be reluctant to give up both power and staff. So, reforming ourselves is very difficult. It’s sort of like a drunk who finds it difficult to reform himself while he is seated at the bar in the “21” Club.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about Gramm-Rudman or on the session ahead of you?

I’m not the world’s greatest expert on Gramm-Rudman. I was certainly not one of its authors. I have not served on the Budget Committee which is the best vantage point to approach the Gramm-Rudman bill. However, it was of such importance that every senator had to study the bill and I think I can safely predict that, if fully implemented, it would be a disaster.

We may be rescued from ourselves by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may—I’m not saying will—the Supreme Court may strike out one of its more egregious and important provisions. In the event the Supreme Court doesn’t rescue us and if the meat-ax provisions of the law become binding, you will have a disaster on the defense budget, on the education budget, on the environmental budget, and on and on and on.

Every senator wants to work towards a more rational budget. We absolutely must begin to reduce this $220 billion annual deficit. You cannot do it in one fell swoop or on the terms and schedule set forth in Gramm-Rudman. You cannot put the United States federal budget on automatic pilot.

Let me make another observation on Gramm-Rudman. Recessions come and go in cycles. It’s pretty fair to predict that we’ll be in a recession cycle sometime in the next four years. Suppose at that very time Gramm-Rudman automatically cuts $40 billion in spending, the economy is turning down, consumers are buying less, and factories are laying off. Because Gramm-Rudman we vote in, as would be required, a $40-billion spending decrease, or alternatively, a $40-billion tax increase to offset the spending decrease. Practically every economist in America would say, “My God, that’s insanity. With an oncoming recession you’re going to vote massive spending cuts or tax hikes in the face of it”? Every economist at Amherst College (unless Arthur Laffer is on your faculty by then) would say that’s virtually an indictable, criminal offense. Yet we might be forced to do it because Gramm-Rudman might leave us no choice but to have a massive spending cut or massive tax increase in the face of an oncoming recession. That’s the consequence of the automatic pilot. It’s crazy.

What would you like to see happen instead of this scenario?

I would like to see the president and some of his key advisors and perhaps 20 people from Congress—10 from the House, 10 from the Senate—who are from both parties and who are knowledgeable on fiscal affairs, monetary policy and budget affairs, hold their own mini-summit. Out of that summit would come a flexible economic game plan to cover the next three years. The plan would be a mix of spending cuts, both civilian and military, and tax increases all properly timed to blend into the economy.

I repeat, there would be cuts in the defense budget and some ceilings on further growth in discretionary domestic spending. There would be a postponement, if not elimination, of all COLAs—cost-of-living allowances—that are affixed to a range of programs. The latter would affect some very sensitive items, including Social Security.

I think a modest-sized group of people of good will can work out a rational plan, but the plan has to have some flexibility, it has to have some give in it, and some elasticity. It cannot be as arbitrary, hard and fast as Gramm-Rudman.

By the way, I would want David Stockman to be part of the group. He knows more about the budget than any other living creature or any dead computer.

Senator, in the early days of the Reagan Administration, you were one of the first people in the Congress to criticize the effect of the Administration policies in poor people, on elderly people, on education. Could you comment on what you’ve seen since then?

The poor have gotten poorer. There’s no question about that. My home city is St. Louis, Mo. I don’t have to take you very far from the St. Louis Airport to show you some of the worst poverty in the United States. A poverty that has gotten deeper and more ingrained in the last five years.

The gap between the well-to-do and the middle class on the one hand and the poor on the other hand has widened. Programs that are geared to the poor—food stamps, educational programs, housing programs, and the like—are generating less benefits for the poor today than they did five years ago.

As far as the elderly are concerned—the person who has Social Security, plus a pension from his corporation, plus the retirement annuity that he may have invested in, plus the stocks he owns—that particular elderly person is doing very well, probably even better than he was five years ago. But there are millions in the United States whose sole income is Social Security, and they’re not doing as well.

Of course, the gap that has grown the widest is the gap between black and white. The Kerner Commission Report still looms large in my mind: we are still virtually two nations, and we are unequal. Blacks are enormously disadvantaged in education, housing, health care, and job opportunities. I think Governor Cuomo is absolutely right when he talks about a modern day “Tale of Two Cities.”

You’ve been quoted in The Atlantic, I believe, about the need to make reforms in the social welfare system, but at the same time you acknowledge that there have been problems with some of the Great Society programs. How would you characterize your stance on social change and social problems?

Thinking back when I came here, 17 years ago, I am less a government interventionist than I was then. When I came here, filled with all kinds of joyous optimism, I felt this warm, compassionate thing we call the federal government would, if it made up its mind and had the will to do it, address most of the injustice or unfairness we had in America. I once believed government can solve most of any inequity. I now know that government cannot so do.

I have always been keenly interested in education, dating back to my Missouri political days. So, I came here with the notion that if the federal government just got moving in education, sent out a lot more money to the school districts, we could substantially elevate the quality of education around the country.

In truth, we really didn’t send out all that much more money. The federal share of education in St. Louis and around the country is still somewhere in the neighborhood of about 8 percent, what it was when I arrived here. But even if we made it 12 percent or 16 percent, I’m not sure that the quality of public education would be greatly enhanced.

I just came back from a trip to Japan. In Japan school teacher are venerated. They are paid 10 percent more than any other civil servant with comparable years of service. For example, school teachers are paid 10 percent more than the employee in the Department of Finance because education is considered to be just as important. A school teacher out in a small community in Japan is looked upon as being just as important an individual as the banker or the industrialist or the biggest farmer in the area.

We don’t place that same value on education in the United States. The federal government can’t invent that sense of value. I wish we could. I’m tremendously frustrated. I’m simply using education as one example.

Let’s move on to housing. We have some of the worst low-income housing in the world. Have you ever heard of a housing project called Pruitt-Igoe? As Franklin Roosevelt said about Pearl Harbor, Pruitt-Igoe “will live in infamy.” When I was the prosecutor in St. Louis, I used to go take investigative statements in the Pruitt-Igoe project. I saw its tragedy first-hand.

So we leveled Pruitt-Igoe. Have we built anything more rational to take care of thousands and thousands of poor people in North St. Louis? A building here, a building there. Low-rises, to be sure. If you look at the housing base in North St. Louis—that’s predominantly where the black community is—you will cry in despair. Seventeen years later the impoverished blacks of St. Louis are even more poorly housed and poorly educated than they were before.

Looking at the social landscape in America right now, are you, in general, pessimistic?

Yes, I am—not despondent, but pessimistic.

You say you had a kind of joyous optimism.

Yes, when I came here. I leave here with cautious pessimism. I’m not so pessimistic as to predict the end of the world or the end of America. But I’m very pessimistic about some unresolved social conditions in America.

Even though we have just celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday, and have come a long way from the days of Bull Connor, let me tell you that we still are a very divided nation.

Sure, blacks can get into theaters and blacks can get into baseball parks and blacks can get into universities. Lots of doors have been opened, but the dichotomy in America is still white versus black. In economic terms, in employment terms, in social justice terms, America is a dichotomous nation. The dichotomy has been rectified in political terms, but not in economic or social justice terms.

You’ve mentioned the black and white issue and education a number of times. Do I take it that these are very strong interests of yours, particularly in your career as a senator?

I think a lot of it is reflective of my St. Louis background. Not all that many decades ago, St. Louis was the ninth largest city in the United States. It had 900,000 people back around the 1930 or 1940 census. It now has 450,000 people and half are black. Many of the whites have fled to the suburbs. The blacks who can afford to do so—doctors, lawyers, school teachers, merchants, black workers who have a good job at McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft or whatever—have fled to the suburbs. And so the city where I grew up, and the city where I will live once again a year from now, has a population one-half of which is mired in poverty and hopelessness.

There are no jobs in North St. Louis. The Chevrolet plant that was in North St. Louis closed. The shoe plant that was near North St. Louis closed. Any of the garment industry that was nearby has closed. Scullen Steel, 90 percent of whose workers were black, closed.

This spring I will speak a black high school commencement in North St. Louis. The principal has asked me to speak about job opportunities for poor blacks. I am without words in thinking about what I’m going to say to these black high school graduates when there are no job opportunities around. What do I tell them about the future? How do I offer them even a little hope?

When I was in Japan, I asked former Senator Mansfield, who is our ambassador, and a very wonderful gentleman, “Mike, I’m going to give this high school commencement address. Mike, all these jobs that I’ve mentioned—the Chevrolet plant, the steel plant, the shoe plant, the garment industry—all those jobs have come to Japan or Korea or Hong Kong or Taiwan. I’m going to talk to these black kids and they’re going to want to know (a) why the jobs left and (b) how I am going to get them back. Mike, please give me some advice.”

Mike Mansfield said—he’s a very candid man—he said, “Tom, I don’t know what advice to give you.”

I don’t know what advice anybody could give. What future is there for a low-skilled black or white with a reading level of third or fourth grade even with a sham high school diploma? We can’t build enough McDonald hamburger stands around the country to hire all those kids.

I take it you don’t see a national resolve to deal with the problems you describe. Is that right?

I see a national selfishness. All of us, as individuals, are a bit selfish. But I think America collectively is more selfish today than perhaps at any time in my lifetime. In the ’30s, when I was a little kid, when lots of people were broke, people would try to work together to help the other guy out. If you had a little extra food in your house, maybe you’d help the guy across the street because he was in the same boat as you were.

In World War II, there was a great spirit of working together to beat Hitler, to beat Tojo.

In the halcyon ’50s and ’60s and early ’70s, when the American economy was growing like crazy, and we were the unchallenged, premier economy of the world, there were more than enough jobs and growth to go around for everybody.

But things have changed. The economy is moving very tepidly. Our jobs are moving to the Pacific and more people are being left behind. America has become uncompetitive. We no longer have the unchallenged economic leadership of the world.

Is it your sense that the present Administration speaks for the will of Americans? Is the Administration doing what Americans want it to do?

I think this Administration has the greatest rehearsed communicator since Franklin Roosevelt. I guess you can tell who my hero is.

Ronald Reagan speaks for 70 percent of the country. I sadly recall the election returns of 1984. President Reagan won a historic victory, 49 states out of 50. His popular vote percentage was 59 or 60 percent, a huge mandate.

His popularity is bigger today, according to polls, than it was even in November of ’84. He’s extraordinarily popular. And I think when he speaks of patriotism, of America getting tough, of American know-how and American talent, of American ingenuity and all these nice buzz words, 70 percent of the people love him and love to hear his pep rally words.

And what do the buzz words mean?

Sometimes they don’t mean all that much. It’s like going to a beautiful parade on Fifth Avenue where they’re throwing confetti down on some astronauts. It’s fun, it’s enjoyable. I think the president addresses the inner sense of 70 percent—I just picked that number, it’s very arbitrary—of the American people. Americans like to hear these happy words, even though American ingenuity and American know-how aren’t what they were once before, i.e., before our great current competition with Japan.

Nevertheless, Americans like to hear the happy words. Americans like to hear that our country is strong. Americans want to forget about Vietnam where we weren’t too strong. Americans like to hear that we were strong enough to defeat Grenada in a war despite the fact that the coordination of our armed forces got all messed up. Americans don’t want to hear about the mess up; they just want to know that we “socked it” to Grenada.

Ronald Reagan plays to these desires beautifully, articulates them beautifully. Millions of people like to hear it.

But his message is not being heard by those millions who are left behind and are left out. It’s not only the unemployed. It’s those who fear that they’re next to be unemployed. It’s those who live in states that have virtually no future—West Virginia, for example. What future does West Virginia have? It’s a coal mining state with some dilapidated steel mills that are about 30 years behind the Japanese and the Koreans in the state-of-the-art technology.

Why, in the face of that reality, does the liberal ideal not hold up? What happened?

The liberal ideal burned out. It was burned out, first, by time. No message can last unto perpetuity. No political philosophy can hang on forever. You know it lasted quite a long time if you want to count everything from Roosevelt through Truman (Call Eisenhower a momentary exception), John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. That’s 1932 to 1968, a long period of time. Any philosophy starts to run out of gas unless it gets some reinvigoration. Liberalism didn’t get any reinvigoration.

We were pretty much selling the same stuff in ’68, and certainly selling the same stuff in ’84, that we were selling back in the first election that I vividly remember—1948, Harry Truman. So the liberal philosophy just burned out because it lost any sense of stimulation, currency and relevancy.

Second, it was burned out by a shortage of money. For the liberal philosophy to flourish, it needed large amounts of money to be pumped into various programs that this or that liberal politician thinks will enhance the quality of life.

If it’s the arts, or if it’s higher education, or if it’s elementary and secondary education, or if it’s research at the National Institutes of Health, or whatever, it takes large amounts of money to keep those programs going and, indeed, to expand them. When you’re diverting a lot of money to the military and when you’re cutting a lot of taxes at the same time, you don’t have the money for the old-fashioned liberal agenda.

And third, it burned out because the public perception was that too many of the liberal programs weren’t working. Indeed, some of them weren’t.

You see, the great thing about Franklin Roosevelt, he tried a whole bunch of things during the ’30s and he would shuck off those that were shown to be early failures. He was very clever at getting rid of some of the stuff that Henry Wallace tried, but didn’t work, that Rexford Tugwell tried, but didn’t work, that Harry Hopkins tried, but didn’t work. Get rid of it if it doesn’t work.

The modern liberal is too stubborn and doesn’t want to admit failure.

So a housing program that’s been started must continue, the job training program that was started must continue, and the prison reform program that was started must continue. We must continue all of them whether they work or not. Liberals suffer blind allegiance to the past and to lost causes.

Senator, why aren’t you going to stay around to help solve these problems?

Oh boy! I’ve been in politics almost 30 years, 17 in the Senate and 12 in public office prior thereto. And 30 years, frankly, ought to be enough for anybody and certainly is enough for me. A political lifetime is the toughest grind that an individual can put him or herself through. I don’t want to reek of self-pity. It is a tough existence and in the end it takes its toll.

So I decided that at age 57, while I still had my marbles left, I would try something different. I am going into teaching. Let some fresher people come to the Senate who have some new ideas. Maybe they can cope more successfully with some of these problems that I’ve addressed.

I’ve seen some people stay in the Senate for way, way too long, far beyond their physiological and psychological endurance. There is something about power that causes people not to want to surrender it. Power becomes an addiction. I didn’t want to end up like that. I think I could have gotten re-elected, but why try to go on and on and on if your juices tell you it’s time to try something new?

People have said to me that politics seems to be for you a natural pursuit. They wonder how you’ll manage without it.

I’m sure I will have some anxious days when I get back to St. Louis. I won’t have the staff that follows me around and tells me what to do. I won’t have all the “perks” that go with being a senator. I won’t sit up at the head of table at the dinners.

Are you really just going to retire to teaching?

I’m going to be a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. And I think I’ll like that. I’ve done some teaching in the past. That’s one way to keep active, to keep your brain alive, and to keep interested in issues. Being around young, eager minds is my own “fountain of youth.”

Senator, you have said you’ll resume your practice of law when you go back to St. Louis. What type of law?

Uncomplicated law. It won’t be tax law. That’s very complicated and that’s passed me by. I graduated from law school in 1953. Even one year’s tax bill is enough to destroy any knowledge of tax law that I might have had. I think I’ll do some appellate work. I did some of it when I was attorney general of Missouri. I liked it. You can get boned up on a particular case. Arguing a case on appeal is like arguing a position on the floor of the Senate. I like to argue.

Does a senator retired from the Senate have a political life? Is that possible?

I think politicians who leave high office, whether it’s governor or senator or the highest of all, vice president or president, make a huge mistake if they try to wield the same political power that they once had while they were incumbents. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen ex-governors of Missouri eat alone at restaurants in our capital city. I’ve seen ex-senators wander around the Capitol building wishing they were still here, wishing they still had power. Sad!

So if we want to know anything about you, we’re going to have to read the Washington University Alumni News?

Oh, well I’ll give a speech once in a while. But once you are “ex,” your speeches that used to make the fifth page, section A, will end up on the twelfth page, section D.

That doesn’t mean that I will have lost my interest in politics. My God, you can’t devote your whole life—18 years in the Senate, 30 years of active politics, and then all my growing and formative years of wanting to get into politics—you can’t dismiss all of that from your bloodstream.

I will always be interested in who my party is going to nominate for pesident in 1988, who’s going to run for governor of Missouri in 1988, who’s going to run for the senate from Missouri in some future time.

Thank you, senator.