Tom Eagleton: Remembering A Principled Politician

It’s been ten years since Tom Eagleton died on March 4, 2007 yet the passage of time has not dimmed memories of a brilliant and dedicated public servant and a generous, warm and loyal friend. Among the characteristics that made him an outstanding public servant was his ability to balance commitment to principle and a willingness to compromise to advance the public interest.

In the abstract, principle and compromise seem inconsistent. “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others,” Groucho Marx famously said, a statement that describes much political behavior. Yet compromise is critical for those interested in governing, not posturing. John F. Kennedy tried to reconcile the apparent inconsistency in Profiles in Courage when he called for “compromises of issues, not of principles.” Tom Eagleton was a gifted politician who had the skill and courage to strike that balance.

As a new senator, Eagleton was an architect of the Clean Air Act of 1970 which protected human health from poisonous pollutants. The iconic Senate staffer, Leon Billings, credited Eagleton with contributing to a legislative package which included numerous compromises the critical idea that government needed to set deadlines for compliance with standards to reverse a common legislative practice of making empty promises.

Eagleton worried that Congress had ceded its constitutional power to control presidential war-making. When President Richard M. Nixon continued to bomb Cambodia in spring 1973 after announcing that no American troops remained in Vietnam following the ceasefire, Eagleton crafted legislation to forbid the president from using appropriated funds for that purpose. Nixon vetoed the legislation and the Nixon administration agreed to a compromise with Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations committee that would allow Nixon to bomb Cambodia for 45 days.

Eagleton’s principles prevented him from accepting the compromise. It effectively authorized Nixon to wage a new, and potentially expanding, war, would cost Cambodian lives, and allowed congressmen to avoid their responsibility by claiming to oppose the bombing they were allowing. Eagleton argued that Nixon would fold if Congress stood its ground. Unfortunately, Congress folded.

Eagleton also worked with the liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits and conservative Southern Democratic Senator John Stennis to develop the Senate’s version of the War Powers Resolution to limit the president’s ability to wage war unilaterally to certain defensive situations. Eagleton continued to support the measure even when he was unable to extend its coverage to include non-military entities like the Central intelligence Agency. Yet when the Senate-House conference produced a version that eroded important limitations on presidential power, Eagleton criticized the sacrifice of constitutional principles.

Nixon vetoed the measure as intruding on presidential power. Impeachment proceedings against Nixon were accelerating and Democrats pressed Eagleton to help override Nixon’s veto to further weaken the President. And what politician passes up a chance to claim a legislative accomplishment that bears his name? The expedient course counselled ignoring the deficiencies of the conference version and casting the measure in triumphant, but misleading, terms.

That was not Eagleton’s way. When he insisted to one senator that the revised measure was unconstitutional, his friend replied, “Tom, I love the Constitution. But I hate Nixon more.” Eagleton was no fan of Nixon but his commitment to constitutional principle was non-negotiable. Eagleton was a rare Senate liberal to vote to uphold Nixon’s veto, albeit on entirely different grounds than the others who voted the same way.

Eagleton was one of only three senators to oppose confirmation of Gerald R. Ford as vice president in November, 1973. Eagleton thought Nixon’s vice president was likely to become president and did not believe Ford was up to that challenge, a misjudgment on his part. Yet a year later when Democrats implored Eagleton to criticize Ford’s pardon of Nixon as part of a deal to gain Ford the presidency, Eagleton refused since his view of Ford’s character rejected that conclusion.

Perhaps even more impressive than this refusal to criticize Ford for partisan gain was Eagleton’s role in 1982 in forcing the departure of fellow Democratic liberal senator, Harrison Williams, who had been caught in Abscam, an FBI sting operation, and convicted of accepting bribes. Some Democrats resisted expulsion which would cost the Democrats a seat. Eagleton had worked closely with Williams to advance liberal causes but saw the Senate’s integrity as at stake. His eloquent speech turned the tide against Williams. “I don’t know how this whole mess started, but I know how it ended—with Eagleton’s speech,” said Senator Fritz Hollings.

When the Senate celebrated its bicentennial on April 6, 1989, Eagleton and Howard Baker were given the unprecedented honor for former senators of addressing the Senate. That invitation spoke volumes of how Eagleton’s former colleagues regarded him. On that day, Eagleton urged the Senate to be receptive to compromise as a necessary ingredient of democratic government.

Tom Eagleton knew that it was necessary to compromise on issues to advance the public interest but he also had the courage to stand on principle to vindicate constitutional and democratic values, even when doing so cut against political interests or professional glorification. Those qualities were part of what made him an enduring example of public service at its best.

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