Loren Gatch wries:
When Fred Reed was editor of Paper Money, he encouraged me to write about strange stuff
like political satire notes, and Benny Bolin has been kind enough to keep indulging my interest in
Forthcoming in Paper Money is the attached article, "George McGovern's $1,000
Promissory Note", about a common example of political scrip that appeared at the Republican
National Convention in 1972. We are tweaking the relative size of the photographs and the notes,
but the text will run as it is.
Here's an excerpt from the article. Thanks! -Editor
While the word “flip-flop” has been a part of America’s political lexicon since the early 20th
century, as a piece of political invective the term has become widespread only in the last
generation. As with most political speech, the more it has been used the less it means. Nowadays,
almost any apparent inconsistency—or even the intellectually honest act of changing one’s mind—gets
a public figure in hot water. Back in 1972, however, “flip-flop” did most definitely describe the
behavior of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, George McGovern, towards his running
mate, Thomas Eagleton. The fiasco of McGovern’s embrace and then disavowal of his vice-presidential
choice not only created the “Eighteen-Day Running Mate” but gave rise to a widely-available example
of political scrip, George McGovern’s $1000 Promissory Note.
The convention proceedings in Miami Beach stretched on in a way that rushed the selection of
McGovern’s vice-presidential candidate. When other alternatives, like Boston’s mayor Kevin White,
proved unacceptable, the McGovern forces finally turned to Thomas Francis Eagleton (1929-2007), the
junior senator from Missouri. While not as well-known as Kennedy, Eagleton’s Catholicism and his
links to organized labor promised to balance the ticket in a similar way. With hardly any vetting
of his background, Eagleton was offered a spot on the ticket on July 13 in a phone conversation
with McGovern that lasted barely one minute.
It was only after accepting the nomination that Eagleton confirmed rumors that since 1960 he had
been hospitalized three times for depression, and twice undergone electroconvulsive—popularly
called “electroshock”—therapy. Not only had Eagleton dissimulated in failing to tell the McGovern
campaign about these episodes, he continued to resist explaining his medical record in any detail.
Eagleton’s stance put the McGovern campaign in a terrible bind. Forcing Eagleton off the ticket
would look callous, and destroy McGovern’s image as a different, and more principled, type of
politician. Yet keeping Eagleton raised enormous doubts about the competence of a man who might be
second in line to assume the presidency, as well as about McGovern’s own sense of judgment.
In a joint press conference with McGovern on July 25, Eagleton first publicly confirmed his past
hospitalizations, and McGovern famously declared that “I am 1,000 percent for Tom Eagleton and have
no intention of dropping him from the ticket.” The statement was, according to Theodore H. White,
“possibly the most damaging faux pas ever made by a Presidential candidate.”
The pushback against McGovern’s decision was intense. The liberal press was against Eagleton;
donations to the Democratic Party dried up; and McGovern’s own campaign workers were dealt a
McGovern’s unfortunate use of the term “1,000 percent” regarding Eagleton also resonated with
one of his earlier campaign proposals to reform the country’s welfare system. McGovern had proposed
to give each American a $1,000 payment (a “demogrant”); an idea that, linked with a broader tax
reform, actually had a certain academic pedigree and was a forerunner of what later emerged as the
Earned Income Tax Credit.
On its face, though, the notion was easy to caricature; Humphrey ridiculed it during the
California primary, while Nixon’s campaign director Clark MacGregor called it a “$1,000-perperson
giveaway program that would split America permanently into a welfare class and a working
A short time later, during the Republican convention (also in Miami Beach), Scripps- Howard
newspapers noted how “funny money—fake $1,000 bills bearing the face of Democratic presidential
nominee George S. McGovern—floods convention hotels.” Dispensed over souvenir store counters at the
convention, the $1,000 bills sport a red profile of McGovern, facing to his left, framed by blue
scrollwork. The text, also in red, reads “Here’s the $1,000 McGovern promised everyone”, “Legal
tender to anyone stupid enough to take it at face value”, and with the promise that “On Nov. 7,
1972 this bill will self-destruct.” The reverse (of which there seem to be two varieties, one
printed brown, and another green) is labeled a “promissory note” with a portrait of an agitated and
perspiring Eagleton mopping his brow. “McGovern says he’s behind me 1,000 percent”, “but…he didn’t
say how far behind!” This side is described as “Payable Nov. 8, 1972, at Credibility Gap,
Crudely printed on the cheapest paper, the parody notes deftly juxtaposed the two lines of
attack directed at McGovern’s candidacy: that his policy proposals were too radical for the nation
and that his treatment of Eagleton reflected poorly on McGovern’s character and judgment.
Reproduced in facsimile in newspapers across the country, the notes themselves quickly showed up at
political events as far away as San Antonio, Texas.
The Democrats never recovered from the Eagleton debacle, and the McGovern-Shriver ticket went on
to lose in November 1972 by the widest margin of the popular vote in the history of presidential
elections. After the Eagleton experience, vice presidential nominees were never again selected so
casually and without proper background checks.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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