Tom Eagleton's last words

Les AuCoin

Published Tuesday, March 13, 2007 <>

I lectured twice at the University of London with Tom Eagleton and we became fast friends. The former Senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee wrote the following words of farewell in May with instructions that they be shared with his family and friends at last Saturday's memorial service.

Barbara, Terence, Christy, Michael, grandchildren Barbara, James and Greg, and friends all: This is my last audience and, thus, I think I am entitled to the last word.

Using Lou Gehrig's famous quote, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

I have had a wonderful, understanding wife. She has endured all of my foibles, and I love her for it.

I have been an absentee father. Politics is an all-absorbing, all-consuming profession. It takes a total, exclusive grip on one's life. So I apologize to Terence and Christy and express how much I love them.

I most fondly remember my mother. I was her favorite. I am reluctant to use Nixon phraseology, but my mother was a saint. She was a gentle woman and had the strength to put up with such determined personalities as my father, my brother and me.

From early days, I wanted to be a senator. My father would have made a great one. He was a magnificent trial lawyer. He was, in my mind, as great a speaker as FDR. He did not do so well in politics because he insisted on making every campaign decision by himself. I think, in a subliminal sense, I oozed into politics because I knew I could not be as great a lawyer as him and maybe I could prove to be a good politician.

My father was one of my three idols along with FDR and Eugene Hecker, my English teacher at Country Day School. Mr. Hecker thought every American should be able to read, write and speak the English language - including his students.

My dad did not think in insular or parochial terms. He thought a youngster should be exposed to all sorts of views. Once he took me to the old Coronado Hotel to hear Norman Thomas, the frequent socialist candidate for president.

Another time he took me to see a Gerald L.K. Smith protest at Kiel Auditorium. Smith was a racist "preacher" in the style of Bob Jones of Bob Jones University.

Until 1944, dad was a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. He took me to the 1940 Republican convention in Philadelphia, where Wendell Willkie was nominated. Dad thought Willkie was the "second coming" of Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1938, dad drove me by a German Bund (pro Nazi) meeting at Grand and Lafayette and explained the dangers of Hitler and anti-Semitism.

He did not take me, but he arranged to have someone else take me to Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton. I wrote up the speech for the Country Day News but left out the "Iron Curtain" part as being of lesser importance than other portions of his speech.

Let me make it clear that my father did not push me into politics. His advice to me was to first get established as a lawyer and then consider politics. When I ran for circuit attorney at age 26, he said, "You are making a mistake. Wait a few years."

In the Senate, I tried my best to express and vote my conscience. I confess to several "hold your nose" votes, like support for the dreadful price support program for cotton, which, at one time, was the crop of choice in the Bootheel of Missouri. I think Sen. Phil Hart, Sen. Mike Mansfield, my wonderful friend Gaylord Nelson and Jack Danforth were amongst senators who voted their true conscience on every vote.

You may wonder why I mention Jack Danforth. There is a possibility that God is a Republican, and at this point I feel it best to cover all my bases.

I am most proud that the "Eagleton Amendment" was the legislative act that finally ended U.S. participation in the dreadful Vietnam War. I am proud of the original version of the War Powers Act, which, had it been enacted as the bill left the Senate, would have re-established the shared powers of the president and the Congress when our nation went to war. This is what our Founding Fathers envisioned.

I am proud that, when Sen. Muskie ran for president in 1972, he directed me to take over our Environmental Subcommittee, and we passed the first major Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. By Muskie's anointment, I was the first vice chairman for a standing committee in the Senate.

After leaving the Senate, I never missed being there - except for the debate on the nomination of Bork and the horrible, disastrous Iraq war. That war will go down in American history as one of our greatest blunders. It will be remembered, in part, as a curse to our Constitution when Attorney General John Ashcroft attempted to put a democratic face on torture. Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also will go down in history for their total lack of planning for post-war Iraq.

I think, frankly, people stay too long in Congress. The world changes so rapidly that I think there should be a consistent and continuing infusion of new blood and fresh brain power into the legislative process. Eighteen years for me was enough.

I set forth my own critique of my Senate service. I could and should have done more. I had the energy. I had the desire. In analyzing myself, I blame it on my quickly moving attention span. Ted Kennedy has spent 30 plus years on National Health Insurance. I could not do that. I was too impatient. I wanted quick action, and if I didn't get it in a few years, I would move on. That is a major fault for any legislator.

Finally, a word about the Catholic Church. This may seem to be a strange topic to be raised by me, but we are here in church, and this is my final word. I do not pretend to be the world's greatest Catholic. Nevertheless, I think the Catholic Church is a vital part of American life, conscience and thought. Just as our Constitution is a remarkable, living code of governance and made relevant to the time in which we live, so, too, the doctrine of the Catholic Church is a living code of moral behavior and belief which must be relevant to the time in which we live. Its timeliness relies upon its capacity to adapt.

I am a Pope John XXIII and an Archbishop John L. May Catholic, believing in what they said and what I believe they would have said had they lived longer.

The outreach of the Catholic Church from Pope Pius IX to Pope Pius XII was not the outreach of Pope John XXIII. It is John XXIII who made the Catholic Church relevant to the 20th century, and future popes must make it relevant to the 21st century. It was Archbishop May who made the Catholic Church relevant to the 20th century in St. Louis. In the era of a Christian right, we seem to have merged God's power into political power.

I am an optimist about death and believe there is a there there. Somehow, in some manner, I will be meeting my parents, my brother and my friends. Somehow, Bob Koster will be waiting for me to tell me where I can buy everything 10 percent off.

So go forth in love and peace - be kind to dogs - and vote Democratic.

- Tom E.

Les AuCoin

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