Sen. Eagleton was ‘profile in courage’


Called by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch “a towering figure in national and state politics for half a century” and described editorially by the St. Louis Jewish Light as a “Profile in Courage” for his public service, members of the St. Louis Jewish communty paid warm tribute to the memory of Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo., who died Sunday, Mar. 4, 2007 of a combination of heart, respitory and other problems “that overwhelmed his weakened system,” according to his family.

Eagleton, a Democrat in the tradition of fellow Missourian and former President Harry S Truman, and who for 18 days was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1972 as the running mate of Sen. George S. McGovern, D-S.D., was remembered with fondess, affection and respect by fellow Democrats as well as by Republicans, fellow Catholics as well as Protestants and numerous members of the Jewish community, who remember his longtime personal friendship, support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and support for freedom for Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry, among many others.

Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman, Rabbi Emeritus of United Hebrew, called the St. Louis Jewish Light to express his deep sorrow at the “loss of a great man who I considered a close personal friend.” Rabbi Grollman recalled that their long friendship began when the rabbi noticed a small boy running into the street near the former United Hebrew location on Skinker Boulevard in the City of St. Louis. “I dropped the boy off at his home, and a short time later I got a call from Tom Eagleton, who thanked me profusely for returning his son safely home, and never forgot that incident.

“Typical of his warm and often wry sense of humor,” Rabbi Grollman continued, Senator Eagleton dropped me a note again thanking me and joking that he may even join our congregation. For years thereafter, whenever I was in Washington for any reason, I would include a visit to his office. No matter how busy he was, when I stopped by, he would interrupt what he was doing to warmly receive me in his office. Our friendship built over the years, and I had the privilege of being invited to offer blessings at both the groundbreaking and the official opening of the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Office Building downtown.”

Rabbi Grollman also humorously recalled Senator Eagleton’s busy and often cluttered desk, about which Eagleton commented, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what’s an empty desk a sign of?”

Another of Tom Eagleton’s longtime and close friends in the local Jewish community is Carl Lyss, M.D., long active as a leader in the St. Louis Chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies on behalf of Israel in Washington, and St. Louisans for Better Government, a political action committee which supports candidates in both parties “who believe a strong Israel is in the interest of a strong America.”

Lyss joined many other members of the Jewish and general communities at the recent communitywide memorial service in honor of Senator Eagleton at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, at Grand and Lindell, where former Senator John C. Danforth, a Republican and an Espiscopal priest and a close personal friend of Eagleton’s joined many others in paying tribute to him as “a true statesman.”

“Tom Eagleton was indeed a real statesman in all of his public service career,” Lyss said. “He always supported Israel and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, but he was not an uncritical supporter. I did have a problem with his criticism of Israel’s action in 198l, when it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, which prevented Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons. Tom was critical of the decision at the time, but years later admitted he was mistaken. That’s the sign of a true statesman, who is not afraid to reflect upon a past position and change it based on more evidence.”

Several members of the AIPAC St. Louis delegation who visited Eagleton’s office with Lyss recall an incident when Dr. Lyss, a staunch opponent of smoking, grabbed Eagleton’s pack of cigarettes and crushed them. “Tom, you must stop smoking; Missouri needs you in the Senate,” Lyss said.

“Tom would quit smoking after suffering a heart attack years later, and he thanked me for helping him kick the smoking habit,” recalls Lyss. Lyss joined many others in the community in expressing admirtation for Eagleton who continued his career in the U.S. Senate, helped obtain the Rams francise for St. Louis and remained active in all aspects of community life even after being dropped as McGovern’s running mate in 1972.

The moderate depression for which Eagleton was treated, which included electric shock therapy, in no way impeded his performance in public life in laer years.

Michael N. Newmark, former president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and his wife, Barbara Newmark, past president of the St. Louis Section, National Council of Jewish Women, recalled their longtime friendship with Eagleton in an interview with this writer.

“Tom Eagleton was a very genuine, sweet and generous man,” recalled Michael Newmark. “He co-taught a very popular course with Murray Weidenbaum, his conservative Republican friend, who served in the Reagan Administration. I was at a party with Tom, who introduced Murray as a dear friend and a great 19th century economist.”

Barbara Newmark affectionately recalls, “Tom was always very busy and he often would ask my advice on who to vote for in local and school board elections. With typical Eagleton humor, he started calling me ‘Boss Barbara,’ and gave us a biography of the famous Boss Tweed of New York. He was a great friend and a great public servant and we will dearly miss him.”

Eagleton was affiliated with the law firm of Thompson Coburn LLP for 20 years, and the statement issued in his honor by the firm summarizes the feelings of his many friends in both the Jewish and general communities of St. Louis: “He was a dedicated public servant and citizen representative of the people who understood both great affairs of state and the needs of the common man and woman. On a more personal level to those of us here at Thompson Coburn, his zest for life, indomitable spirit and sense of humor graced the halls of our offices for two decades.”

Bob Cohn is editor-in-chief emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.