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Eagleton's work on war may have left biggest mark

Philip Dine
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

WASHINGTON - Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton may be best remembered in the nation's capital and around the country for his short-lived stint as George McGovern's partner on the 1972 Democratic ticket. But his most-lasting impact may have come from his lead role in efforts to end the Vietnam War and reassert congressional war powers.

Eagleton was pivotal on a range of issues of war and peace. An original sponsor of the War Powers Resolution, he also helped force President Richard M. Nixon to pull troops from Vietnam. He was the chief sponsor of the move to stop the bombing of Cambodia in 1973 and led the push to cut off aid to Turkey after it invaded Cyprus. In that latter effort, he took on then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

A Navy veteran, Eagleton helped kill military projects he considered unnecessary.

"He made a difference on every issue he touched in the Senate, especially Vietnam," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a colleague throughout Eagleton's career in Washington. "He'll long be remembered for his outrage over the senseless bombing of Cambodia and for his leadership in the anti-war effort."

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the longest-serving senator ever, said Eagleton's lasting legacy is that he so "well understood the constitutional authority of the Congress in matters of war and peace."

Eagleton's concerns about war matters never abated. Just last week, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and chairman of the House Armed Services, got a note from Eagleton after Skelton was quoted in a newspaper article opposing President Bush's planned surge of American troops in Iraq. The two Missouri legislators had been close allies since the 1950s.

Eagleton's note read, simply, "Ike, correct! TFE."

In the Vietnam era, Eagleton three times added to bills a requirement that Nixon stop spending money on the war in Vietnam, only to have Nixon veto the measure each time. Nixon finally forged a compromise with Democrats that allowed him to use additional funds only to get the U.S. military out of Vietnam.

Separately, Eagleton led the charge on the War Powers Resolution, but ended up voting against it because he believed amendments added to the measure gave the president too much leeway to deploy troops. Nonetheless, his role was crucial in limiting presidential authority to wage war without congressional approval.

Eagleton's goal was not only to give Congress an initial say in whether to go to war but also to assure that if the president launched an attack, he would not be able to remain in a conflict for an extended period of time if Congress opposed it, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute.

In terms of style, Eagleton is remembered for his no-nonsense, passionate approach as a legislator but, at the same time, for his ability to work across the aisle with Republicans - including his GOP counterpart from Missouri, Sen. John C. Danforth.

The keys to Eagleton's effectiveness as a legislator were his intellect, approachability and integrity, Skelton said.

"He was honest, he was friendly," Skelton said. "You never had to question whether he was being devious. He always told the truth - and if he gave his word and said he'd do something, he'd do it. That was his middle name - integrity."

At the same time, Eagleton's career in the Senate was marked by ups and downs, and while successful, he did not achieve the heights his early activities and his abilities indicated he might.

Just as he appeared ready to become a major power broker in the Senate, having acquired seniority as well as respect from members of both parties, the Republicans won control of the Senate in 1980 - meaning his last term was spent in the minority. He then retired at a young age for a senator - only 57 - to return to St. Louis.

Had the Democrats retained control of the Senate, Eagleton was positioned to become chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which would have allowed him to undertake major investigations.

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