The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis

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No skeletons were rattling in his closet, Thomas Eagleton assured George McGovern’s political director. But only eighteen days later—after a series of damaging public revelations and feverish behind-the-scenes maneuverings—McGovern rescinded his endorsement of his Democratic vice-presidential running mate, and Eagleton withdrew from the ticket. This fascinating book is the first to uncover the full story behind Eagleton's rise and precipitous fall as a national candidate.


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No skeletons were rattling in his closet, Thomas Eagleton assured George McGovern’s political director. But only eighteen days later—after a series of damaging public revelations and feverish behind-the-scenes maneuverings—McGovern rescinded his endorsement of his Democratic vice-presidential running mate, and Eagleton withdrew from the ticket. This fascinating book is the first to uncover the full story behind Eagleton's rise and precipitous fall as a national candidate.

Within days of Eagleton's nomination, a pair of anonymous phone calls brought to light his history of hospitalizations for “nervous exhaustion and depression” and past treatment with electroshock therapy. The revelation rattled the campaign and placed McGovern's organization under intense public and media scrutiny. Joshua M. Glasser investigates a campaign in disarray and explores the perspectives of the campaign’s key players, how decisions were made and who made them, how cultural attitudes toward mental illness informed the crisis, and how Eagleton's and McGovern's personal ambitions shaped the course of events.

Drawing on personal interviews with McGovern, campaign manager Gary Hart, political director Frank Mankiewicz, and dozens of other participants inside and outside the McGovern and Eagleton camps—as well as extensive unpublished campaign records—Glasser captures the political and human drama of Eagleton's brief candidacy. Glasser also offers sharp insights into the America of 1972—mired in war and anxious about the economy, a time with striking similarities to our own.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Glasser’s examination of the low point of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign offers a gripping account of the political earthquake that ensued when Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, the hastily picked and poorly vetted vice-presidential candidate, was forced to disclose a history of hospitalizations for depression and treatments that included electroshock therapy. This proved disastrous for the Democrats, after a bitterly contested convention in which South Dakota senator McGovern, whose reputation for basic decency—but weakness in delegating and exercising authority—was tested by the scramble to secure the nomination. McGovern’s agonizingly indirect process of dropping Eagleton from the ticket is meticulously described by Glasser, a researcher for Bloomberg Television. Glasser maintains an even tone in his well-researched recounting of the nomination process, which included a failed bid to bring scandal-plagued Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy onto the ticket, but points out “wishful thinking and arrogance alone cannot explain the McGovern campaign’s lack of planning for the vice-presidential choice.” As reporters hustled to ferret out the details of Eagleton’s hospitalizations and (generally effective) electroshock therapy, American voters confronted the issue of mental illness. While Eagleton’s reputation became one of strength and resilience, there was considerable support for the notion that “the Eagleton affair indelibly tainted perceptions of McGovern,” resulting in Richard Nixon’s landslide win. Agent: Kathy Robbins, the Robbins Office. (Aug.)
Wall Street Journal - Fred Barnes

“Compelling…[Glasser] has written a rigorously reported, unbiased and readable narrative, with incisive lessons for current and future would-be presidents."—Fred Barnes, The Wall Street Journal
Christian Science Monitor - Adam Kirsch

"Timely and impeccably researched . . . Glasser brings out the full human drama and political intrigue of this historic episode, which forever changed the way presidential candidates pick their running mates."—Adam Kirsch, Christian Science Monitor
Time Magazine - Jon Meacham

“An engaging new book.”—Jon Meacham, Time Magazine and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Kings Features Syndicate - Larry Cox

“Crisply written, meticulously researched, and insightful, this fascinating book underscores the similarities of our country as it was 40 summers ago and as it is today.  Both then and now, we are involved in an unpopular war, we are anxious about the economy and many are distrustful of our government and ambivalent about civil rights. This is political reporting at its very best.  Glasser makes this event in history not just interesting but relevant.”—Larry Cox, Kings Features Syndicate

National Review - John J. Miller

"Engrossing account of the doomed McGovern-Eagleton partnership... [Glasser] imparts lessons for both then and now.... Glasser's tick-tock chronicle of July 13, the day McGovern settled on Eagleton, is both a fasinating piece of political history and a devastating portrayal of executive irresolution." —John J. Miller, National Review
The Melissa Harris-Perry Show - Melissa Harris-Perry

“If you think V.P. picks aren't interesting, just read ‘The 18-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton and a Campaign in Crisis. ‘ This is the story of an epic political fail, and it is fascinating.”—Melissa Harris-Perry, Melissa Harris-Perry Show
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - David Shribman

“A gripping examination of how McGovern chose Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate without knowing the senator had undergone electroshock therapy.”—David Shribman, The Salem News
Joseph J. Ellis

“Josh Glasser has recovered the McGovern-Eagleton crisis in all its messy grandeur. More impressively, he uses the episode as a lightening flash that illuminates the way we were in the summer of 1972: trapped in an unpopular and unnecessary war; on the cusp of a new presidential primary system that transferred control from the back room politicians to the media; slouching towards Watergate; losing our way.”—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation
Robert Sam Anson

"There are no heroes in this exhaustively reported, beautifully written tale of one of the great political disasters of modern times. But there are plenty of lessons, not just about the undoing of the 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee and the hopes he carried, but of what can happen when hapless naivete smacks into unbridled ambition. As a bystander to these events, I thought I knew everything worth knowing about the pairing of decent George McGovern and tortured Tom Eagleton. Then I read this book. Boy, was I wrong."
—Robert Sam Anson, author of McGovern: A Biography
Martha A. Sandweiss

“The Eighteen-Day Running Mate is a riveting page-turner of a book about a forgotten episode in American political history. The moral? Politics is personal, for better and worse. And politicians—struggling to balance an appetite for public life with a penchant for family privacy—are simply humans like the rest of us, trying to find the best path forward.”—Martha A. Sandweiss, author of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
NPR's Political Junkie Blog - Ken Rudin

“A good read.”—Ken Rudin, NPR.ORG's Political Junkie Blog
The Barnes & Noble Review

According to one senator who has been through the process, being vetted as a vice presidential nominee is like having a colonoscopy using the Hubble Telescope. Certainly it's a safe bet that before Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, his team checked out every aspect of Ryan's life — personal, professional, financial — that could potentially embarrass the campaign. What Romney didn't want — what every presidential candidate in the last forty years has worked hard to avoid — was to tie himself publicly to Paul Ryan, only to find that Ryan had some terrible secret that would necessitate dropping him from the ticket. In short, he didn't want to end up with a Thomas Eagleton problem.

Eagleton is the tragic figure at the center of The Eighteen-Day Running Mate, the timely and impeccably researched history by Joshua M. Glasser. In 1972, Eagleton was a forty-two-year-old rising star in the Democratic Party — a senator from Missouri with good looks, energy, charisma, and strong liberal principles. George McGovern, the senator from South Dakota who was that year's Democratic nominee, knew that Eagleton desperately wanted to be on the ticket.

But as Glasser shows, drawing on a wealth of memoirs, interviews, and documents, Eagleton was far from McGovern's first choice. That was Ted Kennedy, who polls showed was the only vice presidential pick that could substantially improve McGovern's prospects. On the Wednesday of that year's Democratic Convention, having just fended off a technical challenge and won the nomination, McGovern called Kennedy and begged him to accept the number two spot. Kennedy refused, as did several other of McGovern's top picks. Finally, with just minutes to go before the 4 p.m. deadline for submitting a nominee to the convention, McGovern called up Eagleton, who enthusiastically accepted.

It was not until after McGovern got off the phone that his adviser, Frank Mankiewicz, had the chance to ask Eagleton the question that, common sense dictated, should have come first. "No skeletons rattling in your closet?" "Right," Eagleton replied. What else could he have said, having already accepted the nomination in front of an excited crowd of advisers and reporters? But it didn't take long for Mankiewicz and future senator Gary Hart, McGovern's top aides, to start hearing troubling rumors about Eagleton's past.

An anonymous caller told both the campaign and the newspapers that hospital visits made by Eagleton had not been stomach related, as he claimed. In fact, he had been treated on two occasions for manic-depression and had received electroshock therapy. Glasser traces the fallout of the revelation on a virtually hour-by-hour basis. At first McGovern, whose own daughter and wife had received psychiatric treatment, stood by Eagleton, rashly telling reporters that he supported him "one thousand percent." But the backlash from the public and this own supporters kept growing, and finally, after talking to some of Eagleton's psychiatrists, McGovern decided that his mental health was too fragile to be entrusted with the vice presidency. This flip-flop, Glasser argues, fatally damaged McGovern's reputation for both sincerity and competence, and helped contribute to his monumental defeat that November.

Glasser brings out the full human drama and political intrigue of this historic episode, which forever changed the way presidential candidates pick their running mates. Never again, one might think, would a candidate make such a pick recklessly, without doing due diligence, at the risk of torpedoing his own reputation. And then you remember Sarah Palin.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300176292
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2012
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Joshua M. Glasser is a researcher for Bloomberg Television in New York. He graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, Eagleton's alma mater. He lives in the Bronx, NY.

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Read an Excerpt

The Eighteen-Day Running Mate

McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis
By Joshua M. Glasser


Copyright © 2012 Joshua M. Glasser
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17629-2

Chapter One

The Conundrum

Around 11 p.m. on Sunday night, July 30, 1972, George McGovern sat opposite Thomas Eagleton in the library of a campaign donor's suburban Washington mansion. McGovern was the Democratic Party's nominee for president, and Eagleton was his running mate. The fifty-year-old McGovern's graying hair had receded to expose a vast forehead cut by deep lines. Thick eyebrows and a protruding chin defined a warm, familiar face. Eagleton was forty-two, and, at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach three weeks earlier, a Tom Eagleton vice presidency had seemed to make sense.

Described by the media as a "casting director's ideal for a running mate," Eagleton offered a political profile that balanced McGovern's weaknesses. An urban Catholic with Kennedy good looks and support from his state's establishment politicians, Eagleton was known as a phenomenal campaigner, and his "gregarious good nature" had earned him the respect of old-school labor leaders and new-style liberals alike. The Brooks Brothers–clad junior senator from Missouri reminded some of the actor Jack Lemmon. However, Eagleton's social grace and ease sometimes ceded to abrupt gestures, shaky hands, and profuse perspiration. He ripped through two packs of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes each day, often taking just three or four puffs before stubbing one out, only to find himself lighting another within minutes. One reporter described this practice as Eagleton's way of cutting back on smoking after trying to quit. Others dismissed this theory as nonsense. "Absolutely not," said one longtime staffer. "It was just a nervous habit." Another reporter suggested that Eagleton at times seemed "as tightly wound as a spring." But Eagleton had never lost an election, and the politicos and press alike considered him "one of the brightest and most ambitious young stars of the Senate."

Yet in the seventeen days since Eagleton joined the ticket, the tone of the media's coverage had changed. A string of anonymous calls and the investigative legwork of two journalists had finally compelled Eagleton to reveal on day twelve the secret he had long concealed. He had been hospitalized for "nervous exhaustion and fatigue" three times over the previous decade and treated with electroshock therapy twice. Though the running mate insisted that he was a cured man, capable of weathering the strain of the campaign trail and the duties of the vice presidency, Eagleton's revelation provided reason for serious concern. McGovern, in turn, initially guaranteed that there was no one sounder in mind, body, and spirit to serve as his running mate. The next day he stressed that he continued to stand by Eagleton "1,000 percent."

But escalating pressure from his staff, supporters, and reporters soon prompted McGovern to reconsider his stance. Now, approaching midnight on Sunday, July 30, it seemed almost certain that McGovern would ask Eagleton to leave the ticket the following evening at a meeting being touted by the news media as a "showdown" between the two candidates. But first, McGovern wanted to speak with Eagleton in private, sheltered from the scrutiny that promised to surround their much-publicized one-on-one.

At around 9:45 p.m., McGovern and Eagleton dodged the press corps encamped at each of their suburban Washington homes and headed to their secret meeting point, the residence of the campaign finance chairman Henry Kimelman on California Street, a way lined with grand foreign embassies. McGovern lived in a Japanese-inspired home on a quiet, leafy street in northwest DC, near American University. Eagleton resided in a classic four-bedroom white colonial, just beyond the Washington border, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Eagleton arrived at Kimelman's home first, and McGovern followed soon after. The two candidates were then left alone to talk in the library. When it seemed their conversation had reached an impasse, McGovern spoke up. "Tom," he said. "Tell me what you feel in your heart."

"George," Eagleton replied, "I'll give you a double answer. In my heart, conscience, and soul I want to remain on the ticket. When you picked me [at the Democratic convention] in Miami I was an absolute zero. I didn't add a damn thing to the ticket, and I didn't subtract a damn thing.... But, George, since all of this has happened I believe I'm a plus."

Judging from his reception at public appearances, Eagleton believed that the grace under pressure he had demonstrated over the previous week had won the ticket support, especially from an element of the electorate previously disillusioned with McGovern's candidacy—the white, Democratic labor establishment.

"Sure, I'll cost you some votes amongst the worry-warts," Eagleton continued. "But, George, I'll get you more votes amongst people who respect a fighter. George, I'm fighting for my political life."

Was Eagleton simply fighting for his own political life, or would keeping him on the ticket prove politically advantageous for both men, McGovern must have wondered.

"Tom," McGovern finally whispered. "You're one hell of a guy. Let's go home and sleep on it."

When the two candidates emerged from the library to join their aides, Eagleton noticed Gary Hart, McGovern's campaign manager, "quiet and observing." It was no secret that Hart wanted Eagleton off the ticket.

As the vice presidential candidate and his staffers rode back to Eagleton's house, the senator recapped his conversation with McGovern for his aides. "You know," he said, "deep down in his personal heart, the man wants to keep me. He likes me. He respects me," Eagleton explained. "[McGovern is] in a struggle between his heart and his staff."

"Chief," Doug Bennet, Eagleton's top aide, piped up. "If that is the contest, you lose."

The Eagleton question—whether to keep him or drop him—inspires no easy answer. On the one hand, punishing someone for seeking help when needed—help that, according to Eagleton, enabled him to overcome his depression and succeed in public life—seems unjust, if not cruel. The likable and earnest Eagleton had proven he could endure an arduous Senate campaign and shine in Congress, unhindered by relapse. As he phrased it, he could "cut the mustard." On the other hand, with its suggestions of the electric chair, shock therapy has conjured images of a searing, last-ditch treatment used to sedate the insane. If Eagleton required shock therapy, it seemed, he must have suffered from more than mere "nervous exhaustion and fatigue." Many Americans—inside and outside the campaign—thought he should have come clean to McGovern up front.

The McGovern decision makers found themselves in a novel and bewildering predicament, asked to examine their feelings toward a stigmatized minority to which the nation had rarely given serious consideration, especially in a political context. Most Americans felt uncomfortable deeming Eagleton's history of mental illness disqualifying in and of itself, as doing so appeared to contradict their sense of progress and decency. However, discriminating against the mentally ill differed from discriminating against racial minorities and women because mental illness can affect job performance. Besides, psychiatry circa 1972 could not alleviate public doubts about Eagleton's fitness to withstand the stress of the vice presidency and, if necessary, the presidency—especially in the Cold War era.

The Eagleton affair mesmerized America not simply because it included the usual ingredients of political theater, like ambition and idealism, backstabbing and selflessness, triumph and despair. It captivated the nation because it also posed a fascinating, seemingly unanswerable moral and scientific question. The Eagleton case asked George McGovern, a man widely reputed for his decency, to make a choice that few knew how to decide themselves. There seemed no right answer, and, even today, the politically prudent and personally decent are not so clear.

My curiosity about Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern, and their eighteen-day alliance on the 1972 Democratic presidential ticket began in March 2007, shortly after Eagleton's death, when I came across his New York Times obituary. The story gripped me. I had only a cursory notion of shock therapy and found the concept frightening. I was also unsure of why Eagleton had failed to disclose his treatment before his selection and wondered how the news had broken. McGovern's oscillation from "1,000 percent" support of his running mate to calling for his withdrawal perplexed me, and I was intrigued by McGovern's eventual admission of remorse. Eagleton's obituary reported that McGovernites long blamed the candidate's first vice presidential pick for the magnitude of McGovern's loss, but that Eagleton dismissed his role as merely "one rock in a landslide."

My ongoing interest in the moral, political, and historical questions at the heart of this story led me on a nearly two-and-a-half-year investigation into this unusual episode in American history. I read the newspaper coverage and reviewed contemporaneous broadcast reports. I visited the personal papers of the key players—McGovern, Eagleton, and their top aides—and explored the wealth of behind-the-scenes notes and memos that provide an unvarnished look at a presidential campaign at its most exuberant as well as its most desperate. I spoke with McGovern, his strategists, and people who lived, worked, and traveled with Eagleton. I met the journalists who covered the candidates and the reporters who drove their fate. The Nixon Tapes let me eavesdrop on the strategizing at the White House.

In exploring McGovern's confrontation with a crisis unlike any other in election history, I tried to immerse myself in the web of influences that guided McGovern's ethically fraught decision-making process. The behind-the-scenes drama of the Eagleton affair is riveting by itself, but it becomes even more fascinating when situated in its time and place, with respect and empathy for the key players—their grand aspirations and intensely human flaws.

As Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post once wrote, the Eagleton affair is "worthy of a major novelist's talents." I cannot claim to have a fiction writer's gifts, but as a journalist with a passion for history, I attempt to capture the intense human and political drama that defines this story, set against the backdrop of a frenzied and transformational year in the nation's history.

Chapter Two

The Candidate

On September 1, 1970, when the Senate rejected the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment that would have set an end date for the Vietnam War, George Stanley McGovern could not contain his frustration. "Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending fifty thousand young Americans to an early grave," he told the floor in a well-publicized remark. "This chamber reeks with blood."

George McGovern had built his presidential bid on early and fervent opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as on the candor evident in his disgust at the Senate's McGovern-Hatfield vote. But in the heat of the primary season, Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey had been quoting passages from Robert Sam Anson's authorized precampaign biography suggesting the South Dakotan had, in fact, equivocated on the war.

So on Saturday, July 8, 1972, on the plane to the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami Beach, McGovern wandered down the aisle and leaned over Anson's seat. "There was never a moment when I didn't think [the war] was terrible and immoral," McGovern said. "But I had to work on Johnson, and you can't do that unless you are credible."

"You treat Vietnam as if it's a principle," McGovern told Anson. "You have to remember, I am a politician."

Born July 19, 1922, McGovern was raised in small-town Mitchell, South Dakota. Located about seventy miles west of Sioux Falls, Mitchell boasted "The World's Only Corn Palace" and approximately fifteen thousand people, mostly farmers and Protestants. The only Democrat who ever mustered the townspeople's approval was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The son of a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, George grew up in a house where prayers and Bible readings followed breakfast each morning, and religious schooling and worship consumed Sundays. Though George's father, the Reverend Joseph McGovern, had played professional baseball before becoming a minister, he taught his sons that prostitution and gambling ravaged professional athletics and dissuaded them from participating in sport. He directed his sons' attention toward their studies instead. Wesleyanism's lessons shaped George's life, persuading McGovern to look beyond himself and serve the common good.

When McGovern's mother, Frances, asked him what he hoped to be when he grew up, the twelve-year-old George could not say for certain. However, as his younger sister, Mildred, remembered, he did know that he wanted "to learn as much as he possibly could about as many things as he could, and that he wanted to get into some type of service where he could do the most possible good for the largest number of people." Mildred thought that one day her older brother would become president of the United States.

Though timid as a young boy in the Depression- and dust-storm-spoiled prairie, in high school McGovern found his niche on the debate team, and the pale, simply dressed George grew into a champ. McGovern's knack for identifying inconsistencies in his opponents' reasoning and for backing up his own arguments with impeccable logic compensated for what he lacked in bravado. Furthermore, his desire to excel drove him to undertake the preparation that success required, spending hours after school each day researching various cases, documenting his facts on three-by-five and then four-by-five note cards. High school debate showed McGovern how history intersects with the present and that what seemed radical could be possible. Furthermore, it exposed George to life beyond Mitchell and to the "delicious sensuality of winning," as Anson described it. Debate "really changed my life," McGovern would reflect years later. The qualities of George McGovern the high school debater were the qualities that would push him to become George McGovern the United States senator. McGovern's 1940 high school yearbook noted, "For a debater, he's a nice kid." This evaluation foreshadowed the reputation he would hold as a politician: for a senator, he was a nice man.

For college, McGovern settled on Dakota Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school with about five hundred students. Its location in Mitchell meant McGovern did not have to pay room and board. Eleanor Stegeberg and her twin sister Ila also entered DWU that year. They were the daughters of the Democratic chairman of nearby Woonsocket County and made up the only team on the South Dakota high school debate circuit to have beaten McGovern and his partner. Ila was already romantically entangled, and she established the connection between George and Eleanor at a roller-skating party their freshman year, as George was too shy to do so himself. When a friend dating Ila asked George whether he and Eleanor wanted to join them for an excursion to the Mitchell Hill School play, McGovern jumped. Within two years, Eleanor became his wife, and later—though hardly five feet tall and less than one hundred pounds—she was to prove "a tireless, smooth-talking, rarely ruffled campaigner," as the press described her. Eleanor offered McGovern steadfast companionship and uncompromising loyalty, supporting her husband's efforts no matter how much they compromised her stability—emotional or otherwise.

On December 7, 1941, news of Pearl Harbor called McGovern to duty. "We were confronted with totalitarian powers bent upon the destruction of freedom," McGovern recalled years later. "And that was all I needed to know." Along with ten DWU classmates, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and his intellect and steady temperament propelled him to the top of his training class soon after he started training in the winter of 1943. But McGovern longed for Eleanor, and he decided to marry her shortly after enlisting. He described his rationale for an early marriage in a letter to a boyhood friend: "We've simply got an old fashioned love affair on our hands, and it's pretty hard to stop love even for war." As McGovern hop-scotched to various training camps across the United States, Eleanor moved alongside him.


Excerpted from The Eighteen-Day Running Mate by Joshua M. Glasser Copyright © 2012 by Joshua M. Glasser. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Conundrum 1

The Candidate 7

The Campaign 23

The Wrench 40

The Upstart 749

The Game 74

The Pipedream 86

The Selection 103

The Running Mate 123

The Investigation 134

The Disclosure 165

The Aftershock 183

The Muckraker 215

The Tablehopping 226

The Sunday Shows 235

The Precedent 254

The Decision 259

The Aftermath 279

Epilogue 287

A Note on Sources 303

Notes 309

Acknowledgments 367

Index 371

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