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Lost Child

Inside George McGovern's Tortured Conscience

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By Deanna Isaacs

George McGovern says he has some history with Chicago, beyond the fact that it was one of the few places he carried in his 1972 bid for the presidency. McGovern's third child, Teresa, was born while he was working on a PhD at Northwestern University. It was June 1949 and McGovern and his family had returned to his hometown, Mitchell, South Dakota, for the summer break. A World War II veteran, studying under the GI bill, he had a summer teaching stint at a college there. The day Terry was born was especially hot, McGovern says. His wife, Eleanor, would later say Terry's birth was the easiest of her five deliveries, but he remembers the relentless heat and the sweat pouring off her as she labored.

McGovern is speaking in the glass-roofed Winter Garden at the top of the Harold Washington Library Center. His audience is mostly made up of old McGovernites, white-haired and politely adulatory. His own hair is white too, what there is of it, and his impressive eyebrows have gone shaggy and gray. There is a deep, vertical crevice on either side of his mouth; when he talks, his upper lip seems to remain rigid. He looks like the spare, aging minister's son, ace bomber pilot, and elder statesman he is. But in this surreal space, with puffy white clouds sailing over his head and an urban roofscape behind him, he is dwarfed. His voice comes to his listeners as a murmur with an echo, though what he has to say is as intimate as if he were leaning across a dinner table, as urgent as it would be if we could actually see the albatross swinging heavily from his neck.

He is here to talk about the last day of Terry McGovern's life, December 12, 1994, and the demon that took her down. She spent that day in Madison, Wisconsin, where she lived, in conditions exactly the opposite of those she was born into: bitter cold, treacherous ice, deep, wind-whipped snow. "Terry stumbled out of a bar after being in there three hours," McGovern says. "She walked about 50 steps, wandered into an alley behind a print shop, and, apparently, fell down in the snow and froze to death." She had been released from a Madison detox center earlier that day. It was the 68th time she had been released from that center in the last four years.

During the decade George McGovern was obsessed with the war in Vietnam, Terry, who once considered herself "Dad's special daughter," was beginning a long descent into alcoholism and depression. In fact, McGovern says, the major error of his presidential campaign--his initial support of his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, who had a history of clinical depression--came about because McGovern was trying to send the right kind of signal to Terry. Since she died, he has come to believe that the greater problem was the one unfolding under his nose. "Vietnam was a tragedy," he says. "But we lost 58,000 Americans in 20 years there. We lose twice that many every year to alcoholism--300 a day."

McGovern says the recovery rate for cancer patients is two and a half times better than that for alcoholics. He thinks that's because we've waged a national war on cancer. He wants to see a similar effort mounted against alcoholism, and he's taken it on--a new crusade for the old crusader. He's written a book, Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism, and he's using the book tour to stump for more research and education. But the thing that's bothering him most is not alcoholism itself, which he believes is largely due to a genetically determined predisposition (put 100 McGoverns in a room, you'll have a substantial number of alcoholics, he says). The worm that is eating at McGovern's heart is the way he responded to Terry's troubles.

McGovern relates an incident that occurred during Terry's last visit in her parent's Washington home. At 1 AM, January 30, 1994, after a long day of drinking, she called him into her bedroom and begged him to get her another drink, to sit on the edge of her bed and have a drink with her. "Dad, I have to have another drink," she said. "I cannot get through this night without it." When he refused, she asked if she could borrow a car in order to drive to a bar. He refused that too, then retired, hoping it was settled. A short time later he found her sitting at the wheel of her mother's new car, trying to deice the windshield. Washington had had an ice storm that day, and the steep hill outside their home was slick, treacherous even for a sober driver. McGovern feared Terry would hit something and hurt herself or others. In a scene he has relived a thousand times, he struggled to get her out of the vehicle--a 170-pound man pulling at a possessed 110-pound woman. "I finally broke her grip on the steering wheel," he says. "I didn't know the car was already in gear." As he yanked her from the vehicle, it took off down the hill and crashed into the side of a neighbor's house.

After that visit, George and Eleanor McGovern had less contact with Terry. For what turned out to be the last six months of her life, they more or less cut themselves off from her. They had roasted on the spit of her addiction for so many years, footed the bills for so many futile attempts at treatment, cringed at the first ring of so many late-night, bad-news phone calls.

"A good man, a good friend of our family, a counselor, told us we had to put some distance between us," McGovern says. "He said, 'I fear for your health. And what you're doing doesn't necessarily seem to be helping Terry.' I have to confess, I welcomed that advice." And here, for just a minute, McGovern chokes up: "I don't have to tell anyone here the regret I feel about that now."

"Those of you attempting to deal with a family member with an addiction--whether it's alcohol or something else--you're going to be advised to practice tough love," McGovern says. "That's OK if you don't forget about the love part. I'd give everything I have for just one more afternoon with Teresa McGovern."

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