The lost daughter

George McGovern's political career was based on caring for those who needed help the most. But, as he relates in his painfully revealing new book, he could not save his own child.

Published May 17, 1996 11:35AM (EDT)

There is a sense of tragedy about George McGovern's odyssey in American politics. The liberal from South Dakota lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972, lost his Senate seat in the Reagan sweep of 1980, and became a punching bag in the heartless '90s, when the term "McGovernite," even in the mouths of Democrats, became a term of derision and contempt. In the meantime he tried to run a hotel, which went bankrupt.

If his political career has been a sad one, McGovern's new
book about his middle daughter is a narrative of personal
disaster. Teresa Jane McGovern, age 45, froze to death after
stumbling out of a Madison, Wisconsin bar the night of Dec. 12,

"One of the most loving and lovable human beings on this troubled earth," McGovern writes in the just-published "Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism" (Villard), she was also a blackout drunk, often awakening from binges to discover she had been assaulted, robbed or had tumbled down a flight of stairs. She checked in and out of a detox center 68 times in her last three years of life. "Client remains medically stable and is discharged to community per self," according to the last record written by the Tellurian Detox Center. Hours later, Terry was found dead.

Greeting a visitor at the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington think tank he now heads, the 74-year-old McGovern is as handsome and grave as ever. He moves a bit stiffly, the lines in his face
are deeper, and the gray-blue eyes show less of a gleam than in the
framed 1972 campaign poster over his head. He still struggles to understand his daughter's illness, running through the gamut
of theories that governed her therapy over the years. Was it the emotional desert of her "dysfunctional" family? The wounded
"inner child'' that crushed Terry, according to her diaries that McGovern discovered after her death? Or the reckless indulgence of the '60s -- too many drugs, too little discipline, too much morbid self-examination?

McGovern concludes that a genetic predisposition must explain it. Depression, along with drug and alcohol addiction, struck Terry when she was 18. His wife Eleanor was also plagued by depression; their son Steve is an alcoholic, too. But McGovern isn't ready to let himself off the hook. Heeding a therapist's advice, McGovern and Eleanor had pulled back during the last six months of Terry's life. The idea was to force their daughter to recover on her own. But the fact that he hadn't seen her in those last months made Terry's death even harder for McGovern to accept. And he wants the relatives of other alcoholics to know this.

"Before we went down that road I wish somebody had told me, 'You may never see your daughter again,'" McGovern says. "I'm not sure tough love works."

Eleanor and their other children opposed the book, McGovern says, and it is easy to see why. "Terry'' is honest, sad, and a queasy
read. It is the saga of an relentless illness told by an anxious
parent. The black hole of Terry's depression, the culture of her despair, is one her
father still cannot fathom.

It's partly a question of generations.
During the 1972 campaign, McGovern's five children were the hairy, counter-culture antidote to the squeaky clean Nixon kids. Steve was in a rock band, daughter Susan lived in an adobe house in Santa Fe. Terry, who had been arrested for marijuana in 1968 and tripped on LSD during a family TV appearance that year, campaigned for her dad aboard the "Grassroots Grasshopper,'' a van full of movie stars and feminists for McGovern. But if the McGovern campaign was emblematic of the antiwar and counter-culture era, its language was utterly alien to the man himself. A B-24 bomber pilot over Europe in World War II, McGovern gained a reputation for returning through flak fields to base without wasting a drop of fuel. The sense of economy extended to his emotional life.

"You could fit all the times I've thought about how I was feeling into a thimble,'' McGovern says. Not so his daughter Terry. "She was constantly searching for explanations for the way she felt," he says. "She would talk about 'getting in touch with her feelings.' I still don't know what the hell that means, to 'get in touch with your feelings.'"

His political feelings remain unchanged. "I've always had a soft spot for the poor, the elderly, and children. The rich don't need our sympathy," he says. Liberalism is out of favor among Democrats now, but may have its day again. "As long as ours is a relatively prosperous society, Clinton's style of leadership will hold,'' McGovern
says. "But when he declares that big government is dead -- that's a lot of bunk. In 10 years the government will be bigger than it is now."

As for his old colleague Bob Dole -- the two farm-belt senators worked together to create the Food Stamp and other welfare programs -- "I don't think he has a chance'' in November. But he retains a high regard for the conservative from Kansas.
"Bob Dole wouldn't want to admit it now, but he's a liberal Democrat when it comes to food."

Quote of the day

Paging Michael Crichton

"My heart was pounding. I was overjoyed. We knew we had
something big, but we did not realize how big until we got back to the lab and started to clean the bones. We think we have an animal showing us ...that there was a whole other stage of predators that preceded the Tyrannosaur stage that we did not know about."

-- University of Chicago paleontologist Paul C. Sereno, on the discovery of the remains of two large carnivorous dinosaurs in the Sahara Desert, the largest ever found in Africa. The find also suggests that the American and African continents remained one land mass much longer than scientists had thought.

By Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.

MORE FROM Arthur Allen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------