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The Cold, Lonely Fight of Terry McGovern : Alcoholism: The senator's daughter gained sobriety, going dry for years at a time. But always something drew her back. In the end, it cost her her life.

February 15, 1995|LAURA BLUMENFELD | THE WASHINGTON POST

Cold, it was so cold.

"Hey," a man cried, opening the back door of his print shop.

"There's a little kid, passed out in the snow."

Another man tramped into the alley, where a small body in a jacket lay under an awning of icicles. "It's not a kid," he called. It was a woman, her hands tucked under her chin.

He touched her neck. "And I don't think she's passed out."

He felt her hands. "Call 911."

The fingers were frozen hard. Her skin was colorless. Her socks had iced onto her feet. She lay next to a circle of footprints, as if she had been trying to walk straight but could make only dizzy circles until she dropped.

It was just after noon on Dec. 13, raw and overcast in Madison, Wis. In the minutes it took for the emergency crew to arrive, the printer, a man who had protested against the Vietnam War and still publishes left-wing pamphlets, knelt and covered the body with his coat.

There's something about this woman, he thought. She had a delicate, poetic face. There was a refinement to her, the dangling earrings, the russet hair smoothed into a barrette.

She had no purse, no ID; she had fallen among garbage cans and dead sunflowers. Still, he was certain: This woman had a home.

It took till almost midnight to find that home. At 11:30 p.m., a police officer and a chaplain walked up the brick path to a large Colonial house in northwest Washington, D.C.

The doorbell startled George McGovern. He was in the living room, leafing through an issue of Harper's. George and his wife, Eleanor, had returned a few hours before from a restaurant where, over the years, they celebrated good news with their five children. Eleanor had just gone up to bed.

Through the glass, by the light of the entrance hall, McGovern could see two men, and before he opened the door, he suspected two things: They had come about Terry and the news was bad.

Senator, we are so sorry. Your daughter Teresa is dead. Last night she wandered into a dark alley and fell into a snowbank. She was intoxicated. No one found her until noon today.

McGovern stumbled into his dark study. He couldn't turn on the light, couldn't speak, couldn't cry. For 10 minutes, he wandered in circles around the room, the walls covered with political mementos: a McGovern for President poster, a Time cover from October '72, pictures of the senator with heads of state.

He had to tell Eleanor. But how? He forced himself to climb the stairs to their bedroom, a hand on the rail, gripped by a thought so cold it numbed him to his fingers:

In all his life, this was the moment of his greatest defeat.

In a photograph, they are holding hands, raised in triumph. McGovern has just won New York's 1972 presidential primary, and Terry, then 23, stands beside him on the podium, glowing, her fingers steepled through his. Of all the children, Terry delivered the most fevered speeches on her father's behalf. In campaign appearances when the candidate was in another city or state, crowds would chant: "We want McGovern!" They meant Teresa.

"She was drinking even then," George says. "We didn't know. She would cover it up."

He is standing over his daughter's coffin. A veil and a single white rose cover Teresa's hands, where the frost had eaten her skin. George and Eleanor are greeting mourners at the wake.

Teresa was 45. She had two shiny-haired little girls. She had a famous father who always saved her the seat next to his. She had worked on Capitol Hill and in day-care centers and in a hospice for terminally ill cancer patients. She was intelligent, funny, generous, charismatic, tender. She was a flop-down doorstep drunk.

All his life, George McGovern has been a textbook liberal, either an idealist or a sap, depending on your politics. He believes that human beings are improvable, that good intentions translate into good policy. He believes it is possible to intervene to solve people's problems. He does not believe, did not believe, that at some level life is just a cold, lonely fight.

The events of 1972 shook McGovern badly. His landslide defeat to Richard Nixon was a personal and political repudiation, an election that seemed at all levels to represent the triumph of cynicism over compassion. The echoes of that defeat were so great they reverberate still; when Rep. Newt Gingrich recently fished for a term to describe the failed liberalism that in his view still poisons the people in the White House, he came up with "McGoverniks."

But in McGovern's historic loss, there was a certain dignity. The election was a genuine clash of ideologies, and it led to Watergate. If history has not vindicated McGovern, it has not savaged him either.

At the wake, Teresa's children, Colleen, 7, and Marian, 9, threaded through the crowd of adults. They edged toward the casket, where a winged teddy bear lay next to the body. Throughout the evening the girls returned, giving Terry timid, darting looks, and rearranging the angel bear. In the end, they decided to cuddle the bear against their mother's neck.

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