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McGovern's Back, as an Author About Life's Lessons Learned

June 14, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't count George McGovern out. The former senator from South Dakota, three-time presidential aspirant and 1972 Democratic nominee is now 73--about the same age as this year's Republican candidate.

He is still clear-eyed, articulate, energetic, considers himself "both conservative and liberal." And, he said with a wink on his visit here this week, "In the very highly unlikely event" he is again tapped for public office, he would be "delighted" to serve.

The man has a sense of humor--and only two real regrets in what he deems a life well-lived. Both are monumental.

He regrets that he couldn't save Teresa, his alcoholic daughter. In 1994, she collapsed in a Wisconsin snowbank where she lay, drunk and undiscovered, until she froze to death.

He regrets that he never made it to the White House and "seriously considered" yet another run for the presidency as late as 1992. His family ruled against it.

The two regrets are not unconnected, it turns out.

Looking back on his daughter's largely unhappy life, as he does in a new book about her, "Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism" (Villard), and on his own zealous attempts to shape a career in politics, McGovern concludes that each may have undermined the other.

Decades ago, while a senator, he spent 18-hour days railing against the Vietnam War, the escalating defense budget, discrimination against minorities and women (even then he proposed the farfetched notion that women be considered for the Supreme Court and the vice presidency).

And all the while his little girl, Teresa, was at home in her bedroom, confiding to her diary that she missed her dad. That she felt rejected and abandoned and lonely and ugly. That he didn't care about her as much as he cared for her siblings. While writing these thoughts, even in her early teens, she was probably swigging a beer, or something stronger.

It did not seem to help that Teresa had three sisters and a brother at home, along with her mother. Nor did it help that they led comfortable lives in a nice house right next door to the kindly vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, whom Teresa often went to visit. She felt she was "Daddy's Girl"--and Daddy was never around anymore.

Of course her father knew little of this until after her death at age 45, when he almost obsessively pored over her diaries, journals and letters, contacted her past and current friends, doctors who had treated her through the years, police officers, paramedics and detox center personnel who had cared for her repeatedly as she deteriorated into an almost totally helpless alcohol addict.

She had showed the first small signs of emotional distress at 13--after a childhood in which she was a "very happy, outgoing, witty, delightful person." The McGoverns sent her to "the best doctors we could find" for therapy and she was found to be "depressive."

No doctor detected incipient alcoholism, McGovern says, because she was so young and hid her drinking so well. And in those days, alcoholism was not considered a disease, was not known to be a genetic trait. (McGovern's paternal grandfather and his only brother were alcoholics, as was his brother's son, who died of the disease.)

McGovern understandably concluded, after reading his daughter's diaries, that even though he'd always thought he was a decent father, his long hours at work had probably robbed Teresa of the extra warmth and closeness she needed during adolescence. Whether it would have helped her, he now wishes he'd been more available to provide it.

And, although he never comes right out and says it, consideration for his troubled child may have robbed him of the presidency.

When McGovern selected Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) as his running mate in 1972, he did not know the senator had also been found to be depressive and had undergone electric shock therapy. The son of a doctor who had treated Eagleton leaked the story.

"All my advisors immediately said the public's fear of clinical depression and mental illness of any kind was so intense that we didn't have a chance if we kept Eagleton on the ticket. But my initial impulse was to hold onto him," McGovern says.

Teresa was by then 22, she had been treated for the same illness, and "I did not want her, or anyone else, to feel that a person with a history of depression should be punished and held back from succeeding in life."

McGovern soon realized his stance was "politically unrealistic." He dumped Eagleton after a chaotic week, but by that time he had been labeled indecisive and lost any chance he might have to be elected.

These days, McGovern is out on the hustings to memorialize his daughter by promoting the book. And to stump for alertness by parents in recognizing subtle early signs of emotional distress and substance abuse. And to caution those who are very busy to "carve time out" for more happy interludes and loving moments with their adolescent children, no matter what the cost to their careers.

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