The Losses of George McGovern Book: By writing about his alcoholic daughter's life and death, former presidential candidate begins healing process.

June 04, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- One expects tragedy to reveal itself in the face: to deepen its lines, twist the features. One expects it to appear somewhere, and there it is: It stares from the tired, joyless eyes of George McGovern.

Except for those sad eyes he has not changed much. He is 73; he has aged well. He is tanned, his hair is light still and a little wispy. He smiles, friendly, only with his upper teeth. But that is enough to fish up the memory of Senator George McGovern's surprising, exuberant and quixotic quest for the presidency a quarter of a century ago when he carried the Democratic Party's standard against Richard Nixon.

It was his life's grandest failure.

And that old McGovern placidity is also still there, that quietude that bordered on blandness that drew people who saw it as evidence of moral strength and certitude. It was the same quality that drove away those who interpreted it as the gummy piousness of the typical preacher's son.

McGovern is the most spiritual of secular men, always on a quest. Today he's struggling to regain his personal happiness, which disappeared on Dec. 13, 1994, when his daughter Terry died in Madison, Wis., drunk in the snow. It was his life's greatest loss.

Conventional wisdom suggests he will fail in this quest as well. "From my experience, the death of a young child will last the entire life of the parent," said the Rev. Stephen Mann, chaplain at Johns Hopkins University. "They adjust but they don't get over it."

Why? Perhaps it's because the death of a child violates the usual order of things. It is an aberration in the normal, sequential passing of the generations.

But then, there is success, and simple acceptance of the fact of her death is clearly better than no emotional progress at all, and ++ that's what he's working toward. And, besides, Terry McGovern was not a young child. She was 45 and had been an alcoholic for most of her life. She had relapse after relapse, had been de-toxed more times than anyone can count. She bore two children, Marian and Colleen, who are in the care of their father and fully a part of the McGovern family.

George McGovern has just published a book about his lost daughter. He began the obligatory publisher's tour in late May, going from city to city, from coast to coast, to tell people about it, which is one reason he is so tired. His book is titled simply "Terry." It is a strange thing: It has everything, good and otherwise. It is full of his daughter's own words taken from her journals, her conversations with herself about alcoholism. This was the disease, as she put it, that wanted her dead, and had its way.

It is rife with self-justification and the sly boasting of the self-effacing man who once moved an entire generation into the shallower waters of the political process, where many of them drowned in disillusionment. There is some self-reproof for things not done, actions not taken, a hint or two of personal guilt. It is full of honestly expressed love for his daughter, excessive praise for her achievements and talents. It is a screed against alcoholism; it is an exercise in name dropping. It is banal in places; here and there it seems to have been thrown together perfunctorily: He patches together statements by relatives and police blotter reports recording the frequent 911 calls made in efforts to rescue Terry from herself.

The book was created through a year of excruciating turmoil: pain at every waking moment, with tears literally falling on the lined pages as he wrote. McGovern is not a graceful writer, or an original one. He resorts to the maddening lingo of social workers, refers to his "family unit." Occasionally it seems he lifted whole passages from local guidebooks:

"Arriving in Madison in the early summer of 1976, Terry fell in love with the city. Madison has interests and advantages that are unusual for a city of under 200,000. It is both the state capital of Wisconsin and the home of the splendid University of Wisconsin"

But one does go on, for 208 pages, and only near the end, and in a brief lustrous flash, does his book achieve the level of high elegy. It comes when he writes the most obvious thing that one can say, but that only those who have experienced it can know of for certain. He writes confessionally and with near biblical simplicity:

"What I can tell you is that the sorrow of losing one of your children is almost unbearable. It is sad beyond any measure that I had imagined. "You'll be sad, and you will hurt when you lie down to sleep, when you awake in the night, when you rise in the morning, when you go to the beach where she swam, when you drive past her school, when you hear her children laughing, when you see a Christmas tree, or whenever you recall her dancing eyes, her lingering embrace, her glorious smile when she saw you at the airport -- or her anguish when she fell from intoxication. I'm especially sad on June 10 -- her birthday -- and on December 13, when she died in the snow."

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