George McGovern's Addiction Legacy

By May Wilkerson 10/22/12

The liberal icon's rich legacy includes a treatment center and a book remembering his daughter, who died of alcoholism.

George McGovern died Sunday, at age 90.
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George McGovern, pioneer of "modern liberalism," died this weekend at the age of 90. The former US Representative and US Senator was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, who memorably ran for President in 1972 and lost, by a landslide, to Richard Nixon. Dedicating his life to causes such as anti-war activism, democratized health care and eliminating poverty, McGovern was much admired for a blazing commitment to his liberal ideals—even at the expense of political gain. President Obama has called him “a champion for peace” and a “statesman of great conscience and conviction.”

Less high-profile than his contributions to progressive causes was McGovern's impact on the recovery community—inspired by his own family's quiet struggle with addiction. What he called "the big tragedy of my life" was the loss of his daughter, Teresa J. McGovern, in 1994. An alcoholic who'd been in and out of treatment centers for decades, she froze to death in a snowbank, aged 45. George McGovern detailed his daughter's harrowing battle with addiction, and the impact of the disease on the entire family, in Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism, published in 1996. In the book, he described the family's many unsuccessful attempts to help, and expressed guilt over feeling that he failed his daughter due to the demands of his political career. “That just about killed me,” he told the New York Times in 2005. “I had always had a very demanding schedule. I didn’t do everything I could as a father.” McGovern used the proceeds from book sales to found a treatment center in his daughter's memory, the Teresa McGovern Center in Madison. "The only redemptive part of this is maybe it will save somebody else," he said, shortly after his daughter's death. He also lost his only son, Steve McGovern, to alcoholism at age 60, this past July.

McGovern's belief that the family should be deeply involved in treating a child's addiction was a far cry from the no-contact methods upheld in contemporary TV shows like Intervention. "If I could just pass along a word of advice to other people who have this dilemma about what to do with an alcoholic in the family," he said in a 1996 NPR interview. "I think if you are going to follow that course of putting some distance between you and the alcoholic, you should accompany that by frequent calls, at least once a week, just to see how they're doing, to tell them you love them."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.