Publisher's note: George McGovern's biography deals courageously with addiction

Tue, 10/30/2012 - 8:37pm

George McGovern, who died this week at age 90, is probably best known for being trounced by Richard Nixon in landslide fashion during the 1972 presidential election. It’s a shame that this good and decent man has been tarred as one of history’s losers.

I prefer to remember him differently.

Some years ago as a director of the addiction recovery service Marathon House (now Phoenix Houses of New England), I invited him to speak at the dedication of a new fitness center at our Exeter facility. Much to my surprise he accepted.

McGovern turned out to be a modest and gracious guest. He spoke eloquently of his support for the programs provided by Marathon.

That’s because for McGovern and so many Americans, addiction was personal. I urge you to read his memoir, “Terry, My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism.” It’s a heart wrenching account of his daughter’s struggles to tackle the demons of addiction. Making it particularly poignant, Terry lost that battle, freezing to death at age 45 in a snow bank while inebriated.

What McGovern recognized is that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing. McGovern loved his daughter and knew that she was sick. She was not a “bad person.” He said that he came to understand that for some the stranglehold of alcoholism cannot be overcome. It is also a genetic disorder — one that does not discriminate on the basis of race, class or gender. Its pernicious hold impacts the humble and the mighty alike. To that end, I was saddened to learn that McGovern’s son died of the same disease this past July.

McGovern found the will to confront the issue and acknowledge his guilt at what he believed to be his own failings as a father in supporting his daughter. He was guilty, he confessed, of putting his own career, his own quest for power, before the concerns of his family. It would have been tempting for him to take the path of denial. But he was stronger than that. He dealt unflinchingly with his loss and he shared his sorrow. That is his great contribution to the field of addiction treatment.

He may have lost an election, but he gave us all a gift with his candor and courage.