After I joined the staff of the Spectator magazine 30 years ago, I was taken to the House of Commons as part of my political apprenticeship. We watched a debate from the press gallery and pottered through the lobbies of the cavernous building before repairing at around 9 p.m. to one of the dozen or more bars found in the Palace of Westminster. There we fell in with a Tory MP, the original vaudeville drunk, glassy eyes, slurred speech, teetering on his bar stool. I bought him one or two more and then I helpfully asked if I could find him a cab home. He looked at me with puzzlement. "Wha'you mean, go home? I gotta shpeak on thish amendment." And so he did.
Nor can it have been the most inebriate performance ever heard in that place. The lifeblood of politics has been liberally infused with alcohol for so long that, if anything, it may be surprising that more pols haven't come to grief like Charles Kennedy. He led the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party, from 1999 until last week, when he at last admitted that he had a drinking problem, adding that he had beaten the booze and wanted to stand again as leader. This pre-emptive strike signally failed. After two days of venomous blackguarding and backstabbing, it became clear that Kennedy had lost the support of most of his colleagues, and on Saturday afternoon, he resigned for good.
Times have changed. Kennedy is a likable man, but you have to say he had it coming. He had regularly given the impression in public of being either sozzled or monumentally hung-over, making an awful mess of policy presentation during last spring's election. He asked for it in another way, too: by repeatedly and flatly denying that he drank too much when interviewers asked him directly.
And yet the days were when heroic drinking was part of political life in many countries, maybe not surprisingly so, since that life is often a compound of tension, aggression, and boredom. For all those conditions, ethyl alcohol can be an effective, if temporary, palliative.
Some of the highest and mightiest had a taste for the sauce, as their colleagues knew, if not the public. In Democracy, Michael Frayn's recent play-with-ideas about German politics and politicians, Helmut Schmidt asks sarcastically whether Willy Brandt has "another of his feverish colds," as his drinking bouts were coyly known. Brandt remained a hero to many Germans, even if they were in on the story.
On Capitol Hill, as well as Westminster, drink once oiled the political process. "Cactus" Jack Garner, the genial Texan reactionary who was FDR's vice president in the 1930s and who famously said that his job wasn't worth a bucket of warm piss, confined his work to asking senators in to "strike a blow for liberty" over a flask of bourbon, so much of which flowed that Cactus Jack had a malodorous urinal installed in a corner of his office. If he wasn't the best advertisement for the virtues of booze, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a notably serious drinker who was also several cuts morally and intellectually above most of his Senate colleagues.
More alarming were Richard Nixon's last years at the White House. After a good many evening martinis, he would call Henry Kissinger, and the secretary of state would grin silently as he passed around the telephone so that others could listen to their commander in chief's unbalanced ramblings. Since Nixon was in a position to blow us all up, this suggests a somewhat esoteric sense of humor on Kissinger's part.
And yet it is not just patriotic pride to claim a special place for my country, from the time when William Pitt the Younger was prime minister in the 1790s while consuming three bottles of port a day. A contemporary jingle imagined him and his drinking companion Henry Dundas entering the Commons unsteadily: "Cannot see the speaker, Hal, can you?" "What, cannot see the speaker? I see two." I believe that only one successor has been quite so plastered in the Commons. In 1911, Winston Churchill wrote to his wife about Prime Minister H.H. Asquith: "On Thursday night the PM was very bad: and I squirmed with embarrassment. He could hardly speak and many people noticed his condition. ... [O]nly the persistent freemasonry of the House of Commons prevents a scandal."
There is a certain irony here, given Churchill's own reputation. Few people ever saw him grossly drunk, but in 1935, Neville Chamberlain reported almost good-naturedly that "Winston makes a good many speeches considerably fortified by cocktails and old brandies," and his all-day-long consumption of champagne, whisky, and brandy, not least in the years 1940-45, would have him marked down by many contemporary doctors as a functional alcoholic. But he did, after all, win the war—and for that matter, David Lloyd George won the previous war when he lived most of the time with his mistress.
That was completely unknown to the larger public, as were other prime ministerial or presidential adulteries until recently. Maybe we have become a little more relaxed about sexual as opposed to alcoholic weaknesses, or so it seemed until the impeachment shenanigans of eight years ago, which raised in vivid form the question of privacy and media intrusion.
Did the American public know too little about John Kennedy's infidelities at the time? Did we know too much about Bill Clinton's? And how much did either matter? My late friend and compatriot Auberon Waugh said that Clinton's sexual recklessness was the only likable thing about the man, but William Ewart Gladstone put it another way when he, the most high-minded and devout of 19th-century premiers, once said that he had known 11 other prime ministers, of whom seven, to his knowledge, had been adulterers. He did not by this suggest that only the other four had been fit for high office.
Although booze and sex aren't exactly comparable—few of us mind if our airline pilot is an unfaithful husband, but we surely hope he's sober—the new puritanism about drink is perturbing if you think of those we would have been deprived of by the new strict standards. Charles Kennedy's departure is sad but not tragic. Nixon's eventual, beverage-unrelated downfall was not tragic at all. And if Churchill's partiality for the bottle had excluded him from the leadership of his country in 1940, it would have been not merely tragic but an immeasurable disaster. As I say, he did win the war—and against that well-known nonsmoking vegetarian teetotaler Adolf Hitler. You might call it striking the ultimate blow for liberty.