Obama raises the bar: a brief history of presidential drinking.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 28 2009 7:14 PM

Obama Raises the Bar

In politics, as in life, a little alcohol can go a long way.

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The great cautionary tale of presidential drinking, of course, is Nixon. He was both a drunk and a reminder to be suspicious of presidents when they have us over for drinks. After the Watergate story broke, Nixon and his aides decided they needed to humanize the president in the press, so they invited some key reporters over to have cocktails. The gambit was a disaster because Nixon was so socially awkward. Before he was president, when Nixon hosted parties at his home, he used cocktail mixing to replace conversation. He would pop up before his invited guests, offer them a drink, and then disappear to the bar again. Periodically, he'd pop in again to encourage everyone to have another, before returning to the bar.

When he drank alone, Nixon could throw his back into the task. This is why, in many accounts of late-night conversations by former aides, the president comes off as barely coherent. Once the British prime minister was on the phone, and national security adviser Henry Kissinger had to intercept the call. "Can we tell him no?" Kissinger asked the White House operator. "When I talked to the President he was loaded."

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The other famous presidential drunk was Ulysses S. Grant. When he was a general, however, his drunkenness worked in his favor. When informed that Grant drank whiskey while leading his troops, Lincoln reportedly replied, "Find out the name of the brand so I can give it to my other generals."

Historically, there have been more heavy drinkers in Congress, which seems natural not only because there are more of them but also because they cared enough about bourbon to declare it the national spirit. Herman Talmadge, an alcoholic who sought recovery from alcoholism while in the Senate, once said, "Alcoholism is as much of an occupational disease among politicians as black lung is among coal miners—you can get it just by breathing the air."

Many members of Congress drank heavily for years without disclosure, but there are also the famous cases, like Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House ways and means committee, who wound up bombed and in the Tidal Basin with his stripper girlfriend. Sen. John Tower's drinking habit kept him from being confirmed as secretary of defense. (That led to the appointment of Dick Cheney—a man more likely to throw a drink in your face.)

The old-style drinkers whose whiskey bottles rattled in their desk drawers are largely gone in Washington. Everyone cares too much about how they look—now the addiction in Washington, which Obama seems to suffer from, is working out. No politician wants to be photographed with a drink in his or her hand, and there aren't many places to go in politics anymore where you aren't being photographed. Though as a candidate Obama joked now and then about an instance in which he'd had too much wine, his cool demeanor (his drinks don't need ice) suggests he's not likely to go overboard. He won't need Mail Goggles on his fancy new BlackBerry.

Too much familiarity between politicians can be as dangerous as too much drink, of course. But let's not mistake my approving tone, or Obama's White House cocktails, for more than it is. Partisanship and substantive ideological differences will continue long after the jiggers and shakers are put away. No one is going to get co-opted after a few drinks. We're as likely to see that as we are likely to see the new president and Mitch McConnell staggering together down Pennsylvania Avenue.

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