Was Dubya Drunk?

In July 1986, on the occasion of his 40th birthday, George W. Bush gave up drinking. “I was not an alcoholic,” Bush has said, but his wife asked him to quit, and he was re-evaluating his life and his faith. Now a 1992 video has surfaced on the Web (click here to view it, and click here to read a transcript) showing a somewhat giddy Bush at a friend’s wedding. This has caused some people to speculate that at least once in his post-Prince Hal period, Dubya fell off the wagon. Did Dubya fall off the wagon? If the answer is “yes,” it could undermine Bush’s campaign quest for seriousness (Chatterbox is resisting the preferred cliché, gravitas).

Chatterbox’s own view is that the video is inconclusive. Assuming you can tell somebody is drunk by watching him on videotape–in some cases, Chatterbox believes, you can–there still isn’t enough information. The evidence that Bush is drunk is Bush’s dopey comic repetition of the phrase, “only in America” and especially his jokes about the unfortunate sobriety of members of the wedding party. In Chatterbox’s experience, jokes about other people not drinking seem funny only when you yourself are drunk. On the other hand, Chatterbox is well aware that the High-WASP subculture finds the whole subject of drinking much more hilarious than the rest of us do. If it were Chatterbox on that video, he would be drunk. But Chatterbox is not Dubya. For example: Chatterbox would never, sober, address his friend the writer Nicholas Lemann as “Nicky.” (“If there is anyone who doesn’t exude Nickiness, it is Lemann,” observes one editor Chatterbox knows.) But Lemann’s memorable New Yorker profile of Bush demonstrated that Bush would–indeed, Bush seemed to take pleasure in observing that being called “Nicky” annoyed Lemann.

Not feeling he was fully up to the task of evaluating the wedding video, Chatterbox consulted several political journalists. Here are their evaluations:

Christopher Caldwell, writer, the Weekly Standard:

I don’t know.

On the side of drunk:

1) Yes, Bush looks drunk in the video.

2) Booze comes up as a subject a lot, which it would be more likely to do if Bush had been drinking, and feeling either guilty or elated.

3) The way he takes a belt out that glass is not the way most people drink cranberry juice or ginger ale.

On the side of not drunk:

1) Drinking isn’t the only thing that causes people to slur their words. [Chatterbox interjects: Bush slurred his words? I hadn’t noticed.] Pat Schroeder sometimes used to slur so badly that she looked and sounded like a vaudeville wino; she definitely had a problem (a muscular thing, maybe?), but I’ve never heard it was booze.

2) Bush has a reputation for coming intellectually unhinged at the end of a hard day and getting totally incoherent, as he did the other day when he said “terriers” rather than “tariff barriers.” We know that’s why he avoids scheduling night events.

3) The video doesn’t show him “sarcastic” or “obnoxious,” as filmmaker T. Patrick Murray told Matt Drudge. I’m not always the biggest fan of the Bush sense of humor, but the sense of humor on display (“Very boring person. … Only in America could a guy like him even find work”) is very much his.

4) There’s a cockroach issue here: For a real boozer, incidents like these don’t come in ones. Compulsive drinking is a difficult vice to keep under wraps. Drunks pick up the phone, they go out looking for trouble, they get in fights, they offend gossipy people. If Bush is indeed wasted in this video, then in the upcoming week you’ll see another half-dozen accounts of his misbehavior.

Sorry to sit on the fence. It wouldn’t surprise me if such accounts surfaced, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t.

Gregg Easterbrook, columnist,

On an old Firesign Theater album, an auctioneer yells, “What do I hear!” and someone rejoins, “How can I possibly know what you hear?” How can we possibly know from appearances if someone is drunk or just giddy? Carol Burnett once won a big lawsuit against a tab that had written that she APPEARED drunk; maybe she was or wasn’t, but appearances don’t settle the question. … We should give [Bush] the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn’t give to first-time drug offenders.

Laura Ingraham, host, MSNBC’s Watch It With Laura Ingraham:

Drunk?! I have no idea, but wouldn’t it be fun if he were this feisty at the upcoming debates? Plus, he should get some serious credit for doing what so few people seem to be able to do at country club weddings, i.e., having fun. [Chatterbox interjects: It isn’t totally clear the setting is a country club.] And does this leave any doubt about just how tacky and pernicious video cameras are at social events?

Frank Foer, writer, the New Republic:

Any time you talk at length to a wedding videographer, you’re sloshed.

Jacob Weisberg, writer, Slate:

He’s not drunk, he’s just acting like a fool. I’m pretty sure the clear liquid in his glass is ice water. Of course, it could be vodka or gin. But when he did drink, Bush was a brown-liquor man.

Michael Kinsley, editor, Slate:

If he was drunk, he’s a pretty charming drunk. It’s also common for people who don’t drink to get sort of atmospherically drunk–i.e., get into the spirit without getting into the spirits–when everyone else around them is drinking. To me, he didn’t seem any less articulate than he seems when he’s sober. That’s a low standard, but the appropriate one. In any case, so what?

James Fallows, writer, Atlantic Monthly:

I don’t think he’s drunk.

Main evidence: His pronunciation isn’t slurred at all, or rather doesn’tsound any different from what we’ve gotten used to. … My experience is that there’s almost ALWAYS a noticeable change in slurring/articulation if the person is drunk enough to have the content of what he says be affected. That is, alcohol goes to the tongue at least as quickly as it goes to the brain.

Also: In their own frat-house way, his answers are responsive to the questions rather than going off in their own orbit. Even the dopey-sounding riffs–“Yes!” “only in America”–seem part of frat-housing razzing rather than drunken rambling.

And: While he has his arm around the interviewer, he doesn’t seem to be leaning on him or ever physically tipsy.

Of course, it’s a tossup for the Bush campaign about whether it would be better if people think he WAS drunk. Not good for them either way.  

Nicholas Thompson, editor, the Washington Monthly:

Definitely seems a little tipsy. He’s created a mostly true myth of the 40th-birthday-sudden-turnaround to separate himself from his wild past, and it’s not going to be surprising if that myth gets a bit punctured as we head toward November.

If Bush gets hammered, so to speak, on this, he should note that John Coltrane swore off drugs and alcohol and then made some of his best music on the few times he took drugs after the conversion.

Note: Many of those Chatterbox solicited have not yet responded, and some (Peggy Noonan, Debra Dickerson) say they’re experiencing technical difficulty downloading the video. Chatterbox will follow up with more commentary tomorrow.

Wednesday, Aug. 30:  Click here for more expert opinion on Dubya’s state of sobriety.