Obama Raises the Bar

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

Barack Obama had a drinks party at the White House on Wednesday night. He invited congressional leaders of both parties for cocktails at 7:30. In his relentless push for his stimulus plan, he’s apparently not going to let them out of his sight. He was with the same people on Tuesday, just a few days after he’d met with them at the White House. The cocktail invitation could be a polite gesture—they hosted him Tuesday on the Hill, and he wants to return the favor; or it could be a stratagem—after being with them so much, Obama realizes that everyone could use a good drink. Or it could be a philosophical statement: Sobering times do not necessarily require everyone to be sober.

This is a notable departure from Obama’s predecessor, whose relationship with Congress was notoriously chilly and whose relationship with the bottle ended at age 40. But it connects him to a rich presidential tradition that goes back to the Founders, who drank heavily after signing the Constitution.

It’s good news. First, drinking in moderation leads to an equitable distribution of the humors, and we want our president to be healthy. Second, among adversaries, drinking promotes relaxation and laughter. I doubt it will lead to an agreement on the size of small-business tax cuts in the recovery package, but a few drinks might shave off a few layers of posturing. All of the guessing at motives will decrease. Without so much chest-thumping, the two parties may even get to genuine points of disagreement faster. As a community organizer, Obama knows the power of getting everyone to recognize themselves in one another. What better way to do that than over a few drinks? (Those who disagree should stop wondering why they are lonely at parties or aren’t invited at all.)

Bush famously did not drink, and though drinks were served in his White House and the president often wistfully referred to his drinking past, the easy and relaxed atmosphere of the cocktail party was not a theme of his tenure. I remember once hearing John Ashcroft, Bush’s first attorney general and a devout Christian and teetotaler, discussing with an aide whether to serve any “intoxicants” at a fundraiser. (It was always funny to hear the press criticized for cozying up to Bush officials at cocktail parties. There weren’t any.)

Senate historian Don Ritchie reminds me of some other presidential habits. Harry Truman favored bourbon and branch water. (As vice president, Truman had just arrived to have a bourbon with House Speaker Sam Rayburn when he got the call that FDR had died.) When he was president, LBJ came to the Capitol on several occasions for an after-work drink with Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen.

I am tired of comparisons between the Obama administration and the Kennedy and Roosevelt administrations, but when it comes to drinking, let’s encourage them. FDR won the presidency on a platform of ending Prohibition. Every evening, including during the war, Roosevelt mixed drinks in the Oval Office from behind his desk, before him a tray equipped with whatever he needed for the martinis or old fashioneds he was mixing. “He mixed the ingredients,” recalled author Robert Sherwood, “with the deliberation of an alchemist but with what appeared to be a certain lack of precision since he carried on a steady conversation while doing it.”

Though Kennedy was not a big drinker, the cocktail culture that grew around his administration was exciting. “Every party had at least a few senators or cabinet officials and a few big-time press people. It was all off the record and a lot of business got done,” Fred Harris, a former Democratic senator from Oklahoma, recounted to me. “The war on poverty and federal aid to education and civil rights, we hadn’t had yet the urban riots and the war in Vietnam was no bigger than a man’s hand. There were new and exciting programs and new and exciting people.”

After Kennedy, LBJ carried on the presidential carrying on, though in his own inimitable style. Joseph Califano tells the story of drinking while riding around Lyndon Johnson’s ranch. “As we drove around we were followed by a car and a station wagon with Secret Service agents. The president drank Cutty Sark scotch and soda out of a large white plastic foam cup. Periodically, Johnson would slow down and hold his left arm outside the car, shaking the cup and ice. A Secret Service agent would run up to the car, take the cup and go back to the station wagon. There another agent would refill it with ice, scotch, and soda as the first agent trotted behind the wagon. Then the first agent would run the refilled cup up to LBJ’s outstretched and waiting hand, as the president’s car moved slowly along.”

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.”

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.