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11.04.10

Return of the Boozy Politician

Bush set a dry tone for Republicans in Washington. But Tuesday's election and the rise of a certain orange-hued Ohioan put the party back in Republican Party. Prepare for John Boehner, uncorked.

Bush set a dry tone for Republicans in Washington. But Tuesday's election and the rise of a certain orange-hued Ohioan put the party back in Republican Party. Prepare for John Boehner, uncorked. Plus, our gallery of drinkers from FDR to Nixon.

There’s a new Speaker coming to the House of Representatives, and unlike grandma Nancy Pelosi, who famously curled up with a tub of chocolate ice cream after long days on the Hill, Republican leader John Boehner has a different poison: booze.

Born in the same state as the Prohibition movement and raised in a bar, the representative from Ohio is the Don Draper of legislators, a swilling, swaggering throwback to an earlier time. Between George W. Bush’s teetotaling and the Obama family’s extreme wholesomeness—plus the palls of war and recession—Washington’s been in a protracted period of austerity. But no longer, if the “ No. 1 party animal in Congress” has any say.

Gallery: Boozy Politicians

Case in point: When President Obama suggested a “Slurpee Summit” with Boehner and his colleagues this week, the likely Speaker came back with a counterproposal.

“I don’t know about a Slurpee,” he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “How about a glass of Merlot?”

Boehner, who grew up washing floors and waiting tables in his father’s bar and who is known to enjoy a glass of red wine during interviews, has spent considerable time (and money) over the last two decades putting the party back in GOP.

Since arriving in Washington in 1990, Boehner has played up his bon vivant image. Each summer he hosts the Boehner Beach Party at Cantina Marina, where guests guzzle margaritas while a calypso band keeps the beat. Last summer, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa was accused of using parliamentary tactics to delay House votes and kill time while the fundraiser got under way.

“You have a good party and people tend to show up for the next one,” Boehner once told The Hill. “You’d better make sure the first one’s a good one.”

At the GOP’s quadrennial conventions, Boehner is famed for his “warehouse” parties. He threw his first fete in San Diego in 1996. In 2004, the Freedom Project PAC, of which Boehner is honorary chairman, spent tens of thousands of dollars at steakhouses and luxury restaurants, including $1,554 at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, a “fine wine and spirit” shop.

“We’re thrilled to have Mr. Boehner as Speaker-in-waiting,” said Frank Coleman, senior vice president at the Distilled Spirits Council. Coleman said he was particularly moved by Boehner’s Election Night address. “It was great to have him talk about how his first job was mopping floors at his father’s tavern…. It was a place where he learned about the dignity of work.”

Howard Kurtz: How Dems Can Stop the BleedingBoehner’s proven himself a loyal friend to the industry when he’s on the job, too. Over the years, major trade players including the Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Wine and Sprits Wholesalers of America, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association have filled the coffers of Boehner’s political action committee. The Wine and Spirits folks have chipped in the most, to the tune of $110,000. In 2006, Boehner teamed up with the wholesalers to hold a wine-tasting fundraiser to support six vulnerable House Republicans.

Boehner’s liberal attitude toward an occasional tipple around Congress is shared by at least some members of his caucus. While the future Speaker favors grapes, it was Jameson Irish whiskey that House members quaffed on the Capitol balcony as Wall Street reform legislation made its way through the lower chamber this past summer. Members of the Kentucky delegation have teamed up to form the

Congressional Bourbon Caucus. Others have joined the Small Brewers Caucus.

In June, Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who now hosts Morning Joe on MSNBC, went so far as to accuse his former colleague of spending too much time at the bar.

“I hear it on the Hill,” Scarborough said. “I’m sure you hear it on the Hill all the time. It’s not reported. But so many Republicans tell me this is a guy that is not the hardest worker in the world. After 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock at night, he’s disengaged at best. And you can see him around town. He does not have, let's say, the work hours of Newt Gingrich.”

Boehner’s spokesman said that Scarborough was the one out of touch, pointing to his boss’ prodigious fundraising haul, but the future Speaker showed that the comment may have hit close to home when he turned around and blasted his own party for hitting the hooch. After one GOP congressman was overheard asking a lobbyist “Why did you get me so drunk?” at the Capitol Hill Club, a private social club on whose board Boehner serves, the GOP big wheel let it be known that his colleagues needed to straighten up.

Boehner “certainly comes from a long tradition,” says Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. There have been legions of political drinkers in American history. Herbert Hoover stopped off at the Belgian Embassy for a nightly martini on his way home from work. On the night before Prohibition took effect, FDR gathered with friends for a “farewell martini,” and then proceeded to drink straight through the dry years. At this time, House Speaker Nicholas Longworth made his own alcohol and served it to colleagues in his anteroom. “It was so phenomenally hypocritical,” Okrent says. “Maybe one has to appreciate the fact that Boehner’s not a hypocrite.”

As the Grand Old Party assumes control of the House, an old kernel of wisdom from the likely future Speaker seems newly relevant.

"You have a good party and people tend to show up for the next one,” Boehner once told The Hill. “You'd better make sure the first one's a good one.”

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.