Presidential Tippling

Teddy Roosevelt’s Cocktail Court Battle

The former president had to defend his character and drinking habits from a slanderous newspaper.

11.07.16 6:00 AM ET

A presidential nominee embroiled in scandal, at odds with the Republican Party, while the papers are full of accusations against his character and his boorish, vulgar, and un-presidential ways.

Sound familiar? But the situation I’m describing took place back in 1912 and not now. That election got so nasty, former president Theodore Roosevelt had to travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to defend his honor in court. He filed a libel suit against a newspaper that printed accusations that “Roosevelt lies, and curses in a most disgusting way, he gets drunk too, and that not infrequently, and all of his intimates know about it.” We’ll get back to that trial in a moment…

For someone not known to be a big tippler, Roosevelt certainly found himself at the center of some epic drinking-related scandals. For one, he witnessed the political downfall of his hand-picked vice president, Charles Fairbanks. His crime? Fairbanks had allegedly served Manhattan cocktails during a luncheon held in Roosevelt’s honor. Heaven forbid!

Not exactly treason but the year was 1907, and even though Prohibition was more than 13 years away, the Temperance movement was gaining quite a bit of momentum. Fairbanks wielded some degree of popularity among the “dry” contingent, and he had his never-bloodshot eyes on the 1908 election (naturally hoping for Roosevelt’s endorsement). He actively courted the teetotaler vote, and to this end the Jonesboro, Arkansas, Daily Times Enterprise said of Fairbanks:

“was making a bid for the farmer vote by always calling for buttermilk on his automobile tours through the country. At the same time he posed as a great temperance man, and was making a hit with total abstainers when the newspapers sprung the story that Fairbanks had opened his luncheon to President Roosevelt with a round of Manhattan cocktails, dyed cherry and all. Thus public attention was diverted from the original Fairbanks cocktail (a glass of buttermilk surrounded by a round red radish) and the public was told to gaze on a vice president who, though he himself drank nothing stronger than buttermilk, have the nerve to tender his guests, and among then the President of the United States, such a vicious drink as a Manhattan cocktail. Of course it don’t make any difference whether Fairbanks serves cocktails at his table, or whether he serves buttermilk. The incident is chiefly valuable and showing that the public press no longer treats the Fairbanks boom as anything but a joke.”

Did Roosevelt actually drink Manhattans (or anything else) that fateful day? Indeed he did, reported the venerable Pawtucket Times, noting that “[t]he waiters did not allow any of the glasses to remain empty, but kept filling them up from the bottles…” Worse, when Roosevelt was offered a drink, any drink, an attendee (who chose to remain anonymous) “laughed and replied, ‘Oh, he took it all.’”

The scandal was enough to tarnish Fairbanks’s credibility so much that Roosevelt chose to endorse William Howard Taft in the 1908 election, and Fairbanks eventually disappeared from the political stage. Oh, the humanity, a political career ruined, by a drink he didn’t even get to enjoy!

The Temperance crowd certainly seemed to have it in for Roosevelt, but he took it in good humor. As president, he was fond of playing tennis on the White House courts. Afterward, he might enjoy an occasional Mint Julep on the adjacent lawn. (He in fact even had mint growing at the White House for this purpose.) One particular day, according to Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking, Roosevelt commented, “Wouldn’t dear old Fairbanks give a great deal to be able to sit down and enjoy one of these without fearing that a photograph field was hidden behind the bushes? It is almost worth being called a drunkard by Wall Street to feel free to take a julep such as this without shocking the public.”

As if on cue, Interior Secretary James Garfield cried out, “Look out, here comes a sightseeing automobile by the White House!” Roosevelt hid Garfield’s glass under the table, pretending to be afraid. “That is the first evidence of fear I have ever seen in you, Mr. President,” laughed Garfield, to which Roosevelt replied, “Not for my reputation, Garfield, but for you. After all Wall Street has said about me mine can’t be injured, but you, my dear boy-faced Secretary, you may yet need the vote of the teetotaler.”

Another drink associated with Roosevelt was the Bwana (sometimes Bwano) Tumbo. After his second presidential term, which ended in 1909, Roosevelt embarked on a world tour, spending a good deal of time on safari in the wilds of Africa. The locals supposedly adopted a nickname for him, “Bwana Tumbo,” said to mean “portly master.” At the conclusion of his travels, and to welcome home the original Rough Rider, a drink by that name was created, which was purported to contain ingredients representing six nations visited during Roosevelt’s trip. It’s a bizarre and potent mix of rum, sweet vermouth, dry gin, absinthe, and kirschwasser.

So let’s get back to that libel trial. Having temporarily left political life after his presidency, Roosevelt decided to throw his hat back into the ring in 1912. Having grown disenchanted with Taft, he abandoned the Republican Party and ran with the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) party. While campaigning in Marquette, Michigan, apparently Roosevelt ruffled the feathers of a Republican by the name of George A. Newett, the editor of the Iron Ore, a newspaper based in the bustling metropolis of nearby Ishpeming. Among other slights, the Iron Ore claimed that “Roosevelt gets drunk, and that not infrequently, and all his intimates know it.” Roosevelt was understandably incensed, and brought legal action. At trial, Roosevelt paraded “a spectacular array of witnesses,” a veritable who’s who before the court, all testifying to the former president’s teetotaling ways.

After the impressive parade of witnesses for the plaintiff, the trial ended abruptly when Newett “surrendered,” admitting “that he can find no one as a witness” to support his claims. Although Roosevelt had asked for $10,000 in damages, he agreed to accept a mere six cents and it’s reported that he noted, no doubt with a great deal of satisfaction, that six cents was “about the price of a GOOD paper.” The Iron Ore went for three cents at the time. Touché, Teddy.

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Bwana Tumbo

Ingredients:

.75 oz San Juan rum (Cuba)
.375 oz Sweet vermouth (Italy)
.375 oz Dry gin (England)
Dash Absinthe (France)
Dash Kirschwasser (Germany)

Glass: Venetian cocktail glass (Austrian)

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.