I think they’re just not drinking enough. The politicians, I mean. The ones in Washington, D.C. The ones who are supposed to be running the country.
While I don’t live there, I do manage to ping-pong around our nation’s capital pretty often, and I have never seen Ruth Bader Ginsberg propping up the bar at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, fenced in by a rank of empty glasses of its namesake drink.
Nor have I spotted Mitch McConnell getting wobbly on Long Island Iced Teas at the Raven Inn, or Joe Biden running the cocktail list at the Gibson.
The guy feeding dollar bills into the jukebox at the Showtime, the one who looked like Paul Ryan—he was not Paul Ryan.
The squiffy gents in ties arguing dogmatically at the bar at Bourbon Steak about the proper order of liqueur layers in a classic Pousse Café did not include Ted Cruz or Al Franken, and that was not Patty Murray patiently correcting them.
In fact, a couple of years ago, when I publicly offered to pick up the tab if congressmen of different parties met for drinks at the Columbia Room, the most elegant bar in the city, my Amex remained completely uncharged. And it wasn’t because nobody heard about my challenge—it was written about in The Hill, which is practically the house organ in the Halls of Congress.
I have a hard time believing anyone, elected, appointed, or otherwise, could turn down free cocktails at the Columbia Room, but there you have it.
This is an unusual state of affairs for Congress and for Washington in general. I’m old enough to remember when Wilbur Mills, head of the House Ways and Means Committee, miscalculated his dosage at the lively Junkanoo bar on Connecticut Avenue and ended the evening in the custody of the U.S. Park Police along with one Mrs. Eduardo Battistella, who had tried to get away when their car was pulled over by wading through the Tidal Basin. (In ecdysiastic circles, Mrs. Battistella was better known by her professional name, “Fanne Foxe, the Argentine Firecracker.”) That was in 1974.
But despite the magnificence of that individual episode, D.C. drinking was already in decline in the ’70s. To catch it in full flight, one has to go back to the 19th century.
It will give you a sense of the extent to which alcohol once lubricated the wheels of government to know that the Capitol building had a bar up until the 1850s. It was an unpretentious little place kept by a black bartender by the name of Carter. It was replaced by not one, but two splendid new bars, one in each of the building’s new wings.
The Supreme Court had its own cozy little barroom, for the private use of the Justices (its specialty, since the days of John Marshall, was hot Whiskey Punch). Even the White House—well, okay, it didn’t exactly have a bar, but it did maintain a massive mint patch for the construction of Juleps and a steward particularly adept at the art. But all of these were mere expedients; first-aid stations if one of the branches of government was in immediate danger of dessication. They were not for real drinking.
For real drinking, you had to hit the saloons. Places like Hancock’s, open from 1840 to 1914 at 1234 Pennsylvania Avenue, just a couple of blocks from the White House. There you would find figures such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, sipping the elaborate Juleps and Punches concocted by head bartender Dick Francis and making amicable conversation.
Or Shoomaker’s, just around the block at 1331 East Street. Founded right after the Civil War by William Shoomaker, a German-American veteran of the New York Infantry. “Shoo’s” quickly became known as the Third Room of Congress. Senate, House, Shoo’s. If you wanted to find any particular Representative or Senator, odds are pretty good that you’d find him there, admiring the knickknacks on the walls and sipping a Rickey or two, the bar’s signature drink.
It was invented there for Joe Rickey, a powerful Missouri-born lobbyist and gambler who had owned the bar for a couple of years after Shoomaker’s death in 1883. One hot day, a couple of years after he sold the place, he asked George Williamson, the bartender, to splash a little lemon juice into his rye-and-soda and please, no sugar—it heats up the blood, you know. Before long, everybody was drinking them, albeit with lime juice instead of lemon and, much to Rickey’s disgust, gin instead of whiskey.)
If the guy you were looking for wasn’t at Hancock’s or Shoo’s, he’d be at John Chamberlin’s, particularly if he was the fancy type. Just a few blocks away, at the corner of 15th and I, Chamberlin’s was famous as much for the altitude of its pricing as the quality of its Champagne, the dexterity of its mixologists and the elegance of its cuisine, all of which were catnip to the patrician sort of legislator.
As one journalist observed in 1895, “At the tables in the restaurant far into the night will be found groups of politicians, members of the House of Representatives and Senators,” while at the bar were “motley groups of statesmen, lobbyists, newspaper men, visiting politicians from the various States of the Union, foreign attaches and clubmen.” Tables were hopped, rounds were bought, the talk was lively and general.
There were plenty of other stops on the cocktail route as well, places where you’d find the bewhiskered gents tasked with operating the levers of government, comingled in party, united in conviviality.
Then came Prohibition. The folks in charge learned to do their drinking privately, and eventually privately led to separately. Look where that’s got us. This is a big country and it needs governing, and it ain’t getting it. The current crop of Washingtonians won’t even talk to each other.
Maybe if they took a page out of history and started liquoring up in each other’s general proximity some of that partisan sparring might be laid aside. Those tippling gents back then faced real challenges—immigration, infrastructure, war, extremisms right and left—and managed to pass bills and fund bridges and roads and conduct policy. It wasn’t always right and it wasn’t always pretty, but at least they heard each other out and voted and, by and large, colored within the lines drawn by the Constitution. Maybe our guys should have a little of what they were having.
Besides, we get D.C. drinking again and what’s the worst that can happen? We end up with a bunch of sloshed senators. And I can’t for the life of me see how a drunken Charles Grassley would be any worse than a sober one. Who knows? He might even pass a bill, just for the sheer whoopee of it.
And if you feel like raising a glass to ol’ Wilbur Mills, who’s looking less and less like a disgrace these days and more and more like a statesman, I have just the elixir to do it with: the Port Royal Cocktail from, of course, the Junkanoo.
Port Royal Cocktail
Created by David WondrichIngredients:2 oz Amber rum, such as Angostura 1919.5 oz White crème de cacao, preferably imported.5 oz Fresh lime juice1 tsp Rich simple syrup*
Garnish: 4 drops Angostura Bitters
Directions:Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass and let 4 drops (not dashes) of Angostura bitters fall on top of the drink.*Rich Simple Syrup
Ingredients:2 cups Demerara sugar1 cup water
Directions:Stir the Demerara sugar and water over low heat until the sugar has dissolved completely. Let cool, bottle and refrigerate.