“I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
So said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 23, 1933, just before he reached for a cold one. I like to think FDR would have preferred PBR—if only for the cross-promotional opportunities—but whether it was a Blue Ribbon or a Silver Bullet, it was a red-letter day for the country, and there was reason to celebrate: Roosevelt had just signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, effectively ending Prohibition. It was a good time for a good time.
This week, it was another President’s turn to sidle up to the bar. “I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon,” President Obama said on Wednesday. But the President wasn’t celebrating. A few hours earlier, his party had taken a shellacking drubbing trouncing light soupcon of defeat with a drizzle of a Republican mandate. New Senate Majority Leader McConnell had just taken a victory lap held a press conference. Democratic pundits had spent hours licking their wounds vowing comeuppance. It was a bad time for a good time.
The comment itself was a callback to an earlier declaration he had made, at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, that he’d rather not have a drink with then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, thank you very much. “You have a drink with Mitch McConnell,” he pleaded with all two thousand-plus in attendance. And that comment was in direct response to the unsolicited advice he had been hearing countless times over the previous five years: that he should do more to court Republican allies.
And the best way to do that: he should have a drink with them.
It would be easy to say Obama brought this boozy badgering on himself: he began his first term by breaking bread (and presumably, popping corks) with conservative writers David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol over at George Will’s house. Brooks later joked of Obama, “[The President] said, David, which sort of wine would you like me to turn your water into?” (A zinger back then, a you-had-to-be-there comment now.) In the years to follow, the President invented a whole new arena of diplomacy: the beer summit, wherein people who have been slighted get to spend a happy hour or so telling the leader of the free world what’s made them upset.
But Obama didn’t invent the practice of plying patriots with poison. It’s brewed into the history of the White House: Even before he was commander-in-chief, General George Washington made certain his soldiers were distributed four ounces of whisky with their daily ration, reasoning that “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies, and are not to be disputed.” As President, the Father of the Constitution James Madison drank a pint a day. By the time Prohibition was on the menu, we were very much an “alcoholic Republic.” Thirteen years later, we were back off the wagon. We knew our nation sober; we preferred it tipsy.
All presidents host dinners, welcome guests, open bars. But the executive who wielded liquor like a weapon was LBJ. In Master of the Senate, biographer Robert Caro describes a man willing to pour countless bourbons for a known alcoholic—Kentucky Senator Virgil Chapman—until the poor man succumbed to any demand Johnson had. There’s even the slightest of hint of complicity in Chapman’s later death in a drunk driving accident. (Somewhere Frank Underwood is talking to camera.)
To be sure, there’s never been a prohibition on using alcohol to grease elbows and twist arms. “Since the days of Henry Clay,” said Eric Gregory, the president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, “Kentucky bourbon has been used to lubricate the wheels of government in Washington.” Of course his was a vested interest in this particular bourbon summit: “We stand ready,” he advertised, “to supply this meeting and serve our country as America’s only native spirit.” I would suspect he has already sent a case to 1600 Pennsylvania with his compliments.