White House Wet Brains: A History of Presidential Drinking

By Josiah M. Hesse 08/25/15

How many of our commanders in chief were alcoholics?

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Imagine President Obama walking through the White House at 7 a.m., entering the Oval Office, sitting down at his desk, and taking a shot of whiskey. You might, at the very least, think: Now there’s a man without much ambition for the day. This would not be an unreasonable assessment. Yet several of our nation’s presidents were morning drinkers—as well as daytime and evening drinkers. Many of our U.S. commanders-in-chief exhibited behavior that would, by today’s standards, qualify them as alcoholics. 

It could be argued that alcohol has shaped our nation as much as religion, technology or geography. Alcohol has financed wars, been central to countless diplomatic negotiations, and turned men of great responsibility into dangerous, mentally crippled children. Some presidents exhibited their ambition and virility in their drinking, while more sober leaders proclaimed intoxication to be at the heart of the country’s moral corruption, elected by voters who agreed and wanted it snuffed out. 

“Being president is a high pressure job, and it’s a surprise anyone gets out of there alive, much less sober,” says journalist Brian Abrams, author of the book Party Like A President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery and Mischief in the Oval Office. “There is a certain type of person that pursues the presidency, typically a very hungry person. They have an appetite for power, for accomplishment, which can also include women and liquor. This hunger can be effective in creating good, but then, obviously, there are destructive elements to it as well.” 

“The kind of people who aspire to power take a lot of risks,” adds Kevin Everhart, senior instructor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado Denver. “They have a high level of confidence, and the kind of gravitas it takes to proclaim yourself able to lead the free world. And risk-seeking behavior and alcoholism often go hand in hand.”

The term “functioning alcoholic” can often divide people into heated arguments—one side asserting that if the drinker is getting his/her job done and not hurting anyone, why bother chastising them? While others would say he/she is not really functioning at their true potential, and we often don’t get a full glimpse of how alcohol is affecting someone emotionally and physically. 

Regardless of where the truth lies in this argument, it is a fact that many of our presidents drank heavily. John Adams drank a tankard (20 ounces) of hard cider for breakfast each morning, while Harry Truman preferred a shot of Old Grand-Dad whiskey to “get the motor running.” Chester Arthur gained 40 pounds while in office, most of which has been attributed to his heavy drinking, which is also likely to have caused the kidney failure that killed him at age 57. 

“President Johnson’s press secretary once described his drinking as ‘like his arm was in a robotic motion,’ constantly filling his gullet with Cutty Sark,” says Abrams. “Of all our presidents, I would say roughly half of them qualify as an ‘alcoholic,’ or one who drinks for sport. And I’m not including people who just had a glass of wine or two with dinner.” 

Often, a close look at America’s most memorable and celebrated moments will reveal alcohol playing some kind of role. When the Mayflower carried the pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, she carried several barrels of beer within her hull. Throughout the Revolutionary War, General Washington made sure his men were given one cup of rum each day. “Washington fell in love with French wines,” says Abrams. “And when the colonists were desperate for the French to help them fight the British, Washington would exchange letters with French generals discussing their favorite wines.” 

During the Civil War, two tax increases against alcohol helped fund the Union army, plenty of which came from General Ulysses S. Grant, who drank a herculean amount of Old Crow whiskey throughout the war. While many were aghast at his constant inebriation, he went on to be the most celebrated general of the war, and was twice elected president. 

FDR and Winston Churchill’s alliance—which lead to the the defeat of advancing Nazis—was forged over countless all night benders, known to White House staff as the “Winston Hours.” While JFK was never a considerably heavy drinker, his family did accrue much of their wealth selling liquor. (The president’s vices lied in pain pills and amphetamine injections as well as the occasional cocaine and marijuana use.)  

For the most part, the drinking habits of presidents have been viewed by history as merely the antics of fun-loving, rascally gentlemen. In the case of Richard Nixon, however, a considerably darker shadow loomed over his notorious thirst. 

In his recent book, One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, journalist Tim Weiner uses recently declassified recordings of the Nixon administration to paint a portrait of our 37th president as a paranoid madman, driven to reprehensible behavior through crippling addiction and mental collapse. 

Weiner reports that Nixon had been up all night drinking when he conceded defeat in his 1960 bid for the presidency, delivering his infamous line, “You wont have Nixon to kick around anymore,” to reporters. Nixon’s political life was far from over, but by 1968, his close advisor John Ehrlichman was ready to call it quits over Nixon’s drinking. 

“He was convinced that Nixon’s drinking could cost him any chance of a return to public life,” Weiner writes. “He had seen Nixon drunk during the 1960 and 1962 campaigns and the 1964 Republican convention, and he made him take the pledge: ‘If he wanted me to work for him he would lay off the booze.’” 

Grant had made a similar pledge before the start of the Civil War, but was just as unsuccessful at sobriety as Nixon. More than just the booze, Nixon also had other chemical dependency issues to contend with. 

“During Watergate, Nixon took Seconal [a barbiturate] as a sleep-aid, and Dilantin, a drug that leveled you out and was later diagnosed to people with bipolar disorder,” says Abrams. “It wasn’t so much that he was a huge drinker, but one scotch with the pills would mess him up. He’d drunk dial people in his cabinet, his staff, or his old football coach, who would listen to Nixon until he’d mumble himself to sleep.”

More than just the loss of his dignity, according to Weiner, Nixon’s constant insomnia and drinking fueled his aggression in the war in Vietnam—he often promised in a fit of rage that he would “bomb the bejesus out of them”—and actively worked to spread rumors to the Russians and Chinese that he was planning a nuclear attack against Vietnam. 

On October 20, 1973, during the height of the Watergate scandal, when the House began impeachment proceedings against the president, a standoff in the Middle East between Egypt and Israel grew dire when Soviet forces began shipping missiles into the region. At a time when the nation, and much of the world, were looking to the president for leadership, Nixon was passed out drunk in the family quarters of the White House. His staff continued working to dissolve the crisis, while trying to keep the Russians from finding out that the U.S. was temporarily without a president. 

“As Nixon sank deeper into the swamp of Watergate, [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger gained an imperial power over foreign policy, and [White House Chief of Staff Alexander] Haig behaved like the acting president of the United States,” Weiner writes. “Nixon was increasingly incapable of playing his role as the leader of the free world.” 

“People with an underdeveloped or poorly developed sense of self often become inebriated in order to attain an internal state that matches the way that they want the world to see them,” says Everhart. “People with those kinds of issues rarely ascend to power, or if they do, they don’t remain in power very long. They self-destruct, because they can’t maintain the facade of strength needed to govern . . . Nixon seemed to have a very fragile psyche. He’s a lot like Stalin in that way: Two unstable individuals whose internal strife was projected onto the population they were trying to govern.” 

Following Nixon, alcohol wouldn’t play as large a role in the life of a president for nearly three decades, when the 14 years sober George W. Bush ran for president in the year 2000. 

Days before that election, news broke that Bush had been arrested and plead guilty to drunk driving in 1976. Unlike the election of 1840, where Martin Van Buren was accused of being a drunk by his competitor and subsequently lost the race, or the Chappaquiddick incident that kept Ted Kennedy out of the White House, the revelation of Bush’s criminal record did not cost him the presidency. It’s likely that his base—consisting largely of evangelicals—romanticized the image of a reformed drunkard, the prodigal son asking for forgiveness for his past transgressions. 

By all accounts, George W. Bush remained sober throughout his presidency, and continues to abstain from alcohol to this day. 

While Obama’s troubled youth of smoking cigarettes, pot, and heavy drinking is said to be behind him, he has kept alive the tradition of presidents using alcohol as a good-natured olive branch of diplomacy. Whether he’s enjoying microbrews during a campaign stop in Colorado, attempting to calm race relations with a “beer summit” in the Rose Garden, or smoothing over a phone tapping scandal with a breakfast beer alongside the German prime minister, Obama has managed to employ the identity of a down-home drinker while avoiding any gossip about overindulgence. So far. 

It’s important to remember that in many of these cases, the presidents' drinking habits were couched within a time period that viewed alcohol much differently. For their time, there was nothing exceptional about our Founding Fathers beginning the day with a beer. And anyone who has seen Mad Men understands what attitudes toward day-drinking were like in the age of Johnson and Nixon. 

Since then, we as a society have collectively learned that an excess of booze will kill your body and wreak havoc on your emotions. Over the course of our 239-year history, we’ve borne witness to the damage of a president who drinks in excess, and have also seen the impracticality of presidents who attempt to outright ban the substance. In this way, the tale of alcohol in the White House is the ultimate American story: Two polarizing viewpoints, slowly melding together after years of learning from one another’s strengths and follies. 

Josiah M Hesse is a Denver based journalist covering politics, crime, marijuana, comedy, music, economics and pop culture. His work has appeared in VICE, Noisey, The Cannabist, Splitsider, LaughSpin, and Westword. Follow him on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse or email him at [email protected]

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Josiah M. Hesse is a Denver-based journalist covering politics, crime, marijuana, comedy, music, economics and pop culture. His work has appeared in VICE, Noisey, The Cannabist, Splitsider, LaughSpin, and Westword. Follow him on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

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