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Our Teetotaling Elites

Three of the four presidents of the 21st century refused to touch alcohol. It's time for Americans to drink and be merry again.
Richard Nixon

Here’s a not-so-fun fact. Did you know that, in the 21st century, all but one of the American presidents have been teetotalers?

The first, George W. Bush, is a recovering alcoholic. (That’s the language they use in A.A., though he seems to have recovered pretty well by now.) He quit drinking in 1986; today, he enjoys a nice cold Diet Coke. Donald Trump, meanwhile, never got a taste for the hard stuff. Mr. Trump’s older brother Fred succumbed to alcoholism at the age of 42. “He was so handsome, and I saw what alcohol did to him even physically,” Mr. Trump recalls. “And that had an impact on me, too.” For all his many differences with Bush II, the Donald is also a Diet Coke fiend.

Our newly minted POTUS, Joseph R. Biden, also steers clear of the bottle. Like Mr. Trump, he cites a genetic predisposition to substance abuse. “There are enough alcoholics in my family,” he told reporters in 2008. His drink of choice is orange-flavored Gatorade. That seems weird somehow, like John McCain asking reporters why people called him uncool for saying his favorite song was “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. But to each their own.

Speaking of Mr. McCain, he was (of course) the GOP’s nominee for president in 2008. His stock fell with Republican voters in the following years, but we may say this in his favor: during a 2004 congressional tour of Estonia, Mr. McCain challenged Hillary Clinton to a drinking contest. They each took four shots of vodka and then “agreed to withdraw in an honorable fashion,” as Mrs. Clinton later put it.

Mr. McCain lost to Barack Hussein Obama, who is the only drinker among this century’s presidents. So kudos to Barry. Yet his favorite drink is, rather disappointingly, Budweiser. I always liked to think of Mr. Obama sitting on the White House porch in one of his tan suits, fanning himself with a straw fedora or smoking a Marlboro Red, and sipping on a Hendrick’s G&T—garnished with a cucumber, of course, not a lime.

In 2012, America very nearly elected another dry. That was the year the GOP nominated one Willard Mitt Romney to run against Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney is a devout Mormon, and the Mormon Church—technically known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—famously prohibits the consumption of all strong beverages. That may come as a nasty shock to Christ Himself, who was known to serve wine at supper, and enjoyed the odd tipple with prostitutes and tax men.

The Mormon prohibition on strong drinks extends to caffeinated beverages, including coffee, tea, and soda. Nevertheless, after a particularly hard day on the campaign trail, Mr. Romney will occasionally help himself to a cheeky Diet Vanilla Coke. Happily for the Utah senator, Mormons don’t believe in purgatory.

The history of presidential potation is fascinating. Surprisingly, only one commander-in-chief drank himself to death. It seems only fitting that he was our greatest ever president: Franklin Pierce.

Since the cocktail is a fairly recent invention (though a consummately American one), most of our early commanders-in-chief stuck to beer, cider, and wine. William McKinley appears to be the first cocktail drinker, and a mixture called “McKinley’s Delight” was popular at the time of his election. It consists of three parts rye to one part vermouth with two dashes of cherry brandy and one of absinthe. Yuck. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, stuck with the more ordinary mint julip.

Harry S. Truman took a shot of bourbon every morning before breakfast—a ritual that your humble correspondent plans on taking up tomorrow.

As one would assume, John F. Kennedy had wretched taste. He famously liked a Bloody Mary, but he also favored Heineken, which was considered fancy at the time because it was imported. No doubt it tasted like the wrong end of a skunk even back then.

Lyndon B. Johnson, ever the Machiavel, would instruct his staff to make his scotch-and-sodas significantly weaker than those they served to his guests. Johnson would stay basically sober while his adversaries got stiffer and stiffer. Back on his ranch in Texas, however, he’d cruise around in a golf cart with a styrofoam cup of full of Cutty Sark, the noxious potion that liquor stores hide behind their bottom-shelf scotch.

Historians can’t seem to agree on Richard M. Nixon’s favorite drink. Most will say Johnnie Walker Blue, though he was known to frequent the Trader Vic’s down the street from the White House, where he’d sit at the bar knocking back mai tais. Thomas O’Neill, a respected historian of tiki culture, insists that Nixon preferred a Navy Grog. Experts will agree that, as a Quaker, Nixon technically oughtn’t to have imbibed at all. Add that to the list of things Richard Nixon technically oughtn’t to have done.

The most popular presidential cocktail, however, is the martini. This old reliable was favored by at least four presidents: Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. In fact, Jerry Ford is said to have applied this particular sauce a bit too liberally. After Watergate, his staff insisted that he forego his ritual three-martini luncheons.

Herbert Hoover had it even worse than Ford, however. Though he ran for president as a nominal supporter of Prohibition, he reportedly kept a magnificent wine cellar—every last drop of which Mrs. Hoover poured down the drain when the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in 1919. It was not a very good year.


If any readers can still recall those halcyon days of the Obama administration, they might remember Mr. Obama’s famous “Beer Summit,” which he hosted in the Rose Garden between Cambridge police officer James Crowley and Harvard lecturer Henry Louis Gates. Sargent Crowley (who is white) had arrested Professor Gates (who is black) for breaking into his own home. At their symposium, it’s said that Mr. Obama opted for a Bud Light and Sargent Crowley a Blue Moon. Professor Gates correctly enjoyed a Boston-brewed Sam Adams Light.

This simple gesture—kindred spirits meeting over kindred spirits—resolved the worst race relations crisis of the Obama years. “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart,” the president said afterwards. “I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode.”

Here’s what I learned: politics and booze absolutely do mix. In fact, alcohol is to politics what gin is to vermouth: the only thing that makes it palatable.

What a shame then: just when we need it most, Americans are disabusing alcohol at alarming rates. Our countrymen—particularly Gen-Xers and Millennials—are becoming what scholars call “sober curious.” Their unwholesome experiments with healthy eating and regular exercise are spilling over into the realms of liquor and tobacco.

What’s really perverse is that Big Booze has begun to embrace the trend. Corporate breweries are now launching alcohol-free versions of their signature broths. Heineken has even launched “Heineken 0.0,” meaning you can now have all the joy of drinking horse urine without any of the pleasant side effects.

Alcohol inspires courage, frankness, and conviviality in the drinker—three traits sorely lacking in Washington these days. That’s why statesmen have always paired their beer or bourbon with a pipe, cigar, or cigarette. Tobacco elicits a meditative mood in the smoker. It enlivens the mind while soothing the nerves, making it a natural aid to conversation. How many unnecessary wars have been avoided, or necessary ones declared, thanks to old white men in high collars banging on ale-sodden tables and shouting through a fog of cavendish fumes? How can we hope to restore good government without first restoring the pint and the pipe?

Really, it’s no wonder that a generation of politicos that refuses to indulge in such homely vices have ushered in the most rancorous political culture since the Civil War. I don’t like this habit we’ve developed of comparing modern progressives to the Puritans. It’s an insult to our Pilgrim Fathers—who, one might add, carried more beer than water on the Mayflower.

Nevertheless, if you take a whole generation of middle-class professionals and deprive them of whiskey and cigarettes—not to mention meat and cheese and bread—it’s no wonder they should go about tearing down statues of Abe Lincoln as part of some moral crusade against “systemic racism.” The modern Left has the same bossy, superior air as the scolds and Suffragettes who gave us Prohibition.

It’s not that they insist on being unhappy. Real sorrow suits them no better than real joy. These extremes of human feeling, to which alcohol makes us quite vulnerable, both seem beyond them. They’re horribly self-possessed, self-assured—in a word, sober. What’s worse is that they expect the rest of us to be sober, too.

I long for an America that’s too happy and too sad to really take itself so seriously. That’s what we need now more than anything: to sit down for a beer in the presence of our enemies, trip over a stool, and laugh at ourselves.

It’s hard to blame Messrs. Bush, Trump, and Biden for their teetotalism. All three have pretty good excuses for abstaining. Still, I can’t help but feel that Americans deserve leaders that will set a better example.

Winston Churchill, for instance. Pol Rogers, the purveyors of Churchill’s favorite champagne, claim the man drank 42,000 bottles in his lifetime. Friends said that, like Harry Truman, he would begin each morning with a “whiskey mouthwash” before having his first glass (or three) of Pol at breakfast. FDR’s own intake was nothing short of heroic. Yet biographers recall that, after a meeting with his British counterpart, Roosevelt would have to sleep 10 hours a night for three nights in order to recuperate from “Winston Hours.”

Together, Churchill and Roosevelt whipped Adolf Hitler and saved Europe from fascism. What have our abstemious elites done lately?

Michael Warren Davis is the author of the forthcoming book The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).