Every four years, this nation comes together to select a new president from a pool of wealthy people, some of whom may also be intelligent. For a year and a half, we savage their opinions, assassinate their character, dig up their past, steal their yard signs, and argue with our parents about them. Then, we entrust one of the two pathological narcissists who clawed their way to the top of the heap to become the most powerful human being in the world.
It’s not the worst system for choosing a leader, but it does have one drawback: we can’t really say we know the guys we’re electing. During the campaign, candidates are so heavily stage-managed that gauging their real personality is nigh impossible. Once elected, they’re even more insulated.
That’s less true now, in a social media environment, but there is still a huge focus on managing the public’s perception. The humanizing screwups and weaknesses they have in common with the people they govern are hidden from view (to varying degrees of success—after all, vice came to define more than one presidency). The reality is that it’s a hell of a job, and presidents are, in fact, only human. Like anyone, sometimes they just want to cut loose—even when they probably shouldn’t.
In “Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery, and Mischief from the Oval Office,” author Brian Abrams shows that while a virtuous public image has been a feature of nearly every presidency, so has an almost total unwillingness (or inability) of the men in office to measure up to it. The truth is that the office has seen its fair share of sots, druggies, philanderers, drunk drivers (of horse and car), gamblers, sexual deviants, nude swimmers, and general debauchees. Abrams covers them all, from George Washington’s heroic levels of alcohol consumption right on down to Barack Obama’s hazy recollections of the Choom Gang.
The Formerly Private Foibles of Our Presidents
The book is at turns lighthearted, cynical, and puckish. It’s shot through with the sort of gossipy details we all deny craving, alongside interesting sidebars to provide cultural and historical context. It also paints these men—some of whom were, undeniably, capital-G Great—as relatable people, subject to the same faults and failures as the rest of us. In other words, it succeeds beautifully.
Abrams writes in clear, conversational prose, with just the right blend of sympathy and irreverence for his subjects. He keeps things lively, even when the president in question most assuredly did not (looking at you, Rutherford). Whether he’s covering JFK’s exploits—unsurprisingly, the longest chapter—or George W. Bush’s, Abrams dishes it out irrespective of party affiliation. Everybody gets a turn, even that rascal Millard Fillmore.
That liveliness is helped along tremendously by John Mathias’ illustrations. “Party Like a President” is chockablock with presidential portraits, cartoons, infographics, and comic strips. Each chapter begins with a helpful “Party Key,” a collection of symbols identifying the vices particular to that president. It’s sort of the opposite of a merit badge. While John Quincy Adams has a rather thin résumé of beer and wine, a brief glimpse at Warren Harding’s entry tells us he was fond of ale, champagne, cigars, gluttony, scotch, whiskey, wine, and coitus.
It’s not just a catalogue of excess. In each chapter, I came across some piece of information I’d never heard before. I periodically found myself asking whether some of the oddball facts in the book could possibly be right.
Did Abe Lincoln really lift a whole barrel of whiskey to take a drink?
Did Ulysses S. Grant really puke on his horse?
Did Benjamin Harrison’s family really object to him eating cucumbers?
Did JFK’s aide really throw Bing Crosby’s suits into a pool while the prez laughed?
Did a martini-laden Gerald Ford really stick his foot into a large wheel of brie and never even notice?
These are all true (and awesome) stories.
Cocktails Worthy of a President
I’d be remiss in my duties if I did not also mention the service the author provides by including 44 cocktail recipes, each inspired by a president. Some of these concoctions, especially a few of the punches our Founding Fathers enjoyed, seem like they’d require a liver transplant afterwards. Some are familiar classics, but many were completely new to me. They seemed awfully delicious. Here’s the predictably trashy (though probably not wretched) submission for Bill Clinton:
- 1/3 oz white crème de cacao
- 1/3 oz crème de menthe
- 1/3 oz Kahlúa
Pour over ice in a rocks glass.
“Party Like a President” is the sort of book you can revisit again if you need a laugh, or mine for trivia to impress your political-geek friends. Abrams has given us a cheeky reminder that the imperfections of our leaders are crucial to understanding them—as crucial as their accomplishments, if not more so.
Now, for an Interview with the Author
Brian Abrams is the editor-in-chief of the news site Death & Taxes and was previously an associate editor at BuzzFeed. In addition to “Party Like a President,” he is the author of “And Now: An Oral History of ‘Late Night with David Letterman, 1982-1993,’” and has written for numerous websites and magazines, including Mental Floss, Playboy, and High Times. I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with him to get insight into the book and our political landscape.
FEDERALIST: What inspired you to tackle this book? Was it an interest in history, or did the idea of a president getting blitzed just strike you funny? Or was there more to it?
BRIAN ABRAMS: I always dug history, no different than you would. I never felt myself to be an expert in politics or history, but you think of college or great books you’ve read. I always thought that collecting silly episodes of what the presidents did would be a funny idea. I always thought of it on the level of this fratty Wile E. Coyote type of humor. It never occurred to me until about halfway into the book—I had this eureka moment, like “you’re actually discovering things about these people, dummy.”
So in my writing I always try to capture this deadpan tone, and I can’t always tell if I’m trying to be a serious writer masking himself as an idiot, or an idiot masking himself as serious.
There were two books that inspired me to get off my ass and write this one. The first was by Robert Caro, called “Passage of Power.” He’s written this four-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, working on number five right now. “Passage of Power” came out in 2012, and it covers 1959-1964. That’s LBJ at the convention, ’til after Kennedy’s assassination.
The other was Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland,” which came out in 2008. It’s more zeitgeisty than biography. Showing how entire country pulled the lever for the Left in ‘64, and showing why it pulled the lever for the Right in 1972.
I just got lost in them—made me go, “Holy shit, I want to do my idiot version of this.”
FDRLST: What’s your favorite story from the book?
BA: Hmm. Well, there was a favorite that I didn’t include. One I really loved was Gerald Ford’s first flight on Air Force One as president. I just didn’t include it, because it didn’t make sense in the chapter.
The story goes: It’s 1974, Nixon has resigned in disgrace. Ford gets his big promotion, and sits down in his cabin on Air Force One and orders a martini. A photographer comes by. Not sure if it was his personal photographer [David Kennerly] or a member of the news media. Anyway, it’s this historic moment: the president’s first flight on Air Force One.
And the photographer is getting ready to take the picture when he sees Ford’s martini. So he reaches over, grabs it by the stem and says, “Excuse me, Mr. President, let me just get this out of the shot.” There’s something so charming about the whole thing. It was a different time, showed a sort of personal respect between the news media and the presidency.
It also showed how unassuming he was; it didn’t occur to him not to have a martini in that moment. I imagine a lot of times the president isn’t walking around thinking, “This is a historic moment, this is a historic moment.” Of course, they’re aware when it’s something big, like signing healthcare reform, but not always for these smaller things.
FDRLST: You touched on my next question just now: how has media coverage of the personal lives of presidents changed over time? Would you say it’s more deferential, less, or about the same?
BA: It’s changed drastically, obviously, but when we look at the way presidents or candidates have their lives scrutinized—they have always been scrutinized, always had their character questioned. It’s part of process, what we expect.
But 24-hour news and Twitter aside, technology aside—for those supposed gotcha moments—something more macro has happened. We as a society have made progress, become aware of things we weren’t always aware of.
Politics has become a meaner, faster game. Yes, Kennedy screwed around on his wife and reporters knew about it. But today, if Obama did that he would not get away with it.
A hundred years ago, if you saw the president smoking a cigar on the street nobody would care. If this afternoon Obama walked down the street smoking a cigarette, it would be huge.
FDRLST: It would be a meme almost immediately.
BA: Yes. This is really f***ed up, but in olden days if you heard, say, a couple fighting next door they’d say, “That’s none of our business.” Today, you call 911.
I think people just got off the hook in a way, not because we decided to become meaner to our public servants but because we have recognized we want a change in our behavior.
FDRLST: We complain about mudslinging today, but campaigns in the early days engaged in some truly nasty rhetoric (Adams is a hermaphrodite; Jackson’s wife is a bigamist). However, they also happened to give out free booze for votes. Was that maybe a better system, all things considered?
BA: Well, yeah. That’s another wonderful point. You had Harrison’s Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign, others just handing out whiskey at events. Today you’d never hear of that, though you have cocktail parties. Not in this sort of, town square free-for-all.
For the most part you don’t see candidates handing out Koozies and tapping kegs. It’s not the image they want to set. They’re careful. It’s not tightening up, it’s the understanding that’s not the world we live in anymore.
What would happen if [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie decided to pass out bottles of whiskey at an event, then a family of six crashes and dies because dad got drunk?
FDRLST: Did you uncover anything in your research that particularly surprised or shocked you?
BA: I’ll tell you the thing that made my jaw hit the floor when I found out about it. The thing that shocked me has gotta be the penis nicknames. That blew me away—I don’t have a name for mine.
FDRLST: [tries not to laugh, fails]
BA: I wasn’t into sports, never got into the locker-room stuff. It just never occurred to me.
I think for some of these guys it was just a dumb fratty thing. So when Harding named his Jerry and JFK named his JJ, and LBJ Jumbo, oh my God. But it was also about power
FDRLST: Right, they were a little fixated on it.
BA: During the Clinton-Paula Jones trial she faxed an affidavit to her lawyers—this was on September 29, 1997—and she included a description of Clinton’s penis. We’re talking width, girth, length. Curved, bright red. Think Santa hat. She told her friend it was like the leaning Tower of Pisa.
FDRLST: Which president would you definitely not want to party with? Exclude the teetotalers, of course. But which guy would leave you in jail all weekend, or need a babysitter the whole time?
BA: I would have to say…Ulysses S. Grant would not be too reliable. He’s reputed to be this giant drunk, one of the greats. There was all this documentation of him staggering around the battlefield and vomiting on his horse. But it’s not that he was this Keith Richards character, he was 5’7” and 135 pounds, eating army rations. So of course he is gonna act like a complete wreck. I think that he might not be able to hang.
I’ll tell you who can hang: James Buchanan. I wrote about this in the book, an account of him and a guest going toe to toe, guest waking up with a monster hangover, and Buchanan waking up in the morning with no problem.
FDRLST: I’m the resident cocktail guy at The Federalist, so I appreciated that you included 44 drink recipes, one for each president. I was wondering if, from those you shared in your book, you had a favorite or a recommendation for our readers?
FDRLST: Oh. Do you…do you not do the whole, ah, cocktail thing?
BA: Okay. So here’s the thing about me: I’m a real pragmatist when it comes to these things. I don’t have the time for that. Maybe it’s a New Yorker thing, maybe an alcoholic thing. I don’t know. I just feel like when you walk into the bar, know your drink.
So for me, I’m a scotch on the rocks guy. Maybe gin, dry vermouth, and a couple olives. So for me to say, “Oh I’ll have this, with the egg whites and the bullshit,” I’m like no, get outta here, we’re wasting valuable time!