It’s simple, very simple, really: Donald Trump will never be a great president because he doesn’t drink. This breaks with a distinguished presidential tradition dating back to George Washington who, just before retiring from office, built a huge distillery on his Mount Vernon estate.
It was more than a retiree’s hobby; it was a passion. During the eighteenth century, it was the largest distillery in the country, producing a whopping 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year, about 17 times more than the average competitor, of which there were plenty. In 1810, 3,600 distilleries were humming with hooch in Virginia alone.
General Washington was a Trumpian of sorts. After the Revolutionary War he pitched a “Buy American” policy. “I use no porter or cheese in my family,” he wrote, “but such as is made in America.”
Known to enjoy an adult beverage socially and medically, a common practice of the era, he also used it in his battlefield bivouac, where a few belts helped calm his nerves after battling the British. His favorite libations were Madeira and port, rum punch, porter, and whiskey, liquid warmth that came in handy for those cold nights at Valley Forge and crossing the icy Delaware. Hot cocoa just didn’t cut it. He was also fond of mojitos and cosmos. No, not really. I just made that up.
But seriously: Yes, he liked a tipple or two…or three, but he also warned against the dangers of excessive imbibing and preached moderation with the authority of a man who has, on occasion, been bruised by booze or hurt by hangovers.
Our greatest presidents drank—some responsibly, others to hooch-happy excess. But the effects of alcohol did not impair their statesmanship. In fact, it seems to have enhanced it. Teetotalers like President Trump do not seem to reach historical prominence.
Adams, Jefferson, and Madison Started Drinking Early
Our Founding Fathers were unabashed boozers. John Adams, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and became our second president, kicked off his mornings with hard cider, porter beer, rum, and copious amounts of Madeira.
Thomas Jefferson, his presidential successor, who also chimed in on the Declaration of Independence, ran up a wine bill that nearly spun him into bankruptcy. James Madison, who stopped the European colonization of America and penned the Missouri Compromise barring slavery north and west of the state, created a scandal when somehow 1,200 bottles of Burgundy and Champagne imported from France wound up at the White House and Congress paid the tab from an account earmarked for furniture.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Swiller
Despite President Trump’s admirable whirlwind of speedy initiatives during his first few weeks in office, he’ll never rival the achievement of FDR, arguably our greatest president. Roosevelt nixed Prohibition, and with lightning speed. Just five days after his 1932 inauguration the new president called on Congress to legalize beer.
It did not take much arm-twisting. Politicians as well as the populace were painfully parched. Just a little over a year later FDR ratified the Twenty-First Amendment, after which he said, “I believe this would be a good time for a beer.” Talk about repeal and replace.
After more than 15 years of the stifling piety of the Temperance Movement, the 1919 Volstead Act that empowered law enforcement to raid speakeasies (often resulting in police brutality and the violation of patrons’ civil rights), and the Anti-Saloon League headed up by the temperance tyrant William Jennings Bryant, Americans were fed up with the government gutting their good times. FDR made America fun again.
But FDR’s motives were not wholly altruistic. To say he enjoyed a drink is a vast understatement. His Happy Hour, which he called his “favorite hour of the day,” would make Charlie Sheen’s pale in comparison. He was most fond of gin martinis (but, I mean, who isn’t?). After an evening of convivial and unrestrained imbibing, the Secret Service would dutifully steer him to his bedroom while he drunkenly belted out college fight songs.
He really cut loose on vacation. The privacy of the family’s summer home on Campobello Island afforded him the opportunity to get plastered with pals far from the watchful eyes of the press. Official accounts of his activities included boating and fishing. Uh-huh.
He was also something of an aspiring mixologist, a terrible but enthusiastic one by all biographical accounts. His weekend retreat at Hyde Park during World War II was a gathering of guinea pigs—Hollywood hotshots and other left-leaning libertines—on whom he tested his latest concoctions. His “Haitian Libation” sounds particularly hideous. It was made for the ladies to help them, ahem, “feel frivolous.” It consisted of dark rum, brown sugar, orange juice, and an egg white, shaken in a frosted tumbler.
But his real fixation was perfecting the martini. Guests complained that he used too much vermouth or that they were too weak, so he experimented with various gin-to-vermouth ratios. His son Jimmy urged him to try a 3-1. His other son, Elliot, lobbied for a 4-1, the ratio that is considered today to be the ne plus ultra, the formula for the classic martini. But it didn’t stop there. FDR’s grandson, Curtis, suggested a potent 6-1. That’s a lot of gin, more an anesthetic than a cocktail.
The 32nd president was sometimes crazily creative, which led to even more dissent. He’d toss in olives as well as lemon peels, mixing garnishes that purists would find appalling. He’d also spoil it with a splash of absinthe. Many of his guests said, “The president made the worst martinis I’ve ever tasted.” But he liked them. He also liked wine and Old Fashioneds, which he said helped soothe his back pain.
FDR, Churchill, and Stalin’s Wet Foreign Policy
More significantly, he practiced what we might call a wet foreign policy, and with historic success. Booze helped him bond with world leaders during World War II. Winston Churchill visited the White House for three weeks at a time and began his mornings sipping a martini in his bath. They often pulled all-nighters that would annihilate the most seasoned frat boy.
FDR introduced Joseph Stalin to his go-to cocktail, but Stalin said martinis were “cold on the stomach.” So instead Roosevelt drank vodka and Russian champagne with The Red Tsar and Churchill, most productively at the Tehran Conference of 1943, a triumph of diplomacy that ultimately liberated the West from totalitarian rule. Between war talk, they once made 365 toasts, one for each day of the year. Booze clearly played a key role in FDR’s art of the deal.
Alcohol didn’t diminish him as a man nor impede his considerable achievements. Churchill said, “I got more out of alcohol than it got out of me.” Ditto FDR, who is our only four-term president and the only president to serve more than two terms. He swiftly enacted the New Deal that some think lifted the country out of the Great Depression, created Social Security, won the war, and revamped the government to aid the little guy instead of Big Business.
Abe Lincoln, the Licensed Bartender
Lincoln was not much of a drinker, at least not compared to FDR, but he was a licensed bartender who knew the power of a cold one. “I am a firm believer in the people,” he said. “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”
He initiated an excise tax on beer and distilled spirits, a much-needed revenue stream to help finance the Civil War. Still, it wasn’t enough. Things were going badly for the Union until Gen. U.S. Grant came along and started winning battle after battle.
There was just one problem: Grant’s rivals called for his removal because of alleged drunkenness. Lincoln wisely rose to his defense and said if he could only find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would “send a barrel of it to every general in the army.”
Trump Clearly Needs a Drink, Too
President Trump does not indulge, not a drop, ever, and the reason, according to him, is poignant: the death of his beloved brother from alcoholism. Still, one wishes he would knock back an occasional cocktail to take the edge off. It might make him seem less ornery, more likable.
Ronald Reagan’s father was an alcoholic, but it didn’t prevent him from drinking socially. A nip now and then might curb President Trump’s manic energy and keep him from rattling around his penthouse at three in the morning ripping off testy tweets about “Saturday Night Live” skits, an undignified image for a man of his stature. It might make him more relaxed, focused, and thoughtful, qualities that could prevent cock-ups like the hasty release of his first immigration ban or mauling the media.
It might also prevent Trump from being consigned to the bottom of the barrel in presidential rankings like another teetotaler—a once hard-partying George W. Bush who quit drinking 30 years ago. A Sienna poll ranked Bush 39 out of 43. Sobering.
Perhaps Trump’s abstinence from alcohol is not so much due to his brother’s death, but anchored in a pathological need to control whereby even a few drinks might render him frightfully vulnerable, less dominant, muddled, and open to the very slur he has endured sober—“unhinged.”
And what about foreign policy? In the coming months he will sit down with Premier Putin. He will no doubt abstain from the ritualistic vodka toasts, but this will be regarded as a sign of weakness in a drinking culture; a man who cannot handle his liquor is not a man.
Sixty-three percent of Americans drink. President Trump’s approval ratings are far below that, revealing that he is out of step with a very large constituency. W.C. Fields said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” Perhaps it’s too late for a teetotaler to change, but downing a pint or two just might humanize him, make him more relatable, more one of us than some super-rich elitist with a supermodel wife, a fancy fashionista family, and expensive cufflinks.
Although his work ethic is impressive, Trump never seems to have any fun, and this worries me. All work and no play, etc. He doesn’t even smoke. Not even the occasional cigar. Golf—what Mark Twain called “a good walk spoiled”—is his only outlet. But how much golf can you play? And what does he do when he gets to the nineteenth hole, which is slang for clubhouse brews with your buddies? Order a Diet Coke while they’re all letting off steam over fine wines and craft beers? It’s hard to see how he can make America great again when he seems to spurn what Americans love most: Happy Hour!
Lincoln said, “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” Let’s hope that President Trump is the exception that proves the rule—for all of our sakes. I’ll drink to that!