Watching the presidential campaign is enough to drive anyone to drink. In fact, the urge to throw a few back has even spawned debate-centric drinking games. Whether the masses prefer their cocktails shaken or stirred, what’s truly interesting is discovering the liquor of choice for the men who led the free world into battle and peace, victory and defeat.
Alcohol has never been in short supply where presidential history is concerned, not even in the driest of times. (Just read Part One of this series to see what we mean.) These anecdotes about how the presidents and their men have boozed it up over the years shed light on the times in which they lived, and how the times we live in now are oh-so-different.
All about the Benjamin
Ah, yes, the “honorable Benjamin Harrison.” At least, that’s how Andrew Carnegie referred to the Commander in Chief in 1891 when he beseeched Messrs John Dewar & Sons to ship a “small keg — say nine or ten gallons — of the best Scotch whisky you can find” to the executive mansion in Washington, D.C. and to send the bill Carnegie’s way. But this request wasn’t the first time Carnegie was generous with presidential spirits. He sent President James Garfield a case of the same whisky as an inauguration gift eight years earlier.
Andrew Carnegie beseeched John Dewar & Sons to ship a “small keg — say nine or ten gallons — of the best Scotch whisky you can find” to the Benjamin Harrison in the executive mansion in Washington, D.C. This was a recurring gift from Carnegie to the Commander in Chief — he also sent President James Garfield a case of the same whisky as an inauguration gift eight years earlier. Photo courtesy of Dewar's.
Everything is bigger in Texas
“Of his five years in office, Lyndon Johnson spent something like a year’s time on the ranch he built on his property in the Texas Hill country,” says Brian Abrams, author of “Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery, and Mischief From the Oval Office.” But LBJ wasn’t just taking vacays on the ranch — he was theoretically working, too, entertaining foreign dignitaries and the press while cruising them around the property in his customized Lincoln convertible. “Whoever was riding in the car with him — a senator he was trying to bully into signing something into law or a reporter — LBJ would have a Styrofoam cup on the dashboard or in his hand all the time with Cutty Sark in it,” says Abrams. “Behind him were the Secret Service with a portable Scotch bar. When LBJ pumped the brakes and tipped his cup out the window, they would rush to refill it for him.”
Before his two presidential victories, and even before he was governor of New York, in the 1870s Grover Cleveland was a bachelor barfly in Buffalo. “He was kind of a Tommy Boy of the town and somehow got elected sheriff for a few years,” says Abrams. This new position didn’t stop “Uncle Jumbo” from enjoying time on a bar stool, however, even at the expense of others. “One night he caught a barkeep asleep. At closing time — 1 a.m. — he wound the clock back a few hours and woke the barkeep who served him for a few hours,” Abrams explains. “As a prank, Sheriff Cleveland brought in a deputy to arrest the barkeep, then let him go.”
Bridge over troubled Watergate
Naturally, there is plenty to be said about Richard Nixon’s antics in office. So it may not be a shock to discover that the 37th president often put his own needs before those of others. “Nixon supposedly would drink premier wines, such as Chateau Laffite Rothschild, at White House dinners, but serve a much lesser wine to his guests,” says Mark Will-Weber, author of “Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking.” In order to properly “pull a Nixon,” waiters were instructed to wrap a towel around the label when they served so guests would be none the wiser. Nixon also has a reputation for being a bit of a drunk, but Abrams clarifies that Nixon had more of a pill problem (sleep aids and, allegedly, anti-psychotics) that, when combined with booze, would make him pretty screwy.
It’s in the juice
The Rutherford B. Hayes White House isn’t often associated with cocktails since the First Lady Lucy Hayes (aka “Lemonade Lucy”) was a staunch supporter of the temperance movement. However, where alcohol is prohibited, people will still find a way to secure some hooch. “There were rumors that White House staffers sympathetic to thirsty visitors managed to spike — with rum — some of the oranges that comprised what was designed to be a non-alcoholic Roman punch,” says Will-Weber.
The great negotiator
As if Abraham Lincoln didn’t have enough of an uphill battle as president: it was inauguration day when he realized, in an effort of bipartisanship, that he’d saddled himself with a vice president who shows up completely wasted to his swearing in. Andrew Johnson paid a visit to Hannibal Hamlin, the outgoing VP from Lincoln’s first term, on his way to his inauguration and was perhaps the recipient of a dose of sour grapes on Hamlin’s part. Johnson asked for a drink — whether out of nerves or an attempt to make peace with Hamlin is unclear — and Hamlin encouraged Johnson to keep downing shots of whisky. “He spewed out gibberish when he got up to speak,” says Abrams. And, not unlike today, “Lincoln made sure Johnson was escorted out a different exit so reporters wouldn’t catch him saying more stupid things.”