Life, Libations, And The Pursuit Of Happiness

Clay Risen takes stock of the White House's liquor supply:

If anything, Obama cuts against the tradition of chief-executive drinking by choosing beer as his relaxant of choice. Most presidents have kept whiskey on hand. George Washington was one of the biggest rye producers on the East Coast. Andrew Johnson, who occupied the White House between Lincoln and Grant, was drunk on whiskey pretty much his entire time in the executive branch. He took the oath of office as Lincoln’s vice president after a morning curled up with a bottle—“medicinal” whiskey, he said, for a cold. Six weeks later, hours after his boss was assassinated, Johnson was found in the second half of an epic bender, and had to be sobered up to take the oath of office as president.

But being a teetotalar, like Taft, presents its own problems:

Interestingly, Taft made one of the most consequential decisions in the history of American liquor. His predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, had overseen the passage and enforcement of a law that essentially banned the label “whiskey” for anything that hadn’t been made of pure grain and aged for four years. As one of his first acts as president, Taft oversaw a mock trial between advocates for the blended whiskey industry, which wanted to overturn Roosevelt, on one side, and the bourbon industry and pure-foods lobby on the other. Taft, playing the Solomonic role he would later assume on the Supreme Court, reversed Roosevelt’s rule, declaring that anything could be called whiskey as long as its ingredients were made clear on the bottle.

It’s no coincidence Taft lost his reelection bid. Not because he made the wrong decision—though he did; the stuff that passed for whiskey before Roosevelt laid down the law was closer to turpentine than bourbon. He lost, and deserved to, because anyone who wastes the presidential clock on a topic for which they have such little affection probably isn’t the most effective chief executive.