When Winston Churchill traveled to America for a lengthy lecture tour in the early 1930s, he had a problem. Because the later British Prime Minister and self-confessed lover of alcoholic beverages came to the country at the time of Prohibition. So he couldn't legally get his usual rations of champagne (at meals), scotch (for the rest of the day), and brandy (as a nightcap).
But an initially bad fate came to his aid: After he was hit by a car in New York, he found a doctor who prescribed daily rations of the desired substance "for healing". This was possible despite the general ban - similar to what later happened with medical marijuana.
The hard-drinking Brit showed bad timing with his trip – because the nationwide alcohol ban ended a little later in 1933, 13 years after it was introduced. It was a comparatively short episode in American history in which intoxicating drinks played a not insignificant role from the arrival of the first settlers. This was as true of ordinary people as it was of the men at the controls of power.
In addition to the lure of intoxication, there were also hygienic reasons at the time, because fermented drinks lasted longer and were usually less dangerous than the often contaminated water. Since life expectancy was significantly shorter than it is today, most consumers were no longer aware of the negative consequences of their drinking.
Even though religious groups in particular repeatedly ran campaigns and enforced regional restrictions, widespread alcohol consumption shaped the young republic. This also affected the first US President. George Washington consumed a bottle of Madeira every evening, along with rum and beer. The binge with which he celebrated the signing of the constitution in 1787 became legendary. After the end of his presidency, he operated a whiskey distillery in Mount Vernon - and was probably his own best customer.
Various successors to Washington weren't averse to hard liquor either. In 1865, the vice president chosen by Abraham Lincoln for his second term, Andrew Johnson, slurred his oath of office at the inauguration ceremony, saying he had previously drunk a few whiskeys too many and his fondness for Tennessee bourbon was well known. Even during his later presidency, he made several public appearances with a clear list.
Among modern US Presidents, Richard Nixon is considered the most heavy drinker. Because although he couldn't stand the substance and looked clearly battered after just one glass, he regularly drank. Controversial throughout his life, he achieved great successes, especially in foreign policy (keyword: trip to China in 1972) - but his drinking behavior repeatedly led to tricky situations: in April 1969, while drunk in the evening, he is said to have ordered a nuclear attack on North Korea. The background was the shooting down of a US spy plane. His then Chief National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, intervened and made an agreement with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to wait until Nixon had slept in the next morning. Official documents do not prove this, but there are reports from those involved at the time.
Nixon's use of sleeping pills in addition to alcohol compounded the problem, as did the Watergate scandal, which rattled Nixon's nerves (and left him out of office in 1974). When the Soviets threatened to intervene during the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Egypt and Israel, Kissinger, now US Secretary of State, decided with Chief of Staff Alexander Haig to send an evening reply to Moscow of his own accord on Nixon's behalf rather than wake the President.
Nixon was also notorious verbally for being hearty. This is evidenced by tapes that the paranoia-prone president secretly ran in the White House. His judgment of the German head of government, for example, was devastating: During Willy Brand's visit in June 1971, Nixon whispered to Kissinger that "this guy really is a bit stupid". Kissinger agreed: "Brandt is stupid and lazy - and he drinks." Decades later, Kissinger rowed back that he had always respected the German chancellor.
Brandt, like Nixon, was in office from 1969 to 1974, and at least the statement "he drinks" was absolutely correct. There are numerous stories about his alcohol consumption. It was an open secret that the social democrat, who tended towards melancholy, sometimes drank too much. Because of his drinking habits, he quickly got the nicknames "Willy Brandy" and "Willy Weinbrandt". As early as July 1965, Brandt, then 51-year-old SPD Chairman and Governing Mayor of Berlin, was asked about it by Der Spiegel. He waved it off: "Now I only drink wine and occasionally beer when I'm very thirsty"; later, of course, it became more again. This did not detract from his great achievements. In October 1971, a few months after the Americans taunted him, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Ostpolitik.
There are many reasons why alcohol and top politics are often so closely intertwined. The burden of responsibility, lonely decisions, public pressure, heavy workload—the stuff helps numb those worries; politicians feel the same way as many others. Alcohol is also a social lubricant. In 1983, the then parliamentary newcomer Joschka Fischer was horrified when he called the Bundestag an “incredible meeting of alcoholics”.
The drinks have always been served without an ulterior motive. A prime example of the tricky use of spirits is the first Federal President. Konrad Adenauer himself avoided sumptuous meals as well as excessive alcohol consumption - but knew how to deal with the material tactically masterfully.
One example is Adenauer's legendary round in August 1949, a week after the first federal election, where he brought up the topic of being chancellor. In order to get the guests on his side, he invited to an opulent coffee table in the austere post-war period, later there was a buffet and wines from the local cellar.
The youngest participant in particular, the not yet 34-year-old Secretary General of the CSU, Franz Josef Strauss, was lastingly impressed: "At Adenauer's private expense" he had never experienced anything similar before or since. Strauss even raved about the drinks on offer: a "range of wines that rang like heavenly bells for us".
However, Adenauer criticized the later defense minister for “tactlessness and talkativeness after drinking alcohol”. A diagnosis that also applied to the pugnacious, charismatic Bavarian prime minister in the decades that followed.
Adenauer, on the other hand, proved to be an unexpectedly hard drinker at a crucial time – namely when he negotiated the “homecoming of the ten thousand” in Moscow in October 1955. The German Chancellor knew that the Russians would try to drink the German delegates under the table, hoping for better terms from intoxicated negotiating partners. At the same time, in the land of vodka, he couldn't refuse the many high-proof rounds without offending the hosts. Adenauer's solution: He gave instructions that every German delegation member should be given olive oil by the spoonful before the negotiation rounds, in order to dampen the intoxication. Success proved him right.
This also applied to his trip to France in 1962, on which wine connoisseur Adenauer provided another example of his "wine diplomacy": The Federal Republic of Germany organized a reception, a dinner for President Charles de Gaulle and his wife. The German Chancellor brought some bottles of ice wine from his cellar and served it to the head of the table where he and de Gaulle sat. That was well received in the land of wine connoisseurs. The wine cellar of the Elysée Palace is legendary, the establishment of which was suggested by the then President Vincent Auriol in 1947, and which his successors continued to help curate.
And a farewell prank by Adenauer has also survived. When he left the Chancellery in 1963, he invited journalists to decimate the wine cellar's stock. He didn't want his unloved successor, Ludwig Erhard, to have too many choices. Because he appreciated good food and the drinks to go with it, liked sweets and whiskey in the evening.
There are, of course, counter-examples – heads of state who didn't touch a drop during their term in office. This included US President George W. Bush, a "convert". Known for years as a hard drinker, by 1986 he had made a U-turn. After a particularly bad hangover from celebrating his 40th birthday, he gave up alcohol for good and embraced the Christian faith, as he explained during the 2000 election campaign. In 2007, the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized: "I don't drink a drop of alcohol" after appearing somewhat disorganized at a G-8 summit.
Probably the most notorious example of a teetotal politician is Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Its propaganda had the war opponent Winston Churchill regularly insulted as an allegedly incompetent "drunkard". The outcome of the Second World War is well known. In 1955 Churchill resigned as Prime Minister and died in 1965 at the age of 90. "All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me," was one of his summaries. In 2002 he was voted the tallest Briton of all time in a BBC poll.
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