The following is an excerpt from Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking by Mark Will-Weber:
Alcohol has frequently cropped up in lesser combats—such as political campaigns. The most blatant example of this occurred in 1840, when William Henry Harrison ran as the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate against New York’s dandified Martin Van Buren. The Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign had its origin in a Baltimore newspaper editorial that was sympathetic to Van Buren and attempted to brand Harrison, “Old Tip,” as an uncultured, booze-belting bumpkin from the frontier. But the attempt backfired: Harrison, the Indian-fighting hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, was embraced as a man of the people, Van Buren was dismissed as an effete snob, and “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” (after Harrison’s running mate, John Tyler) swept into the Executive Mansion.
Long before candidates raised money with, say, $10,000-per-plate dinner parties in the Hamptons, West Palm Beach, or Beverly Hills, politicians used alcohol to guide voters into making the “right” choice. George Washington did it, Andrew Jackson did it, and Lyndon Baines Johnson was still using booze-for-votes as part of his congressional campaigns in the Texas Hill Country (particularly with German-American and Czech-American constituents) in the 1930s. LBJ outdid most of his political predecessors by allegedly lining up free beer from Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis–based brewery. Part of Franklin Roosevelt’s popularity was due to his stance against Prohibition—specifically, his willingness to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. In recognition of FDR’s election—and the end of Prohibition—a Clydesdale-powered wagon rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver a free case of Bohemian-style lager to the White House.
Prohibition lasted only from 1920 to 1933, but temperance movements had existed for far longer, starting at least from Andrew Jackson’s presidency and gaining huge momentum after the Whiskey Ring scandal during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, when government officials profited from illegally diverted liquor taxes. Teddy Roosevelt lamented that he could not even enjoy a mint julep after a spirited set or two of tennis without fearing a public backlash should word leak out.
Even well into the John F. Kennedy years, there were those who wanted to ban booze from official White House functions. Journalist Helen Thomas remembered a party at the White House that drew fire from teetotalers:
It was held in the State Dining Room where open bars had been set up. In addition, butlers circulated through the rooms with trays of champagne and mixed drinks. The stories that appeared about the open bar unleashed a furor as certain parts of the country and one group in particular, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), weighed in with their outrage. The first couple
abandoned the practice, but later on it was quietly resumed, and during such functions, one could walk up to a strategically placed bar for a drink. It’s hard to believe in this day and age that something like an open bar would prompt such a backlash—and the practice became White House routine over time.
Eighty years earlier, President Chester A. Arthur had his own run-in with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. When a WCTU representative asked Arthur to commit to an alcohol-free White House, such as former president Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy had championed, Arthur thundered, “Madam, I may be the President of the United States, but what I do in my private life is nobody’s damned business!” Of course, in today’s world of twenty-four-hour news cycles, presidents can rarely sneak a private moment. If a modern president hoists a mug in an Irish pub, the “news” of it zips around the planet almost before he can wipe the foam from his lips and request another round. Whether that’s fair or not is up for debate—but the reality of presidential scrutiny is not. No matter what the era, a drinking president never fails to catch the eye and stir the interest of the American public.