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Fuelling affairs of the state

Whisky has often served as a lubricant driving the cogs of diplomacy and politics. But as Chris Hill reports,it has also been a hinderance as well as a help
By Chris Hill
The idea and image of the drunken politician is essentially a cliché, and like most clichés it is not without its basis in truth. Politicians, like the leaders in any industry (business, entertainment etc), have been known to indulge and overindulge in alcohol. Unlike other industries, however, there is something almost natural about whisky being the power drink of choice among the political set. As is also the case with cliches, there is a greater connection between politics and whisky than mere caricatures. Look back over the past 200 plus years of political history around the world and you will find whisky playing a key role in the lives of some of the most famous and influential politicians. During George Washington’s years as America’s first president, one of his biggest challenges was the so-called ‘whiskey rebellion’ of 1794. Scottish and Irish settlers in America had brought their knowledge of distilling with them and set up stills for personal and business uses. Washington’s hefty tax on whiskey sparked a revolt, causing the new president to lead 13,000 soldiers to quell the revolt. Perhaps if he had known how he would spend his years in retirement, Washington would not have been so quick to tax whisky. When he stepped down from the presidency in 1797, Washington had a distillery built on his estate in Virginia. His plantation manager, a Scotsman, persuaded Washington selling whisky would be a profitable venture. On year later Washington produced 11,000 gallons, making him the top whisky distributor in the country. With the Civil War tearing America apart, President Abraham Lincoln turned to General Ulysses S. Grant to lead the Union Army against the Confederates. Grant was known for two things: his brilliant military tactics and his drinking. Despite his successes during the war, Grant’s behavior spurred official complaints calling for his dismissal. Lincoln was aware of Grant’s drinking, but also knew his other generals in the Union Army were not nearly as skilled. Lincoln concluded the matter by stating: “If I knew what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, I would send a barrel to my other generals.” Though they had studied one another from afar, it was not until Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt sat down for drinks that perhaps the most important political bond in modern history was formed. Roosevelt called it the ‘children’s hour,’ the time late in the afternoon when official business at the White House would cease and the President and his guests would retire to a private study for an hour or two for drinks. FDR eagerly played the role of gracious host, offering to top off a guest’s drink or mix up another batch. While occasionally a drinker of whisky, Roosevelt was more a fan of mixed drinks, usually martinis or various concoctions of rum and fruit juice, and often served them at his daily gatherings. Churchill, on the other hand, found such drinks convoluted. Thus, true to his palate but ever the savvy politician, Churchill quickly developed a strategy for disposing with Roosevelt’s alcoholic offerings. During these occasions at the White House, he would wait a few minutes until the room was alive with conversation. At that point Churchill would politely excuse himself to the bathroom, remove the olive from his martini and dump the drink down the drain, replacing it with water. Preferring a straightforward Johnnie Walker Scotch and soda, Churchill later quipped: “The problem [with America] is the drinks are too hard and the toilet paper is too soft.” Churchill’s political skill regarding alcohol was not confined to his dealings with Roosevelt. In early 1945 Churchill hosted a luncheon for King Ibn Saud of Saudia Arabia, a Muslim in whose presence it was forbidden to smoke or drink alcohol. Undeterred, Churchill relayed via the interpreter: “If it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.” The King acquiesced and diplomatic catastrophe was averted. Fortunately for the industry’s sake, it was not only the leaders of democracies enjoying whisky. When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided to exile Leon Trotsky, he was asked for proof that Trotsky was a traitor to the cause. “Trotsky drinks the wrong kind of whisky!” Stalin insisted. This was all the proof Stalin needed, though he himself enjoyed single malt Scotch in private. Upon their respective passing and capture, dictators Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein were discovered to have vast quantities of Scotch squirrelled away in their palaces.Amin used at least part of his cache to bribe/coerce/reward his military leaders.Likewise, Hussein regularly imported 10,000 bottles of Scotch each week for his military and political network.Throughout the 20th century the U.S.Congress was home to a select fraternity of leaders who would retire at the end of the day to hash out key issues over a bottle of bourbon.Over time the room they gathered in became known as the ‘Board of Education’ room, because from time to time they would bring in new members of Congress, serve them some whisky to loosen them up, and learn what was important to them.Over the years the regular members of the ‘Board of Education’ included future Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, as well as future House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill.On April 12, 1945, Truman (then Vice President) was in the room when the White House called urgently requesting he return at once. Upon arrival he was informed President Franklin Roosevelt had died.As president, Truman frequently started his day with a shot or two. While conducting research for his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography David McCullough was surprised to learn Truman often drank bourbon in the morning.”Apparently it was his way of getting the engine going,” McCullough said. “He would go for his walk… come back and do some sitting-up exercises and have a rub-down, and then have a drink.” While President, Truman pushed through legislation setting up additional successors to the presidency, in the extraordinary situation that both the President and Vice President die at the same time. First in line after the Vice President was the Speaker of the U.S.House of Representatives. Given how many bottles of bourbon Truman had shared in the ‘Board of Education’ room with Sam Rayburn, the Speaker at the time, this new law was not a surprise.President Lyndon Johnson not only enjoyed whisky (specifically Cutty Sark) himself, he recommended it to friends.In 1964 Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen checked into a hospital with a bleeding ulcer. Johnson called him the next evening and urged him to “quit drinking that damned Sanka and get on a good Scotch whisky once in a while.” Not coincidentally, that was the same year the U.S. Congress passed a resolution designating bourbon as “a distinctive product of the United States.” One additional reason for whisky’s tie to politics is the fact that politics is an industry where the score is kept constantly. In a world where victories and losses come not just with elections, but the passage of legislation and signing of international treaties, winners toast their good fortune, while losers drown their sorrows, if only for one night.So forgive our leaders if they see whisky as the key to any situation.In 2003 famed heavy metal rocker and recovering alcoholic Ozzy Osbourne suffered multiple fractures when he got in an accident riding an all-terrain vehicle on his property in Buckinghamshire. Prince Charles decided to offer his sympathies by sending a get-well note… and a bottle of Scotch.However, if today’s political leaders are enjoying whisky on a regular basis they are keeping it to themselves.President George W. Bush claims to have stopped drinking the day after his 40th birthday. Bob Geldof recently heaped praise on Prime Minister Tony Blair for his political prowess. However, when it came to sharing some whisky on Downing Street, Geldof did that with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.Let’s face it, no matter how high quality the whisky they drink is, we do not want our political leaders incoherent when making decisions that affect their work and, therefore, our lives.That said we should be wary of those who would call for a return to the Age of Temperance or Prohibition, even if it is confined to the political class. It is commonplace for politicians running for office today to have to answer questions about their past drug use.Look closely enough in your city, state, province or country, and you will surely find those who insist political leaders be not only drug-free, but whisky-free as well. Yet those who would lack the proper perspective.If history has taught us anything, it is that whisky’s role in politics is most often akin to that of oil keeping the political gears greased and moving for the public good.A prime example of this is the alliance of Churchill and Roosevelt, leaders for the ages who forged their friendship, working relationship, and a lasting world peace over the ‘water of life.’ It is a shame to think this age of 24-hour cable news and internet gossip masking itself as astute political analysis would prevent current and future political leaders from sitting down, sharing a dram or two of fine whisky or bourbon, and discussing solutions for the greater good.