The politics of beer
By Laura Williamson
There was a lot of talk after last week’s beer summit at the White House. Some of it centred on whether Obama had managed, with one round of drinks, to erase the tensions brought on by a 300-year history of slavery, segregation and race riots. The consensus was probably not. Most of it, though, was about a topic people obviously found more compelling: who ordered what.
As anyone who lives in a country with a free press knows by now, the President had a Bud Light, Vice President Biden downed a non-alcoholic Buckler, Professor Henry Louis Gates quaffed a Sam Adams Light and his arresting officer, Sgt Joseph Crowley, chose a Blue Moon wheat beer. Immediately apparent from this low-octane selection was the fact that we were not dealing with a group of sculling-contest veterans. But what else can we learn from the most scrutinised round of beers in human history?
The immediate temptation is to make fun of the Vice President’s pick (Why bother, Biden? Stick to tap water, it’s cheaper, tastes better, and has the same effect!), but it’s Obama’s choice of Bud Light that is the most remarkable. I say remarkable because anyone who has done any research on the subject — buying beer, pouring beer, drinking beer, watching other people buying, pouring or drinking beer — knows full well that there is no way Barack Obama is a Bud Light man. Bud Light men do not write books with the word “audacity” in the title, they are not Harvard Law School graduates and they don’t dance in public with their wives, unless it’s line dancing and doesn’t involve human contact. Bud Light men do manly things with large trucks and can burp the alphabet forwards and backwards without pausing for breath.
Of course, Obama chose Bud Light for exactly these reasons. He knew most of the planet would be watching, and he wanted to send a message: “Don’t let the audacity thing fool you. I am a regular guy.” It’s the same thing he’s doing when he rolls up his sleeves, as if just because we can see his forearms we won’t notice he’s wearing a $400 dress shirt.
So, while the “beer summit” was about reconciliation, it was also about Obama’s poll numbers with the blue-collar crowd; he may only be six months into his first term, but he’s already got the next election in mind. Crafty, sure, but not unprecedented. Despite being the country that brought us Prohibition and the world’s highest drinking age, America has a long history of mixing alcohol and politics.
George Washington, the first President of the United States, ran one of the nation’s largest distilleries and was well-schooled in the art of using his product for political gain. He won a 1755 campaign in Virginia after doling out 144 gallons of liquor to voters. His successor, John Adams, liked to drink beer for breakfast, and third President Thomas Jefferson fermented his own. (Whether or not it was Jefferson’s home brew that greased the wheels with the French during the Louisiana Purchase negotiations is not clear, but I have my suspicions. Handing over two million square kilometres of land at less than three cents per acre does not strike me as the act of sober men.)
Lyndon B Johnson was the White House’s most legendary drinker, freely mixing alcohol and public relations; he used to woo (or intimidate) hostile members of the press by inviting them back to his ranch, downing a few scotches and driving them boozily about the property at alarming speeds. But it was Franklin Roosevelt who most overtly used booze to get ahead. He swept into office in 1932 on the anti-Prohibition “Beer for Prosperity” campaign platform, which basically argued that if people could drink legally, and therefore drink a lot more, the depression would be over.
Then there’s Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney. The used to get schnozzled on Jello shots, call Cherie Blair and threaten to taunt her about British dental hygiene unless she convinced Tony to send his military into Iraq.
OK, I made that one up.
Whether or not Obama’s pint of Bud will help either his political career or American race relations remains to be seen. But the beer summit was a moment in which Obama took his place as part of a longstanding American Presidential tradition, one that acknowledges a basic human truth: In politics, as in life, the is very little that cannot be solved by a cold drink on a hot summer afternoon. Or at least made better for just a little while.
This column originally appeared on the Perspective page of The Press, 12 August 2009.