The office of the U.S. President is perhaps the most powerful in the world, so it makes sense that the men who have held it are often seen as paragons of gravitas and good judgment. But, in researching my book Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery, and Mischief from the Oval Office, my book’s illustrator John Mathias and I discovered that every commander-in-chief has had his vices. Yes, even George Washington—who had a four-glass-per-afternoon wine habit.
Good for them while the rest of us tarnish in the workforce drudgery, right? But look on the bright side: At least now we have access to professional lessons in nightlife from some of the most ambitious historical figures in our nation’s history. Here are five that, hopefully, will bring the rest of us similar good fortune.
Drink up at every toast. In the case of James Monroe, whose goodwill tour of 1817 stretched from Maine to Maryland, the last president to wear a tri-cornered hat lifted a glass almost every night for four months at local receptions—and it apparently helped improve relations between federal and municipal governments. From the strike of 6 o’clock to roughly midnight, Monroe downed a steady stream of rich sweet Madeira, the popular varietal at the time, which contained an overwhelming 20% alcohol. “They would hit an average of 30 or 40 toasts,” says Dan Preston, editor of James Monroe’s papers at the University of Mary Washington. “For each toast, they would drink a glass of wine and sing a song.” Just imagine the dishwashing scene in The Hobbit, but everyone’s in knee breeches.
Pour ’em stout … for guests. If you want to one-up your friends and frenemies—because, really, what’s the point of a social life anyway if you can’t best your stumbling peers?—tear out a page from Lyndon B. Johnson’s power-tripping playbook. In the 1950s, when the ill-tempered, Machiavellian legislator occupied Capitol rooms S-211 and S-212, staff was under orders to make visitors’ scotch-and-sodas with at least two to three more ounces of Cutty Sark than the Senate majority leader’s. “His drinks could have no more than an ounce of liquor in it,” says one secretary, “and if there was more than an ounce, you were in trouble.”
Barf happens. Ask George H.W. Bush how that Tokyo state dinner on Jan. 8, 1992 went. After battling a flu bug all day, the 41st prez couldn’t keep anything down. He’d already ruined one necktie in the bathroom before sitting down to cold salmon with caviar and beef medallions. But, when the time came for the big network-TV hurl, Bush Sr. took it in stride. “Why don’t you roll me under the table and I’ll sleep it off while you finish,” he told Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Though Bush’s unfortunate photo op wasn’t caused by drinking, his unembarrassed example is one a partier might want to keep in mind. And Bush Sr. wasn’t the only public puker who resided at 1600 Penn. Ulysses S. Grant was often wrongly prescribed brandy for his migraine headaches, which resulted in his reputation as a reckless drunk. During an inspection tour of a Union Army brigade, the Civil War hero projectile-vomited onto his horse’s neck and shoulders.
Sometimes, it’s worth experimenting—but not on others. This one’s a “don’t” rather than a “do.” One of the less romantic moments in all of John F. Kennedy’s career involved treating a staffer/plaything as if she were a gerbil purchased from the local PetSmart. One night at the executive mansion, brother-in-law and revered Rat Packer Peter Lawford stopped by to offer the president a dose of amyl nitrite — the chemical compound that later became popular as a club drug known for providing inflated senses of time and sexual prowess. Rather than snapping the pressurized glass capsule beneath his own Yankee nostrils, JFK balked. Instead, he gave the poppers to one of his interns and watched as she writhed around on the White House carpet. Always a charmer, that Kennedy. So yeah, don’t do that.
Commit to a routine. The patriarchal wisdom of Esquire Magazine has suggested in several articles over the years to avoid wasting time on flowery cocktail menus and, instead, to have your drink selection predetermined before even approaching the barkeep. There’s something to this, perhaps, beyond that of a vague masculine expression to conceal an identity crisis. Harry Truman, a haberdasher turned senator who picked up plenty of common horse sense growing up in Independence, Mo., would slug a shot of Old-Grand-Dad every morning “to get the engine going.” At 5 a.m., Truman’s day began as always with eggs, bacon and toast. That followed shortly with a two-mile walk, a quick shower and, before suiting up, an ounce of 100-proof whiskey. “Whether the bourbon was on doctor’s orders, or a bit of old-fashioned home medicine of the kind many of his generation thought beneficial to the circulation . . . is not known,” wrote historian David McCullough. “But it seemed to agree with him.”
More tales of White House partying can be found in Party Like a President, out on Feb. 10. Brian Abrams is also the author of AND NOW…An Oral History of “Late Night with David Letterman, 1982-1993.