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THE PRESIDENCY by HUGH SIDEY: In Defense of the Martini

4 minute read
Hugh Sidey

The Presidency

One of the more spirited questions around Washington now is whether Jimmy Carter has ever had a three-martini lunch. Hamilton Jordan, his top aide, has never seen Carter drink even one martini. But Jordan says rather wickedly that he does not know what goes on over in the private part of the mansion after work.

Mary Hoyt, Rosalynn Carter’s assistant, is quite firm in her conviction that not a single martini has been mixed in the White House since the Carters arrived. It was Rosalynn, after all, who said out loud that she really enjoyed seeing “people kind of squirm” because there was no liquor served in the White House.

Press Secretary Jody Powell has never witnessed a martini pass the presidential lips. However, he thinks that Carter has tasted one. But there Carter’s enthusiasm waned.

The martini issue is very serious. A high priority in Carter’s plan for tax reform is an assault on expense account dining that would allow only half the cost of a meal to be tax deductible. In his campaign Carter conjured up a vision of privilege and corruption by pointing out that a three-martini business lunch was deductible but not the $1.50 bologna sandwich of a worker.

While expense account dining is a legitimate point of debate, Carter’s insinuations about the martini are not. Many suspect a religious and regional prejudice. “This is not exactly martini country,” allowed the fellow answering the telephone at the Back Porch, the principal eatery in Plains, Ga. Charles Dennis, who owns the Back Porch, cannot recall seeing martinis drunk anywhere around.

What the Washington effetes have decided is that Jimmy Carter seized on the three-martini symbol as the ultimate city evil and thus the banner under which to rally his bucolic forces to charge the real villain, the expense account meal. If so, Carter’s instincts were true. Bernard De Voto, writing eloquently back in 1951 about the glories of the martini, explained: “The martini is a city dweller, a metropolitan. It is not to be drunk beside a mountain stream or anywhere else in the wilds . . .” Like Plains?

Jimmy Carter understands that he will need all the help he can get to win the war against expense account dining. His experience is limited: almost everybody in his time in Plains ate lunch at home. Equally grave, his logic is dubious. By the National Restaurant Association’s reckoning, deductible dining accounts for only about 5% of all purchased meals. The N.R.A. calculates that diners on expense accounts order soft drinks more than twice as often as cocktails, which means that Carter is hacking away at Coke and Dr Pepper, commodities that float the state of Georgia. In the big cities, where expense accounts matter, the bartenders, waitresses and dishwashers are up in arms. Their jobs are in jeopardy. The little guys stand to get hurt the worst.

While Carter has been away from home, the evil of deductibility may have taken root right in downtown Plains. Charles Dennis thinks that most of his Back Porch patrons are tourists. But now and then he sees a table of men looking suspiciously like businessmen. Dennis serves up his baked ham and red-eye gravy, grits, green beans, carrots, buttermilk biscuits and coffee, passes out the tabs ($2.50 a head) and asks nary a question.

Meantime, Carter has stirred the martini lovers, admittedly depleted since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, a two-before-dinner man whose evening blending (4 parts gin, 1 part vermouth) was a dramatic triumph.

From Palm Springs come the genial protests of Gerald Ford, who also liked to close the day with two martinis (5 to 1) and when things went well (or badly) had three. The ghost of De Voto is walking the land, recalling the poetry in the first martini: “The rat stops gnawing in the wood, the dungeon walls withdraw, the weight is lifted . . . your pulse steadies and the sun has found your heart . . . the day was not bad, the season has not been bad, there is sense and even promise in going on.”

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