The President On The Rocks
illustrator Rosie Roberts
Having spent the lion’s share of my post-collegiate career knitting my brow in painstaking research of happy hour bar menus, I am at last prepared to submit, in addition to my drink order, a theory of political science so revolutionary it will incite former leaders the world over to return to public stage asking for a do-over. “Opportunity is missed by most people,” Thomas Edison once said, “because it dresses in overalls and looks like work.” In the unexpurgated edition of his Collected Quotes, still available upon request in Ohio’s unburned libraries, he continued: “The whole ensemble is improved by the addition of a jaunty bowler hat and two fingers of small batch bourbon.”
My theory concerns President Obama, and many of his predecessors going back to the Jefferson administration, politicians who, in efforts to appear workmanlike, have made the same critical miscalculation in their outreach to the American public. I don’t mean overalls, although they are frowned upon at state funerals, depending on the state. I mean our presidents’ choice of presidential beverage. In Washington it is no secret that the President, in full compliance with his constitutional powers as chief executive of the world’s most heavily-armed democracy, enjoys a cigarette and an alcoholic drink now and then, with cow-tipping, shrooms, and glue-huffing all basically tolerated as long as he keeps it to weekends and avoids Darrell Issa at congressional pool parties. But while photos of President Obama smoking are tightly controlled (nearly as controlled as those depicting him passing a J with the Goth children of the Spanish prime minister), his choice of beverage is broadcast proudly to the American public at every possible occasion: with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., with John Boehner, with picturesque factory workers in Oh God Kill Me, Ohio, the President hoists an unmarked glass of sudsy beer, presumably after precautionary sips by a team of Secret Service agents, or, in a pinch, Biden.
If this does not strike you as an outrage at least on the level of the Iraq War, or the staff luaus purportedly held on balmier nights at Guantanamo, then I invite you to place yourself in the shoes of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or his arresting officer, who upon their first visit to the home of the leader of the free world were obliged to halt an otherwise cordial conversation to inquire, in hushed but firm tones, where Barry kept the good stuff. It is inconceivable that these men were unaware of the existence of a sick wine cellar somewhere on premises, probably alphabetized by region and vintner, containing enough Champagne to float Kissinger. And the mini-bars! It is reputed that it was inside just one such armory of miniature Blue Label bottles that they found Lyndon Johnson hiding after a spat with Ladybird over his barber expenditures. Given that Gates and his new police chum left the White House having supped only the brewskis of high office together, it is no wonder their relationship failed to thaw completely.
There are those who argue that the positive optics of the President holding an unpretentious workingman’s beverage outweigh social niceties, particularly on those public occasions that are televised through every available media outlet and avidly flicked through on smartphones long after the news cycle has ended and everyone is asleep, such as during sessions of congress. But this is the same fundamental error in judgment this administration has made again and again when dealing with the capricious and opaque American public, who, far from desiring to be led by a sophisticated Harvard-educated technocrat who gamely stoops to making the occasional transparently false gesture at unity with his boorish Miller-swilling subjects, would prefer to defer to a remote and dazzling ruling class glimpsed only darkly through tinted Ferrari window glass. It is the G.O.P. who, along with a number of chart-topping rappers, understand this phenomenon instinctively. This, and not rhyming skill, explains the G.O.P.’s enduring popularity. How else to account for moments like the 2010 congressional elections, when to protest declining incomes, crushing mortgage payments, and failed school systems, voters elected a cast of Rand-worshipping ogres hellbent on cementing the invincibility of the already-rich at the expense of social stability and the nation’s infrastructure? (The high-fives and towel snaps of the incoming House hooligans were heard as far away as the Hoover Dam that January.) How else to account for the outsized influence of someone like Rush Limbaugh, except to presume that it must be somehow human to enjoy the bellows and harangues of fat men with exquisite tastes? As Big Pun, so Big Pundit, and as Rick Ross, so Chris Christy, the notorious G.O.P. satisfies the need of the electorate to be ignored by its wealthy superiors, who, one must note, almost always have fresher pinky rings than their competitors on the other side of the aisle.
In December of 2009, a little known non-event occurred in The Capitol’s halls of power, a brief exchange between President Obama and then House Minority Leader John Boehner, who at that time was still insisting everyone call him “Jay.” Obama happened to remark, in what was to become a clear instance of Opportunity showing up in work duds toting a shovel, that he’d spotted Boehner chugging eggnog at the congressional holiday reception. “It was wine,” Boehner rejoined, understandably peeved that the President of the United States had accused him of partaking in a ladylike yuletide beverage containing nutmeg. As Boehner’s street team went into immediate damage control, the President, displaying all the ruthlessness and cunning of a garden flamingo, let the matter drop. But let us, for the sake of my theory, imagine how different America might be today, had President Obama called Boehner’s bluff.
"Is that right?” Obama might have asked, given that eggnog and wine are two drastically different beverages, not often mistaken for one another, particularly since wine characteristically fails to leave a milk mustache. “What kind of wine?”
As many D.C. drinkers may attest, Boehner is a Merlot man. His penchant for the principal cepage of Pomerol and St. Emilion is one of only two ways the House Speaker can be distinguished from a tropical lizard, the other being that lizards cannot weep. So we can safely assume what his response would be to the President’s interrogation. Merlot, a grape that, thanks in part to Rex Pickett and Sideways, is nowadays irredeemably associated with plebs. In your local CVS you will find it located in jugs on the bottom-most shelf, next to California Chablis and car window cleaner. So we might shed a tear for President Obama, who missed the opportunity to demonstrate to the American people that Boehner, despite wealth and curious coloration, is just like them, and therefore quite unenviable.
President Obama will not likely have many such opportunities when facing off against his inevitable rival in the forthcoming elections, former Governor Mitt Romney. For one thing, Romney as an entity appears fundamentally distant from human or voter concerns, like an alien vending machine. No one plausibly associates him with our flaws. For another thing, the man doesn’t drink. Nor, for that matter, does he urinate. (The videos out there are fakes.) Romney’s got storm window eyes and a face like the hood of a Humvee, and, crucially, more newfangled PACs than Death Row records in 1997. As in the hip-hop world, there is something primitively appealing about the man who “makes it rain,” a phrase applied about equally to major political fundraisers as to men, often rappers, who possess enough money to throw it in fistfuls at women without clothing. Which of these uses, we may hypothetically ask, interprets the phrase more literally? The man who makes bills fall like rain, or the man who seeks God-like power, possibly to make it actually rain, possibly to lobby for further tax cuts? All I know is this: it is not acceptable to throw fistfuls of money at women who still have their clothes on, for example at town hall meetings.
If President Obama is to achieve anything approaching Romney’s record heights of voter-disconnect, he would be wise to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and noted dandyish oenophile. This was a man who kept assiduous tasting notes as he toured the wine regions of France and Italy on government business, who imported vast quantities of first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundy, who planted vines at Monticello. In short, a man so stratospherically sophisticated in his choice of beverage as to make it irrefutably plain to his subjects whom ought to rule whom, thus assuring him, along with the rare pleasures of the connoisseur, the honor of a second term.