The Secret History of the White House Shows the Wild Side of Presidents You Never Hear
"Politics have no relation to morals."
This was the timeless verdict delivered by conniving Renaissance Italian diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli. He was, of course, speaking a few centuries before slave labor built the White House and the first of dozens of beer-, booze- and wine-swilling, pill-popping, cocaine solution-drinking and womanizing commanders-in-chief began to call it home.
The all-powerful presidency, rare among the parliamentary systems favored by most Western democracies, has proven itself a remarkably stressful proposition. So as Brian Abrams writes in his sharp and funny new book, Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery and Mischief From the Oval Office, the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. have been shameless in their pursuit of an after-hours release. And that's just the group who could bear to wait.
Mic spoke with Abrams to get the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth: that presidents party whenever they damn well please, with whatever "party favors" they desire.
Andrew Jackson threw a muddy, drunken mess of a White House block party after his inauguration.
Jackson's 1829 inaugural came to be known as "the People's Day." It may sound cool, but it's actually coded language suggesting the party wasn't so much for the president as the stinking, sodden (with mud and brew) riffraff that stormed the White House for the post-swearing-in festivities. Contrary to the popular lore, Abrams writes, recent widower Jackson wasn't leading the reverie. In fact, word is that he excused himself from the debauchery by climbing out a back window.
Abrams: "Outgoing President John Quincy Adams' people and Jackson's people did not communicate and understand any security details surrounding the White House. It might sound simple now to us, saying, 'Hey, there's gonna be a shitload of people there, why don't you just lock the doors?' But for whatever reason, amidst all the stuff going on, that just wasn't covered."
Ulysses Grant puked on his horse and drank cocaine wine to help him write his memoir.
Ulysses S. Grant's small stature did not stop him from ingesting enough drugs and alcohol to kill a horse. Beer, wine, liquor, cigars, adult punch and liquid cocaine all figured into the Civil War hero and two-term president's diet during the course of a long career in the military and politics. That horse you see above might well have been one of the numerous steeds the general drunkenly maneuvered. Let's just hope it's not the one whose neck and back he puked on after a particularly wet and bumpy ride.
Abrams: After leaving the White House, "Grant was broke, so he hooked up with Mark Twain, who had his own little publishing imprint for maybe 20 years. In that time, Twain set up Grant in upstate New York while Grant was suffering from throat cancer and was penning his two-volume autobiography on his time in the wars and in the White House. It became this bestseller. But during the writing, his throat was in major pain.
"He couldn't swallow, so he would have a doctor come up and mix a solution of cocaine and water and swab the former president's throat with it, just to kind of numb it. That helped kill the pain. Grant was writing away eight hours a day, but suffering. He couldn't have written the whole thing sober. There's no way. But it did become a bestseller and it left his wife a fortune. Good for the Grant family."
Bush-usuru! George H.W. Bush popularized the "boot and rally" in Japan after booting and rallying at an official reception.
George H.W. Bush is the only president in the book to be caught on camera in his moment of shame (or glory?). However, he was under the influence when he emptied his flu-ridden stomach on and around his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, during a diplomatic banquet in January 1992. To his credit, Bush rallied and was treated to applause from the room as Secret Service agents escorted him out. To this day, what Americans commonly refer to as the "puke and rally" has a different name in Japan: "Bush-usuru!"
Abrams: "The term 'Bush-usuru' became prevalent in the lexicon of the day — it meant 'to do the Bush thing,' which meant if anyone caught a businessman puking in the alleyway outside of a karaoke bar, you could point and say 'Bushusuru!' So if you see someone on the train in Tokyo and they're vomiting, you could say they're paying an inadvertent ode to George H.W. Bush."
Theodore Roosevelt was not thirsty for booze. He preferred the blood of African wildlife.
Roosevelt had some unique vices. Though never much of a drinker of alcohol — he even launched a winning libel suit against a newspaper that suggested he was — Teddy loved coffee. He is reputed to have enjoyed an entire gallon of it daily, at least in his post-presidential days hunting big game in Africa. His total haul from that expedition was recorded by "TR" and included 291 unlucky animals, including but not limited to seven hippos, 28 gazelles, 33 hartebeests, 10 oryxes, five storks, 20 zebras and, yes, a single dik-dik.
Abrams: "He was a very high-energy guy. When he traveled to Africa after he left office, he killed the shit out of some animals over there. But there wasn't much alcohol. He would drink tea if he felt sick. During the libel trial he did admit to having a drop of brandy in his milk at night, to calm him down."
A formidable first lady, Dolley Madison didn't just outwit the Brits, she threw a sweet White House shindig.
James Madison wasn't much for socializing, so he left that to his lovely wife, Dolley. She is best known in American history books as the brave first lady who saved the White House portrait of George Washington from the invading British army during the War of 1812. But Dolley also made her name as a primetime hostess, the woman who helped Washington, D.C., become a place to see and be seen.
This is to say nothing of her considerable bartending skills. Abrams quotes one White House guest, a gentleman from Maryland, who recalled Dolley's opening a bottle of Champagne in such a way that "the cork flew to the most distant corner of the room with an explosion as loud as the sound of a popgun. The wine seemed to be in haste to follow the cork. She, however, dexterously filled three large glasses."
And if that wasn't enough...
Abrams: "She also had a really large chest, which people had documented. There was a woman, a socialite, who wrote something about her having 'the most beautiful neck and bosom I ever saw.' Because Dolly wore these lower, shoulder-length cut gowns and she had these headdresses, everyone always thought she was taller because of them, but she was really the same height as her husband, 5 feet 7 inches. Dolley was really very important in helping D.C. become something better than what it was."
Bible-thumping and humping: Warren G. Harding had a remarkable sexual appetite.
Say what you want for the competition, but Warren G. Harding might well have been the presidency's pre-eminent horndog. (Something that distracted him, perhaps, from the doings of his historically corrupt cabinet.) Harding cheated on his wife at every turn and wrote hundreds of overwrought love letters to a panoply of mistresses. Some of those missives spanned 30 or more pages. But it was the language — and the nicknames he assigned to his and his lovers' naughty bits — that has transcended the decades.
Abrams: "In one of the letters I found, he references his own penis; it's named 'Jerry' with a capital 'J' and the line, I believe, is 'My Jerry is standing up beside me as I write this.' So he already has a boner as he's writing. And then he called [the mistress'] vagina 'Seashell.' Which is just kinda hack-y."
George Washington drank about three glasses of heavy wine every afternoon.
The first president and father of the republic "could not tell a lie." He also could not turn down a few glasses of Madeira wine during his afternoon constitutional. Or a bit of laudanum, a popular opiate at the time, to help him cope with well-documented dental issues. (As Abrams writes, Washington's teeth were not, in fact, made of wood, but "a ghastly of ivory and human teeth supported by a metal frame." Yeesh.)
As for those persistent questions about what exact kind of greenery was growing on Mount Vernon...
Abrams: "Slater from Dazed and Confused misled an entire generation into believing that Washington smoked weed. They had hemp on Mount Vernon, but the THC wouldn't have been enough to get you high."
LBJ hosted lots of boozy meetings in the Oval Office, but he was always the last man standing.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a powerful and consequential man. His legacy, though, is mixed: LBJ pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress, but he also plunged the U.S. deeper into the Vietnam War. What's not debatable is the he enjoyed his power — seriously, listen to this legend order a pair of pants — and was always cooking up different ways to maximize his influence with similarly self-regarding colleagues. For instance...
Abrams: "The way LBJ power-tripped, he would instruct his staff, when he was in the Senate, if an associate or colleague from Congress came by to discuss matters, to pour a Cutty Sark or a Wild Turkey. But he made sure they had an ounce or two more than he did in their drinks. If they had a scotch and soda, the other person would always have way more scotch in his. Johnson wanted the upper hand in that way."
Richard Nixon wasn't too much into the booze. He preferred pills.
When he wasn't scheming to wiretap political opponents, spewing anti-Semitic rants at aides or, to be fair, achieving great things in opening up relations with China, Richard Nixon enjoyed his scotch in moderation. He once told a waitress that he preferred that particular drink because he so detested its taste. This kept him from overindulging. But that self-control began to flag as the Watergate scandal grew around him. The president didn't drink that much more, but he did add Seconal, a sedative, and Dilantin, anti-psychotic medication, to the cocktail. The results? A lot of sleeping and stumbling and, eventually, resigning his office in disgrace.
Abrams: "Kissinger and other people in his cabinet referred to him as 'our drunken friend' or 'our drunk,' but he actually didn't drink heavily, necessarily, though he would have a martini or have a scotch. But during Watergate, when he was so stressed out, he was popping pills. And mixing those pills with the alcohol is what really fucked him up. He would make these late-night, famous drunken slurry phone calls to his friends. He would fall asleep on the phone or his friends would just let him talk."
JFK limited his vices to drinking, smoking (weed), doing poppers and lots and lots of philandering.
Aside from Bill Clinton, no other president's personal life has come under such extreme scrutiny. Luckily for JFK, the press waited decades to really dig into his daily habits. Among them: a penchant for sharing a bed with women (many, many women) who were not the first lady. Kennedy also drank and got "vitamin injections" of pure amphetamines from a Manhattan doctor. And that was just to get him out of bed. These habits — the womanizing aside — were less about leisure and more to do with the excruciating back pain caused by Kennedy's Addison's disease.
Abrams: "The thing about Kennedy is you look at the discrepancy between his persona and his image, and it's huge. Here's a guy who was running around on his wife and partying and drinking, and taking shots of amphetamine and smoking weed. But all that drinking, smoking and pill-popping — he was only doing that for his Addison's disease, the pain in his back.
"The philandering, though, that was a drug for sure."
Brian Abrams' 'Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery and Mischief From the Oval Office' is available online and in stores from Workman Publishing.