Last Thanksgiving we stumbled upon a cache of recipes politicians had submitted to the public over the years, hundreds!- quite a collection. Some were odd - "BrainsNGravy", some rich - "Chocolate Mousse", or even uninspiring - "Microwave Chicken". We commented on the penchant of member of Congress, governors, presidents, for publishing people pleasing pot-luck recipes in the face of pressing national challenges.
White House Beers
We therefore couldn't let the holiday pass without noting the Obama family recipes popularized this year. In the Family Circle's Presidential Bake-off (a dustbin worthy mid-century tradition if there ever was one), Michelle's chocolate chip cookie recipe won a few hundred more votes than Ann Romney's M&M/peanut butter cookies. Some people excitedly noted that the bake-off winner ended up in the White House in the last four of the last five elections, popular speculation even though I'd rate it a middling B-...we ALL know that there are more accurate ways of predicting these things.1
Home Brewers - A More Powerful Voice Then You'd Have Thought?
That fanfare was nothing compared to the excitement over the White House Beer recipes that I somehow missed last summer because the European media was more worried about the plight of Greece, and Fran�ois Hollande's ideas for taxing the rich. Apparently American home brewers submitted a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) for the recipe, because it was so important, and more brewers started a "We The People Petition" request for the recipe on the White House website. Unlike the hundreds of unanswered FOIA requests, and before the petition even reached the needed 25,000 signatures 2, the White House published recipes for two of the three brews, an ale and a porter. They even made a very slick YouTube video explaining the whole process, part of the Inside The White House series.
A writer at the Boston Globe brewed the White House Honey Ale and reported that it was an easy recipe to follow and that the ale was "an entirely pleasant drinking experience".
Hush, Hush About the Commoners' Brew?
Beer has a solid place in American history, although a lot of quotes about beer attributed to the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are made-up. It is true that way back, George Washington brewed beer at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson brewed beer at Monticello. The White House ale and porter recipes use honey that the chefs get from the White House bee hives. Jefferson's beer had honey too. But the Obamas might be the first ever to brew beer in the White House, despite a long and proud tradition of beer brewing in America.
Why has no one else brewed beer in the White House? I have no idea. Although Prohibition ended in 1933, there has been a raised-eyebrow-view of drinking by White House inhabitants. Even today, there is a disdain for the type of relaxation common to everyone coming home after a long day at work. As you can see in this hilarious FOX News clip from last summer, where Hilary Clinton is described as "throwing back a beer and tearing up the dance floor at a Colombian salsa bar" by anchor Stuart Varney. Varney interviews Nile Gardner from the Heritage Foundation, who criticizes Clinton for appearing unstatesman-like on "the world stage" and the two bicker collegially about her transgresions in clipped English accents. As anyone would, Varney actually laughs at Gardiner, a British Conservative commentator, and for balance interviews a GOP strategist who tempers Gardner's intolerance, by saying Clinton deserves a beer.
This echoes a prickly uneasiness around drinking that extends back through several White Houses. Maybe it's the culture wars, or the old Protestant work ethic coming back to bite us. Some presidents either couldn't or wouldn't admit to enjoying alcoholic beverages. A few came from families of nightly beer drinkers, which I'll speculate may offer some explanation. Others, like Richard Nixon, couldn't handle alcohol. According to John Haldeman: "Often times, he would rage at his enemies, fancied and real, and imagine various revenges...one beer would transform his normal speech into the rambling elocution of a Bowery wino."3
Then there were the so-called culture wars. We wrote about Reagan's horror over "a dance" with "three bands playing simultaneously", in "Letter From Berkeley, California -- The Cliche". The Bushes also leveraged intolerance to win elections and maintain power; though, if you type in "Bush" and "beer" into Google, the search engine relentlessly auto-corrects to "Busch" (beer) - so that family's liking for beer I can't say. Apparently George W. Bush was a heavy frat drinker, but more recent photographs of him with a beer mug held to his lips tend to mention "non-alcoholic" or "O'Doul's".
Out With Arugula, in With Ale?
So is this all part of an old-fashioned uptight America in it's last throes? Paul Begala, back in January, 2012, wrote that "Romney Would Fail the Presidential Beer Test". Obama socializes easily, he observed, but when "Romney tries to relate to ordinary folks, he looks like a debutante at a cow-chip-tossing contest: he just doesn't fit in, and the harder he tries, the more ridiculous he seems". That, Begala wrote, "could have Republican's crying in their beer come November".
Maybe this whole beer-brewing thing transpired because the Obama team perused Facebook for some arugula antithesis with which to market the president. But scanning the hundreds of recipes in the repository, it's clear anyway, that the Obama White House is the first in a long history of politicians submitting recipes to offer a recipe for beer - or any libation. And even though my taste in beer is about as sophisticated as picking the one with the cool bicycle label on it, I find the White House beer distraction very refreshing.
Cheers! Happy Thanksgiving.
1 Regardless of the sound statistical analyses, I'll admit that I too was on the edge of my seat on election night -- and relieved not to have hang a "Despair" poster.
2Very few of these petitions succeed in getting the 25,000 signatures needed to get an official answer, it seems. The White House did answer another We The People Petition requesting that Rush Limbaugh be removed from the military media offerings, but Mr. Limbaugh has his rights, the White House explained.
3 President Nixon's Inner Circle of Advisers Author(s): Betty Glad and Michael W. Link Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, The Nixon Presidency (Winter, 1996), pp. 13-40
Carter, Paul A.: Prohibition and Democracy: The Noble Experiment Reassessed: The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Spring, 1973), pp. 189-201
Tim Hefferman: Last Call, plus useful comments.