Published August 01, 2009
The most pressing question of the week was what brands of brew would be quaffed at the White House "beer summit," the presidential peer-mediation between the Harvard prof and the Cambridge cop. Some foodie followers were dismayed to hear that President Obama chose to drink Bud Light, which some dismiss as the very symbol of corporate, mass-produced, flavorless beer-like product.
No one makes a fuss over what brand of coffee is dripping in the White House kitchen. But the quality and nationality of alcoholic drinks bring out high passions.
This is a rather recent obsession. French wines were commonplace at 1600 Pennsylvania up until Lyndon Johnson made drinking American a matter of national pride. He banished the old parlez-vous mouthwash, not only in the president's house, but also at every embassy and government function. The main effect of this was that for years the only fizzy wine in the White House was New York "champagne."
Johnson was rebelling against the worldly chic of the Kennedy years, when Dom Perignon was the house wine. John Kennedy not only liked bubbly, he was a man for Daiquiris and could be found to discuss nuclear deterrence strategy over gin and tonics. But his standard refreshment was beer, and his tastes did not run to the domestic stuff. J.F.K. was a Heineken man.
Oh for the days when there would have been a beer that the president served without a lot of fussy fuss over who wanted exactly what.
Say what you will about the advisability of Thursday's "beer summit," but one thing was clear: It was the most momentous moment for White House suds in three-quarters of a century.
The last time the question of presidential beer was considered quite so newsworthy came in spring of 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt acted to make 3.2 beer legal, setting the stage for the elimination of Prohibition altogether. At the stroke of midnight, April 7, beer started flowing, and within minutes a shiny new truck from Washington's Abner-Drury Brewery was hurtling down a rain-slick Pennsylvania Ave, led by an escort of motorcycle cops. Inside the truck were two cases of freshly brewed beer; outside was a banner proclaiming, "President Roosevelt, the first real beer is yours!" Other beer makers were quick to follow suit. No dummy, F.D.R. had the bottles distributed to the thirsty gentlemen of the press.
Theodore Roosevelt, by contrast, did not drink beer. We know this because we have his testimony, under oath: "I do not drink beer," T.R. told the jury in the little burg of Ishpeming, Mich., nearly a century ago.
There have been teetotalers in office, but the great presidential beer villain, of course, was Woodrow Wilson who, during World War I, signed a law shutting down the nation's breweries.