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Drinking with Nixon

Drinking with Nixon

The following is an excerpt from Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking:

RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON

In November 1962, Richard Nixon—having been soundly thrashed in the race for the California governorship—delivered one of his most famous lines. Insinuating that a predatory press was at least partly responsible for his defeat, Nixon addressed reporters through a tight smile and ended with a promise: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference. . .” As fate would have it, Nixon was wrong on both counts. It was far from Nixon’s last press conference. And, five decades later, Nixon continues to be “kicked around”—if anything, with increased vigor. David Fulsom’s 2012 book Nixon’s Darkest Secrets is particularly brutal and includes a chapter titled: “The World’s Most Powerful Drunk.”

Alcohol certainly played a role in Nixon’s worst moments—especially during the 1972 Watergate scandal and his eventual resignation (the only president to resign from office) in 1974. But alcohol also was hoisted on those rare triumphant occasions—such as Nixon’s trip to China.

The stresses of being president (1969–1974) in general, and the added burden of Watergate in particular, plus the fact that Nixon reached a state of intoxication quite rapidly, combined to produce some interesting—some might even say scary—anecdotes involving Richard M. Nixon and Demon Alcohol.

Nixon lived up to his nickname, “Tricky Dick,” when serving wine at his White House dinners. The thirty-seventh president of the United States certainly knew—and relished—wines from the world’s most renowned cellars. In fact, Nixon often had his wine glass filled with a fine French vintage, a 1957 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. His guests, however, were typically given a decent (but far less expensive) wine—and the waiters were instructed to serve it with a towel wrapped around the bottle so as to hide the label. In some circles, this sly practice—serving a mediocre brand of booze to others while saving the top-shelf stuff for oneself—has been dubbed “pulling a Nixon.”

From World War II on, virtually all U.S. presidents had to—at one point of another—deal with either Russian vodka or the potent Chinese liquor called maotai. It would not be inaccurate to say that drinking these powerful alcohols “came with the territory” because international protocol often mandated partaking in toasts, even if they amounted to little more than “sorority sips.” Richard Nixon drank vodka with the Russian leaders and, more famously, maotai with the Chinese. Maotai is an extremely potent (typically about 110 proof) alcohol, distilled from sorghum. TV journalist

Dan Rather—with maybe only slight exaggeration—once compared the consumption of this traditional Chinese libation to “drinking liquid razor blades.”

Perhaps the major triumph of the Nixon White House occurred in February 1972 when the administration visited the People’s Republic of China. One of the strategic goals of this historic tour to Peking was to keep the Soviets “honest” by, at least in appearance, cozying up to the Chinese. As Dr. Henry Kissinger—Nixon’s secretary of state—tellingly put it, the U.S. might be able to “have its Russian vodka and its maotai, too.” (In less cryptic language, Kissinger allowed that a friendly visit to China might establish more “equilibrium” in the world.)

Knowing that there was bound to be some toasting between U.S. officials and their Chinese counterparts, Nixon’s chief of staff sent forth a cable warning against the mind-numbing properties of the infamous maotai. The memo all but came with a blinking red light and beeping warning signal—and the gist of it no doubt took into account that Nixon was a notorious lightweight when it came to handling much more modest amounts of alcohol than the legendary maotai would bring to the table.

Haig’s cable read: “UNDER NO . . . REPEAT . . . NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD THE PRESIDENT ACTUALLY DRINK FROM HIS GLASS IN RESPONSE TO BANQUET TOAST. Nixon rose to the occasion. After toasts with Chinese premier Chou En-lai, the president approached each table and (taking small sips!) toasted all of the important banquet participants. Somewhat surprisingly, the chief executive managed to stay—or at least appear to stay—sober throughout the festivities.

The press, for the most part, applauded Nixon’s diplomatic trip to China. But the Watergate break-in was just a few months away, and Nixon’s finest hour was fading fast. As federal investigators began to close in, the president weirdly indulged in some “drunk-dialing” incidents. Nixon’s slurred speech is quite apparent on the Watergate-era tapes. Apparently, the beleaguered president stooped to such actions in an attempt to measure the levels of loyalty of others or to have them understand the weight of his Watergate woes.

One frequent late night target was the lawyer Leonard Garment, who served as White House counsel and as a special consultant on various projects. Concerning Nixon’s late night phone calls, Ehrlichman would recall:

He (Nixon) would talk to political people. Then for the last call, he’d say: “Get me Len.” By that time we would have given him his Seconal (a sleeping pill) and a good stiff single malt scotch. And he’d get on the phone with [Garment] until the phone dropped from his fingers and he fell asleep. Then I’d pick up the phone very quietly, and hang up.

The Nixon

Ingredients:

1 part bourbon whiskey

1 part sloe gin

2 dashes of peach bitters

Stir and then serve “on the rocks” with a garnish.


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