Should we care if Bush is drinking again?

Letterman’s joking about it, but the mainstream political press treats the subject as taboo.

Bill at Daily Kos quotes a joke from David Letterman’s Tuesday night routine:

Now here’s some sad information coming out of Washington. According to reports, President Bush may be drinking again. And I thought, “Well, why not? He’s got everybody else drinking.”

No, not especially funny as a joke, even putting aside the dubious ethics of laughing about a relapse of a potentially fatal condition. (I doubt that Letterman would tell jokes about Giuliani’s prostate cancer coming back.)

But what’s striking is that this is the first time any mention of the President’s reported return to the bottle has surfaced in the Big Media, eighteen months after it became common Washington gossip. Even a fairly circumstantial, though unsourced, National Enquirer story — picked up by Randi Rhodes — wasn’t enough to surmount whatever invisible barrier lies between gossip and what passes for mainstream journalism these days.

As the bogus “Kerry intern affair” story illustrated, the right wing can use Drudge and the Murdoch press to shoehorn even very weak stories into meme-hood; reporters who wouldn’t have touched the original story can report on the reporting. There’s no comparable mechanism on the other side of the aisle.

Moreover, with rare exceptions (e.g., the John Tower affair) the press seems very reluctant to mention heavy drinking by officials, even when it’s widely known. Ted Kennedy’s drinking gets an occasional mention, but I’d bet that most of Pat Moynihan’s constituents never knew their brilliant senator faced a permanent battle with the bottle. If Gary Hart’s drinking problem has ever made the newspapers, I’ve missed it, though his behavior in the Donna Rice affair made it pretty obvious. Those in the know understood that the frequent media references to Bill Weld’s “laziness” as Governor of Massachusetts referred to his persistent difficulty in keeping himself vertical after lunch, but again the voters didn’t. Even foreign leaders get the same delicate treatment: Boris Yeltsin’s “erratic” behavior was in fact quite regular and predictable, once vodka was entered into the equation.

I’m not sure why this should be so. Under either of the two prevalent beliefs about alcoholism — that it’s a moral failing on the one hand or a disease on the other — it’s hard to think of a reason to be so secretive about it when it afflicts public officials. It isn’t mere self-protection on the part of the press: half a century ago, political reporters were as hard-drinking as the politicians they covered — the alcoholic reporter became cliche of fiction and the stage — but today’s press corps tends to be quite abstemious.

Still, the convention is what it is: reporting on heavy drinking by politicians is not done. Any reporter who asked Scott McClellan “Is it true that the President is drinking again?” would no doubt be ostracized.

Yet it’s a question worth asking; when someone with a history of severe alcohol abuse goes back to drinking under stress, that’s bad news for him and his family. When that someone wields the power of the Presidency, that’s potentially bad news for billions of people.

I don’t know that the correct answer to that question is “Yes;” I was told so eighteen months ago by two people who had no reason to deceive me, but neither was speaking from first-hand knowledge, and the National Inquirer is the National Inquirer.

But I’d like to know, one way or the other. Wouldn’t you?

Update: A reader points out that the U.S. is developing a convention eerily similar to those that prevailed in the former Soviet bloc and in the old South Africa: comics have license to mention important issues that cannot be addressed by “real” journalists, and that one of those semi-forbidden topics is heavy drinking by important people. That’s true, and insofar as Letterman was merely following that convention the criticism of him is unfair. But it’s too bad that, by forcing a fake veneer of humor on the topic, the convention reinforces the false idea that having a drinking problem is funny.

Second update More here, some in response to Jane Galt’s commenters.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com