Harding: Do as I Say, Not as I Do
Warren Harding beat James M. Cox on Nov. 2, 1920 by 60.3 percent to 34.1 percent to become the 29th president of the United States. He served from 1921 to 1923, when he died from a heart attack at age 57.
While in Congress, Harding supported the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, which brought Prohibition to the U.S. When he ran for the Oval Office against Cox, who was a wet, Harding said he would support Prohibition because it was “a fundamental principle of the American conscience.”
On the surface, Harding was acting like many politicians before and after him: he took a position because it meant getting votes. The problem was that Harding was a hypocrite of the first order. While in the White House, Harding often hosted all-night poker games. These events featured a steady stream of alcohol for Harding, his friends, political cronies and members of Congress who turned up to gamble.
While he was busy violating the Volstead Act, Harding continued to curry favor with the drys. Harding appointed the Anti-Saloon League’s Roy A. Haynes as federal Prohibition Commissioner. He also signed the Willis Campbell Act in 1921 to tighten the screws on the average citizen. The bill outlawed doctors from prescribing beer and liquor for medicinal purposes, a loophole that was commonly exploited during the early Prohibition years.
With his administration embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal and reports about mistresses surfacing, some scholars believe that Harding decided to curtail his personal drinking in 1923, shortly before his death.
Honest Abe: Tax the Beer Drinkers
Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States on Nov. 6, 1860, winning a four-way race running as a Republican even though he received just 39.8 percent of the votes. He beat out Stephen A. Douglas (29.5 percent), John Breckinridge (18.1 percent) and John Bell (12.6 percent). With the Civil War still being fought, Lincoln was reelected over former Union General George B. McClellan in 1864.
Lincoln is widely regarded as one of greatest U.S. leaders for ending slavery and leading the north to victory in the Civil War, but when it comes to beer, Lincoln has a less than stellar record. Lincoln pushed through the Internal Revenue Act in 1862 to help pay the mounting war debt by placing a $1 per barrel tax on beer and ale. The government has continued to tax beer and those duties now account for more than 40 percent of the price of an average beer.
Lincoln was not against alcohol. He ran a liquor store in Kentucky in the 1830s and in one famous exchange in the White House when he was told that General U.S. Grant was seen drinking while near the front lines, Lincoln is quoted as saying “So Grant gets drunk, does he?…You needn’t waste your time getting proof; you just find out, to oblige me, what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals.”
Hayes: Lemonade Lucy Rules the White House
Rutherford B. Hayes was elected the 19th president of the United States on Nov. 7, 1876, even though he lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden by 47.9 percent to 51 percent. Hayes, who was a wounded veteran of the Civil War, ended up winning the election when backroom dealings shifted electoral college votes to his column. The final margin was a single elector.
During his presidency the temperance movement was picking up steam. Under the direction of his wife, Lucy, alcohol, smoking and profanity were banned from the White House. It was not a popular decision among the politicians and world dignitaries invited to White House functions, who stuck Mrs. Hayes with the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.”
Bush: Double the Beer Tax, It’s a Luxury
George H.W. Bush was elected the 41st president of the United States on Nov. 8, 1989, defeating challenger Michael Dukakis by a margin of 53.4 percent to 45.6 percent.
During his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Bush made the famous pledge “Read my lips: no new taxes.” During Bush’s term, in addition to invading Panama and liberating Kuwait from Iraq’s control, the budget deficit grew and the Democrat-controlled Congress called for revenue-raising measures. In 1990, Congress passed a luxury tax on items including fur coats, jewelry, yachts and private airplanes. They also passed a bill that doubled the federal excise tax on beer to $18 a barrel. Bush went back on his campaign pledge and signed the tax measures. According the Beer Institute, American’s now pay $5.2 billion annually in beer taxes.
Wilson: Prepared the Country for Prohibition
Woodrow Wilson was elected the 28th president on Nov. 5, 1912, winning a three-way race with 41.8 percent of the vote, beating former presidents Theodore Roosevelt (27.4 percent) and William Howard Taft (23.2 percent). He was reelected in 1916, beating Charles Evans Hughes.
During his years in the White House, the U.S. fought in World War I and the Federal Reserve System was established. Wilson’s record regarding beer is a mixed bag. Wilson was in favor of temperance, not total prohibition. Wilson was in office when the Volstead Act was passed, but he vetoed the bill. Congress overrode the veto. But his lack of strong leadership to stop the Prohibition allowed the momentum built by the dry movement to successfully line up the votes in Congress and state legislatures to change the direction of American culture.
The Anti-Saloon League successfully used World War I grain shortages as a tool to put brewers out of business. The sale of grain to distillers was banned during the war and Wilson slashed the grain supplied to brewers by 30 percent, while cutting the maximum alcohol level in beer to 2.75 percent. During this time, states started banning the sale of alcohol and brewers went out of business by the score.
White House residents have had a profound impact—good and bad—on brewers and beer drinkers. Starting with George Washington, their personal views and political motives have influenced what, where and how much we can drink. In the 2008 presidential race, Republican John McCain’s wife, Cindy, owns a third of her family’s Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in Arizona. Democrat Barack Obama made it a point to make a campaign stop at the Bethlehem Brew Works during the Pennsylvania primary. Hopefully, no matter which way you vote, these two candidates will stay friendly towards beer.