A presidential election that has driven a nation to drink is fought to the end by two men who don’t.
For the first time in modern history, the two main party candidates for the White House are teetotalers. President Trump and his Democratic opponent Joseph R. Biden Jr. have not had alcoholic beverages in their lives, according to their own accounts.
This Teetotaler campaign, and the fact that this circumstance has received so little attention, is to some extent proof of how the once arduous political culture is changing. Candidates, campaign assistants and journalists drink less, aware of the scrutiny that comes in the age of cellphones and Twitter, not to mention the relentless demands of a 24-hour campaign.
But it also depends on how Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, for all their stark differences, share certain similarities in character and background, according to biographers and others who have observed them over the years. They all grew up in families darkened by the specter of alcoholism – Mr. Trump’s brother died of it and one of Mr. Biden’s favorite uncles, whom he lived with growing up, was a heavy drinker.
Both have distanced themselves from the watered-down social circuits of Washington and New York, Mr. Biden because he drove home with his family in Delaware every night and Mr. Trump because he tends to be more remote. comfortable at home watching television.
But more than anything, it speaks to the nature of two fiercely ambitious men and their calculation that alcohol would put them at a disadvantage, whether in the world of politics or in the development of New York City, or in the management of a casino.
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“These are two intensely competitive men who felt early in their careers that their path to success was going to be willing to take the positions they wanted,” said Evan Osnos, author of a Mr. Biden biography. which has just been completed. “It didn’t leave much room to get drunk.
It has been almost a century since temperance had a great influence on American politics. The Prohibition Age began 101 years ago with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and ended in 1933 with its repeal.
“There was a time in American public life when character was associated with a level of sobriety,” said Tim Naftali, a presidential historian. “I think that disappeared with the end of prohibition.”
Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump rarely discuss their drinking habits, much less present their abstinence as any sort of virtue. Mr Trump once joked about it, noting that he had never had a drink of alcohol in his life. “Can you imagine if I did?” He asked. “What a waste I would be.”
There have been presidents over the centuries who have practiced abstinence – Rutherford B. Hayes, William H. Harrison and George W. Bush – as well as presidents who have loved their cocktails, among them Richard M. Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Van Buren, or Blue Whiskey Van as it has come to be known. Mr. Bush stopped on his 40th birthday because he decided he was drinking too much, although his father, George HW Bush, was known to enjoy a martini at the end of the day. Jimmy Carter kept a White House dry, which added to his strait-laced reputation (and no doubt undermined some of the fun of state dinners).
But this confrontation with the candidates has been a bit baffling for some in Washington. The capital is a place where alcohol has always kept a firm grip, even if it is not as firm as before, a fuel for making deals, legislating and socializing.
“Two-thirds of Americans drink alcohol,” said Garrett Peck, who runs Temperance Tours of famous bars in the nation’s capital and has written extensively on drinking in Washington. “And most Washingtonians drink alcohol too. It’s part of the city’s culture. “
Alcohol is not as central to Washington life as it used to be, Peck admitted, as he envisioned the change in political culture that led most members of Congress to return home on weekends . This cultural shift has often been blamed for bitter partisanship on Capitol Hill, since weekend socialization across the aisles has all but disappeared.
“In Congress today, not so much,” he said. “I wish it was more of a factor.”
Over the years, Mr Trump has said the main reason he didn’t drink was because he saw his brother Fred struggle with alcoholism and later die from it. His brother’s drinking met with disapproval from his father, which also impressed Mr. Trump, a son still seeking his voluntary father’s approval, according to his biographers.
Gwenda Blair, who has written about Mr Trump and his family, said the president realized early in his career that abstinence would give him an edge in New York’s brutally competitive real estate development market. Later, as the owner of a casino in Atlantic City, he took note of the tradition of enticing players with free drinks to encourage them to let go of their inhibitions and stay near the gaming table and machines. to slot.
“While they are swallowing scotches, he is consuming diet Coke,” she says. “It’s part of its ultra-competitive profile. He’s a guy who is so competitive that his high school coach said he was the most coachable kid he’s ever coached because unlike most kids, Donald remembered what he had to do to win.
Mr. Biden is no less motivated; he has spoken of becoming president as a young man, and this is the third time he has applied for the post. He’s also a man of self-discipline, as he’s demonstrated by overcoming a stutter. While Mr. Trump talks about losing his brother to alcoholism, Mr. Biden grew up in a house full of drinkers, most notably his uncle Edward, known as Boo-Boo. “There are enough alcoholics in my family,” he once said when asked why he doesn’t drink.
Mr Osnos said Mr Biden made it clear “that he believed there was a genetic component to it and that it was in the family. It’s no leap to tie this to the struggles her son Hunter has had with addiction.
Among the others on the top two party tickets this year, Vice President Mike Pence also doesn’t drink alcohol, leaving Sen. Kamala Harris as the only one to drink at times.
By most accounts, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump never felt left out by not participating in the ritual of drinking.
Timothy L. O’Brien, another Trump biographer, said of the president: “I don’t think he cares.
“He’s never been someone who enjoys going to a party and socializing,” Mr. O’Brien added. “Her ideal night is to sit in front of a television watching a sporting event with a cheeseburger. It’s his bottle of wine.
During his first term, President Barack Obama held a famous meeting to rule on a confrontation between Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black Harvard professor, and the white Cambridge policeman who had arrested Mr. Gates at his home then that he was investigating a breakup report. -in the residence. It became known as the Beer Summit, because of what men drank while sitting under a magnolia tree in front of the Oval Office.
Except for Mr. Biden. He had Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer from Heineken.
For all the talk about character in US politics, Mr Naftali said that in this election most voters probably don’t care about the drinking habits of their presidential candidates.
“At the turn of the 20th century, many voters would be delighted if the two candidates were teetotalers,” he said. “I don’t think it matters at all in the 21st century. There are other more effective ways to assess a candidate’s character. “