McCauley: The President’s Politics of Beer

Written by Robert H. McCauley for

Courtesy Clarification: lager yeast was invented post Ben.
A famous quotation often attributed to Ben Franklin holds, “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.” The relationship between beer and politics has been an old, though not always honorable one. Throughout much of the early days of our country, when public sanitation was not a given, alcoholic beverages were significantly safer to drink than water. Often times, the beverage of one’s choice could be seen as a political statement. Thomas Jefferson was actually criticized for favoring French wines over domestically produced beer or whiskey.

During much of the nineteenth century, when the secret ballot was not universal, campaigns were not above plying potential supporters with free beer in exchange for their support at the polls. It was probably no accident that two of the greatest political reform movements of that era were women’s suffrage and temperance – the latter of which eventually resulted in the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that prohibited the production, importation, or sale of “intoxicating” beverages. Unfortunately, despite prior assurances to the contrary, beer was also outlawed, along with liquor and wine under Prohibition.

One of the last acts of the outgoing Woodrow Wilson administration was an attempt to carve out an exception concerning beer for “medicinal purposes” (not unlike the medical marijuana controversy of today). A few years later, President Herbert Hoover, who had called Prohibition a “noble experiment,” was greeted with chants of “We Want Beer” on Opening Day when he showed up to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Weary of three years of the Great Depression and 12 years of Prohibition, voters soon threw out Hoover in favor of a more beer-friendly chief executive, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One of FDR’s first legislative accomplishments was to remove the prohibition on the production and sale of beer, even before the formal repeal of the 18th Amendment. This move, which could be considered one of the most popular initiatives of the New Deal, was defended as a means to help stimulate the economy. Decades later, another president dealing with a troubled economy also recognized the almost iconic importance of beer. During a trip to Boston, then President Ronald Reagan made an unscheduled stop at a neighborhood pub. Partly as a result of that visit, polltakers began to ask the question, “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?”

This brings us to the current electoral season. The incumbent President Barack Obama seems to have a thing or two about beer. Remember his so-called “Beer Summit” in the aftermath of his admittedly ill-chosen comments concerning a racially charged arrest of a Harvard professor. More recently, the president bought a round of beers at a stand at the Iowa State Fair, which led to a chorus of “Four More Beers,” from a host of swing state voters. As noted earlier, this was not the first (nor no doubt will it be the last) time a candidate picked up the tab for a bunch of potential supporters.

(Note: there is also a brewery in the White House now, and plans to offer their beer to the general public… PGA.)

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