Deaver Cites Alcoholism as Perjury Trial Defense.

The New York Times, October 3, 1987

Give me a break, I thought. Who’s Deaver trying to fool? It just doesn’t add up. First, if he was so intoxicated, could he really have survived as a top White House aide or superlobbyist? Second, if he were constantly guzzling scotch as he claims, wouldn’t his colleagues have been suspicious? And if he were that blitzed, wouldn’t reporters have jumped on the story?

Deaver’s defense may or may not have been contrived, but the scenario behind it is plausible. Yes, alcoholics can do their jobs at the same time they ruin themselves. Yes, colleagues can be oblivious to the effects of even heavy drinking. And finally, reporters usually fail to cover the drinking problems of Washington officials. While Deaver’s defense is unusual, alcoholism in Washington isn’t.

“I suspect,” writes former Senator Herman Talmadge, “alcoholism is as much of an occupational disease among politicians as black lung is among coal miners.”

Washington is certainly not the only place where both alcoholism and misunderstanding about alcoholism are widespread. But Washington has its own elaborate system that can disguise the problem and conceal its effect on the city’s work product, public policy. Often, it creates a special alcoholic’s trap: the more important a public official is, the less likely he will be forced to confront his problem drinking. “I knew several alcoholics,” says Richard Bolling, former chairman of the House Rules Committee and a recovering alcoholic, “and they all were in important positions.”

One would think that this would be a point of interest to the media. Ironically, the recent press willingness to peep through the bushes at a public figure’s private conduct has focused on fuzzy “character” and “judgment” issues. Reporters have often overlooked a problem that would seem to relate much more directly to “job performance,” the one criterion both critics and defenders of the press agree is fair game. So where are all the drunk politician stories?

From 1965 to 1980, some of the most important leadership positions on Capitol Hill were held by congressmen with drinking problems, including the majority leader (Hale Boggs) and the chairmen of the Ways and Means (Wilbur Mills), Rules (Bolling), and Armed Services (L. Mendel Rivers) committees.

The noticeable effects of their drinking ran quite a spectrum. At one end was Rivers, who was regularly drying out at Bethesda Naval Hospital during the same period he had access to top classified defense and intelligence information. At the other was Bolling, who showed no signs of excessive drinking but later conceded he was an alcoholic. Reporters who covered Rivers knew about his drinking. But it wasn’t exposed in print until columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson began writing about it. They focused on Rivers’s sensitive position as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a separate committee that oversaw the CIA. “While Congress has spent millions exposing communists and non-conformists,” Pearson and Anderson wrote in 1967, “it has carefully protected its own security risks.” They reported that the markup for the $18 billion military authorization bill had to be delayed five times while Rivers was “resting” in Bethesda Naval Hospital. Committee colleagues, they wrote, “have urged [Rivers] to stay on the wagon at least long enough to win” key battles against the Johnson administration. One of his former secretaries said “sometimes we would come into his office and find it strewn with bottles and the safe would be wide open.”

Alcohol problems stalked Majority Leader Hale Boggs too and similarly went unreported until Anderson and Pearson got the story. “House Speaker Carl Albert is so wary of Boggs’s behavior,” Anderson wrote, “that he is afraid to step down from the chair and turn control of the House over to the man who is supposed to be his prime assistant:’ Questions about Albert’s own drinking were raised in Anderson’s column and later spilled onto the news pages when the speaker smashed up his car outside his favorite bar, the Zebra Room. Witnesses described him as “obviously drunk.”

Across the rotunda in the Senate, alcohol problems among top leaders were just as prevalent. Former senators who have acknowledged alcoholism included the chairman of the Agriculture Committee (Herman Talmadge); the chairman of the Finance Committee (Russell Long), who went on the wagon in the 1970s; and a senior liberal (Harrison Williams), who later went to prison after an Abscam sting caught him taking bribes. According to Robert Parker, the former maitre d’ of the Senate dining room, and Louis Hurst, the former doorkeeper of the Senate, the list of problem-drinking senators should also include Warren Magnuson (chairman of the Commerce Committee), and Parker adds Joe McCarthy and Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956. One Senate leader in the 1960s was so drunk that he urinated in his pants and passed out on the Senate floor, according to Parker. A’s Wayne Morse, who served in the Senate from 1945 to 1969, once said: “There has never been one night session of the Senate in all my experience that hasn’t witnessed at least one senator making a fool of himself and disgracing the Senate.”

These congressmen do not exhaust the list. Harold Hughes, an alcoholic who had stopped drinking before joining the Senate in 1970, says that during his one term about ten colleagues sought his help for drinking problems. “And I’m sure there were a lot more who could have used it,” he says.

Pleading guilty

But these are examples from the past, you say, replaced by a health-conscious generation more likely to sneak off to the gym to shoot hoops than to a hideaway to do shots. Rue, the acknowledged alcoholics are gone from Congress (an important reason why they’re more willing to discuss their problems), and alcoholism is less visible on the Hill. But there is plenty of evidence that drinking remains a serious problem among Washington’s political leaders.

To begin with, there are the statistics. Nationally, per capita alchohol consumption rose steadily from 1960 to a peak in 1981, from which it has declined only slightly. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that alcohol abuse today remains at roughly the same level as it was two decades ago and that 10 percent of U.S. adults are alcoholics. Washington still has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the country. “I’d feel very safe in saying 10 to 12 percent of members of Congress are in trouble with alcohol,” says Bob Witt, a counselor who has treated members of Congress and staff. N. Burton Grace, director of the Total Health and Education Counseling center, which runs a drunk-driver counseling program for the District of Columbia, says just as many public officials are enrolled in his program as ten years ago. “For us to pretend there aren’t members of Congress [with drinking problems],” says former Senator Hughes, “is pure bullshit.”

Beyond the numbers there are recent examples. Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas says he had a drinking problem until 1985, when he stopped. “I drank a lot and I drank every day.” Since he went public, he says, two other members of the House have told him they wished they could stop drinking.

Former Rep. Robert Bauman, a recovering alcoholic who left the House in 1980, says, “I do know of members who drank during session. I knew of congressmen who ran open bars.” In recent interviews, aides recalled members showing up drunk on the House and Senate floors. Rep. Barney Frank has seen such incidents as well. “There have been a couple of times where people have been obviously drunk on the floor,” he says.

Moreover, there are at least six current members of Congress who have been stopped for driving while intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol. While driving drunk doesn’t mean someone is an alcoholic, counselors say it often indicates a drinking problem. In 1985, Senator Robert Kasten of Wisconsin was arrested after driving through a red light and down the wrong side of the road.

He was sentenced to attend a D.C. counseling program for social drinking. Last June, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to drunk driving after doing 70 mph in a 55-mph zone. Rostenkowski, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had his license revoked.

And going further back in history, there’s Chappaquidick. Edward Kennedy’s alcohol consumption the night he drove off the narrow Cape Cod bridge with Mary Jo Kopechne has been a topic of speculation for 18 years. Kennedy said at the time that he’d had only two drinks before escorting Kopechne from the party they attended. A controversial book scheduled for publication in the spring disputes that claim. According to its author, Leo Damore, the book quotes a guest at the party Kennedy attended earlier in the evening as saying the senator had three scotch-and-sodas before going to the second party where he concedes he had two more. Other Kennedy biographies are sprinkled with references to incidents of drunkenness early in his career.

Buttermilk and bourbon

Washington officials with a penchant for drinking have no shortage of cocktail parties and receptions to tempt them. The foreign policy establishment thrives on the well-stocked embassy party. Congressmen and their staff face a deluge of receptions. Wilson says he drank excessively because of job pressure and the “god awful” boredom of the mandatory cocktail party circuit.. In her autobiography, Betty Ford, a recovering alcoholic, described how alcohol was central to the constant celebration and socializing, from the “magical martinis in the White House” to the “endless toasts at political parties .” Former Senator ‘Palmadge’s recent autobiography makes a similar point. “A person living and working in Washington, D.C. could attend receptions and parties night and day seven days a week,” he writes. “Many of these are social gatherings, but quite a few are also occasions where political business is transacted…. [S]omeone who genuinely liked to drink and socialize was in constant danger of getting hooked on the stuff.”

While public officials may have easier access to liquor than most people do, all alcohol abusers find ways to drink. What distinguishes the culture of official Washington is the shortage of checks on excessive drinking. It’s here that the perks of power play perverse tricks.

Alcoholism treatment professionals refer to an “enabler,” a person who enables an alcoholic to avoid facing his or her problem. It may be a wife who calls work to tell the boss that her hungover husband has the flu. Or the daughter who cleans up the mess her drunken mother leaves at night.

Washington officials, particularly congressmen, live in a colony of enablers—colleagues, family members, and aides adept at disguising drinking problems from the public. A key part of a staff member’s job is to cover up for the weaknesses of his boss. That’s as true for the senile congressman as it is for the alcoholic; the difference is that a senile congressman will not become more senile because of staff help.

One former top aide to a senator says that when television cameras first came to the Senate in June 1986 he and other staff members were so concerned their boss might be seen on the floor drunk that they agreed to accompany him there during night sessions. “There is such a cocoon of protection by staff and reporters,” he says. “You’ve got this entire staff where public images and presentation is the major part of the job” It’s always difficult to confront an alcoholic about his or her drinking. Add to that the personality traits of many Capitol Hill aides— “there are a lot of sycophants,” former Rep. Bauman notes—and the chances of such confrontations are even less likely.

The same principle operates in other branches of the government. In the executive branch, senior civil servants are all too happy to step in and assume the responsibilities of political appointees with drinking problems. The intervention increases the civil servants’ power and keeps the appointee from looking bad with the boss. But it also decreases the likelihood that the superior will confront his alcohol abuse. “I have seen some folks at the assistant secretary level in major departments who were clearly incompetent or impaired,” says Don Phillips, president of Cope, Inc., a private firm that runs treatment programs for federal employees. “Then a significant person under him assumed a majority of the responsibilities.”

Colleagues and close friends are no likelier to confront a legislator. “Other politicos in the state who have a vested interest in the senator, good friends for years who still have an interest, staff, press, they all [will be reluctant to say anything],” says a former administrative assistant to a senator. Even family members may be hesitant for fear that a confrontation might go public and lose the legislator the seat. In at least one case in 1971, legislators not only tolerated a colleague’s drunkenness but counted on it. Richard Bolling recalls that part of the strategy for expanding the House Rules Committee assumed a particular congressman would stay so drunk he wouldn’t show up for a key vote. “I’m not proud of it, but it happened,” he says.

Special privileges have held true even in the Senate dining room, where serving alcohol has been forbidden for many years. Thirsty senators have been able to get around the rules with a system of codes, says Robert Parker. He says, for example, one senator would order tomato juice, which to Parker meant Bloody Marys. Former Senate doorkeeper Hurst, wrote in his book, The Sweetest Little Club in the World, that Senator Carl Hayden would enter the Senate dining room in the morning “after a toot the night before” and ask for buttermilk. “This was the signal for a certain waiter to go get something from the private stock—a double shot of bourbon, which was served to the senator in an iced-tea glass of buttermilk.”

This band of protection often enables public officials to keep drinking even when most people would have been caught. In part, that’s because most problem drinkers have bosses. And an increasing number of companies have employee assistance programs in which supervisors can help, often force, employees to get treatment early. Congress has required all federal agencies to set up these programs too. But Congress exempted itself.

Even the police contribute to the problem, often showing reluctance to arrest congressmen for drunk driving or other crimes. After Carl Albert was stopped after his suspicious car accident, when Congress was still setting the salaries for D.C. police, he told officers on the scene, “You can’t arrest me. I got you your raise!’ Often they either don’t want to rock the boat or believe that these incidents fall under the immunity provision of the Constitution, which protects a congressman from being arrested during the performance of duties like driving home from the Capitol.

In March 1983, police in Montgomery County, Maryland stopped Rep. Louis Stokes for drunk driving but initially didn’t file charges because they thought congressional immunity protected him. lino days later, after a police department lawyer informed them that drunk driving wasn’t a constitutional right for congressmen, police charged him. Stokes, who said he had had only two drinks, was found guilty of driving while under the influence but not guilty of the more serious charge of driving while intoxicated. Exhibiting what might be considered a strong case of denial, he castigated the media for its “rush to judgment” in reporting the incident. “I always knew that someday, racism and bigotry in the media would raise its ugly head against me, too.” Stokes, then chairman of the House Ethics Committee, paid for his legal fees out of campaign funds. Today Stokes is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

One former congressman told a recent meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that he once woke up in a cab not knowing where he was. He started screaming at the cab driver, who retaliated by taking him to a police station where the drunk congressman then tried to beat up a cop. The police detained him but released him when he finally explained he was a congressman. Being a member of Congress, he told the AA meeting, hurt him in the long run because it kept him from getting help.

Won’t even appear drunk

Surely, one can’t help but think, an official in the spotlight couldn’t cover up a drinking problem for long. It soon would become obvious at least to colleagues and friends and probably to the press. Hence the skepticism about Deaver’s claims.

But to understand how people can perform competently at the same time alcohol is wearing them down and impairing their abilities, we need to understand how alcohol affects the brain.

For starters, you don’t have to be an alcoholic for drinking to affect the mind’s work capacity. Alcoholism is a medical condition in which the body develops a chemical dependency on alcohol. When an alcoholic stops drinking, he or she will experience withdrawal symptoms. Heavy drinkers who are not alcoholics can still suffer impairment in a variety of ways. Physically, the alcohol wears down the body. Emotionally, it is likely to cause increased irritability and other behavioral changes. And mentally, it causes what physicians call “cognitive impairment,” hindering the ability to recall information, make sound judgments, think creatively, and solve problems.

Most of us know from occasional nights of excess that when we get drunk we will be impaired both while intoxicated and the next morning. But for regular drinkers cognitive impairment lasts longer, diminishing those intellectual functions even when the person isn’t drunk or hung over, according to Dr. Boris ‘Pabakoff, scientific director for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And, as Harold Hughes, notes without a trace of sarcasm, “The mind is the key organ used as a member of Congress.”

Consider the case of Wilbur Mills, whose drinking occurred mostly after hours. When I asked Mills, who now speaks on behalf of Alcoholics Anonymous, whether he thought his drinking had affected his work quality he said, “No. At least it didn’t affect my judgment .” How did he know? “I went back and checked my votes” And why did he have to go back and check his votes? “Well,” he said, “I was experiencing alcoholic blackouts throughout the whole period.”

Brain cells can adapt over time and learn to function in the presence of alcohol. This is the building of tolerance. The problem is that when the person wakes up in the morning and doesn’t get alcohol, the cell has to adjust back to functioning without alcohol. Over time, the constant adjustment and readjustment causes enduring, sometimes irreversible damage. So there’s a key difference between a politician who sleeps around with models half his age and a politician who drinks too much: one activity kills brain cells and the other doesn’t.

Heavy drinkers can develop such a high tolerance that they won’t even appear drunk. And the mind as a whole can adapt by managing the brain’s incapacity, the mental equivalent of favoring a healthy leg over an injured one. For example, an individual can perform adequately, or even well, by concentrating on a smaller number of jobs and delegating the rest. “I am often amazed to see how fighter pilots, air traffic controllers, commanding officers—people with really demanding jobs—manage to do jobs well,” says Douglas M. Grodon, who runs the treatment program at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In fact, Wilbur Mills seemed so adept at guiding complex tax bills through the House that most reporters were surprised to learn of his problem once he announced it.

So it’s not suspicious that many of Michael Deaver’s friends and colleagues claim to have been surprised when they heard about his problem. “There was little to give me away,” he writes in the draft of a book to be released in February. For one thing, Deaver devoured three rolls of breath mints a day so he undoubtedly smelled more like a candy shop than a distillery. “I did not humiliate myself at parties, did not get arrested for driving while intoxicated, did not jump into the Tidal Basin with a stripper or make love to my wife—or anyone else’s wife—on the steps of Congress. But clearly I was headed for a disaster.”

A cozy, comfortable arrangement

Where does this leave reporters? While alcohol abuse is likely to affect a legislator’s mental capacity, it might not noticeably affect his job performance. Even the most alert reporter will have some trouble determining how the congressman’s gray matter is faring on any given day. Knowing how much a member drinks isn’t enough to go on because different people handle alcohol differently.

Besides, it’s very difficult to distinguish a legislator who can’t figure out the National Porkbarrel Appreciation Act because too much liquor has tormented his brain cells from one who can’t figure it out under any circumstances. Even personality changes can be ascribed to many different causes. One reporter who covered Deaver now recalls episodes that, in retrospect, may have shown hints of alcoholism but that he wrote off as signs of pressure typical to many White House officials. “There was some erraticness,” the reporter says, “but he wasn’t erratic in a way that was different from anyone else.” For a long time, such subtleties weren’t a problem: reporters and editors didn’t cover alcoholism at all. More startling than Drew Pearson’s and Jack Anderson’s scoop about Mendel Rivers was that none of the defense reporters who covered Rivers broke the story first. Even more remarkable, reporters covering Joe McCarthy knew he drank heavily but didn’t report it until after his censure. “It was part of that response to ignore personal peccadillos,” says Seth Kantor, a long time Capitol Hill correspondent, now with Cox newspapers.

One reason is that heavy drinking was common among journalists themselves and was often seen as a sign of bravado. In a recent column arguing that reporters who work in glass cubicles shouldn’t throw stones, David Broder recalled that during the 1960 presidential campaign, if one journalist was too smashed to file, another reporter would cover for him, filing under the incapacitated journalist’s byline, using chunks from other reporters’ articles. Journalists, in turn, ignored the “private foibles” of the candidates. “It was a cozy, comfortable arrangement all around,” Broder wrote.

In addition, reporters often knew of an official’s drinking but refrained from putting it in print because they could point to no direct effect on job performance. Alan Cromley of the Daily Oklahoman, says he wrote about Carl Albert’s traffic problems, but little more, even though he had heard about Albert occasionally being intoxicated at cocktail parties. “He could have made a real spectacle and it probably wouldn’t have been written about,” Cromley says. “We just never saw any evidence it affected his job.”

Similarly, reporters covering Herman Talmadge got dramatically conflicting signals. They noted that despite his drinking the senator was always up jogging at 4:30 a.m. and at the office early. “Everybody knew he drank occasionally, but he had work habits that were so phenomenal that we ignored it,” recalls Jim Stewart, who covered him for the Atlanta Constitution. Ironically, in his autobiography, Talmadge himself concedes: “I was spending too much time drunk or hungover to be the sort of senator I wanted to be.”

Reporters held out for a blatant example of liquor altering public policy. Eileen Shanahan, who covered Russell Long for The New York Times, found it was nearly impossible to meet this standard. She knew Long had a drinking problem because she had seen him clearly intoxicated on a number of occasions. In 1967, she thought she finally had a chance to write about it.

Long was holding up an important tax bill as a way of killing an income tax checkoff for presidential candidates. “Each morning [Majority Leader Mike] Mansfield would talk him into letting the bill go,” Shanahan says. “Then, in the afternoon, Long, full of booze, would harangue the Senate about how awful that provision was” and refuse to let the bill through. This went on for about a week.

Shanahan filed a story that said something to this effect: “Russell Long, clearly intoxicated, said such and such …” But her editors at The New York Times didn’t think it was fit to print.

“How do you know he was intoxicated?” Shanahan recalls them cabling from New York.

“Because I stood next to him and his breath nearly knocked me off my feet,” she said.

“How do you know he didn’t just have bad breath?” they asked.

“Because a few times he was so rambunctious two guys had to carry him off the floor,” she said.

“How do you know he wasn’t just overtaken by a sudden fever?”

Shanahan lost the argument, which she describes as one of the biggest fights of her career. The reference never appeared in print. Other reporters wrote simply that Long was in “high spirits.”

Journalistic mores probably have changed enough that if this incident were to happen today, at least some newspapers would write about it. But there are still reasons thorough coverage of drinking may not occur. For example, as the Rivers case shows, the reporters who are most likely to know if a congressman drinks too much are the ones who can least afford to alienate him. Hometown reporters in Washington or beat reporters covering a certain area will be reluctant to cut off their news lifelines. More often journalists are simply warded off by the sheer ambiguity of the cases. Unlike adultery or drug consumption, which pose yes or no questions—did he do it or not?—problem drinking is more difficult to judge.

The dominant rule among journalists has always been: if you can’t prove it affects job performance, don’t write about it. And since that’s almost impossible to do, very little is written. But there are signs of change. For example, Texas papers did report on the drinking of “Goodtime Charlie” Wilson. Unfortunately, they usually referred to it euphemistically as “partying,” only a modest step away from the coverage of the senator in “high spirits.” After Wilson quit drinking, the press started to ask the right questions. The Lufkin News, for example, quoted Wilson’s administrative assistant, Charlie Schnabel, as saying that abstinence has “given [Wilson] more time to think and work on the mornings after.” The drinking had “created what I call a dependability gap,” Schnabel said. “People began to think he could no longer be depended on.”

The big test case for how journalists will cover drinking in the post-Gary Hart era is that of Senator Daniel P. Moynihan. Here the press is groping a bit, but is headed in the right direction. Several publications have written that Moynihan might have an alcohol problem. In an article last year by David Remnick, The Washington Post took an important step toward a new coverage of drinking. Remnick quoted by name a source who gave one estimate of how much Moynihan drinks, an amount that some might consider a lot. The source: Moynihan himself. “I go home and have two or three drinks with my wife,” Moynihan said, “and split a bottle of claret.” When Remnick asked if drinking was “for him a problem in any way, Moynihan is quiet for awhile, then says slowly, ‘No. I hope not. Here I am 59 years old …without a day’s break since 1965 or 1964. A steady life—one wife, three kids, three mortgages.'”

Both the Post and The New York Times also quoted former Moynihan aides who said the senator’s drinking didn’t affect his job performance. They point to Moynihan’s leadership on welfare reform as proof that he hasn’t lost a step. “It’s not the kind of thing where he’s ever incapacitated when he has to be working,” an exaide told the Times. Indeed, while several o f the former staff people I talked to said that they thought Moynihan drinks a lot—some said too much for his own good—none could cite an instance when drinking had noticeably affected the senator’s work. None of the other articles have offered such proof either. Of course determining sobriety is particularly difficult with Moynihan because he always sounds a little like he’s drunk. He slightly slurs his speech, wanders off on puzzling historical digressions about Lord Palmerston and the history of the interstate highway system, and spits out words in a staccato blitz that challenges the most attentive listener. But former staff members say they have never seen him publicly intoxicated.

If drinking has affected Moynihan it has been in more ambiguous ways, in making him more “feckless,” as one former aide delicately put it, or in thwarting his potential. But that is impossible to prove, and even if one could, it would be difficult to show how it hurt the people of New York. As his wife Elizabeth said, “He hasn’t been arrested for drunk driving or fallen into the fountain at the Plaza.”

Coming to Moynihan’s defense in a Newsweek column, George Will attacked the reporting as “voyeurism in the name of the public’s sacred “‘right to know'” Will did land some punches, justifiably criticizing the Times for using innuendo-packed fuzz words. The Times avoided having to discuss how much Moynihan drinks by writing that “political analysts” were predicting that “an aggressive challenger” will tar Moynihan by “raising awkward questions about Mr. Moynihan’s longstanding reputation as a hard-drinking Irishman.”

But Will went on to castigate the press for writing about Moynihan’s drinking without proof that it affected his job performance, declaring that “a personal attribute [i.e. Moynihan’s drinking] becomes a legitimate public concern when it affects the person’s conduct of public responsibilities.”

Will misses the lesson of the Talmadge, Wilson, Deaver, Bauman, and Mills cases: alcohol may be impairing abilities and performance in subtle but important ways without causing a blatant failure to discharge “public responsibilities.”

Simply put, the old standard offered by Will and others misses most public officials whose job performance is being affected by alcohol.

“That’s wrong”

Heavy, regular drinking should be reported— even if it never occurs during session and even if there’s no definitive proof that it affects job performance. If a public official has so little self-control that he appears drunk in front of colleagues or the press, it is worth noting.

But that reporting should only be part of a larger story about the official. Has he slipped over the years? Is he trusted by his colleagues? In other words, put it in perspective.

As Laurence Barrett, who covered Deaver for Time, says, reporters shouldn’t write about drinking by “painting it in electric blue and billboarding it,” but by putting it in perspective. The Post’s failure to come up with conclusive proof that liquor has made Moynihan a worse senator does not mean his drinking isn’t newsworthy. In fact, in most cases voters have not kicked officials out of office when a drinking problem has became public, particularly if the legislator was trying to get help. Charlie Wilson’s district returned him to office by a two-to-one margin after he revealed he drank excessively.

The problem shouldn’t be ignored until the legislator pisses in his pants on the floor of the Senate. Wilbur Mills wishes someone had confronted him. He is now known as the guy who showed up with Fanne Foxe at the Tidal Basin instead of one of the most respected members of Congress of his time. He doesn’t blame anyone else for his own troubles. But the one touch of indignation he did show during our conversation concerned the staff and press who had covered up for other alcoholic congressmen.

“They turned their head, they shielded them and that’s wrong,” he says. “No alcoholic should be shielded if they ever want to get permanently sober.”

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.