Washington’s heavy-drinking ways in spotlight

Greg Nash

President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs withdrew his name from consideration this week after a number of serious allegations were raised about his stewardship as White House physician, including that he drank on the job.

The allegations against Ronny Jackson of excessive drinking shine a light on a problem that, while not unique to Washington, is particularly acute in the nation’s capital.


Washington, D.C., has the highest rates of binge and problem drinking in America.

It’s a booze problem fueled by a uniquely stressful environment where many of the corporate structures of accountability and oversight don’t exist.

From the executive branch to Capitol Hill, K Street lobbying firms to high-pressure newsrooms, free alcohol is easily accessible.

The days of the three-martini lunch may be gone, but they have been replaced by hard-partying nights filled with fundraisers, receptions or long bar tabs.

“There is just a strong push and culture of intoxication in D.C. It’s been like that for a long time,” said Kevin Sabet, who served in the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy in three different administrations. “It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue. It really cuts across all ideologies.”

This weekend, Washington’s political class will hobnob during at least 10 events surrounding the White House correspondents’ dinner, where the drinks flow freely. The most common complaint at the dinner itself is that empty wine bottles are not replaced with sufficient speed.

During the holiday season, it is possible to spend weeks in a row drinking free while hopping from reception to reception sponsored by all manner of corporations and interest groups.

Half a dozen current and former aides and members of Congress, all of whom asked for anonymity to shed light on an unsavory side of the culture within government, said a combination of factors contribute to a heavy-drinking environment: Members are away from their families for long stretches of time. Lobbyists and supplicants are eager to please, whether via campaign contributions or a cocktail. And few formal rules governing workplace environments exist in the halls of Congress, or in the White House.

Virtually everyone who works in or around government has a story.

“It’s do as I say, not as I do,” said one Republican former member of Congress.

One senior Senate aide recalled his early days on Capitol Hill, when the member of Congress for whom he was interning found a door off its hinges in the Longworth House Office Building. The door became a table on which the member and his staff would play beer pong, positioned over a conference room table so as not to leave stains on the more permanent furniture. The tournaments began before noon on Fridays, and often lasted until midnight.

Excessive drinking among America’s political leaders is as old as the Republic itself.

George Washington operated one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country. At least four books have been written on Thomas Jefferson’s wine-drinking habits. Told his top Civil War general, Ulysses S. Grant, drank too much whiskey, Abraham Lincoln said he wished he knew Grant’s favorite brand so he could send barrels to his other generals.

Harry Truman reportedly learned of Franklin Roosevelt’s death just as he arrived to have an afternoon bourbon with House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas). Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) at one point drank more than a quart of liquor a day. President Lyndon Johnson spent evenings in Sen. Everett Dirksen’s (R-Ill.) office on Capitol Hill over whiskey.

There are even tales that, during Prohibition, members of Congress used the storied Ohio clock outside the Senate chamber to hide their illegal liquor. The Senate Historical Office says there is no truth to the rumor, though Congress had its own unofficial bootlegger for much of the Prohibition years.

In more recent years, ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), admitted to being drunk when he sent inappropriate text messages to underage pages.

Today, Washingtonians purchase more alcohol on a per capita basis than any state except New Hampshire, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Nearly a quarter of District residents are binge drinkers, defined as consuming more than five drinks in an evening; that is the second-highest rate in the nation, behind North Dakota. And Washington bears higher economic costs of problem drinking than any other state, according to the CDC calculations.

A part of the higher rates comes from the high-stakes nature of government jobs, and from professions with a large presence in Washington, said Aaron White, the senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Lawyers, plentiful in Washington, tend to drink more than those in other professions.

“We know that high-powered jobs, high income, that is a risk factor for excessive drinking,” White said. “You have a lot of people in powerful, high-paying jobs downtown. People with money and stressful jobs tend to drink more.”

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