Profound Questions: Which President Should I Have a Beer With?
Originally published March 10, 2010
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
In November 2000, a pivotal group of voters reported to their polling places. They gave their names to semi-lucid 85-year-old women -- the oil in our electoral engine -- and stepped into booths. Then they plotted the future of our noble republic, by deciding they'd rather have a beer with a recovering alcoholic over Al Gore.
Beer matters. It is our liquid common denominator, the rainbow bridge that links mortals to the Pierces and Fillmores of legend. We want to like our presidents, and thanks to some pollster's troubling relationship with his dad, beer-drinking somehow became the standard for likability. So who to drink with?
Avoid the Rushmores -- the royalty of our popular imagination. Beer is a democratic drink, and you must not waste your one PBR with greatness while stumbling over another man's fame. It's like saying hi to a celebrity on the street -- if you aren't adding to Mathew Lesko's day with your awkward mumbles, why bother? Besides, Abraham Lincoln doesn't want to watch college basketball with you. He's too busy.
Don't be tempted by the party animals. Drinking with Andrew Jackson carries the risk of being shot. Bill Clinton looks great on paper -- Women! Arkansas-caliber drinking stories! -- but when you drink with a narcissist, the next thing you know your pal has left you behind for some "business" in his Camaro. The evening is never about you.
And it should be! If cocktails hours are a traffic circle -- tough to get into, too tricky to relax -- beer-drinking is a two-way street. We're picking a wingman not so we can mingle with glory, but to have a great, interactive time. You want a guy with stories who would also listen to yours. You want a man who won't yap endlessly about work. You want a sprig of bravado garnishing a bowl of humility, plus some sleaze for taste.
You want Warren G. Harding.
The king of Marion, Ohio, was born in an average state to average parents and settled in an average town. He had no great intellect. He was a mediocre businessman -- work stress (owning a local newspaper) put him in a sanitarium a few times during his 20s -- and tricky things like "the economy" and "government" tended to give him headaches. "I am a man of limited talents from a small town," Harding said, because he wasn't smart enough to softball it. Teddy Roosevelt would talk at you. Warren Harding would pass the beer nuts.
But it's better than that. The beauty of Harding is that he was extremely average. Some men are pained by their mediocrity. Harding embraced it, cornered it in a coatroom and made love to it. He wallowed in small-town life: he joined the Freemasons, the Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Hoo Hoos and any other group with a funny hat; he was the leader of the local brass band ; and he ran the paper to shamelessly boost local interests. He played baseball, golf and poker like a maniac (he actually won one-third of his newspaper playing cards with a business partner). He married the daughter of Marion's resident Old Man Potter, and not even for the money.
He was the most awesome and personable regular guy you could ever hope to meet, the Van Wilder of his own life's campus, the dad outside a PTA meeting who loans you a cigarette and talks about the racks on the teachers. Herbert Hoover called it a "natural genius for geniality." If you wanted to sit around and figure out the best president to drink with, U.S. Grant would stare in silence. Harding would have that conversation, with gusto.
Even on a national stage in 1920, rather than go to the country, he brought the country to wallow with him. Harding ran America's last front porch campaign, pitching a "return to normalcy" -- in spirit, he invited the (sadly dry) nation over for a beer. They came by the trainload. Today, you can park it on the front step of that very modest porch and have a cold one. They'll ask you to leave, but before they do, think about the charisma! The virtually unknown Harding, nominated as a fourth or fifth choice and running against another Ohio newspaper man, won the greatest popular-vote victory in presidential history by yelling at the people on his lawn. This is a guy you want to drink with. He was George Bailey minus the bitterness.
Plus a zipper problem! In Marion, they speak of Harding's "movie star" looks -- there weren't as many movies back then -- and apparently he wasn't afraid to use them. His strategy for courting millions of newly minted female voters was apparently to sleep with as many of them as possible. He slept with his wife's best friend. He slept with his best friend's wife. He actually paid off blackmailers to keep things quiet and wrote awful love poems (I love your poise of perfect thighs / When they hold me in paradise).
You get the sense, first, that vetting was not even Palinesque in 1920, and second, that he didn't much like his wife. Florence was sickly, a ball-buster and had hectored him into marriage. She had her own brand of crazy, consulting psychics and that sort of thing. They owned a seance chair, which you can't just grab at Ikea.
In the moral sense, this is reprehensible. In the drinking buddy sense, it's phenomenal. The only thing better than a fun, personable drinking buddy is a fun, personable drinking buddy whose messed-up personal life makes you realize how good you have it.
And factor in one last thing: near the end of his life, big-time scandals were about to break. Harding's friends -- the guys he had over to the White House to get drunk and play cards -- had stolen millions of dollars. Marital defects aside, he was loyal and trusting of his friends. The betrayal broke his heart, bringing on another anxiety attack that in all likelihood killed him.
This was a guy who would never run out on a check.
And isn't that the most important thing of all? We might raise a toast to Cleveland or Ford. But Warren -- overmatched, disgraced and forgotten Warren -- this Billy Beer's for you.