27 August 2007

Politicians and booze

Is a politician drunk on alcohol safer than a politician drunk on power? CyberShrink comments.

Politicians and booze have been making the headlines recently, with the Sunday Times alleging that health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, drank alcohol while in hospital for a shoulder operation two years ago.

But allegations of drunkenness by no means only plague the Health Minister. Many other South African politicians have been accused of being notoriously fond of the bottle.

Of course, you could say that it is not the drunken legislator that worries you, considering the horrible effects of some notoriously stone-cold sober politicians - just think of Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, the Ayatollah Khomeini and sundry other ayatollahs, Ian Paisley, and others.

What is probably more remarkable, is the extent to which serious drunkenness and alcoholism in senior politicians may be a serious risk, to them and to the rest of us. This is generally ignored. Journalists (themselves not unfamiliar with drunkenness) tend to be kind to political boozers, and don't generally report any but their most extreme episodes. They tend to write off of the habitual drunk as "colourful", unless he/she is driving or completely incoherent at a press conference.

Famous politicians
Some politicians who were known to be frequently drunk, such British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, or William Pitt the Younger, did rather well. A Prime Minister of the earlier 20th-century, Herbert Asquith, had the nickname "Squiffy", a slang term for drunk.

Churchill once declared that, "I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me." But though Winston was fond of champagne, brandy and whisky-and-soda through the day, there were very few reports of him ever appearing drunk. And he is famous for his retort, to an unpleasant woman who one night accused him of being the worse for alcohol, saying, " I may be drunk, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly. "

The story is probably apocryphal, but splendidly believable, that at some major international reception, late George Brown, Foreign Secretary to Harold Wilson, staggered up to a figure in a marvellous purple gown, and asked for a dance. The reply was reputedly, "There are three reasons why I will not dance with you. One, you are very drunk. Two, they are playing my national anthem. And three, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima."

Drunk in parliament
Alan Clark, an MP who was in Maggie Thatcher's cabinet, was accused of being drunk while speaking in parliament. Unable to answer questions, stumbling, he later admitted the accusation was correct. But then, he showed such skill at putting his foot in it when apparently sober, that drink probably didn't usually affect his performance.

Even President George Bush was reported to have been arrested for drunk driving back in 1976. When this was brought up later during one of his political campaigns, he admitted to having had prior problems with alcohol, saying "I made mistakes in my life, but I'm proud to tell you that I've learned from those mistakes.” Now, some of us may be concerned about exactly what it was he learned, but at least the concept is reassuring.

Russia's Boris Yeltsin was frequently drunk in public, and though he seemed like an amiable buffoon on such occasions, one wondered whether he might still have access to a nuclear trigger.

Swimming in free booze
Some have argued that alcoholism is as much an occupational disease of politicians as lung disease is to miners. Amongst other factors, lobbyists and others seeking to sway their opinions tend to ply them with liquor, and social events and receptions, swimming in free booze, are a major part of their work activity.

In the US Government, senior politicians from the 60s through to the 80s have been revealed as alcoholics, or have admitted it themselves (more recent generations have not yet left the field or produced their memoirs).

Heavy drinkers have included the chairmen of major committees, and people with access to highly classified information. Some had to have repeated "drying out " sessions in the privacy of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, and some were known to leave their offices strewn with empty bottles. In the 1960s, one senior Senator wet his pants and collapsed on the senate floor.

Betty Ford
Someone who has been most notable in not merely admitting to alcoholism but doing something very positive about it, would be Betty Ford, the wife of President Gerald Ford, who made a major contribution to enabling people to admit to alcohol and drug problems, and encouraging them to seek treatment. And she helped to set up the Betty Ford Clinic, in Palm Springs.

Eager enablers
A political drunk will find many eager enablers - people whose jobs depend on his holding his own, and who can gain in experience, seniority and power by taking over functions and tasks which the drunk is unable to handle. The US Senate dining-room does not (officially) serve alcohol, though there are ways round this ban.

Britain's Houses of Parliament, in contrast, contain many busy bars. There are many other varieties of misconduct available to politicians, but most of the others don't damage their brain, the organ they are supposed to be using to the nation's advantage.

When you consider that American research suggests that at least 10% of the adult population is alcoholic, presumably one would expect that at least that proportion of members of every parliament and government may be similarly afflicted.

On the whole, though, maybe a politician drunk on alcohol is rather safer than a politician drunk on power. –

Prof M.A. Simpson, Health24's Cybershrink

Updated, August 2007


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