A presidential election that made a nation drink will be fought to the bitter end by two men who don’t.
For the first time in modern history, both of the big party candidates for the White House are tea totals. President Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., say they have not consumed any alcoholic beverage in their lives.
This tea teller campaign, and the fact that it has received so little attention, is to some extent evidence of how the once-hard-drinking culture of politics is changing. Candidates, poll workers, and reporters drink less as they are aware of the control in the age of cellphones and Twitter, not to mention the uninterrupted demands of a 24/7 campaign.
But it’s also about how Mr Biden and Mr Trump, for all their stark differences, share some similarities in character and background, according to biographers and others who have watched them over the years. They all grew up in families shadowed by the specter of alcoholism – Mr. Trump’s brother died from it, and one of Mr. Biden’s favorite uncles he grew up with was a heavy drinker.
Both of them have distanced themselves from the busy social circles of Washington and New York, Mr. Biden for commuting to his family in Delaware every night, and Mr. Trump for being more comfortable watching TV at home.
Most importantly, it is evidence of the nature of two extremely ambitious men and their calculation that alcohol would put them at a disadvantage, be it in the world of politics or the development of New York City, or in running a casino.
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“These are two highly competitive men who, early in their careers, will make a judgment that their path to success will be ready to take the positions they want,” said Evan Osnos, author of a recently completed biography of Mr. Biden. “That didn’t leave much room to get drunk.”
It has been almost a century since temperance had a huge impact on American politics. The era of prohibition began 101 years ago with the ratification of the 18th amendment to the Constitution and ended with its repeal in 1933.
“There was a time in American public life when there was a certain degree of sobriety about character,” said Tim Naftali, a historian for the president. “I think that went away with the end of Prohibition.”
Mr Biden and Mr Trump seldom discuss their non-drinking ways, much less their abstinence as any kind of virtue. Mr. Trump once joked about it when he discovered that he had never had a glass of alcohol in his life. “Can you imagine if I had?” he asked. “What a mess I would be.”
Over the centuries there have been presidents who practiced abstinence – Rutherford B. Hayes, William H. Harrison, and George W. Bush – as well as presidents who loved their cocktails, including Richard M. Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Martin Van Buren or Blue Whiskey Van as he came to be known. Mr. Bush quit on his 40th birthday because he decided to drink too much, even though his father, George HW Bush, was known to enjoy a martini at the end of the day. Jimmy Carter kept booze out of his White House, which added to his reputation as a coercive.
But this meeting of candidates was a little unsettling to some in Washington. The capital is a place where alcohol has always had a steady, if not as strong, influence as it used to be, fuel for business, legislation and socializing.
“Two-thirds of Americans drink alcohol,” said Garrett Peck, who runs Temperance Tours to famous drinking halls in the country’s capital and has written extensively about alcohol consumption in Washington. “And most Washingtoners drink alcohol too. It’s part of the city’s culture. “
Alcohol isn’t as central to life in Washington as it used to be, Peck admitted as he pondered the shift in political culture that has driven most members of Congress to drive home on weekends. This cultural shift has often been blamed for the bitter partisanship on Capitol Hill, as socializing has all but disappeared from the aisles on weekends.
“Not so much in today’s Congress,” he said. “I wish it was more of a factor.”
Mr Trump has said over the years that the main reason he doesn’t drink is because he saw his brother Fred struggle with alcoholism and later died from it. His brother’s drinking drew his father’s disapproval, which also impressed Mr. Trump, a son who, according to his biographers, always sought approval from his strong-willed father.
Gwenda Blair, who has written about Mr. Trump and his family, said the president realized early in his career that abstinence would give him the upper hand in the highly competitive New York real estate development market. Later, as a casino owner in Atlantic City, he took note of the tradition of providing players with free drinks to encourage them to give up their inhibitions and stay close to the gaming table and slot machines.
“While they’re throwing down scotches, he’s putting Diet Cokes down,” she said. “It’s part of his ultra-competitive profile. This is a guy so competitive that his high school coach said he was the most trainable kid he’d ever coached because, unlike most kids, Donald remembered what he had to do to win. “
Oct. 30, 2020, 5:00 p.m. ET
Mr. Biden is no less driven; He talked about becoming president as a young man and this is the third time he has sought office. He is also a man of self-discipline, as shown in overcoming a stutter. While Mr. Trump is talking about losing his brother to alcoholism, Mr. Biden grew up in a house full of drinkers, especially his uncle Edward, known as Boo-Boo. “There are enough alcoholics in my family,” he said once when asked why he had not drunk.
Mr. Osnos said that Mr. Biden made it clear, “He believes this has a genetic component and that it runs in the family. It is not a leap to associate this with his son Hunter’s struggles with addiction as well. “
Among the other big party tickets this year, Vice President Mike Pence doesn’t drink alcohol either, so Senator Kamala Harris is the only one to have a drink sometimes.
According to most reports, Mr Biden and Mr Trump have never felt left out for not participating in the drinking ritual.
Timothy L. O’Brien, another Trump biographer, said of the president, “I don’t think he cares.”
“He’s never been someone who likes to go to a party and socialize,” added O’Brien. “His ideal night is to sit in front of a television and watch a sporting event with a cheeseburger. This is his bottle of wine. “
During his first term in office, President Barack Obama held a famous meeting to decide on a confrontation between Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black Harvard professor, and the white Cambridge police officer who arrested Mr. Gates at his home while he was examining a report of a break -in at the residence. It became known as the beer summit because the men drank as they sat under a magnolia tree across from the Oval Office.
Except for Mr. Biden. He had Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer from Heineken.
With all the character talk in American politics, Naftali said that most voters in these elections are unlikely to care about their presidential candidates’ drinking habits.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, many voters would be happy that both candidates were tea totals,” he said. “I think it’s not important at all in the 21st century. There are other and better ways to assess a candidate’s character. “