Michael Winship, a Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
So shocked were certain elements of the right by the vigor and ire with which Bill Clinton came out swinging on Fox News Sunday, they resorted to a stupefyingly base explanation. Matt Drudge and the right-wing website LittleGreenFootballs, to name two, suggested that the former president may have been drinking.
"I don't think it was only anger," the GreenFootballs blog insinuated, like some querulous quidnunc (take that, William Safire). "There were slurred words and strange broken sentences."
Jesus. That sound you hear is the bottom of the barrel being scraped. At the risk of stating the obvious and dignifying the smear with even the slightest further discussion, it's well known that Clinton barely touches the stuff. This was pointed out as recently as David Remnick's profile in the Sept. 18 issue of The New Yorker.
If it was even remotely plausible, the Democrats might be tempted to respond as Abraham Lincoln famously—and apocryphally—did when confronted with reports of Ulysses S. Grant's drunkenness. Find out which brand of whiskey he's drinking, Lincoln said, and send a case to each of my generals. The Democratic version would see carboys of Clinton's Choice shipped by overnight Fedex to all the party's House and Senate candidates.
"President Clinton came in prepared to respond to any attack on his record," his spokesman Jay Carson said. "When [Fox News' Chris] Wallace questioned his record on terrorism, he responded forcefully, as any Democrat would or should."
The broader Clinton kerfuffle aside, what struck me about the spurious implication of a spirit-enhanced performance was how casually and often cruelly people joke about alcohol. Both its pervasiveness and the social stigma attached to alcoholism—treating it as symptom of moral turpitude rather than the disease it is—are writ large in the political world.
Booze lubricates the Washington social and political machine, and claims a tragic share of casualties there. So it was especially heartening to read in last Tuesday's New York Times of the "uncommon political marriage" between Minnesota Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad and Rhode Island Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy.
Kennedy, 39, son of Ted Kennedy, is four months sober, following a bizarre automobile accident outside the United States Capitol and a subsequent period of rehab at the Mayo Clinic. Ramstad, 60, with a quarter century of sobriety, is Kennedy's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.
The Times reported, "The day after the accident, Mr. Kennedy received a phone call from Mr. Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic who has been an evangelist in Congress for addiction treatment and 12-step recovery programs. The men did not know each other well.
"But in battling their addictions, the two built a fast kinship that flouts the partisan divisions of Congress, their own divergent politics and the conditional nature of so many friendships in Washington."
As former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, himself in recovery, observed, "This is a story of a shared and common humanity and overcoming political differences in a town known for its inhumanity."
Coincidentally, Monday evening, I attended a friend's Manhattan book signing. He's another man in recovery who grew up in the world of politics, another offspring in the spotlight and shadow of a famous father.
William Cope Moyers, son of my public television colleague Bill Moyers, has written an absorbing, heartfelt and frequently painful account of his own slide into drug and alcohol addiction. The book's called Broken, because, as William says, "I'm still not fixed yet, I'm healing." It takes him on the journey from a privileged childhood of promise to a failed career and marriage to crackhouse pits in New York and Atlanta, followed by a slow, arduous return to sobriety and fulfillment.
Now 12 years in recovery, Moyers is vice president for external affairs at the Hazelden Foundation, the alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in Minnesota. In that role, he has come to believe that:
The war on drugs must shift from an obsessive focus on trying to reduce the supply through interdiction and criminal justice to what works the best—recovery. Perhaps someday that will happen. In the meantime, people addicted to alcohol and other drugs, their loved ones and the communities where they live, are desperate for help.
The federal government is spending about $20 billion a year on the war on drugs. Currently, only about 18 percent of that money goes for recovery programs, prevention, addiction research and education.
As the Times reported, both Rep. Kennedy and his sponsor, Rep. Ramstad, "are active in a House caucus of about 60 representatives that promotes legislation for treatment of addiction and mental illness. Some of the members are addicts themselves, or recovering addicts, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Ramstad say, but neither would estimate how many."
All of them should read Broken, and when the new Congress convenes next January, their caucus can work harder to allocate more funding for prevention and recovery—and legislate rules that will require insurance companies to lift restrictions on benefits for dependency treatment.
Rep. Ramstad has his own dream, he told the Times: "If we could turn Congress into one big AA meeting, where people would be required to say what they mean and mean what they say, it would be a lot better Congress."
One day at a time, congressman, one day at a time.
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers