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The Bottle on the Hill: Times -- and People -- Have Changed

<i> Peter Bragdon is a Washington writer</i>

John Tower’s fight to become Secretary of Defense may have been sobering not only for him, but for others in this town as well. His story is just one example of how standards of conduct have changed in the view of journalists, legislators and the public at large.

Not so long ago heavy drinking by members of Congress was all but ignored by most journalists (a number of whom were heavy drinkers themselves) and, partly as a result, by the average citizen. Reread accounts of a tight three-way race for House majority leader from 1976 and you will find that the winner, current Speaker Jim Wright, fended off two legislative powerhouses, Democrats Phillip Burton of San Francisco and Richard Bolling of Missouri. What no one paid attention to publicly was the drinking habits of these two men who came close to leading the chamber. Bolling, who retired from the House 1982, underwent treatment for alcohol-related problems in 1979; Burton, who died in 1983 of an aneurysm, had earned a reputation as a man whose affinity for politics was just about matched by an affinity for drink.

And as Tower has pointed out in his own defense, there was a different view of drinking in the first half of this century when legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn invited select colleagues, his “board of education,” to wet their whistles with bourbon and branch water while conversing, strategizing and playing cards after business hours.

Not that drinking was ignored entirely; in the early 1800s, the first great Speaker of the House, Kentuckian Henry Clay, received criticism for his drinking and carousing. To some he was too much of a frontiersman for the times. And later, alcohol was obviously something of an issue during Prohibition, when it was widely rumored that bootleggers had found a market on Capitol Hill.

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Wayne Morse, the contentious senator from Oregon who was defeated in 1968, was so disturbed by his colleagues that he launched a crusade--a very lonely one--to get alcohol banned from the Senate entirely. He reportedly told friends: “There never has been one night session of the Senate in all my experience that hasn’t witnessed at least one senator making a fool of himself and disgracing the Senate.”

But there is certainly stricter scrutiny now than there was before the early 1970s. “If a member was drunk on the floor, you wouldn’t write about it,” said former Rep. Wilbur D. Mills, one of the most famous members done in by public excess. “I was the first that really got any attention.”

Mills lost his powerful post as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after drunkenly cavorting in a Washington fountain with stripper Fanne Fox in 1974. At the time he attributed a “severe drinking problem” to “the fatigue and pressure built up by years of dedicated work for my constituents and for the whole nation . . . . I had scarcely noticed that my drinking habits had changed perceptibly.”

Today, the man who spent nearly four decades in the House says he doesn’t believe the institution encourages excessive drinking. But, he said, “you’re under a lot of pressure, you’re invited to a lot of cocktail parties.”

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“There have been drunks around on Capitol Hill for a long time, and I think increasingly reporters are less inclined to protect them,” said Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“In general, excessive use of alcohol is less acceptable than it once was,” said Mann. “That reflects not just changing journalistic standards, but changing standards about what’s acceptable behavior by people in positions of responsibility in the public or private sector.”

In addition to heightened media attention, there have been institutional changes in Congress. Not only are there television cameras now covering debates in chambers (a change that has occurred in the last decade), there are changes in the day-to-day life of many members.

“Back in the old days the Senate was the senator’s life, in most instances,” said one longtime GOP leadership aide, who pointed out that many younger members are more family oriented and less tied to the institution.

“I would guess there are few if any of the kind of watering holes off that floor that there used to be 20 years ago. The members have other things to do,” he said.

If there is evidence that excessive use of alcohol on Capitol Hill is not quite as tolerated as it once was, there is also some evidence that the public has a sympathetic ear for those who admit they have a problem. Forget Tower, for the moment, and consider a less well-known politician, Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.).

In early 1988, Emerson surprised many in Washington and in his district by voluntarily undergoing treatment for alcohol dependency at the Betty Ford Clinic in California. Emerson, 51, who began a long Washington career as a young congressional page, did not have a reputation for public drunkenness. “My problem drinking was largely in time slots when I didn’t have to be on stage,” he said, pointing out that much of it was in the privacy of his own home.

But after his wife and 10-year-old daughter convinced him that he had a problem, it became clear that for members of Congress, solving a private problem is sometimes a public event.

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“Most people in the treatment of their problems prefer to be anonymous,” he said. “A congressman doesn’t just disappear from the face of the earth for 30 days"--the length of his stay at the clinic.

Yet if there was a political cost it was not evident. Emerson eked out a narrow victory in 1986; last year, against the same opponent, he racked up a much more solid margin. Emerson is another sign of the times; today he can sit in his office openly talking about a drinking problem and his regular attendance at meetings of a Capitol Hill support group for individuals troubled by alcohol--that such support groups exist is also a sign of the times.

The Tower affair focused new attention on tippling but it is hard to say how big a wave of neo-Puritanism is washing over Washington. Last year the nation’s capital had a higher per capita consumption of distilled spirits than any single state.

In Tower’s case the issue was raised only because he was in the chain of command, Mann said. “It is a very special position in government. If he was still in the Senate, and if he was abusing alcohol, would be able to continue to be a member of the Senate, and if he acted badly at times in public it might be reported.”

It may also be that stories about alcohol use that were apparently underreported for many years could now be overblown.

“There is a lot of drinking on Capitol Hill,” said Emerson. “There is also probably not as much drinking on Capitol Hill as a lot of people like to conjure up.”


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