Michelle Obama’s Water & Other First Lady Drinking Tales

First Ladies Obama, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Eisenhower drinking up.

First Ladies Obama, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Eisenhower drinking up.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis popped Perrier.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis popped Perrier.

As First Lady Jackie Kennedy liked an lime daiquiri poured from icy silver buckets.

Tastes change.

In 1977, as Mrs. Onassis, she sampled a new French sparkling water being introduced on the American market, a box of which she’d been sent as a gift.

She bubbled enough about it to serve at her annual Christmas party to guests who included media chieftains and  journalists. It was called Perrier.

The rest is history.

Bess Truman demanded a heavy hand on the bourbon for her old-fashioned cocktail.

Mrs. Reagan tried New Coke during an Atlanta conference but the soft drink never caught on with the public.

Mrs. Reagan tried New Coke during an Atlanta conference but the soft drink never caught on with the public.

.Nancy Reagan tried the “new” Coke of the 1980s and liked it – but it went away.

Frances Cleveland refused to get drawn into any public debates about hard drinking women versus soft drinking ladies.

Water wedding: Frances Cleveland drank Apollinaris.

Water wedding: Frances Cleveland drank Apollinaris.

She silently announced her views on what people should drink the day she became First Lady – her June 1886 wedding to incumbent President Grover Cleveland.

During the toast following this only presidential wedding to take place in the White House, she turned her wine glasses upside down as the waiter poured the red and the white – then turned up her tumbler for the clear.

She was fine with everyone else drinking alcohol, but she would only drink mineral water. Not just any mineral water.

Only Apollonairis.

Mrs. Obama enjoying a nice cold one.

Mrs. Obama enjoying a nice cold one.

Last Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama toasted her beverage of choice in a pubic service message urging more Americans to drink more water:

“I’ve come to realize that if we were going to take just one step to make ourselves and our families healthier, probably the single best thing we could do is to simply drink more water. It’s as simple as that. Drink just one more glass of water a day and you can make a real difference for your health, for your energy and the way that you feel. So Drink Up and see for yourself.”

“Drink Up” is the new component to the First Lady’s Partnership for a Healthier America campaign.

Mrs. Obama with her water mark.

Mrs. Obama with her water mark.

A public awareness effort encouraging people to drink more water, the slogan’s logo will be appearing on half a billion bottles of water from producers like,Poland Spring, Evian, and Dasani, home water-filtering products by Brita, reusable bottles, and by municipalities on public water fountains.

As the Center for Disease Control‘s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion director pointed out:

Drinking water can help people maintain a healthy weight and may be an important strategy for preventing obesity, Even mild levels of dehydration may result in decreased concentration, alertness, and short-term memory among children and adults as well as diminished athletic performance.”

In worst case scenarios dehydration from lack of water can lead to  swollen brains, failing kidneys, comas, seizures and death.

A nice cold one.

A nice cold one.

Just as quickly, of course, came a flood of criticism. A New York University professor fears it will increase the number of plastic water bottles. Others say it doesn’t emphasize the need to not drink soda because many of the manufacturers of sugary pop also put out bottled water. A  magazine called Beverage Digest claims that water is the number one popular drink in the nation already. And a University of Pennsylvania nephrologist declared it to be “bizarre,” because, “We’re designed to drink when we’re thirsty,” ignoring the fact that’s the point the First Lady’s campaign is trying to make: drink when thirsty, but drink water – not beverages with caffeine or sugar, which in excess amounts can lead to health problems.

In context, of course, the gushing water war yet again serves to bolster that time-honored credo which seems to especially apply to First Ladies: no good deed goes unpunished.

Eleanor Roosevelt, glass of water beside her.

Eleanor Roosevelt, glass of water beside her.

The direct analogy to the media contortion of Mrs. Obama’s intent occurred in December 1932, a month after Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband was elected President but three months before he was inaugurated.

How FDR would turn around the woes of the Great Depression was the big question but looming along with it was whether he would lobby for Prohibition to be declared unconstitutional and rescinded.

Near-beer had been made legal by late April 1933, but Mrs. Roosevelt liked her tea. (Corbis)

Near-beer had been made legal by late April 1933, but Mrs. Roosevelt liked her tea. (Corbis)

Eleanor Roosevelt was deeply ambivalent about the issue. Her father’s alcoholism had ruined the family and killed him and she recognized the hell that heavy drinking could unleash. Her own personal drink of choice? The strong smoky ancient Chinese tea known as Lapsang Souchshong.

Yet, she concluded, Prohibition hadn’t reduced drinking but rather increased it, citizens resentment of being told they couldn’t drink alcohol and widely defying it. The consequence of this, she stated on a national radio broadcast, was that:

“Nowadays, a girl who goes out with a boy must know how to handle her gin….She faces the problem of learning, very young, how much she can drink of such things as whiskey and gin and sticking to the proper quantity.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, water glass by her side.

Eleanor Roosevelt, water glass by her side.

The media went to town on Eleanor Roosevelt, twisting her intent but quoting her words to report that the incoming First Lady was urging young American girls to start boozing it up just so they could determine their tolerance. The famous minister Norman Vincent Peale attacked her as an out-of-touch socialite, temperance leader Lucy Peabody declared her to be “abnormal,” and an ocean of critical letters flooded Mrs. Roosevelt’s desk.

Even as a former First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt never seemed to have enough water.

Even as a former First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt never seemed to have enough water.

Once she became First Lady and the Eighteenth Amendment was overturned, Eleanor Roosevelt found a middle ground between perception and reality: she had beer served in iced-tea glasses.

Not incidentally, Eleanor Roosevelt seems never to have been photographed at all the luncheons, banquets and testimonial suppers she attended with anything in front of her except a glass of water.

When Lady Bird Johnson allowed her teenage daughters to have a soda pop machine installed in their “hangout” of the Solarium on the White House third-floor, it was still an era before more caloric corn syrup was used to sweeten drinks and the cane sugar that was used was promoted in ads as “natural energy.”

Eleanor Roosevelt at a table full of water glasses. (Corbis)

Eleanor Roosevelt at a table full of water glasses. (Corbis)

Alcoholic beverages and First Ladies, however, were always a delicate mix.

Among some critics of Mrs. Obama’s water-drinking campaign have been those striving to charge her with hypocrisy on the evidence that she was photographed drinking a Guinness beer during a state visit to Ireland.

Mrs. Obama enjoying some beer in Ireland. (theguardian.com)

Mrs. Obama enjoying some beer in Ireland. (theguardian.com)

Of course, she has made no suggestion that people should only drink water and never drink anything else – only that more water imbibing could be healthful. The First Lady had no arrows flung her way for hoisting a brew, however, an even more ironic fact considering that the ubiquitous camera phone has recorded her virtually every waking moment.

In an era when phones and cameras were still separate entities, it was simply a matter of what the public never knowing what they never saw.

During Prohibition, Florence Harding offered her White House garden party guests “squalls,” a citrus punch, thus abiding by the law of the land.

She had the drink served, however, in familiar silver mint julep cups with the sprig of mint popping out of the top, looking as if they were intoxicating mint juleps. Perhaps the power of suggestion could make lemonade taste like bourbon.

Florence Harding's non-alcoholic squall punch in silver cups mimicked mint juleps.

Florence Harding’s non-alcoholic squall punch in silver cups mimicked mint juleps.

What the public would not discover until a decade later, when former First Daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth revealed it in her memoirs, was that Mrs. Harding mixed scotch and soda cocktails in the oval study of the White House family quarters.

Those were for her husband and his poker-playing cronies. Personally, according to one newspaper report at the time, she loved coffee.

In the era just preceding Prohibition, a more fluid situation developed with one First Lady who liked her cocktails, wines, champagnes and beers and was not going to apologize, compromise or improvise.

Nellie Taft's crescent-shaped table set for a diplomatic dinner in the State Dining Room.

Nellie Taft’s crescent-shaped table set for a diplomatic dinner in the State Dining Room.

Nellie Taft had a favorite recipe for champagne punch and insisted on serving it before formal state dinners and brunch receptions. It brought down a flood of protest letters from temperance and prohibitionists on her husband.

“You should see Nellie’s lip curl at the idea of brunch without champagne,” the President sighed to a friend.

Nellie Taft liked her champagne punch and wasn't having anything else.

Nellie Taft liked her champagne punch and wasn’t having anything else.

To make matters worse, Mrs. Taft even had the punch bowls filled with a bottomless supply of it on Sundays. No amount of public or marital pressure could make her stop. That was that.

She not only weathered the storm, but went on drinking right through Prohibition when her husband was serving as Chief Justice of the United States.

There were cocktails, more champagne and her old standby since her days as a teenager in the German beer halls of Cincinnati, the brew. 

Former First Lady Nellie Taft with incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936.

Former First Lady Nellie Taft with incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936.

When she determined to take see Mexico on her own, despite her age of 80, Nellie Taft booked her travel arrangements before telling her adult children, her daughter finally quieted her sons by quipping, “As long as she can say beer in Spanish” she’d be fine.

Of course, the issue of whether a woman, especially one held as an idealized model of moral rectitude like a First Lady, drank alcohol had long carried a social stigma that was far more condemning than that for a man. It made what was bad enough as gossip far more hurtful when it served a political purpose.

Just what political forces during the 1952 presidential primaries and general election were behind the false rumor that Mamie Eisenhower had a “drinking problem” has never been determined.

President and Mrs. Eisenhower ringing in New Year's Day with friends at Augusta National Golf Course.

President and Mrs. Eisenhower ringing in New Year’s Day with friends at Augusta National Golf Course.

It was true that in her state of relative public isolation during World War II while her husband was Commander of the Allied Forces that her social life was confined to a group of other military wives who did drink heavily.

Her brother-in-law Milton Eisenhower later stated for the record that he warned her of being incriminated with the charge merely by association. The rumor was later revived in tabloids two years before the end of the Administration with a tale that the First Lady’s “fire water” had been cut off and she’d been sent west to “dry out.”

In fact, she had gone out west to the Elizabeth Arden spa in Phoenix – to lose weight.

Along with this, her frequent suffering from spells of vertigo due to an inner ear disorder could suddenly make her walking unbalanced. Such facts, of course, are no match for a darker bit of gossip. So, whenever Mrs. Eisenhower might, in fact, enjoy a moderate drink before dinner, those who saw her do so were often quick to assume the worst.

Betty Ford campaigning, March 1976.

Betty Ford campaigning, March 1976.

In the case of Betty Ford, a year after she left the White House the former First Lady went fully public with her alcohol and prescription drug addiction, pioneering a massive cultural sea change in the better understanding of women and alcoholism.

However, in revealing the history of her drinking in painful detail, she also pointed out that during the two years and five months she was First Lady she forced herself to moderate her intake given the grueling travel and schedule of public appearances required. She simply could not have maintained the visibility and mobility she did while also drinking.

Only after her husband’s loss of the 1976 election, during a final television interview did the effects of drinking and prescription drugs become obvious. Generalizations that she was “drunk” in the White House, however, were false.

Lucy Hayes, water glass in hand.

Lucy Hayes, water glass in hand.

Certainly, when it comes to liquor – and water, the First Lady who never got a break in both her own lifetime and afterwards was Lucy Hayes.

Having taken “the pledge” as a young woman to never drink alcohol she maintained it throughout her life, but imposed it on nobody else – including her husband.

A newspaper cartoon satirized the First Lady's alcohol policy showing Lucy Hayes smiling in a water bottle and frowning in a wine bottle.

A newspaper cartoon satirized the First Lady’s alcohol policy showing Lucy Hayes smiling in a water bottle and frowning in a wine bottle.

Yet when it was learned that, in viewing the White House more as her personal home she decided not to serve alcoholic beverages to guests, she was hailed as a godsend heroine by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and scorned by most of hard-drinking male Washington.

Evidence suggests that it was actually a political move, a concession which had been made to the powerful Prohibition Party to support her husband’s election in 1876.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union presented this painting of their reluctant heroine Lucy Hayes with a stone carving in the background showing a water

The Lucy Hayes portrait with a stone carving of a water jug.

The grief she got for the decision, however, never ended.

She was lampooned in caricatures and would eventually be given the nickname “Lemonade Lucy,” her biographer later determining it may have been bestowed on her after several anecdotes appeared in the press about the soft drink.

The WCTU tried to use her as their poster-girl but she would have none of it. Finally, they raised money publicly and commissioned a massive canvas portrait of her – showing a water jug in the stonework behind her.

In all the controversy this latest round of water and First Ladies has caused, most of the media has proven too humorous to catch the fact that Michelle Obama unveiled her “Drink Up” campaign in a small city in Wisconsin.

Called Watertown.

Michelle Obama raises a glass for water.

Michelle Obama raises a glass for water.


Categories: Eleanor Roosevelt, First Ladies, History, Presidential Foods, The Hayeses, The Obamas

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