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The Truth, Mainly - 04/06/1992

Did FDR take a nip during Prohibition?

New York tabloids came up right on schedule last Monday with the Clinton scandal of the week. An enterprising reporter asked the governor if he'd ever violated drug laws in other countries and he said well, yes, since it was put in that way, he had. When he was a student at Oxford back in the late sixties, he "experimented with marijuana a time or two." But he didn't like it, and he hasn't done it since. And, he said, he didn't inhale.

Always before when asked if he'd done drugs, Gov. Clinton had said he's "never violated the laws of my country." Apparently some snitch from his Oxford days suggested the reporter ask whether he'd ever violated the drug laws of any other country, and the jig was up. He had, but he didn't like it. And he hadn't inhaled.

It wasn't a pretty thing to read about. So unpretty, in fact, it made banner headlines in the New York tabloids.

You know what I wish? I wish that just once when a politician—or any other public figure who came of age during the sixties—gets asked if he ever experimented with marijuana, he'd say this:

"Did the Pope ever experiment with communion wine? Of course I experimented with marijuana. Damn near everybody did. It messed up our heads real good and made everything very funny. It upset our parents and drove Richard Nixon nuts. It was fun. So I did it. Didn't you?"

You know what else I wish? I wish that in the presidential campaign of 1932, some enterprising NY tabloid reporter had asked FDR if he'd ever violated the 18th Admendment prohibiting booze, the controlled substance of choice back then. Just imagine.

Enterprising Reporter: "Governor Roosevelt! Governor Roosevelt! Have you ever experimented with booze in violation of the 18th Amendment?"

Other Reporters [under their breaths, 95 percent of which smell strongly of illegal Canadian imports]: "Is this guy drunk? Get him out of here before he gives the whole press corps a bad name."

FDR [looking patrician]: "It was no experiment, my good man. I knew exactly what the outcome would be. It would mess up my head real good and make everything very funny. It would drive Prohibitionists nuts. But I knew even then that with the exception of fear itself, we had nothing to fear but enterprising reporters who pander to puritan titillation. Take this one out and shoot him."

Other Reporters: "What a guy. He's got my vote."

Even if a reporter had asked the question, can anyone imagine FDR saying that yes, once or twice he'd gargled with illegal Canadian imports but he hadn't liked the taste and he didn't swallow? Or can anyone imagine a tabloid headline "FDR tried Cutty Sark in 1921!" Or even more preposterous, can anyone imagine the electorate caring enough to deprive itself of FDR's services?

The Truth, Mainly


Sure, I know. Some of us still remember FDR, some of us still admire FDR's public work, and we can assure you that Bill Clinton is no FDR. But it doesn't follow that he'd be a bad president just because we don't approve now of his private acts then.

Ed Quillen of the Denver Post gave readers an instructive example last month of the trouble than can result when we judge contemporary public figures by their past private morality. Quillen asked us to consider one 20th century leader who was a picture of private decorum. A decorated war veteran, he opposed smoking and anything beyond moderate drinking. He was a one-woman man who liked little children, a vegetarian who couldn't stand cruelty to animals.

"That is the private character of Adolf Hitler," Quillen wrote. "By contemporary standards of character, Hitler was positively angelic in comparison to Winston Churchill, a hard drinker and youthful opium user who was never without a cigar…."

But the enterprising reporter knows that kind of historical perspective doesn't fit a tabloid headline or a 30-second sound bite. He wants to know whether the candidate ever hummed "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"—an almost certain indication of past LSD experimentation.

And while he's at it, the really enterprising reporter may ask the biggest question of all: Did the candidate ever smoke the infamous euphoria-producing hallucinogenic banana peels we all heard so much about in the sixties?

If the candidate were FDR, reincarnated as Bill Clinton, he might say no, he'd done lots of bad stuff, but he'd never experimented with banana peels. But, he might say with the Arkansas subvariety of a patrician smile, Danny Quayle used to be pretty heavy into banana peels. Inhaled them too. Messed up his head real good.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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