Here’s hoping that recovering alcoholic and newly elected Boston Mayor Marty Walsh gets better treatment in the media than the ex-drinker ex-president George W. Bush.
So far, so good. Walsh has spoken openly about his struggles with alcohol with the Globe and other publications. It was widely reported during the mayoral campaign that Walsh still attends meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous almost 20 years after quitting. “I don’t really care who knows I’m an alcoholic, because if it helps somebody else knowing that I’m an alcoholic, then they’ll ask me for help if they need it,” Walsh told the Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert last year.
During his campaign, Walsh attracted fans and volunteers from the recovery community, men and women wrestling with drugs, alcohol, and other dependencies.
Bush also was a problem drinker, who gave up alcohol in the mid-1980s. He discussed his decision with The Washington Post during his first presidential campaign in 1999: “There’s a lot of drug rehabilitation programs and some that are based upon exactly what I went through, which is spiritually based — that’s what AA is really based upon.”
He went to say that “I don’t think I was clinically an alcoholic; I didn’t have the genuine addiction,” and thus did not attend AA meetings.
Politics is a rough game, and Bush’s statements about quitting alcohol were repeatedly questioned. In one famous incident, a purported video from a 1992 wedding party went viral on the Internet. The footage showed what looked like an ebullient, partying Bush acting a little loopy and — according to his detractors — drunkenly slurring his words.
The video “proved” to Bush’s many enemies that he was a phony, a frat boy drunk who hadn’t really managed to kick the sauce. “How come the networks played the Dean Scream over and over again,” asked the website Democratic Underground, “but yet when a video of Bush drunk at a . . . wedding was posted on the Internet nobody mentioned it?”
It also became fashionable to speculate that Bush was acting like a “dry drunk,” and to analyze his presidency through the prism of his questionable recovery. In a 2002 piece on the website Counterpunch, Katherine van Wormer, a professor at University of Northern Iowa, wrote that AA members consider a dry drunk to be someone “whose thinking is clouded. Such an individual is said to be dry but not truly sober. Such an individual tends to go to extremes.”
Van Wormer catalogued some of Bush’s “dry drunk” behavior: “indications of paranoia”; “rigid, judgmental outlook”; “all-or-nothing thinking. . . commonly found in newly recovering alcoholics/addicts.” (Bush had been dry for 16 years.) “Such a worldview traps people in a pattern of destructive behavior.”
As long as we’re hypothesizing, why not go all in for mindless speculation? Van Wormer suggested that Bush might have “barely noticeable but meaningful brain damage brought on by years of heavy drinking and possible cocaine use.”
This is an emotional topic, and I have my biases. For starters, I’m no Bush-hater. Although I am a social drinker, part of me hates alcohol. The three or four years of my adult life that I lived booze-free were among my happiest times. Another bias: I admire Alcoholics Anonymous and the work it does. I’ve read all the churlish, academic take-downs of AA, and they make me laugh.
I have also read that AA helps “only” 30 percent of the men and women who stick with the program. That’s good enough for me. I remember visiting my elderly aunt in her Virginia high-rise decades ago. She was cheery but somewhat infirm. Whenever she needed to move a carton or change a lightbulb, people came out of the woodwork to help her with her chores.
Who are those people, I asked my mother? Oh, those are Eleanor’s friends from AA, she replied. Why don’t we have friends like that, I wondered.
By all means let’s criticize Marty Walsh and George Bush — but not for their greatest achievements.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.