These are not your Boys of Summer. These are the United States presidents born in February and perhaps we should toast them. At least that is always my inclination.
Abraham Lincoln (born February 12, 1809) and George Washington (born February 22, 1732) are the headliners. In fact, they so eclipse the rest of the presidential ranks that it seems rather unlikely that the “average guy” on the street could even name another president born in this frigid, God-forsaken, groundhog scrutinizing, heart-shaped-candy-box-buying month.
But ... nevertheless ... here we go.
Even most die-hard Republicans probably don’t know that Ronald Reagan—the Great Communicator—was born in this month (February 6,1911). If they did, one assumes they would insist that their much-beloved Ronnie get equal billing with George and Abe this time each year.
Given that I am prone to toasting anything of even dubious merit, let me point out this about Ronald Reagan and alcohol:
As president, he pushed for an across-the-board age limit of 21 for imbibing in alcohol in the U.S. I would not have embraced this rule at, say, age 19, when I was driving to New Jersey (where booze was liberally served at age 18 once upon a time) and back to partake, but the statistics bear Reagan out on this one. Like seatbelts, it saves lives. It makes sense.
As an actor, Reagan once drew the ire of the flamboyant actor Errol Flynn because he refused to drink shots with the swashbuckling star prior to filming a scene. Flynn uttered something extremely rude to young Reagan for this blatant breach of bro-hood.
Reagan may have offered one of the best champagne toasts ever made by the chief executive of the United States—and this at the White House to his “friendly enemy” Tip O’Neill—on O’Neill’s birthday, no less. Here it is: “Tip, if I had a ticket to Heaven, and you didn’t have one, I would give mine away to someone else and go to Hell with you!”
O’Neill allegedly got teary eyed over those eloquent lines (after all, these were two Irish Americans accustomed to flinging “blarney” at each other on a semi-regular basis) but as Reagan’s aide Michael Deaver later noted, this did not prevent the Democratic leader from bashing Reagan’s policies to reporters out on the White House lawn immediately after the birthday lunch had commenced.
In addition to Honest Abe, George Washington, and Reagan, the final February president happens to be William Henry Harrison (born February 9, 1773).
Harrison’s claim to fame (if you can call it that) is that he served the shortest amount of days of any chief executive—about a month. And most of that time was spent in bed, dying of pneumonia or something quite close to it. Some historians blame this on the fact that the old general delivered a ridiculously long speech on inauguration day (sans hat) in weather that would have made an Eskimo sled dog whimper, tuck its tail, and bolt for the igloo.
But … what I like about Harrison is that he won his election (over Martin Van Buren in 1840) with a campaign slogan that championed the use of alcohol (“The Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign). The whole idea arose from a Baltimore newspaper that snidely claimed Harrison would gladly bow out of the race if he might be provided with a log cabin and enough hard cider to pacify him in his golden years. The Harrison contingent—no doubt headed by some prototype of Karl Rove—flipped it on them and embraced the dastardly slur as their battle cry. They also had no qualms about tarnishing Van Buren as a champagne sipping aristocrat. (Smells like class warfare to me.)
As for the headliners, George Washington crushed the Whiskey Rebellion in the early 1790s, and then, just a few years later, began to distill whiskey himself near Mount Vernon after his Scottish overseer assured George that he could “make my account of it” (i.e., make money). They sold this rough whiskey—a kissing cousin of raw moonshine—off the backs of wagons in Alexandria and it proved to be one of the more profitable commodities from Washington’s plantation. However, when it came to his own preference, Washington tended to drink champagne, Madeira wine, hard cider, and porter beer brewed in Philadelphia.
By the time he was president, Abraham Lincoln (although he had made—and sold—whiskey as a young man) was notorious for his non-drinking. Ironically, the citizens sent the president free bottles of every type of booze ever made, but the Lincolns sent this vast cache of liquor to nearby military hospitals where it was administered as crude painkiller for the wounded Union soldiers. No doubt every drop was needed and appreciated.
Despite his personal abstinence, Lincoln often worked alcohol into his repertoire of humorous stories. According to one of his Civil War contemporaries, Lincoln once travelled by ship to inspect the front lines on the Virginia peninsula. The Chesapeake Bay happened to be rough, and Lincoln arrived with a rebellious stomach. The president admitted as much to the officers that greeted him at the dock. An eager and wet-behind-the-ears officer—tripping over himself to be helpful—suggested to the president that champagne was a sure cure for a queasy stomach.
Lincoln—perhaps walking the tightrope of his persistent melancholy—mustered up a wry smile and politely declined this kind offer:
“No, my friend,” the president quipped, “I have seen too many fellows seasick ashore from drinking that very stuff.”
No doubt Lincoln would have understood the wisdom of pushing back the legal drinking age to twenty-one. En route to his first inaugural in 1861, Lincoln entrusted his 17-year-old son Robert with a satchel containing the only copy of his acceptance speech. But at one whistle stop, Robert became—shall we say—overly festive with some other Lincoln enthusiasts, the end result being that he misplaced the satchel.
Abe had to locate the missing item himself (buried beneath a heap of luggage in a hotel lobby) and returned it to his sheepish son with more emphatic orders to take better care of it. Lincoln—like Reagan—certainly understood that alcohol and youth was a potentially volatile recipe unlikely to yield the best results.