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Dry Drunk

BY Alan Bisbort
Alcoholics Anonymous has a name for someone who is a drunk in every way except for the actual imbibing of spirits. They call that person a “dry drunk.” This is not a judgmental term, nor should this be a judgmental topic in America, where there are, by even the most conservative estimates, 10 million adult alcoholics, and very few families that have not been touched, in one way or another, by this national scourge. This same scourge has, by his own admission, also touched the life of our commander-in-chief.

Whether George W. Bush is or was an alcoholic is not the point here. I am taking him at his word that he stopped what he termed “heavy drinking” in 1986, at age 40. The point here is that, based on Bush’s recent behavior—his obsessive push for war with Iraq, his chest-thumping warning to other “rogue nations” of similar one-sided punishments, his adolescent, vengeful tone with those former allies that chose not to participate in the “coalition of the willing,” even his silly stunt of landing a jet on an aircraft carrier to prematurely declare, at the snap of his fingers (because he says it’s so) that the war in Iraq is over—he could very well be a “dry drunk.” Of course, he may just be an immature bully who will gladly sacrifice thousands of lives to get his way even against the advice of the most respected and mature members of his own party.

Still, Bush’s past battles with the bottle are worth pondering at a time like this, one of the most dangerous in the nation’s history. When a recovering alcoholic begins to engage in what AA calls “stinking thinking,” he or she begins to exhibit the old attitudes and pathologies of their drinking years. These include an increase in anxiety, mild tremors, mild depression, disturbed sleep patterns, inability to think clearly, craving for junk food, irritability, sudden bursts of anger and unpredictable mood swings. According to AA literature, “Boredom and listlessness may alternate with intense feelings of resentment against family and friends, and explosive outbursts of violence.”

Bush said he was a “heavy drinker.” But let’s not be coy here. Anyone who has ever imbibed heavily over a long period of time knows that “heavy drinker” is the rich man’s (or the politician’s) code for alcoholic.

For the record, Bush claims to have stopped drinking for reasons that change each time he’s asked about his substance-abusing past (which isn’t often, thanks to a cowed press). Let’s say he started experimenting with alcohol, as per the national norm, at age 16 in prep school, and he began getting regularly wasted at Yale at age 18. This would mean that Bush drank “heavily” for at least 22 years. We are, then, asked to believe that he went cold turkey after more than two decades of heavy drinking, a nearly impossible feat even for someone, as he claims, who was rescued by God.

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Far be it from me to cast stones when it comes to alcohol. I’ve seen the devastating toll alcoholism can take. My brother was an honors student in college when he began drinking heavily (party drinking, as was the tradition at southern colleges back then). By the time he was in his mid-30s, real and dramatic changes had occurred in his metabolism and brain chemistry. Medical experts told me at the time that just 15 years of sustained drinking can do irreversible physical harm of this sort. In other words, even if my brother stopped drinking, the damage would remain. But by most measuring sticks, my brother was a functioning member of society. He held jobs, paid his rent and bills, and made heroic efforts to beat his cursed addiction. He climbed the 12 steps more times than Stallone climbed those steps in Rocky.

Though I deeply loved my brother and miss him terribly now that he is dead, I could not deny the damage, even in his long periods of sobriety, that alcohol did to him. Rather, I could not deny the damage, and I could not bear to watch it happen. I could feel it in my bones that he was up against something stronger than his will and his prodigious intellect. Stinking thinking, like kudzu, simply overtook his mind, and alcohol killed his body.

It is worth reflecting on George W. Bush’s academic history. He graduated from two of the finest institutions of higher learning in this country: Yale and Harvard. He didn’t make great grades, but he graduated, an accomplishment warranting some respect. Many rich, well-connected boys have flunked out.

The question is then begged, and seems to at least deserve some pause for pondering: How did he, at age 56, get so fumble-tongued, incapable of coherently stringing more than two sentences together, snippily irritable with anyone who dares disagree with him or even ask a question, and pointedly ignoring the diminutive, 82-year-old Helen Thomas at White House press conferences (the paltry few he attends) because she wrote unfavorably, and truthfully, of him? How did he poutily turn his back on the democratically elected president of one of our most important allies (Germany’s Gerhard Schröder) because of something one of his underlings said about him? Why is he listlessly in need of constant vacations and rest, dangerously obsessed with only one thing (Iraq’s apparently nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, which must mean that it really was, all along, about the oil) to the exclusion of all other things (including an economy that is slowly sucking the life from the nation as well as trashing the retirement savings of anyone reading these words)?

Why is Bush so eager to engage in violence and so incapable of explaining why?

For drunks to function for any length of time in the world, they need enablers. Congress is filling that bill splendidly right now for Bush, and has been since January 2001, in fact. As BuzzFlash (www.buzzflash.com) put it about the corporate scandals, “For most of his adult life, those people around him enabled Bush’s alcoholism. Now the Democratic Senate is enabling the corporate corruption problem of his administration by not using their Constitutional powers to demand the truth.”

Not only Congress but the nation seems to be watching this happen. No—the American people, knowingly or not, are encouraging it to happen. Who knows, maybe we are all in shock, just as we are when a member of our family does something appalling or outrageous under alcohol’s bidding. The crazy behavior by the administration is so wild and unprecedented, so unchecked and unbalanced and covering such frightening unknown territory up ahead, that it may be easier to look away.

But we can’t look away. George W. Bush needs an intervention. Let’s be his interveners. Let’s raise our sober voices. Let’s ask questions, demand more than temper tantrums and pouting from the commander-in-chief. Let’s do this before it’s too late, and a dry drunk’s dream of glory becomes our national nightmare.

Alan Bisbort is a columnist for the Hartford Advocate and American Politics Journal, where a different version of this piece first appeared.

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