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George W. Bush On Drinking & Sobriety
George Walker Bush served as the 43rd president of the United States. For two terms, President George W. Bush was the Commander in Chief from January 2001 to January 2009). To say President Bush was a polarizing president would be an understatement, with record high and record low approval ratings; starting at 50% on his inauguration day, peaking at 92% after the 9/11 attacks and dropping to 22% in 2008.
He succeeded in cutting taxes and preventing another terrorist attack after September 11, 2001, but has also been criticized for pursuing inaccurate intelligence and the infamous “Wall Street Bailout.” Regardless of political affiliation, regardless of the successes and failures, President George W. Bush stated
“Quitting drinking was one of the toughest decision I have ever made. Without it, none of the others that follow would have been possible”
...and he has been sober since 1986.
George W. Bush Does Not Identify As An Alcoholic
To this day, former President Bush does not identify as an alcoholic. In his memoir, Decision Points, he starts with the decision to quit drinking and notes the struggles. He states,
“I do know that I have a habitual personality. I was drinking too much, and it was starting to create problems”
...but President Bush noted that many others need rehabilitation treatment or AA to get sober, whereas he managed to quit cold turkey. He did not feel he had a chemical addiction or dependency, but he did express to his daughters that “overdrinking [runs] in the family.”
That said, his path and commitment to sobriety is something people suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) can relate to as he has openly stated, “[A]lcohol was becoming a love and it was beginning to crowd out my affections for the most important love – if you’re a dad – and that’s loving your little girls. Fatherhood meant sobriety from 1986 on.”
When Was Your Last Drink?
The opening of President George W. Bush’s memoir reads, “It was a simple question. “Can you remember the last day you didn’t have a drink?”” Prior to being POTUS, Bush responded to his wife indignantly before recounting his drinking habits over the last week, then the previous week, then the last month and slowly coming to realization that he couldn’t remember a day he spent sober.
Similar to people who do struggle with addiction, former President George Bush tried to rationalize his drinking. He compared his habits with those of people he knew to be drunks and didn’t feel he was in the same camp. He was sober during the day and never drank at work, and there was usually a reason for drinking each day, (be it a Tuesday night ritual, successful day of work, celebration with friends, etc.), however he couldn’t place a dry day, acknowledging
“drinking had become a habit.”
A Ten Or An Ass?
“When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”
In 1976, George W. Bush was pulled over and fined for drinking and driving.
He did not contest the charges and fortunately no one was injured, but it’s notable moment in his history. While no one was injured, President Bush felt it affected his role as a father – undermining his lectures about safe driving – and, at the time, believed it cost him the election.
For many people, the minute the legal system gets involved (even as a relatively minute fine), it’s the wakeup call to get sober or, at the very least, recognize there’s a problem. It’s telling that although Pres. George W. Bush had a DUI in 1976, he did not quit drinking until 10 years later.
Instead, for President Bush, rock bottom occurred at a family dinner. It wasn’t a legal battle and it wasn’t on public display, but for the former president, it was the moment that made him realize the drinking was a problem and a symptom of selfishness. To truly grasp the magnitude, it’s important to understand the following about the 43rd president.
Former President George W. Bush loved his father, adores his mother, and has the utmost love, trust, and respect for his wife, Laura. These values have been evident in Bush’s character prior to his service and well afterward.
Pres. George W. Bush spoke about the criticism he received in office and how
“it was much harder to be the son of the president, and watch my dad get criticized than to be the president… to watch him be mischaracterized really hurt.”
Knowing how deeply George W. Bush cares about his family is what makes his rock bottom – his realization that he had a problem – make sense. Pres. Bush writes,
“We had a saying in West Texas: ‘Last night he thought he was a ten, when in fact he was an ass.’ I like to joke around, but alcohol has a way of turning a quip or tease into a slash or insult.”
At a dinner party with the former president’s parents, George W. Bush had had too much to drink and turned to an attractive, close friend of his parents and asked, “So, what is sex like after fifty?” This was met with absolute silence as well as glaring daggers from his mother and wife. Of course, the following day, Bush was reminded of what he had said and he felt instantaneous regret, asking himself, “[is] this really the way I want to lead my life?”
The Meeting with Billy Graham
While the Bushes and Grahams had had a relationship for decades, it was in 1985 that George W. Bush asked a number of profound questions that changed the way he (former President Bush) viewed his faith in God. George W. Bush liked the Bible because he believed
“by reading the Bible [it] could make me a better person,”
but Graham explained that while that’s a noble consequence, it’s not really the point. The point of the Bible was Christ, not the self.
Not only did this start to shake and unravel the “shallow” faith George W. Bush had had, but he realized something else profound from this meeting.
“When Billy started answering questions… I was on my third glass of wine, after a couple of beers before dinner. Billy’s message had overpowered the booze.”
This realization helped George W. Bush on multiple levels. First, he recognized that he’d been reading the Bible for self-betterment which, in a way, was selfish. Second, although already a religious man, this challenged and changed the president’s view on faith and what it meant to be a Christian. The fact that a message about God overpowered his drunken stupor had an extremely sobering effect, so much so that he began to take Bible classes and really study the text he’d been following for 39 years.
Sober Since 1986
On his 40th birthday, former President George W. Bush celebrated with his wife and their two close friends. They toasted to health, happiness, and family, paid their bill, and called it a night. The next morning, Pres. Bush suffered a hangover and took a job to help sweat out the poison of the previous night.
As the previous night became more clear, he returned to his hotel room to tell his wife, “I [will] never have another drink.” He admits that it didn’t appear Laura believed him since he’d made the claim before and had not upheld it, but he believed this time it would stick because he made the change from the inside.
Within a week, the hangover was a fading memory and the “temptation to drink became intense. My body craved alcohol” so he started running more and substituting liquor with sweets (specifically chocolate). Once his wife, Laura, saw he was serious, she became increasingly supportive, encouraging him to stay on this path and fend off cravings. Not surprisingly, George W. Bush struggled at parties and gatherings,
“at first it was hard to watch other people enjoy a cocktail or beer… but being the sober guy helped me realize how mindless I must have sounded when I drank. The more time passed, the more I felt momentum on my side. Not drinking became a habit of its own—one I was glad to keep.”
George W. Bush became sober in 1986, a day after his 40th birthday. He doesn’t disregard the four decades prior to sobriety, he acknowledges that they’re a part of him, a part that taught him important values, morals, and lessons. However, the president has been committed to never drinking again for his family (his daughters & his wife) and vowed to not be selfish, but pursue a deeper kind of faith.
The former president continues to stay busy, writing and painting for instance, and he has openly said his lifetime is not defined by his presidency (he served, but his time isn’t through yet), but in many ways, his experiences with alcohol can be reflected in his 8 years as president – full of highs and lows. This can most be related to in his own words, when he reflects on what he believes his presidency meant or (potentially) will mean in the future:
“The passage of time allows passions to cool, results to clarify, and scholars to compare different approaches… I have done my best to write about the decisions I got right, those I got wrong, and what I would do differently if given the chance. In the presidency, there are no do-overs. You have to do what you believe is right and accept the consequences.”
Former president George W. Bush may be a divisive political figure, but for anyone struggling with sobriety, he’s an undisputed inspiration. It may take 40 years to get on the right track, but there is no limit to what you can be.