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The Dry Drunk Thang

Put a Cork in It

by JON SWIFT

When a President’s behavior gets weird, the urge to psychoanalyze him in books and articles can become irresistible. (Does this happen in other countries? I wonder.) Decades ago, Fawn Brodie and David Abrahamsen tried it with Richard Nixon, with results described by Gore Vidal as "Freudian horseshit."

Recently, a number of writers have suggested that America’s most famous ex-drunk (assuming he’s actually stopped) is really a sufferer from something called "dry drunk" syndrome, with disastrous implications for his foreign and domestic policies.

If the phrase "dry drunk" makes you cringe, don’t worry: the writers using it don’t seem to like it much, either (though that doesn’t stop them from applying it to Bush). Addiction "treatment" specialist Katherine van Wormer, writing in CounterPunch, says "Ordinarily I wouldn’t use this term," before going on to define "dry drunk" as "dry but not truly sober. Such an individual tends to go to extremes." (Since Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer did too, she presumably means "extremes to achieve goals that I, Katherine van Wormer, disagree with.")

Alan Bisbort in American Politics Journal assures us "This is not a judgmental term." Instead it’s presumably intended as an attempt to tell Bush what he needs to know, the way the bully you roomed with freshman year would say, "I’m not tryin’ to rag on ya, but…." Sort of a verbal version of one of the red-hot-coat-hanger butt-brandings Bush used to administer to Deke pledges.

So how does one tell if someone’s a "dry drunk"? Apparently it’s not easy, not because the symptoms are too subtle–there just seem to be too damned many of them. Bisbort lists over a dozen physical and psychological problems. Van Wormer suggests "pomposity," "grandiose behavior," "a rigid, judgmental outlook," "projection," and "overreaction." So why does John Ashcroft display all those when from all accounts, he’s never touched a drop? Over to you, Van Wormer.

Bisbort, I think rightly, rejects the distinction between "heavy drinking" and "alcoholism," saying "Let’s not be coy here….’heavy drinker’ is the rich man’s (or the politician’s) code for alcoholic." While we’re defining our terms (more precisely, admitting their indefinability) I’d like to get really crazy and point out that "alcoholic" and "addict" are examples of folk terminology, with no precise scientific or medical meaning. Addiction "treatment" providers like it that way, so they can entice any user into expensive, lucrative rehab programs. They use crafty, circular logic to promote these programs, suggesting that if a program doesn’t work for you, you just "didn’t work it" (a fine example of tautology), while if you succeed without "treatment," as innumerable people have, you’re a "dry drunk," a relapse waiting to happen. In the "treatment" world, once an alcoholic or addict, one is always one-and not coincidentally, always a candidate for more "treatment." After all, if too many users realized that they-and only they-control their own behavior, addiction "treatment" providers might have to look for real jobs, and as Barbara Ehrenreich found out when she went slumming to write NICKEL AND DIMED, work is such a pain.

Nobody outside Bush’s inner circle can know for sure if he’s been drinking (or on medication) or not. But outside his inner circle, it doesn’t matter-drunk or sober, Bush, as Bisbort suggests in a sensible moment, is "an immature bully who will gladly sacrifice thousands of lives." And they haven’t got a treatment for that. DC psychiatrist Justin Frank is a cannier customer than either van Wormer or Bisbort. His new book BUSH ON THE COUCH: INSIDE THE MIND OF THE PRESIDENT-complete with a seal of approval from Kitty Kelley-is an untermittently bitchy, dirt-dishing excursion [Editor's note: in which Frank's liberal prejudices get dressed up in Kleinian finery. Trangress Molly Ivins's values and Frank blames it on what your mom did in pregnancy and your first three months].

Frank makes the reader sit through a lot of "Freudian horseshit" to get to the good stuff, but it’s great fun, at least until Frank starts playing his rendition of "How Dry Drunk I Am," at which point things get tedious. Frank believes Bush’s alcoholism has remained "untreated." What this means in plain English is that after stopping drinking, Bush chose to turn to fundamentalist Christianity with its rejection of independent thought, reliance on a wrathful God, and 10 Commandments, instead of AA, with its rejection of independent thought, dependence on a Higher Power, and 12 Steps. Of course, there are differences between fundamentalism and AA, in the same way there’s a difference between Coke and Pepsi. Frank just happens to be shilling for AA, even when at one point he admits that the product he’s peddling is junk. ("Its success rate is low-sometimes placed at 10 percent, sometimes even lower.")

Frank says Bush is unqualified to continue as President "without treatment." How many tears will Bush have to shed for his dead sister, how many times will he have to say "I’m an alcoholic," before he’s ready to accept the idea of Palestinian independence, that the First Amendment means what it says, and that oil companies can’t always have their own way? Over to you, Doc. Of course, not all participation in "treatment" programs is voluntary. To his credit, Frank says he won’t make any patient attend AA who doesn’t want to go. I wish he’d advise the same policy to the judges around the nation who sentence minor-level drug offenders to "diversion" programs that accomplish nothing except wasting the participants’ time and taxpayers’ money. It would also help to repeal some of our really stupid laws, such as the 21-year-old drinking-age law Bush’s daughters famously violated (and millions of other college-age kids have too, without the media coverage) and the drug laws whose impact extends far beyond the underworld of addiction. Right now plenty of sick Americans can’t get the pain medication they need, thanks to the ludicrous notion, enshrined in law, that one whiff of a poppy derivative will transform an innocent patient into a doomed dope fiend.

Finally, one wonders if, as all three writers suggest, Bush’s malevolent agenda can really be said to be the product of some sort of "dry drunk" bender. After all, John Kerry–a man with no known history of substance abuse-supports the same vicious policies on issue after issue, from the war, to oil drilling, to the Patriot Act’s assault on civil liberties. Maybe we should check whether someone slipped something into Kerry’s beer at one of the working-class taverns he occasionally visits to prove he’s a man of the people. Or perhaps we shouldn’t let government officials off the hook for their evil doings on the basis of phony, pseudo-scientific notions such as "dry drunk" syndrome.

JON SWIFT lives in Baltimore where he is a public library assistant.