Is Bush back on the bottle?

The National Enquirer says so, but that doesn't make it true -- or false.

Published September 22, 2005 12:57PM (EDT)

Remember the bulge? Say hello to the binge.

Just about a year ago, we all poured our assumptions and fears about George W. Bush into a small lump of something or other that sat under his suit coat when he debated John Kerry. Was the bulge a portable defibrillator to save Bush from troubles with his heart? A listening device that had him connected to Karl Rove? After the election was over, the Secret Service leaked word that the bulge was actually a bulletproof vest, but White House Chief of Staff Andy Card specifically denied that possibility when we asked him about it at the time.

The truth is, we don't know what the bulge was, and it's possible that we never will. Which gets us right back to the binge. The National Enquirer is reporting that the president's troubles have literally driven him to drink. "Faced with the biggest crisis of his political life, President Bush has hit the bottle again," the Enquirer says.

As you might expect, the sourcing for the story is a little vague. In an odd sort of grammatical construction, the Enquirer says that "family sources have told" -- to whom, it doesn't say -- that the president was "caught by First Lady Laura downing a shot of booze" in Crawford, Texas, when "he learned of the hurricane disaster." "One insider" says that Bush "apparently" reached for a "Texas-sized shot of straight whiskey" when water flooded into New Orleans. Another "Washington source" says: "The sad fact is that he has been sneaking drinks for weeks now. Laura may have only just caught him -- but the word is his drinking has been going on for a while in the capital. He's been in a pressure cooker for months."

What does it all mean? Who knows? The National Enquirer ain't exactly the New York Times, but it isn't the Weekly World News, either. As Slate's Jack Shafer wrote last year in a piece titled "I Believe the National Enquirer," the tabloid usually gets its facts straight, even if it teases them into the most sensational story possible. But even Shafer warned against reading too much into Enquirer stories built around anonymous quotes, as this one is.

There's only one named source in the Enquirer piece, and it's Justin Frank, the Washington psychiatrist who wrote "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President." The Enquirer quotes Frank as saying, "I do think Bush is drinking again." But Frank has no firsthand knowledge of the matter, only supposition based on his own long-distance diagnosis and the same news the rest of us have seen. His conclusions lend a kind of "it makes sense to me" plausibility to the Bush-on-the-bottle story, but they're nothing that you could call proof. "Alcoholics who are not in any program, like the president, have a hard time when stress gets to be great," Frank says. "I think it's a concern that Bush disappears during times of stress. He spends so much time on his ranch [sic]. It's very frightening."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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