When I was preparing to leave the George W. Bush administration after Barack Obama's 2008 election, I had a conversation with a career security officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. He had his own thoughts on what the transition of administrations would mean, telling me that "with the Democrats coming in, we have to turn a blind eye to sex and drugs on our background checks."
I laughed. Then he added, "But when you [Republican] guys come in, we have to overlook shady business practices." I thought about this conversation in light of the recent Secret Service disclosures about finding cocaine in the Biden White House. Looking back at the people and policies of the past 75 years of White House history, it's pretty clear that my security office friend was right and Democrats have generally been more lenient on drug issues than Republicans.
The Republican antipathy to drugs dates back to the 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower disliked illegal drugs so much that he refused to watch movies with known drug users in them. According to White House projectionist Paul Fischer, "When [Eisenhower] found out that [actor Robert] Mitchum was involved with marijuana, he wouldn't have nothin' to do with any films Mitchum was in." Mitchum had served two months in prison for marijuana possession in 1948, five years before Ike's presidency began, but Eisenhower was adamant on the point. Fischer even tried to sneak some Mitchum films past Ike, but Eisenhower, despite his movie-loving proclivities, would get up and leave the theater if he ever saw Mitchum's name or face on the screen.
Ike's vice president was Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968. At the time, marijuana was the rage among the anti-war protesters that Nixon abhorred. In 1970, Elvis Presley visited the White House and asked Nixon to grant him the title of "federal agent-at-large" in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Nixon told the King that he believed there was a link between anti-American attitudes and drug use, noting "that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest." Nixon, however, did not notice what many viewers of the now-famous photo between Presley and Nixon observed: that frequent prescription drug abuser Presley appeared stoned at the time. Regardless, Nixon granted the King's wish, and presidential aide Egil "Bud" Krogh, who later went to prison as a result of Watergate, gave Presley the requested badge while they lunched in the White House Mess.
Appearances aside, it has never been proven that Presley was under the influence during his presidential meeting. Moreover, his visit to the White House was meant to draw attention to the cause of combating drugs and their influence. A more serious attempt to bring drug culture into the White House was undertaken that same year by Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick. Slick was, along with Nixon's daughter Patricia, an alumna of Finch College. When Nixon hosted a White House event for Finch alumnae, Slick planned to attend, under her given name of Grace Wing — with the radical Abbie Hoffman in tow. Slick claims to have plotted to spike the president's tea with LSD while inside, but we will never know if she would have been able to succeed. The Secret Service pulled the subversive couple from the line, explaining, "We checked, and you're a security risk."
In 1975, Republican President Gerald Ford's 23-year-old son Jack caused a stir by admitting to the Portland Oregonian that he had smoked marijuana. The young Ford said, "I've smoked marijuana before, and I don't think that's so exceptional for people growing up in the 1960s." Gerald Ford wasn't alone. His successor Jimmy Carter's sons Jack and Chip both used drugs. Jack used marijuana and LSD as a ploy to get discharged from the Navy. And Chip developed a more serious drug problem, which led to a long estrangement from his father. Chip and his father reconciled before Carter became president, and Chip later shared a "big fat Austin torpedo" with country star Willie Nelson on the roof of the White House.
Nelson was not the only musician who indulged at the Carter White House. According to David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, & Nash fame, one member of the band lit a joint in the Oval Office while the band was on a visit with Jimmy Carter in 1977. As Crosby described it, "It was funny, man. One of us, and I will not say who, lit a joint in the Oval Office just to be able to say he'd done it, you know?" On another occasion, when Carter hosted a 2 1/2 hour South Lawn concert to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, attendees could hear musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Hancock, Lionel Hampton, and Cecil Taylor, but they also smelled powerful clouds of marijuana smoke.
Drugs were a problem with the Carter staff as well. Carter press secretary Jody Powell mocked aide David Kaplan during a briefing on staff drug usage when Kaplan admitted that he had never smoked marijuana. Powell got a big laugh from his team by saying, "You've never smoked pot? You should be fired for that reason!" In 1979, Powell and Carter strategist Hamilton Jordan were accused of doing cocaine at the legendary disco Studio 54. The owners, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, were under federal investigation at the time, so their accusations may have been an attempt by Rubell's lawyer, Roy Cohn, to give them plea bargaining leverage. But Jordan did have a reputation for partying. Carter pollster Pat Caddell defended Jordan with faint praise, saying, "Everybody knows Hamilton has a weakness for women and booze, but he doesn't do drugs."
Jordan told Powell that he thought the accusation would "be a three-day story and blow over." The press-savvy Powell knew better, telling Jordan, "Are you kidding? The president's top aides, a president who is a born-again Christian, Studio 54, drugs. ... Batten down the hatches because we are going to have a bumpy few days here." No legal action was taken against the pair, but the story got a lot of press attention and cost Jordan $175,000 in legal fees.
The Reagan administration was famously anti-drug. First lady Nancy Reagan used the "Just Say No" slogan as part of her campaign against youth drug use. She even appeared on the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes to promote the cause. She should have tried the slogan at home, though, as her daughter Patti Davis later admitted to having smoked marijuana at age 15. Family was one thing, appointees another: In 1987, Ronald Reagan withdrew the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Douglas Ginsburg because of reports that Ginsburg had smoked marijuana during his time as a Harvard faculty member.
As for George H.W. Bush, he selected former Education Secretary Bill Bennett as the nation's first drug czar, or head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Bennett was a staunch opponent of illegal drugs, but he had also once gone on a date with rock star and drug overdose victim Janis Joplin.
Bill Clinton was the first baby boomer to be president. Clinton, and many in his administration, shared many of that generation's lax attitude toward substance abuse. Clinton famously admitted having a joint in his mouth, although he softened it by claiming he did not inhale. Even so, the revelation was a big deal at the time. Clinton's brother Roger indulged as well, serving over a year in jail on cocaine charges. He received a pardon from his brother as the administration was ending. Clinton Vice President Al Gore was also found to have smoked marijuana intermittently in the early 1970s.
Clinton's administration was also more casual with staff drug usage than its predecessors had been. Nevertheless, it still had to make accommodations around security clearance questions. According to FBI agent Gary Aldrich, up to a quarter of the Clinton White House staffers had sufficient "serious experience with significant illegal drugs" that they could not easily get security clearances. According to Aldrich, the Clinton approach was to delay or not seek clearances so as to allow those people to maintain their administration positions.
Like Clinton, George W. Bush was vague about his drug use, refusing to discuss the subject. When pressed, Bush used the formulation that "when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." Interestingly, Bush's rationale for not admitting drug use was not political expediency but the desire to set an example for America's youth. According to Doug Wead, the author of a book on the Bush family, Bush said, "Do you want your little kid to say, 'Hey daddy, President Bush tried marijuana. I think I will'?" Obama had no such compunctions. In a 2004 Rolling Stone interview, Obama said he was "a wild man" in high school and college: "I did drugs and drank at parties. But I got all my ya-yas out." He even admitted in his memoir to using "maybe a little blow," which makes Obama the only modern president to have admitted cocaine use. (Ulysses S. Grant used a hydrochlorate cocaine solution to ease the pain as he was dying of oral cancer.) Multiple members of the Obama staff also had drug histories. This included Ben Rhodes, who had trouble getting a security clearance because of past marijuana smoking, and Alyssa Mastromonaco, who filled out the White House security clearance form and then got rid of her marijuana.
President Joe Biden is, of course, of an older generation and has taken tough anti-drug stances in the past. His staffers and family members, however, are another matter. At least five staffers lost their jobs early in the administration because of past drug use, and Hunter Biden's substance abuse problems are well known. In today's world, with widespread marijuana legalization, marijuana usage is less of a problem. Cocaine, however, especially when found in the White House, still raises eyebrows. We don't yet know whose cocaine it was nor how it got there, but based on history, and my security official friend's observation, it is perhaps unsurprising that this incident took place in a Democratic rather than a Republican White House.