William Safire popularized the phrase “if by whiskey…” in his columns, and defined it in his Political Dictionary as, “Taking both sides of an issue; equivocating; a political straddle”. The term originates from a speech given by Soggy Sweat, a 1950s Mississippi legislator, master of irony, and a real character to boot:
I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.
A little context: Mississippians staggered to the polls and voted dry until 1966, when they finally became residents of the last state to decriminalize the sale of alcohol. The topic of banning/regulating/allowing alcohol was present for every politician in every campaign, and surprise, surprise, most made a habit of supporting whichever position the listener wanted to hear. For example, a group of teetotalling nuns would be told something like the next part of Soggy’s speech:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
Sounds like most politicians today on the subject of marijuana, not to mention the “hard drugs”. But Soggy continued his speech on the floor of the house:
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
The speech took him several months to write. I could write every day for the rest of my life and never come up with a sentence that good. He ends with an emphasis on the straddle:
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
Fifteen million Americans regularly use marijuana. Twenty five million inhaled at least once in the last 12 months. Over one hundred million Americans have smoked pot at some point in their lives. (Wouldn’t we better off if that number were even higher? No, no, wait, that’s a controversy I’ll avoid as off topic, at least in this post.)
Of course, marijuana can’t have a Soggy Sweat speech, because the second paragraph would be unwritable. It doesn’t make people violent, they don’t lose their life savings to it (despite the incredibly high de facto tax of criminalization), it doesn’t tend to break up families, people never die from it. Ever.
Perhaps that paragraph might read:
If when you say marijuana you mean the substance that makes twenty five year old Junior sit at home in his Mom’s basement playing Xbox 360 and refusing to get a job, that makes him drive 15 miles an hour to the 7/11 to spend his allowance on a can of Pringles, that contains enough carcinogens that he could get lung cancer – that is, if he smokes it daily and twice on every Sunday for the next several thousand years… then certainly I am against it.
I told you Soggy could have done a better job. Isn’t there a single politician out there that wants to carry on this tradition?
[Hat Tip: Frank Dubois at The Westerner]