A Mostly Sober History of the Three-Martini Lunch

A writer in the New York Times Magazine recently fixed our present epoch in time as “a few decades after the heyday of the notorious ‘three-martini lunch.’ ” The gin-soaked midday meal, he explained, had been “an anachronistic ritual during which backslapping company men escaped a swallowing sense of existential pointlessness.” Nowadays, of course, we know that too much booze is both unhealthy and inconsiderate to colleagues; in truth, however, the martini has disappeared from America’s lunchtime menu not because of “some renewed sense of temperance but because of our ascendant obsession with cramming every minute of our day with work.”

I don’t know how old that Times writer happens to be, but his second observation seemed to suggest that he sees our present virtuous habits as a mixed blessing, at best. Which is why an earlier passage in his essay took me aback:

Would it surprise you to learn that the three-martini lunch was once such a staple of the American workday that it was celebrated by the former President Gerald Ford? [He] called the practice “the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful, and a snootful at the same time?”

I raise the subject of the writer’s age for a reason. He acknowledges that, in Ford’s 1978 address, the ex-president was not celebrating the three-martini lunch so much as delivering a laugh line. But it is not clear that the writer fully comprehends Ford’s joke or why Ford was making it.

Now, I tend to think that the “heyday of the three-martini lunch” in America, like any number of journalistic themes, is exaggerated. But the phrase itself was almost entirely unknown until Jimmy Carter rose up from Georgia to challenge Ford for the presidency. And a crucial portion of Carter’s crusade was his complaint that the practice of politics-as-usual in Washington included tax breaks for lobbyists and other influence-peddlers who wined and dined their way to leverage through “three-martini lunches,” which they wrote off as business expenses.

As a populist invocation of corruption in the nation’s capital, it was a political masterstroke—as Ford must have realized. Not only were lobbyists working night and day against the interests of the People, they were doing so—at taxpayers’ expense!—while indulging themselves in orgiastic “three-martini lunches.” And like most stereotypes, there was a particle of truth in the imagery: Lobbyists do exist in Washington, and in ever-increasing numbers, and you can walk into any random selection of restaurants during lunch hour and see them at work.

The problem is that the special interests they represent are very nearly as numerous as the number of lobbyists. And of course one definition of “special interest” is approximately as valid as another. Somehow, a three-martini lunch on behalf of legislation I support seems more benign than a three-martini lunch hosted by my adversaries and their paid publicists. Moreover, the whole spectacle—a moneyed enclave of cynical power­brokers and compliant officeholders—is an old, partly mythical, and surely perennial complaint about Washington.

Indeed, I would argue that as Americans, we might take some satisfaction in the progress we’ve made from the vision of our national capital as rustic backwater—nought but woods, and Jefferson they see / Where streets should run, and sages ought to be, in the words of the visiting Irish poet Thomas Moore (1804)—to the citadel of sharp practices and deluxe consumption we now recognize. For just a few decades later, when the Whigs rousted the Democrat Martin Van Buren from the White House (1840), an indignant Pennsylvania congressman memorably took to the floor of the House to describe the executive mansion and its

Blue Elliptical Saloon . . . its spacious courts [and] sumptuous drawing rooms, its glittering and dazzling salons, with . . . French bronze lamps, gilt framed mirrors of prodigious size . . . and satin settees, sofas, bergeras, divans, tabourets, and French comfortables.

Yet so enduring is the idea of political Washington as an island of gilt-edged duplicity and self-indulgence—think of Donald Trump’s 2016 clarion call to “drain the swamp,” for example—that each succeeding generation rediscovers it in turn. I am old enough now to have lived through a couple of cycles. In my childhood, of course, the debonair country squire Franklin Roosevelt was remembered fondly as the scourge of the self-made orphan Herbert Hoover and his band of millionaires and heartless tycoons in federal office. And as a baby editor at the New Republic, in the mid-1970s, I labored on a special issue with an arresting, but familiar, theme: “The Good Life in Washington Is Bad for America,” illustrated with a cover drawing by William Hamilton, the New Yorker chronicler of the comfortable upper classes.

It was then, in fact, that I witnessed the one and only three-martini lunch in my experience, and it was an eye-opener. There was an older writer at the New Republic named John Osborne, a courtly Mississippi-born veteran of Time who wrote a popular feature called “White House Watch.” Then as now, I tended to be more interested in the past than the present and liked to talk to Osborne about his days as a colleague of Henry Luce and Whittaker Chambers—in particular, about his unfinished biography of the first defense secretary James Forrestal—which must have annoyed him. But he was a kindly soul, in his way, and invited me to lunch one day at his favorite watering hole, the now-defunct Federal City Club.

The Federal City Club, I should explain, had been founded in early-1960s idealism as a reaction to the refusal of other Washington clubs to desegregate. It had no permanent headquarters; but on any given day, it was a floating exhibition of liberal Washington and, on that occasion early in the Carter administration, featured such New Deal-Kennedy-Johnson luminaries as Robert S. McNamara, James H. Rowe, Carl T. Rowan, and a visiting Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. All were imbibing some version of the “notorious three-martini lunch”—not least Osborne himself, who consumed a couple of Gibsons in swift succession, with (so far as I could tell) no ill-effect.

It occurred to me, at the time, that my fellow diners could be easily mistaken for “backslapping company men [with a] swallowing sense of existential pointlessness,” but they wouldn’t have seen it that way. Still, the irony was instructive: The guardians of progressive Washington were indistinguishable from their adversaries. You can drain the swamp, for a while, but it quickly fills back up.

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