To Be Absolutely Frank

Down with Disease

Rob Ford and Trey Radel—Sick? Or sickening?

By 11.28.13

Shaun Merrit (Creative Commons)

And oftentimes excusing of a fault
Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.
—William Shakespeare, King John

How fortuitous we North Americans are. On the same day that Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor said he was “finished” with alcohol, we learned that Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) was arrested last month for buying 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover cop.

“I have no excuse for what I’ve done,” Radel said at a press conference last week. But he does have something else. Radel said he suffers from “the disease of alcoholism,” which “led to an extremely irresponsible choice.” Alcoholism may be the only disease whose symptoms include buying cocaine.

Rather than resigning, as Florida Democrats demanded, Radel is taking a leave of absence “to seek treatment and counseling,” he said. “I know I have a problem and will do whatever is necessary to overcome it, hopefully setting an example for others struggling with this disease.”

The first step to recovery, as everyone knows, is acceptance, and Radel has accepted the idea that alcoholism is a disease from which he and “millions of others” suffer. Unlike most diseases, this one is incredibly easy to self-diagnose, especially for politicians.

Most notable, of course, is Rob Ford, who said he was in a “drunken stupor” when he smoked crack a year ago. “I was very, very inebriated,” he told Matt Lauer the other day, helpfully adding, “I barely even remember it.” That’s “the best excuse I heard,” Lauer remarked. It says something about you when your best defense is being a reckless drunk with borderline amnesia.

What we have, in the cases of Ford and Radel, are attempts to castigate alcohol as the gateway to more brazen evils. And perhaps it is—for them. No one can say for sure, which is why alcoholism is such an irresistible excuse for misconduct. It cannot be refuted, because the very notion of alcoholism as a disease is unfalsifiable.

If alcoholism is a disease, it can be a very convenient one. Former Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned in 2006 after sending sexually explicit messages to a teenage boy, blamed “alcoholism and related behavioral problems” for his behavioral problems. Foley’s attorney even suggested his client was under the influence when he wrote—for example—“good so your getting horny” to the boy. Similarly, it was “the disease of alcoholism,” Mel Gibson insisted, and not anti-Semitism, that caused him to go on an anti-Semitic rant several years ago.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous say they are “powerless over alcohol,” which, in addition to being untrue in the literal sense, is a way of shirking responsibility. Nevertheless, the idea has gained much currency over the years.

In addition to being a P.R. ploy, the disease concept of alcoholism can serve as a legal defense, as a get-out-of-jail card, so to speak. In Robinson v. California (1962), the Supreme Court held that heroin addiction was a disease and—because diseases are involuntary—not subject to criminal punishment. “[C]riminal penalties may not be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition he is powerless to change,” wrote Justice Fortas six years later in Powell v. Texas (1968).

Everything is a disease nowadays. Obesity is an “epidemic.” Guns, claimed the head of the “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan,” are “a virus that must be eradicated.” In 1971, Mother Teresa, drawing on her experience running hospices, said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody.” Her friend and fellow pathologist Princess Diana called it “the disease of people feeling unloved.” Fortunately, we found a cure for this one. It is called Prozac.

Indeed, drugs cure all sorts of diseases. But according to the self-diagnosed alcoholics of today, drugs are a symptom of their particular disease, which they call alcoholism. In reality, what really plagues Ford, Radel and Co. isn’t alcohol but public embarrassment—for which the best remedy, apparently, is alcoholism.

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.