Chandler Shocks With Tales Of Spirits -- He Uses Examples From His Days Of Drunkenness To Stress Seriousness Of Problems Of Alcoholism

WASHINGTON - It's not your typical campaign speech, but U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler has found he can shake up a sleepy high-school auditorium by finishing his talk with a story about his days of drunkenness.

"I tell them when I was in high school I was quite a drinker," the Bellevue congressman said. "And their ears perk right up.

"I could drink anybody under the table and when everyone else was too drunk to walk, they would have me drive.

"There's sort of a twitter by now, and then I say, `but the tragic thing was that I had a very serious disease. If it isn't dealt with, it can be fatal.' You can hear a pin drop."

Chandler, a 49-year-old Republican running for the U.S. Senate, is a recovering alcoholic.

A former television anchorman and state legislator who confronted his alcoholism in 1974, he first addressed the topic publicly in 1989 when he told a group of substance-abuse counselors that he had gone 15 years without a drink.

"I wanted to disclose it on my terms and not somebody else's," he said.

"The interesting thing was not the reaction from the public but the fact I experienced so little reaction. In retrospect, I think people have matured on this subject. Especially people in a state like Washington that has been a leader in alcoholism treatment."

However, the stigma still exists in many parts of the world. He felt it when he spoke on the topic during a recent trip to the former Soviet Union.

"I was introduced as a member of Congress," he recalled, "and when I told them I was a recovering alcoholic there was an audible gasp. They were astonished.

"Later I learned from members of the Soviet press that it would have been unthinkable for a Soviet public official of any stature at all to talk about his or her alcoholism."

Chandler, who attends group meetings with other alcoholics two or three times a week, likes to joke that the story about his own bout with the bottle is boring.

"I had had no problems with work," he said. "I didn't have any drunken-driving arrests or any of the things you hear associated with alcoholism. There wasn't very much in the way of personal embarrassment or anything to look back on or be concerned about."

Two other congressmen have publicly identified themselves as recovering alcoholics - Reps. Ben Jones, D-Ga., and Bill Emerson, R-Mo.

Chandler has stayed sober despite having to attend receptions where the primary activity is signing fund-raising checks and drinking booze.

"As long as I live," he said, "I'll never forget the very first cocktail reception I went to after I had quit drinking in February 1974. I was very, very nervous. I was sure everyone there would notice I wasn't having a drink and people would ask about it. But nobody did.

"Now, on the rare occasion when somebody says, `Hey, why aren't you having a drink?' I tell them I have to be home by April. Or I say there are only two ways I drink - not at all or way too much. I make a joke out of it. They get my drift and drop it."

Despite the gains in public acceptance, Chandler says, there remains regrettable confusion about the illness.

"A lot of times," he said, "it's viewed as a mental-health problem. And it's anything but a mental-health problem. It's a physical issue."

Chandler, who touts treatment as the key to recovery, credits his regular group meetings with helping him stay sober. Now, when he tells his tale to teenagers, he thinks back to when an Olympic distance runner discussed his alcoholism during an assembly at Chandler's high school.

"I can't remember his name," Chandler said, "but, when I confronted my problem, I remembered that. I thought, if he can do it I can, too. So maybe some day somebody else will remember some congressman, whose name they can't remember, and they'll think they can do it, too."