Let me offer a somewhat hyperbolic hypothetical. It's the winter of 2009, and a crisis has erupted between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Putin (surprise!) is acting arrogantly and aggressively, trying to push the new American president around. Do you want Barack Obama, the guy who has his finger on our nuclear trigger, notorious nicotine addict, to be dying for a smoke? All irritable, his nerves and famously smooth temper on edge? No outlet for his intolerable frustration but ... a butt. But no butts to be found.
The White House, of course, has been a butt-free zone since the Clinton administration. That pack of Marlboro Reds he's kept stashed under a bush in the Rose Garden, hoping it'll be camouflaged? Out of reach. The only thing that looks like a butt is, well, a button, and it's looking good. Why not reach for it? Then he won't have to put up any longer with the insane puritanical rules imposed by those who don't know, will never know, the knife-edge of nicotine desire.
Do you want to die because President Obama is dying for a smoke? It's true that smoking would be bad for our 44th president, who's been trying to kick the habit. Lung cancer caused by smoking is a major cause of death in America. Even secondhand smoke is deadly, we're told. But how about secondhand radioactive plutonium? Might that turn out to be a major cause of death (for those not already dead in a nuclear exchange)? Do I have to answer that?
OK, so Obama isn't going to start a nuclear war because of the well-meaning but counterproductive no-smoking rule. At least, I hope he isn't. I don't smoke, but I know smokers, and I know smokers trying to quit, and they scare me.
Which is why those who say a president who smokes in the White House would be a bad role model are all wrong. In fact, consider the possibility that he'd be a better, perhaps more effective, negativerole model. He'd teach the nation's youth how scary an addiction smoking is: Even the most powerful man in the world is putty in its tobacco-stained hands.
The media don't seem to share my views on this, at least if their recent bout of hysterical scolding is any indication. (Perhaps they're using this issue to show they can be tough on the president they helped elect—about something, however trivial.)
First there was Barbara Walters, who came close to implying, in a face-to-face interview, that poor Obama's pledge to quit smoking was more important than any of his other presidential priorities. A collapsing economy? Mumbai terror heading this way? No worries. Will he live up to his no-smoking pledge? Now, there's an issue.
Walters had asked whether he still sneaked smokes, and Obama had said something vague about his pledge to observe the no-smoking rules in the White House.
Then eagle-eyed Tom Brokaw demonstrated the way a hard-nosed reporter goes after a cover-up. On Meet the Press last weekend, Brokaw picked up on what he thought was wiggle room in Obama's Barbara Walters response and treated the president-elect to a bit of journalistic inquiry that surely ranks with Woodward and Bernstein's challenges to Deep Throat (another smoker?).
Brokaw: "Finally, Mr. President-elect, the White House is a no-smoking zone, and when you were asked about this recently by Barbara Walters, I read it very carefully, you ducked. Have you stopped smoking?"
(He "read it very carefully"! Wow, are we impressed by his journalistic excellence, or what?)
Obama's answer was a classic recidivist's evasion:
"You know, I have, but what I said [to Walters] was that there were times where I have fallen off the wagon," Obama told Brokaw.
"That means you haven't stopped," the steely NBC interrogator asserted.
Obama's response: "Well, the—fair enough. What I would say is, is that I have done a terrific job, under the circumstances, of making myself much healthier, and I think that you will not see any violations of these rules in the White House."