Let Obama smoke cigarettes in the White House.

Scrutinizing culture.
Dec. 10 2008 6:17 PM

Give the Guy a Butt!

Let Obama smoke in the White House.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

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.

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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."

Gotcha! Way to go T.B.! (Perhaps not the best initials here.) Savvy observers and addicts could spot Obama's evasiveness, which wouldn't survive a minute in a 12-step meeting.

Don't you love the ambiguity, the weasel-worded squirming? It's so human, it's endearing. All us sinners—of various habits and forms—loved Obama for it and loathed Brokaw, Walters, and the nation of scolds we have become in their collective attempt to shame the poor guy (yes, president-elect, I know, but here, just a poor, conniving backslider) into some self-scourging confession.

You have to admire Obama's good nature as he puts up with these narrow-minded nannies (addicted to tobacco in their own perverse, negative way) and offers up this masterpiece of obfuscation.

Let's parse the statement. I like his assertion of greater healthiness as an excuse for this minor failing. Not gonna work, but it shows his desperation. Still, the key evasion is "you will not see any violations of those rules in the White House." (The italics are mine.)

Note that he doesn't say "outside the White House," leaving himself room to sneak a smoke in the privacy of the Rose Garden. And then, of course, there's the fact that a president doesn't spend all of his time "in the White House." He goes to Camp David, Europe, South Dakota, Iraq. Surely, there's a spot in one of those locales to sneak a puff or two undisturbed? With that phrase, "in the White House," Obama has his own "depends on what the meaning of the word is is." He's left himself a hole big enough for Richard Nixon to fit all of Watergate through or Bill Clinton to maneuver a strip club's worth of babes. Don't a few sneaky puffs seem innocent by comparison?

Obama—who, according to a wide array of sources, has smoked for years, but promised his wife, Michelle, that he'd quit in exchange for her help with his presidential campaign—has never said that smoking is good or healthy or that quitting is easy. Quite the opposite. He's made clear that quitting is a struggle and, like others who struggle with their demons, he's fallen off the wagon.

So what? This is probably the most sinless president we're likely to get in the foreseeable millennium, and yet he's already got the health Nazis on his tail. He's human, he's not on Mount Rushmore yet. (Although I kind of like the idea of a giant, granite Obama next to the Rushmore four, a stone cigarette dangling from his lips.)

In fact, I'd argue that Obama's smoking habit gives us another reason to like him: He's not a perfect paragon of the Whole Foods boho sensibility, comments about arugula notwithstanding. I'm told there are people who were surprised to learn he smoked, as if it was somehow shocking he didn't fit all the virtuous liberal-elite stereotypes. It would be refreshing (and not in that cool-menthol way) if he's more a democrat, less a virtue-crat.

I also wonder—and this will seem wildly heretical to virtue-crats, so hide the children—whether some of Obama's finer qualities aren't bound up in his alleged nicotine sins. That contemplative self-possession that so many admire him for. It might come from Obama's ability to sit back, inhale a puff or two, slow down and think—meditate, cogitate—before acting. Sure it's a trade-off. Lung cancer later in life: the percentage grows grim. But isn't it possible that, without the mediating thoughtfulness of a nicotine break, Obama would still be a "community organizer"? Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Look, people, we have what looks to be an incredibly thoughtful, long-view-taker as president, and maybe we owe it to cancer sticks. That's the tragedy of life. You don't get somethin' for nothin'. Maybe you don't get the Obama we think will make a great president without the devil weed. Maybe we owe him some cancer sticks if that's what he chooses. Because—and here I take the libertarian view—you choose your poison. He knows the stats and the risks. Maybe he makes a choice to have a butt or two despite the stats and the risks. Bill Clinton knew the odds and chose his butt or two with consequences that were arguably graver for the country as a whole. (By the way, you know who made the White House into a smoke-free zone? Hillary Clinton. We'd all be better off if Bill had thought "smoking hot" meant he was hot for smoking.)

If Obama were still a senator, a largely do-nothing job (at least if you consider senators' achievements), fine, take time, enroll in an anti-smoking program, white-knuckle it, whatever you decide: You have the leisure. But he's going to be president, with the fate of the nation, of the Earth, in his hands. Did George W. Bush make great decisions as a president while abstaining from alcohol? Maybe a sip of sherry or a cold brewski might have calmed him down enough to think twice about invading Iraq or deregulating the markets.

Look at all the great presidents we had during Prohibition: Harding, Coolidge, Hoover … Wow, makes you wonder if abstemiousness is to blame for turning out mediocre-to-disastrous louts in the Oval Office.

Come Jan. 20, Obama will be the president of a nation whose entire economic infrastructure is collapsing and who faces renewed tensions with a nuclear superpower. Such tensions could easily lead us to the nuclear brink. Is this the precise time we want our president to undergo the ordeal that giving up smoking represents?

 Give Obama a break ... a smoking break. No president has come into office facing the massive problems he does. And now he's got Chicago politics, like another monkey on his back, following him there. Let him enjoy a few contemplative moments as he works a problem. Let him have his down time. We'll probably be better off for it. So get off his case, all you holier-than-thou Puritans. I'm not advocating smoking for anyone else, and I think he should make a point of telling kids what a horror quitting is. But, meanwhile, cut the guy some slack. He's risking his health for you.

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