Obama and Boehner: Does smoke get in their eyes?

February 10, 2011|By Ron Smith

Washington's best-known chain smoker is Speaker of the House John Boehner. Its best-known sneak smoker is President Barack Obama.

Mr. Boehner is tired of being queried about his habit, saying to Chris Wallace of Fox News, "Why is this a topic? Leave me alone." The White House, on the other hand, has been adhering to a policy of trying to keep the presidential puffing from being a topic by ignoring questions about it.

However, on Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama ignited more talk about her husband's reputed five-cigarette-a-day habit by saying he has stopped smoking. She told reporters gathered for a luncheon related to her anti-obesity campaign that it's been almost a year since he's smoked.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs continued to finesse the topic when it was brought up at a subsequent news conference. Since Mr. Obama has said in the past that he doesn't smoke in front of his wife or daughters, we are pretty much left to guess what the truth is.

Taking a break from pondering actual news of importance, I've come to the conclusion that people who are instinctively conservative would tend to appreciate the blunt response of Mr. Boehner to hostile questioning about his habit, while liberals more likely would be thrilled with Mrs. Obama's revelation.

She has, however, removed whatever wiggle room her husband had in this matter. She says he's quit, and is on record as saying she only agreed to his running for president when he agreed to become a nonsmoker. She would not preside, she said, over a smoking White House, and said her spouse "couldn't be a smoking president."

As someone who came of age during the "Mad Men" years, when America was covered in a fog of cigarette smoke — some of which I had personally exhaled into the air — I'm intrigued by the demonization of smoking and smokers, which has been accelerating every since the famous Surgeon General's report in 1964 officially linking smoking to cancer and other life-shortening illnesses.

It's not that prior to the government announcement people thought smoking was a benign habit. They didn't call cigarettes "cancer sticks" or "coffin nails" because it was thought smoking them was good for one's health.

Only a moron would not understand that sucking noxious smoke into the lungs is almost certainly a bad idea. But even geniuses are not immune to the lure of the highly stimulating drug, nicotine, the pursuit of which motivates every smoker of cigarettes, cigars or pipes (although pipe-smoking has gone the way of the eight-track audio tape or the once ubiquitous typewriter, almost never seen anymore).

When I came to Baltimore in the early 1970s to work at WBAL-TV, the newsroom was a smoker's den. Virtually everyone working there was a cigarette lover. Packages of smokes were available in the cafeteria vending machines for 35 cents apiece. A pack of matches fell into the tray with them.

At the time, I was chained to a two-pack or more per day habit. Socially accepted suicide was cheap in those days. Nonsmokers kept their mouths shut, for the most part. If they had contempt for the people lighting up, which I'm sure they did, they kept it to themselves. They were outnumbered.

Now the turf everywhere belongs to the smoking haters. Children are taught to badger their parents if they smoke. Smoking is viewed as an activity no intelligent person would ever condone, much less indulge in.

Mark Twain famously remarked that quitting smoking was easy. "I've done it hundreds of times," he said. Most people succeed in quitting only after several false starts. Been there, done that, as they say.

I've been a chain smoker like the speaker and a sneak smoker like the president and can appreciate the situation in which they find themselves. It's not a good example these days for leaders to be smokers. People may conclude they have a thinly disguised death wish.

Which brings me to a comment by the brilliant novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who, when in his 80s, was asked by a young woman at a party what he was up to these days. He said he was mainly "committing suicide by cigarette."

May the president stay off the smokes, and may the speaker find the motivation to quit this obnoxious habit. That's my wish for the week.

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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