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Smoking on Deadline

In the heat of reporting and writing, television and newspaper journalists savor the pleasures of a great smoke.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

In his ninth-floor office overlooking the Hudson River, Morley Safer can draw on Dutch cigars or Romeo y Julietas and allow the smoke to waft out into the labyrinthine corridors. "No one really complains because it's useless," he smiles. Twenty-five years in front of 30 million people every Sunday--and enough Emmys to fill a refrigerator carton--give a man the pull to blow smoke whenever he chooses.

"I was first a cigarette smoker; they were more convenient to carry around," he explains, recalling his work in the field as a Vietnam correspondent for CBS News in 1965. "You could carry 20 of them without all the paraphernalia. Try carrying 20 Romeo y Julietas," he smiles. Then he took up small Dutch cigars like Schimmelpennincks. "In Vietnam, in the field, one tried to have some contact with a more comfortable life. I always carried something, like a couple of cigars. For a time there was a grocery store, a little French grocery store in Saigon where you could get canned Beaujolais. So apart from my canteen and C ration I always carried a couple of cans of Beaujolais. Believe me, at the end of the day, regardless of the heat, a can of Beaujolais and a Romeo y Julieta is not too bad. There are worse ways to take part in war."

For reporters and editors, cigars are at once a diversion, a celebration and a savoring. Whatever the reasons, a cigar fits a writer just as chewing tobacco fits a ballplayer or a pipe suits a philosophy professor. Perhaps because so many reporters find themselves in extreme situations, they long for the comforts of a cigar. Many still don't like to talk about their smoking habits and refused to submit to this reporter's inquiries. Others were simply too hard to track down, always on the road, savoring a smoke in another waiting room, another tiny hotel outpost or in some godforsaken hot spot where they barely speak the language and are apt to be putting their lives on the line. But however dire the circumstances, a cigar can be a diverting companion.

The camaraderie of a good smoke carries over into Safer's everyday life when he isn't in New York with his wife, Jane, and their daughter, Sarah. At their Connecticut home, he likes to smoke on his tractor. It's not a farm, mind you. He just enjoys restructuring the land there. One pictures Safer astride the tractor, outside the city in a wide-open expanse, adrift in philosophical reverie. The meditation has carried over to this morning.

"It occurred to me when I was coming over this morning, this whole stupidity of the White House," says Safer. "I don't resent them choosing not to smoke," he says, his voice as effortlessly resonant as a Hemingway sentence, framing those words he chooses. "And they can be as public as they want about them not smoking. But to make the White House a smoke-free White House is so stupid as to be beyond...that a grown-up politician can be that stupid!

"For example, if--we're in 1994, and if Winston Churchill was the prime minister of Britain and, if he made a state visit to America--which would be extremely likely--and if he was staying in the White House--which he would--and if there was a state dinner, what would they do? How stupid can you be? Or Mao Tse-tung, who was a cigarette smoker. Or the president of Italy, who probably smokes three packs a day. Or France, or Bulgaria--I don't know. But to make the White House smoke-free!" Safer's eyes are easily expressive, widening with surprise at the gall of the edict coming from the nation's capital.

"They're trying to just invest themselves with some kind of purer-than-thou demeanor. The White House has nothing to do with them; [the president] doesn't get it! He just happens to be a tenant. He says the Clintons are nonsmokers; that's fine. And if he says they're only going to hire nonsmokers; that's fine. But to say 'this house is going to be nonsmoking' is an insult to those who smoke, not just Americans but foreigners." If they want to be what they want to be and if they want to say, 'when you come to our home in Arkansas you can't smoke,' that's fine. But for them to make some national policy in a building where they are temporary tenants--without even a lease! They're there at the pleasure of the rest of us."

Whatever the policies on Pennsylvania Avenue, Safer keeps smoking his dark Brasil cigar in his office. "These are lovely," he says, blowing the smoke toward the window. "Mild without being a joke." But how do his "60 Minutes" mates like it? "Mike [Wallace] comes in and says, 'it stinks in here.' [Steve] Kroft smokes occasionally. [Ed] Bradley smokes the odd cigar, closes his door." Safer smiles. His door stays open. This is not Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ask Harry Smith and a lot of key players on the "CBS This Morning" program. Smith and Paula Zahn look out on the set of "CBS This Morning." Standing in the center of the set is a skyscraper of cards--made of 60,000 playing cards--and its giddy architect pulls one, dismantling the entire paper edifice. The control room--replete with dozens of televisions and about 15 people laughing at them (who says work is hard to find?)--convulses with oohs and aahs, while Smith and Zahn narrate this Guinness slice of history.

"I can't smoke at home," says Smith, the affable host of the show since its inception in 1987. "I'm always interested in maintaining peace and tranquility on the home front." The home front includes two sons and his wife, Andrea Joyce, a studio host and reporter for CBS Sports and HBO.

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