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Is the Air Any Cleaner?

Smoke-Filled Rooms are in Washington, D.C., But Cigars Survive Behind Closed Doors
Diana McLellan
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

Long before the 1920 presidential nomination of Warren Harding in a smoke-filled room, cigars were the incense of politics. A good cigar was the fragrant closure to every formal dinner in Washington, D.C. It was the always welcome gift. It was, most of all, the gentlemanly bonding commodity--one that transcended politics and veiled party differences in sweet-scented clouds of civility.

No more.

"We cigar smokers in Washington are like druids," mourns comedian Mark Russell. "There aren't too many people in our church."

Aram Bakshian, the wit and bon vivant whose cigars spiced the White House air when he wrote speeches for Republican presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, glumly predicts that Hillary Rodham Clinton will deliver the cigar's coup de grace in the capital. "She is to the cigar what Carry Nation was to fine brandy," he sighs.

In fact, political party is no predictor of a first lady's enmity to the superior stogie. Barbara Bush, too, was a powerful foe. Marlin Fitzwater, George Bush's amiable press secretary, remembers loitering happily in a hallway during the last Republican convention along with George Bush Jr., both puffing contentedly on their stogies, when Barbara hove into view. Without a word, both men thrust their lighted cigars into their pockets, where they remained, smoldering gently, until she was safely out of sight.

Despite smoking's traditional and noble after-dinner role in Washington, in 1991 it was declared illegal in White House offices--along with other Washington offices. Even Fitzwater was driven outdoors to kiss his dusky companions--to the Rose Garden if he wished to smoke alone, to the driveway if he wanted to be waylaid by the press.

These days, visiting smokers in the Rose Garden are asked to extinguish their smokes immediately. (There were exceptions made during the Israel-Palestine treaty-signing ceremony in September. Perhaps the staff decided it was not a good time to declare war.) But in the White House driveway stands a big stone planter filled with sand, which serves as a sort of Ashtray of Shame for those few staffers and members of the press who brave the glares of their peers to creep outside for a puff.

The truth is, Washington--a town where the sum total of wisdom is always shouting with the majority--has become a seething hive of nouveau priggishness. It is the home of the movement to declare nicotine a drug, and to drag all tobacco under the leather wing of the Food and Drug Administration. It is the roost of more than 200 fiery organizations squawking "nonsmokers' rights," including the hypermilitant Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) run by John "Sue the Bastards" Banzhaf.

The town's prevailing smoke-free zeitgeist is so strong, in fact, that a man I know, who was recently sucking an unlighted cigar outside an outdoor café on Capitol Hill was harangued by three separate passersby and kicked by another.

"A man could get killed these days lighting a cigar in a restaurant," says columnist Art Buchwald, who used to inhale his cigars before he gave them up a few years ago.


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