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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

(continued from page 1)

There are a few sparse flickers of light around the capital city. The Ritz-Carlton is smoker-friendly enough so that trial lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, who made his reputation with Watergate, chose it as the site of his wedding last January.

"We enjoyed not only a very nice cabinet of cigars smoked in public, but we had three of Doc Scanlon's band, female singers dressed up as cigarette girls, handing out cigars in big bunches." At the joyful event, politicians on both sides of the aisle, free at last, puffed away unfettered.

The lobbyists, you see, have had a devastating effect on Capitol Hill. At this writing, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was pushing to make the Senate a "smoke-free zone," in an amendment to an appropriations bill. (The Senate cafeterias have smoking and nonsmoking areas. The far grander Senate Dining Room has no restrictions, perhaps because it has its own ventilation system.) In the House of Representatives, the Speaker has banned smoking in all public areas including corridors, terraces and restrooms--except for a recently designated indoor smoking area on the second floor inside the Rayburn Building. Theoretically, for now, congressmen may do as they please in their offices.

"But now that it's not politically correct to smoke, a lot of them smoke cigars in secret," says Jack Brady, a wise old bird and cigar lover, who for years was chief of staff to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. One congressman admitted as much after a recent dinner. "Unless you're from a tobacco state, it behooves you to hide your cigars. Voters hate that fat-cat look. Notice how [cartoonist] Herblock always shows sleazy pols sucking on fat cigars?"

Some faces that God made to have a cigar stuck in them: Reps. Dan Rostenkowski and Barbara Mikulski--to name two--don't fulfill their destiny. Others do, and then quit or kind of quit. Rep. Barney Frank is believed to still smoke cigars away from the public eye. Sen. Howell Heflin was recently told by his doctor to lay off and now walks around the office with an unlighted cigar clamped in his jaw--inhaling happily as his staff smokes like chimneys around him. Sen. Ted Kennedy claims to have given up cigars cold about two years ago.

"We ask the people who used to bring Senator Kennedy his cigars not to bring them anymore," says aide Melody Miller, primly. "He realized that to continue smoking in the light of his involvement with health issues would be hypocritical.

Hypocrisy, of course, is no stranger to the capital--and neither is the unlighted-cigar ploy. Bill Clinton was photographed in the Oval Office chewing an unlighted cigar in June while waiting for the House to vote on his tax bill. This kicked off the predictable round of wisecracks about how he still doesn't inhale.

The president's ambassador to Japan, Walter Mondale, loves a good cigar. But he was careful never to be seen smoking one when he was running for vice president with Jimmy Carter. Once his goal was achieved, though, he avidly followed Tip O'Neill's wise counsel: "Enjoy the good cigars, Fritz. They're about all that damn job's good for."

Perhaps the prettiest fandango of hypocrisy in Washington is danced around the Cuban question. It's been going on ever since Jack Kennedy stocked up on Cubans before imposing the trade embargo. The reason so many weary pols attend embassy dinners in Washington when they'd rather have their feet up at home is that they know that fine Cuban cigars will be passed at the end.

"And there have always been Cuban contraband cigars around Washington at a high level," chuckles Jim Wright, former Speaker of the House and, more recently, author of Worth It All: My War For Peace.

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