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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)

Passionate cigar lover Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas (who likes to light up in tandem with Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde during closed-door Judiciary Committee meetings) bumped into Traficant shortly thereafter and waved his trademark stogie at the upstart.

"Just try and get this cigar away from me," an irate Brooks challenged.

"I'm going to take that cigar," said Traficant, "and turn it into a suppository."

Not a pretty exchange. But one that shows how the balance of power has changed since smoke-filled rooms really were smoke-filled rooms. One observer recalls a high-powered meeting at which Heather Foley, wife of then House Whip and now Speaker Tom Foley, asked House Speaker Tip O'Neill to put out his cigar. (O'Neill, by the way, smoked dreadful drugstore Websters when be couldn't get Cubans.)

"Heather," said O'Neill, simply, "If you don't like the smoke, why don't you move to the other side of the room?"

Another remembers Jack Brady being challenged for smoking on a Rayburn building elevator by a young woman. "Young lady," said he gravely, "I am not smoking this cigar. I am transporting it to the next floor."

Despite the fact that both these responses would unleash the furies of hell today, the cigar picture is not entirely depressing in D.C.

Look at the sunny side: unaccountably, The Washington Post declared cigars "In" and cigarettes "Out" for 1993. The number of large cigars shipped to the capital city has more than quadrupled in the past couple of years--up from 1.3 million in 1989 to 6.2 million in 1992. The District of Columbia, along with 29 states (including, of course, tobacco-producing Virginia) has "smokers'-rights" laws--statutes that prohibit "lifestyle discrimination," such as hiring or firing of employees based on whether or not they smoke.

Most telling of all, the very grand "smokers' dinners," which began here a couple of years ago, have increased at an enormous rate at top-level hotels and clubs all over town. One at the University Club, organized by Judge Smith, drew a guest list that included the likes of Justice Scalia; Bernie Nussbaum, the White House Counsel; senators Kit Bond and Howell Heflin and a slew of congressional representatives.

They tend to follow the usual pattern: a small cigar served with the aperitifs, a larger one with the sorbet course halfway through dinner and a very large cigar after dinner. The price hovers between $175 and $300.

Generally a cigar expert extols the virtues of the particular cigars being tasted and the conversation is unusually mellow--for Washington--and undriven. In September at the Metropolitan Club, 85 guests, wreathed in smoke and smiles, sampled H. Upmanns, Te-Amos and Henry Clays as organizer Bruce Tannous quoted Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) on why he was so spry at 70 ("I never smoke more than one cigar at a time") and George Sand, writer and Chopin's mistress, on the consolatory pleasure of the cigar. ("The cigar numbs sorrow and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images.")

Some of the dinners are attended by a few women. At one memorable affair at the Ritz-Carlton, the charming blond gourmet and Washington Times food writer, Judith Olney, caused a petite scandal by quoting Colette on how a woman should choose cigars for a man and keep them at the correct 70 percent humidity--unless she had an ulterior motive. In which case, she should leave her gentleman's cigar out for the day. Then--and Olney demonstrated--she should cry, "Oh! How careless of me," then snip it, lick it gently all over and run the tip of a flame up and down its length before presenting it to the smoker.

She ended up by quoting the old seductress Aunt Alicia coaching Gigi: "Once a woman understands the tastes of a man--cigars included--and a man knows what pleases a woman, they may be said to be well-matched."

Left out of that equation, of course, are both lobbyists and voters. That is why the smoke-filled room is now a sometime thing--and the cigar has become more like a politician's mistress than his mate.

Diana McLellan is Washington editor of Washingtonian magazine, a contributing editor for the Ladies' Home Journal and writes frequently for the British press.


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