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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 2)

As he knows full well, Cuban cigars have always made peerless gifts among pols: "Many years ago, when I was mayor of Weatherford, Texas, I'd go to Cuba, where I had a source that would make up a batch of cigars with the name of the recipient on the wrapper. I'd give them to about 25 people in Weatherford that I cherished as good friends. And later, Tip O'Neill and Bob Byrd (West Virginia senator) were big cigar fans, too. Whenever one went anywhere, he always brought back a box for the other."

Wright didn't utter the word "Cuban" in that context--but everyone on the Hill knows that junketing solons have always bought Cubans for one another from anywhere they're obtainable. (Some have even gone to the trouble to redecorate them for the trip through customs with Swiss--Swiss!--bands.)

A perhaps apocryphal tale is told of Al Haig, during one of his periodic fits of presidential ambition, puffing in public on what was plainly an excellent Cuban cigar. "Et tu, Al?" cried a supporter. "You of all people--the law--abiding champion of democracy-smoking a Cuban?"

Haig, it's said, eyed the immaculate ash with great satisfaction: "Yep. This is my way of burning Castro's crops to the ground."

There are still a few oases in the capital's smokeless desert. At the classic pols' restaurant, the Monocle on Capitol Hill, there is "no formal policy" on cigars, says Nick Selimos, the worldly-wise maître d'; they may be smoked at the bar and even at tables in smoking areas--presumably by pols who outrank any protesters. At Duke Zeibert's downtown, where pols meet lobbyists, cigar smoking is now banned at table and "discouraged" at the bar, but aficionados do assemble there and the aroma of a fine Macanudo sometimes scents the quiet evening air.

Meanwhile, in a city where smoking is actually forbidden by law in most office buildings, some of the leading law firms have set aside secret, air-purified smoking rooms with built-in humidors. For many lawyers, it has become the only place to rendezvous with their slender brown sweethearts. As antismoking fervor grips the city, more and more spouses feel empowered to ban cigars within the sacred precincts of the home.

One result has been a rash of canine purchases, as men resort to the after-dinner cigar walk. Charlie Powers, a former deputy assistant secretary of Transportation, recommends a small, spry dog with its own agenda, like the Jack Russell terrier he now cigar-walks every night near his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Occupants of spacious houses often set aside special smoking rooms. Mark Russell, for example, has a small, serene room he has fixed up with Japanese furnishings in his attic, far from wife Ali's sensitive sinuses. But on the whole, as Marlin Fitzwater says gloomily, "about the only safe haven left in Washington is your own car."

Indeed, even the fine, formerly all-men's clubs like the Cosmos and the Metropolitan are tightening the noose on a day-to-day basis, limiting areas where smoking is permitted ever more stringently. Even the National Press Club--which used to offer a respectable house-brand cigar and where you could barely fumble your way to a dry Martini through the spicy, blue haze around the bar--now frowns on the cigar, and is declaring more and more areas off-limits to all smokers.

These days, the Washington smoker must be a maverick. "After all," says Judge Loren Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals, whose own favorite smoke is an Ashton or a Henry Clay, "smokers today must have the personality and will to break with the prevailing ideology--so of course they are more interesting than nonsmokers." He himself became a legend at an out-of-town meeting on election law. Others in the elegant, white-carpeted room in which it was held, watched in disbelief as he repeatedly declined an ashtray for use with his eight-inch cigar, which he calmly smoked until seven inches of perfect ash bedecked its end.

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