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JFK and Che

The Man Who Drafted the Order for the Cuban Embargo Recalls Puffing Cigars in the Kennedy White House, and a Not-So-Chance Meeting with the Famed Revolutionary
Richard Goodwin
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

After we had dinner in her New York apartment, Jacqueline Kennedy would open a bottle of Dom Pérignon and offer me a cigar from the supply she kept in an antique table drawer; a Por Larrañaga. Drawing on the cigar and drinking the Champagne, in which she invariably placed some ice, we would exchange reminiscences about the days we ran the world. One evening as she crushed out a cigarette and prepared to light another she asked me, "Why do you like those things?"

"Try it," I responded, handing her the lit cigar which she took, held gingerly between forefinger and thumb, and began to puff. "Don't inhale," I cautioned.

"They have a real taste," she remarked, handing it back to me.

"Well, that's why we like them," I responded.

It became an intermittent ritual. She would take a few puffs from my cigar, and then relinquish it to continue her chain smoking. I would estimate that over a period of years, starting during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, she consumed the equivalent of an entire cigar, making her the only former First Lady in this century to become a cigar smoker.

I never pointed out the obvious--that her cigars must have been illegally obtained. Not to spare her feelings, but my own, as it would have recalled one of the grimmest moments of my White House career. The Bay of Pigs had been bad enough, but even worse was that day in early 1961 when John Kennedy instructed me to draw up an executive order invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act against Castro's Cuba. It would mean an end to importation of Cuban products, including, calamitously, the cigars that had brought such pleasure to the numbing strains of Washington dinners. Before signing the order, Kennedy sent Pierre Salinger, and possibly others, to buy up a large proportion of the Cuban cigars still in Washington stores. Lacking the means for such a grand gesture, I had to be satisfied with a single box, which I rationed over a period of weeks.

At first the order did not prevent individual travelers from bringing in cigars, but protests from cigar makers in Miami--one of the first displays of political muscle by the now omnipotent Cuban refugees--closed this loophole. Still, for several weeks Kennedy continued to serve Cuban cigars at small White House dinners, until the possibility that they had been purchased prior to the embargo lost its credibility. However, staff and guests were the only sufferers, since Kennedy himself had a continuing supply imported in the diplomatic bag of his friend, British Ambassador David Ormsby Gore. It didn't seem fair. But as JFK would teach the nation, "Life is unfair."

Despite his own access, JFK's curiosity was aroused whenever a friend or guest produced a Havana. "Where did you get it?" he would ask, and listen delightedly as he heard another tale of human ingenuity in circumventing his own solemn presidential order. "It wasn't the cigar," a friend reported. "He loved the intrigue."

Like so many of his inclinations, JFK's cigar smoking emerged from the complex relationships of his multitudinous family--a story never told before this report. Prior to the Second World War, as the future president neared maturity, he often witnessed his father, Joseph Kennedy, finishing his meals by lighting up a cigar while lecturing his sons on the deficiencies of the New Deal and the poverty of a life devoted solely to making money. "I made the money so you could go into public life," he informed them while puffing contentedly on the finest Havanas. By the time the oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., reached college--presumably eager to establish his own identity--he took up a pipe, and the mingled aroma of his aromatic blends and the Havana would settle with delicious ambiguity over the family. JFK, on the other hand, decided that he would prefer a good cigar. Like Dad. Thus was born the second most famous cigar smoker of the century, sprung, Athena-like, from sibling rivalry.

Although a true aficionado, JFK was never a dedicated smoker in the Churchillian sense, which may be why the small, slim panatelas that he favored were never renamed "Kennedys." He would usually puff one for a while, then set it down, unfinished and forgotten, while he became engrossed in conversation or in his dinner companion.

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