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Our Presidents and Cigars

A White House tradition is in danger of disappearing.
Carl Sferrzza Anthony
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

(continued from page 1)

Benjamin Harrison smoked moderately, and during his one term, 1889 to 1893, a tobacconist from his hometown, Indianapolis, supplied the White House with complimentary cigars.

William McKinley, the twenty-fifth president, who was assassinated in 1901, neither smoked in public nor permitted himself to be photographed with a cigar, but in private he was nearly obsessive about having his smoke. Recalled White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover, "McKinley had a passion for cigars and was perhaps the most intense smoker of all the presidents during my life. One never saw him without a cigar in his mouth except at meals or when asleep."

As a congressman, McKinley had become a heavy cigar smoker. Overworked, and with the stress of an invalid wife, McKinley found his only moment of respite in an after-dinner cigar. Because Mrs. McKinley did not like smoke, the congressman went outside on the sidewalk to smoke, pacing up and down the length of the Washington, D.C., residential hotel, the Ebbitt House. It became his only form of exercise and solitude.

In the White House, McKinley smoked his cigars more frequently. Because the second floor of the mansion then included both the family quarters at the west end and the executive offices in the east end, McKinley managed to have it both ways. When he was in the office with the men, he smoked his favorite imported Garcias. When he was with his wife in the family rooms, he put out the ashes and broke the cigar in half, mouthing the tobacco rather than chewing it.

Three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft entered his presidency, the twenty-seventh man to hold the position, as a cigar smoker, but he quit while in office. Warren G. Harding, the twenty-ninth U.S. president, was so careful about the aroma of his tobacco that he brought his cigar humidor with him to the White House from his home in Ohio. Harding was never photographed smoking cigarettes, but he appeared on the golf course and in other informal settings with his cigar. Under pressure of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover "smoked incessantly," according to Ike Hoover (no relation). "The bigger and the stronger, the better he liked them, but they must always be a good brand. With the burdens of office, he increased his smoking."

If there appeared to be a trend of native Ohioan Republicans--Grant, Harrison, McKinley, Taft, and Harding--as the biggest cigar consumers, it was bucked by New Englander Calvin Coolidge. No president used the cigar to better advantage than Coolidge, who served from 1923 to 1929. Concious of his parsimonious and taciturn persona, "Silent Cal" manipulated situations with dramatically punctuated use of his cigar. When he relented into accepting a proposed nominee for attorney general as his own candidate faced sure defeat, for example, Coolidge did not verbally state his dissatisfaction; rather, he agreed but "mumbled...into his cigar," according to Ike Hoover.

George Holden Tinkham, a Massachusetts state senator in the early 1900's, recalled how fellow senator Calvin Coolidge used his cigar as a prop. Meeting at the Boston Athletic Club for the first time, both men sat down with "fat cigars." The ambitious Tinkham was trying to pry information out of Coolidge, and nervously bit into his cigar, "scattering the tobacco on his smiling lips and teeth" as he chattered away, asking the question and anticipating answers a bit too eagerly. Coolidge on the other hand, managed to keep quiet and retain his "Silent Cal" reputation by smoking. "Rhythmically," wrote Duff Gilfond in Saint Calvin, "his cigar went in out of his mouth--in and out--as if he were keeping time," revealing nothing of substance.

Coolidge could smoke about three cigars by afternoon. On summer nights, he often sat in a rocking chair on the darkened south portico and smoked quietly while his wife knitted. Whenever someone offered a cigar, Coolidge looked at it quizzically, scrutinizing its size and shape, sniffing its aroma. From his upper vest pocket he would then draw his own huge corona. When he offered cigars to guests, it was usually from a box of supercoronas, each about twelve inches long, and in one session would usually consume three himself.

As president, Coolidge held 8 A.M. White House breakfasts with senators and congressmen, the honor of which he hoped would translate into support for his legislative initiative of the moment. As part of the unspoken pressure, after the plates were cleared of Coolidge's famous Vermont breakfasts of pancake "gems" with jam and cereal of rye and wheat, the president would nod to a servant, who entered with a large cigar box. As the cigars were passed around, only one per legislator, Coolidge would raise the issue of the day. However odd it may have been for some of the men to smoke cigars so early in the morning, no one dared turn down the offer of the president. It afforded Coolidge a sense of control as he tartly mentioned that he was counting on them for support.

According to Gilfond, Coolidge used the same technique when meeting alone with a senator in the Oval Office. When a bill regulating a proposed radio commission was before the Senate, the Republican president called in a progressive Democrat who was opposing him on it. The senator entered. Coolidge "squeezed" a smile looking "as if he were going to cry" and remained seated. The silence was punctuated by one word. "Smoke?" The president pulled out his box of cigars, which he always kept in his top drawer of his desk. The senator shook his head. Coolidge took one for himself, affixing a paper holder to it, and swiveled in his chair, facing the lawn his back to the senator. For several minutes, nothing was said. Instead, a steady stream of smoke rose from behind the cane-back chair. The senator was unnerved, uncertain of whether he should speak. Finally, Coolidge broke the silence in his Vermont twang. "Don't see why you fellas can't get together. Legislation is compromise. No reason to kill the bill." There was compromise.

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