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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 2)

Even political philosophy was revealed in Coolidge's cigar habits. At the least, how he acquired his cigars and smoked them reflected his notorious thriftiness and conservative economic policies. According to Ike Hoover, Coolidge only "smoked the best quality of Havana cigars," but he rarely spent his own money for them. They were, "always given to him," Hoover said. And although the cigars were often as expensive as 75 cents a piece--in 1920s currency--Coolidge found it practical to always use his paper one cent cigar-holder, which he frugally saved, day to day.

Throughout the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, state and private dinners at the White House often concluded with the men and women separating, the women, led by the first lady to the Red Room for coffee and cigarettes, which Eleanor Roosevelt had offered guests two decades earlier. The men would retire to the Green Room for after, dinner drinks and cigars, led by the president.

Over recent years, there have been all forms and manners of tobacco use in the White House by presidents and their families. Gerald Ford, the last U.S. president to use tobacco on a regular basis, is an inveterate pipe smoker. Ike and FDR stuck to cigarettes as did both their wives and several other twentieth-century first ladies including Jacqueline Kennedy.

Among modern presidents, several have indulged in cigar smoking in the White House. As a young man, John F. Kennedy had been a regular cigar smoker with his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. As president, Kennedy tended to smoke the thin, short petite Corona cigars. There is also the legendary story of Kennedy's orders to Press Secretary Pierre Salinger to go out and find as many of his favorite H. Upmann Petit Coronas before the president signed the Cuban trade embargo (see CIGAR AFICIONADO, Vol. 1, No. 1). Salinger found nearly 1,200 of the cigars, bought them, and reported the purchase to Kennedy. The U.S. leader promptly signed the embargo.

Richard Nixon, although not a regular smoker, enjoyed ritualistic cigar puffing as a statesmanlike gesture with other leaders. The Nixon administration in the early '70s was the last stand of the cigar at the White House. Besides being the last president to smoke cigars, Nixon's was the last presidency during which cigars were offered to men after dinner in the Green Room.

Although the Clinton no-smoking policy has been much bally-hooed, the policy has gradually evolved. Ronald Reagan did not smoke cigars, however, his White House doctor, T. Burton Smith, persistently attempted to get Reagan to ban smoking. The president resisted, not wanting to be a host who offended those who chose to smoke. But by 1987, during his second administration, the practice of making tobacco products, including cigarettes on the table, available to guests at state dinners had stopped. A form of antismoking policy was in effect during the Bush administration, according to the office of chief usher at the White House. While ashtrays were apparent in the state rooms and guests were not specifically told to extinguish their cigars or cigarettes, smoking of any kind was not encouraged. Hillary Rodham Clinton took the next step and removed the ashtrays, while specifically prohibiting smoking in the White House.

Although most cigar-smoking presidents were from the South and Midwest, there appears to be no predictable pattern. They run the gamut, Democrats and Republicans, including the worst-rated president--Harding--and one of those rated among the greats--Jackson. With the decree earlier this year that transformed the Bush measure to discourage smoking into a Clinton no-smoking policy, it seems that the demise of the traditional White House cigar has finally come. But if those telephoto-lens photographs of Bill Clinton not smoking the cigar in his mouth are any indication, this administration may inaugurate an entirely new form of cigar pleasure--don't light it.

Carl Sferrzza Anthony writes frequently about the presidency. He is the author of First Ladies: The Saga of Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1789-1990.

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