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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

President William Jefferson Clinton may have comfortably adjusted to the ban on smoking in the White House--it seems he doesn't light up ... anymore. In effect, he hasn't been banned from enjoying a cigar, just smoking it. In this way he can avoid any accusations of inhalation, and he is still able to savor some of a cigar's more relaxing elements.

While reports from the campaign trail suggested that Clinton did light up occasionally, his White House tenure has been marked by two paparazzi-type photographs of him holding unlit cigars in his mouth. If his current reluctance to actually smoke a hand-rolled premium cigar remains intact, Clinton will be endangering a presidential tradition--the 196-year-old relationship between the Oval Office and cigars.

In the early days of White House life, it was those men and women from Southern plantations who seemed to be the greatest consumers of tobacco in all forms. The seventh president, Tennessean Andrew Jackson, was such a regular user of plug that brass spittoons--now in his Tennessee estate, the Hermitage--were installed at the White House. Virginian Dolley Madison scandalized Washington as one of the few women to openly pinch snuff with congressmen. Still, it was tobacco in the form of cigars that remained the choice of presidents.

Although he raised tobacco as a cash crop at Mount Vernon, there is no evidence that George Washington smoked cigars. The first president to enjoy a "seegar" was James Madison, the country's fourth leader, who smoked until his death at 85 in 1836.

Andrew Jackson, and his wife, Rachel, also smoked cigars. One account had the homespun "Mrs. General Jackson" in her rocking chair before a warm fire, consuming "two seegars" in an evening. But another homespun general's spouse who later became a president's wife would turn ill with cigar smoke. So her husband, Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848 as the hero of the Mexican War, smoked cigars only in the presence of male companions who also smoked. Included among these was Senator (and later president of the Confederacy) Jefferson Davis, whose first wife had been Taylor's daughter.

Ironically, after the Civil War, it was Davis's cigar holder and coffee maker that turned up in the White House. At an auction of the possessions of deposed Confederate aristocrats, Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president from 1865 to 1869, purchased Davis's unusual ceramic train that held several cigars by wire and also percolated coffee. Between the Civil War and the Second World War, more presidents smoked cigars than did not.

Few men in American history have ever been more closely associated with the cigar than the great celebrity of the late nineteenth century, Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president. Famous first as the Union general who brought the Confederate Army to its knees, Grant was a two-term president almost always caricatured, illustrated, sculpted, or photographed with his beloved cigar. In fact, toward the end of the war, when Grant suffered a particularly severe bout of depression, he wrote that he was so unhappy that he was "eating neither breakfast nor dinner" and he had "not smoked a cigar."

Grant was said to smoke 20 cigars a day. His habit increased during the Civil War, after the Battle at Fort Donelson in Tennessee in mid-February 1862. As he later told General Horace Porter, "I had been a light smoker previous to the attack on Donelson .... In the accounts published in the papers, I was represented as smoking a cigar in the midst of the conflict; and many persons, thinking, no doubt, that tobacco was my chief solace, sent me boxes of the choicest brands .... As many as ten thousand were soon received. I gave away all I could get rid of, but having such a quantity on hand I naturally smoked more than I would have done under ordinary circumstances, and I have continued the habit ever since."

When the general decided to run for president, his relish for stogies was used as part of his campaign persona, and was even immortalized in the 1868 campaign song, "A Smokin' His Cigar." The Democrats tried to use Grant's cigar against him. One of their ditties had a verse running, "I smoke my weed and drink my gin, playing with the people's tin."

Chester Arthur, a wealthy New York clubman who was the twenty-first U.S. president, from 1881 to 1885, and who was given to lavish midnight suppers, usually concluded his meals with Champagne and expensive imported cigars.

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.

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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