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Right On: Capitol Hill Republicans

The Young, Conservative Cigar Caucus of Capitol Hill Is Celebrating Its Newfound Power with Plenty of Cigars
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

Forget the Cigar Bar. Stop trying to get into the Grand Havana Room. Keep your patronage of the Cuba Club to yourself. The most exclusive cigar room in the country is the outer office of the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. That is where young Republicans who work on and around Capitol Hill first gathered in January 1994 to celebrate their party's newly won majority in both houses of Congress. These cigar gatherings are not just invitation only; the pleasure of your company is measured by how strongly you believe in the cause: the conservative Republican revolution being waged in the halls of our national legislature.

"I like being able to smoke at my desk," says Horace Cooper, legislative counsel to House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, as he lights a Cuban Partagas robusto that a colleague has given to him. "That's something that you really can thank a Republican Congress for. The rights of the individual for things like cigars and speed limits are big pluses for me being a Republican."

But in Armey's royal blue outer office, the tough policy question before Cooper, a Houston native, is whether he would rather balance the budget or smoke cigars. "I think if we balance the budget I could smoke more cigars," Cooper reasons. "There'd be more in my pay to take home."

Such talk prompts Peter Roff, the political director at Newt Gingrich's former political action committee, GOPAC. "Not to mention the historical long-term growth that would occur, making the United States a haven for émigrés coming and seeking a better life and making us more of a dominant power positively in the hemisphere," Roff says, tailoring the issue to the Republican doctrine. "Thereby, I think, accelerating the overthrow of Castro in Cuba and the ultimate liberation and restoration of freedom to that island nation, thereby resulting in an increase in the quality of cigars available in the U.S. marketplace."

This is just the type of chatter you are not likely to hear at your local tobacconist's, but the kind of discussion on which those who attend these gatherings thrive. They are conservative, and proud of it. They are cocky, and proud of it. But most of all, they take the opportunity on occasional Friday afternoons to compare notes and strategize while they caucus as cigar smokers. Talk about a private club.

Roff, who previously worked with the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, says that smoking cigars helps when you're talking politics. "Cigar smoking is something you do in the company of other people. One of the nice things about cigar smoking is the camaraderie that goes in dealing with other cigar smokers. I'm seeing more of it," he says, then lapses briefly into the language of a Washington wonk. "I don't know if it's the age-cohort or if it's station-in-life or just the change in society." Age-cohort? Everyone has a laugh at the use of such technical language in assessing the pleasure of the Cruz Real No. 19 that Roff is enjoying.

The 30-year-old Roff is also the one arguing that Richard Nixon was a liberal, spurred by a viewing on video of his recent appearance on a local morning television show. In this genre of capital theater, Roff, analyzing the Whitewater affair, is the conservative pitted against a "liberal" and a "journalist"--two classes for which the cigar caucus generally reserves the same level of disdain.

"As we saw quite clearly in Watergate, there is a real capacity in the White House to obstruct justice," Roff's image booms from the television monitor in the corner, responding to the defense of President and Hillary Clinton made by the liberal.

"Oh sure, throw Nixon to the wolves," chides Katherine Hazeem, chief counsel to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, while she watches and draws on a Partagas.

Roff defends himself, beseeching, "He [Nixon] was a liberal. Wage and price controls? Détente? OSHA?"

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