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Is the Air Any Cleaner?

Smoke-Filled Rooms are in Washington, D.C., But Cigars Survive Behind Closed Doors
| By Diana McLellan | From Maduro Issue, Winter 93/94

Long before the 1920 presidential nomination of Warren Harding in a smoke-filled room, cigars were the incense of politics. A good cigar was the fragrant closure to every formal dinner in Washington, D.C. It was the always welcome gift. It was, most of all, the gentlemanly bonding commodity--one that transcended politics and veiled party differences in sweet-scented clouds of civility.

No more.

"We cigar smokers in Washington are like druids," mourns comedian Mark Russell. "There aren't too many people in our church."

Aram Bakshian, the wit and bon vivant whose cigars spiced the White House air when he wrote speeches for Republican presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, glumly predicts that Hillary Rodham Clinton will deliver the cigar's coup de grace in the capital. "She is to the cigar what Carry Nation was to fine brandy," he sighs.

In fact, political party is no predictor of a first lady's enmity to the superior stogie. Barbara Bush, too, was a powerful foe. Marlin Fitzwater, George Bush's amiable press secretary, remembers loitering happily in a hallway during the last Republican convention along with George Bush Jr., both puffing contentedly on their stogies, when Barbara hove into view. Without a word, both men thrust their lighted cigars into their pockets, where they remained, smoldering gently, until she was safely out of sight.

Despite smoking's traditional and noble after-dinner role in Washington, in 1991 it was declared illegal in White House offices--along with other Washington offices. Even Fitzwater was driven outdoors to kiss his dusky companions--to the Rose Garden if he wished to smoke alone, to the driveway if he wanted to be waylaid by the press.

These days, visiting smokers in the Rose Garden are asked to extinguish their smokes immediately. (There were exceptions made during the Israel-Palestine treaty-signing ceremony in September. Perhaps the staff decided it was not a good time to declare war.) But in the White House driveway stands a big stone planter filled with sand, which serves as a sort of Ashtray of Shame for those few staffers and members of the press who brave the glares of their peers to creep outside for a puff.

The truth is, Washington--a town where the sum total of wisdom is always shouting with the majority--has become a seething hive of nouveau priggishness. It is the home of the movement to declare nicotine a drug, and to drag all tobacco under the leather wing of the Food and Drug Administration. It is the roost of more than 200 fiery organizations squawking "nonsmokers' rights," including the hypermilitant Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) run by John "Sue the Bastards" Banzhaf.

The town's prevailing smoke-free zeitgeist is so strong, in fact, that a man I know, who was recently sucking an unlighted cigar outside an outdoor café on Capitol Hill was harangued by three separate passersby and kicked by another.

"A man could get killed these days lighting a cigar in a restaurant," says columnist Art Buchwald, who used to inhale his cigars before he gave them up a few years ago.

There are a few sparse flickers of light around the capital city. The Ritz-Carlton is smoker-friendly enough so that trial lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, who made his reputation with Watergate, chose it as the site of his wedding last January.

"We enjoyed not only a very nice cabinet of cigars smoked in public, but we had three of Doc Scanlon's band, female singers dressed up as cigarette girls, handing out cigars in big bunches." At the joyful event, politicians on both sides of the aisle, free at last, puffed away unfettered.

The lobbyists, you see, have had a devastating effect on Capitol Hill. At this writing, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey was pushing to make the Senate a "smoke-free zone," in an amendment to an appropriations bill. (The Senate cafeterias have smoking and nonsmoking areas. The far grander Senate Dining Room has no restrictions, perhaps because it has its own ventilation system.) In the House of Representatives, the Speaker has banned smoking in all public areas including corridors, terraces and restrooms--except for a recently designated indoor smoking area on the second floor inside the Rayburn Building. Theoretically, for now, congressmen may do as they please in their offices.

"But now that it's not politically correct to smoke, a lot of them smoke cigars in secret," says Jack Brady, a wise old bird and cigar lover, who for years was chief of staff to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. One congressman admitted as much after a recent dinner. "Unless you're from a tobacco state, it behooves you to hide your cigars. Voters hate that fat-cat look. Notice how [cartoonist] Herblock always shows sleazy pols sucking on fat cigars?"

Some faces that God made to have a cigar stuck in them: Reps. Dan Rostenkowski and Barbara Mikulski--to name two--don't fulfill their destiny. Others do, and then quit or kind of quit. Rep. Barney Frank is believed to still smoke cigars away from the public eye. Sen. Howell Heflin was recently told by his doctor to lay off and now walks around the office with an unlighted cigar clamped in his jaw--inhaling happily as his staff smokes like chimneys around him. Sen. Ted Kennedy claims to have given up cigars cold about two years ago.

"We ask the people who used to bring Senator Kennedy his cigars not to bring them anymore," says aide Melody Miller, primly. "He realized that to continue smoking in the light of his involvement with health issues would be hypocritical.

Hypocrisy, of course, is no stranger to the capital--and neither is the unlighted-cigar ploy. Bill Clinton was photographed in the Oval Office chewing an unlighted cigar in June while waiting for the House to vote on his tax bill. This kicked off the predictable round of wisecracks about how he still doesn't inhale.

The president's ambassador to Japan, Walter Mondale, loves a good cigar. But he was careful never to be seen smoking one when he was running for vice president with Jimmy Carter. Once his goal was achieved, though, he avidly followed Tip O'Neill's wise counsel: "Enjoy the good cigars, Fritz. They're about all that damn job's good for."

Perhaps the prettiest fandango of hypocrisy in Washington is danced around the Cuban question. It's been going on ever since Jack Kennedy stocked up on Cubans before imposing the trade embargo. The reason so many weary pols attend embassy dinners in Washington when they'd rather have their feet up at home is that they know that fine Cuban cigars will be passed at the end.

"And there have always been Cuban contraband cigars around Washington at a high level," chuckles Jim Wright, former Speaker of the House and, more recently, author of Worth It All: My War For Peace.

As he knows full well, Cuban cigars have always made peerless gifts among pols: "Many years ago, when I was mayor of Weatherford, Texas, I'd go to Cuba, where I had a source that would make up a batch of cigars with the name of the recipient on the wrapper. I'd give them to about 25 people in Weatherford that I cherished as good friends. And later, Tip O'Neill and Bob Byrd (West Virginia senator) were big cigar fans, too. Whenever one went anywhere, he always brought back a box for the other."

Wright didn't utter the word "Cuban" in that context--but everyone on the Hill knows that junketing solons have always bought Cubans for one another from anywhere they're obtainable. (Some have even gone to the trouble to redecorate them for the trip through customs with Swiss--Swiss!--bands.)

A perhaps apocryphal tale is told of Al Haig, during one of his periodic fits of presidential ambition, puffing in public on what was plainly an excellent Cuban cigar. "Et tu, Al?" cried a supporter. "You of all people--the law--abiding champion of democracy-smoking a Cuban?"

Haig, it's said, eyed the immaculate ash with great satisfaction: "Yep. This is my way of burning Castro's crops to the ground."

There are still a few oases in the capital's smokeless desert. At the classic pols' restaurant, the Monocle on Capitol Hill, there is "no formal policy" on cigars, says Nick Selimos, the worldly-wise maître d'; they may be smoked at the bar and even at tables in smoking areas--presumably by pols who outrank any protesters. At Duke Zeibert's downtown, where pols meet lobbyists, cigar smoking is now banned at table and "discouraged" at the bar, but aficionados do assemble there and the aroma of a fine Macanudo sometimes scents the quiet evening air.

Meanwhile, in a city where smoking is actually forbidden by law in most office buildings, some of the leading law firms have set aside secret, air-purified smoking rooms with built-in humidors. For many lawyers, it has become the only place to rendezvous with their slender brown sweethearts. As antismoking fervor grips the city, more and more spouses feel empowered to ban cigars within the sacred precincts of the home.

One result has been a rash of canine purchases, as men resort to the after-dinner cigar walk. Charlie Powers, a former deputy assistant secretary of Transportation, recommends a small, spry dog with its own agenda, like the Jack Russell terrier he now cigar-walks every night near his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Occupants of spacious houses often set aside special smoking rooms. Mark Russell, for example, has a small, serene room he has fixed up with Japanese furnishings in his attic, far from wife Ali's sensitive sinuses. But on the whole, as Marlin Fitzwater says gloomily, "about the only safe haven left in Washington is your own car."

Indeed, even the fine, formerly all-men's clubs like the Cosmos and the Metropolitan are tightening the noose on a day-to-day basis, limiting areas where smoking is permitted ever more stringently. Even the National Press Club--which used to offer a respectable house-brand cigar and where you could barely fumble your way to a dry Martini through the spicy, blue haze around the bar--now frowns on the cigar, and is declaring more and more areas off-limits to all smokers.

These days, the Washington smoker must be a maverick. "After all," says Judge Loren Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals, whose own favorite smoke is an Ashton or a Henry Clay, "smokers today must have the personality and will to break with the prevailing ideology--so of course they are more interesting than nonsmokers." He himself became a legend at an out-of-town meeting on election law. Others in the elegant, white-carpeted room in which it was held, watched in disbelief as he repeatedly declined an ashtray for use with his eight-inch cigar, which he calmly smoked until seven inches of perfect ash bedecked its end.

"I was testing something Clarence Darrow used to do," he explained afterward. "Darrow used wire in cigars to keep the ash from falling. I had inserted a straightened-out paper clip before I lit up. It worked very well."

When I talked to Smith, he had just returned from a seminar in New Mexico, where a highlight had been a visit to an historic pueblo, in whose smoke room the most sacred ceremonies were held--"where smoking was a specific activity to bring people together."

Something about cigars has always pleased the judicial mind--at least the male one--at the highest level. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg turned down the chambers formerly occupied by Justice Clarence Thomas because of the still-lingering fragrance of his beloved cigars, which he puffs daily. Chief Justice William Rehnquist is a smoker, and Justice Antonin Scalia is an occasional, but ardent, cigar buff.

Most enjoy the ceremony as much as the cigar. As Judge Smith observes, "Cigar smoking adds an element of civility to life. When you remove any civility, you make the process less decent and humane."

Alas, as cigar smokers increasingly find, the civility these days is all theirs. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, reported a sorry turn of events when Rep. Jim Traficant, the Ohio Democrat, proposed a bill that would block any smoking whatsoever in federal buildings.

Passionate cigar lover Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas (who likes to light up in tandem with Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde during closed-door Judiciary Committee meetings) bumped into Traficant shortly thereafter and waved his trademark stogie at the upstart.

"Just try and get this cigar away from me," an irate Brooks challenged.

"I'm going to take that cigar," said Traficant, "and turn it into a suppository."

Not a pretty exchange. But one that shows how the balance of power has changed since smoke-filled rooms really were smoke-filled rooms. One observer recalls a high-powered meeting at which Heather Foley, wife of then House Whip and now Speaker Tom Foley, asked House Speaker Tip O'Neill to put out his cigar. (O'Neill, by the way, smoked dreadful drugstore Websters when be couldn't get Cubans.)

"Heather," said O'Neill, simply, "If you don't like the smoke, why don't you move to the other side of the room?"

Another remembers Jack Brady being challenged for smoking on a Rayburn building elevator by a young woman. "Young lady," said he gravely, "I am not smoking this cigar. I am transporting it to the next floor."

Despite the fact that both these responses would unleash the furies of hell today, the cigar picture is not entirely depressing in D.C.

Look at the sunny side: unaccountably, The Washington Post declared cigars "In" and cigarettes "Out" for 1993. The number of large cigars shipped to the capital city has more than quadrupled in the past couple of years--up from 1.3 million in 1989 to 6.2 million in 1992. The District of Columbia, along with 29 states (including, of course, tobacco-producing Virginia) has "smokers'-rights" laws--statutes that prohibit "lifestyle discrimination," such as hiring or firing of employees based on whether or not they smoke.

Most telling of all, the very grand "smokers' dinners," which began here a couple of years ago, have increased at an enormous rate at top-level hotels and clubs all over town. One at the University Club, organized by Judge Smith, drew a guest list that included the likes of Justice Scalia; Bernie Nussbaum, the White House Counsel; senators Kit Bond and Howell Heflin and a slew of congressional representatives.

They tend to follow the usual pattern: a small cigar served with the aperitifs, a larger one with the sorbet course halfway through dinner and a very large cigar after dinner. The price hovers between $175 and $300.

Generally a cigar expert extols the virtues of the particular cigars being tasted and the conversation is unusually mellow--for Washington--and undriven. In September at the Metropolitan Club, 85 guests, wreathed in smoke and smiles, sampled H. Upmanns, Te-Amos and Henry Clays as organizer Bruce Tannous quoted Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) on why he was so spry at 70 ("I never smoke more than one cigar at a time") and George Sand, writer and Chopin's mistress, on the consolatory pleasure of the cigar. ("The cigar numbs sorrow and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images.")

Some of the dinners are attended by a few women. At one memorable affair at the Ritz-Carlton, the charming blond gourmet and Washington Times food writer, Judith Olney, caused a petite scandal by quoting Colette on how a woman should choose cigars for a man and keep them at the correct 70 percent humidity--unless she had an ulterior motive. In which case, she should leave her gentleman's cigar out for the day. Then--and Olney demonstrated--she should cry, "Oh! How careless of me," then snip it, lick it gently all over and run the tip of a flame up and down its length before presenting it to the smoker.

She ended up by quoting the old seductress Aunt Alicia coaching Gigi: "Once a woman understands the tastes of a man--cigars included--and a man knows what pleases a woman, they may be said to be well-matched."

Left out of that equation, of course, are both lobbyists and voters. That is why the smoke-filled room is now a sometime thing--and the cigar has become more like a politician's mistress than his mate.

Diana McLellan is Washington editor of Washingtonian magazine, a contributing editor for the Ladies' Home Journal and writes frequently for the British press.