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?"
"He was a liberal because he didn't smoke cigars," jokes April Lassiter. Lassiter, 27, is a policy adviser to the House majority whip, Tom DeLay of Texas. She has just walked in and is lighting a Macanudo. "I started smoking cigars because they were less harmful to your lungs than clove cigarettes," Lassiter says. At one gathering, the Charlottesville, Virginia, native informed the group that she had been reading about Freud and asked them, "Is cigar smoking phallus envy?"
At another get-together, just after the New Hampshire Republican primary in February that was won by Pat Buchanan, slightly less lofty matters are being discussed, such as which of the presidential candidates most closely reflects the Republican congressional agenda. "Is there a none-of-the-above choice?" wonders Lassiter.
"We need some alcohol to really do this right," advises Hazeem.
"From my perspective, I was a [Phil] Gramm supporter because of what he focused on in straight policy," says Marc Lampkin, 32, counsel to the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, as he puffs on a Cruz Real. "Maybe he didn't cater enough to evangelicals, but his simple 'cut spending, cut government, we want more freedom in this country' message was, I think, in tune with what I think this Congress, especially the House, is about."
"They all have parts of the congressional agenda," Roff says. "They're all running with parts of it. I mean, Lamar [Alexander] had a component, [Bob] Dole's got a component and Gramm had a component and [Steve] Forbes has a component and Buchanan's got a component, but what we still have are a number of people who are running so that they can be president rather than so that the Republican Party can lead America according to its vision. And for us to win in November, there's going to have to be closure on that and everybody's going to have to understand that this is a team effort. Because if it's a beauty contest between Clinton and--put in whichever name you want--we'll lose, because Bill Clinton is willing to be all things to all people at any given moment and he's demonstrated he can do that."
"Well, I guess I would dispute part of that," says Cooper, 29, the indisputable leader of this cigar PAC, er, pack. "I think it would be very important for us to run a team effort because we do need the team endorsement. It would be great for the public to say, 'We want to ratify the vision that Republicans-generic have to offer.' But I am not convinced at all that this man [Clinton], who has demonstrated that he can try to be all things to all people, depending on whatever day you ask him, is going to be able to carry that off again in November. There is a substantial number of people who just cannot stand the man. There are people in his own camp, who would be natural Democrat voters, who have a problem [with him] and I don't think, absent a three-way race, that there's a formula that he's going to be able to carry out to unlock the electoral college."
These are folks who understand how the electoral college works and can do the math in their heads about which presidential candidate needs to win which states. It's just that sometimes they use words that sound odd to the rest of America. Like "default vote."
"That may be true, Horace, but I think Clinton, being the formidable campaigner that he is, may be able to get the default vote," worries Lassiter. "That is, that people could vote for him because they don't see anything that looks any better. I'm talking about the swing voters. We don't have anyone who feels people's pain like Clinton does. We don't have anyone who comes across as being for something more than he is against something."
"I agree with that," Cooper says, but, "what about [Clinton] getting Texas, Florida, South Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona?"
Cooper has previously admitted that Clinton, and this is the only concession he makes to the president, can't be all bad because he smokes cigars. While Cooper has smoked cigars for only a few years, he pursues the pleasure with a passion. "I love going home at the end of a long day and sitting on my deck and relaxing and enjoying a cigar," Cooper says, adding that Dunhill is his regular brand. His favorite cigar moment came after a fact-finding trip last year to Taiwan, where he was able to find a "half-dozen or so Cohibas" after many unsuccessful efforts in trying to get his hosts to understand he was looking for cigars, and not pipe tobacco.
"I spent most of my trip trying to find cigars. Once they even took me to a barber shop," Cooper recalls. "I just couldn't seem to make them understand that I was looking for cigars. Then I discovered that the hotel had a Dunhill shop downstairs, but it was on my last day there. I wish I had budgeted better so I could have bought more cigars." On the flight home, Cooper experienced what is now forbidden on all domestic airlines and most international flights. "I got to smoke on the plane. It was great. I had to ask the flight attendant and she said that if it was all right with everyone in first class, then it was all right with her. Since most of the people were from the same tour I was with, they didn't mind. So there I am being able to smoke, in the air, in an airplane. I smoked three or four great cigars on the 17-hour flight."
Cooper will not admit that the cigars were Cohibas until Roff reminds him that he was flying over international waters. Cooper is smiling as he finishes the story and as his colleagues joke with him about a restaurant that went out of business after it named a new cigar friendly dining room after him. He quickly, though unsubltly, turns the conversation back to politics. "Do they grow tobacco in Bosnia? What is our compelling interest in being there?"
"I think we really need somebody to run against Clinton who actually believes in what he's saying and that there's no doubt that he believes in his convictions," says David Lehman, legislative counsel to Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas. Lehman, whose favorite cigar is the Cuban Romeo y Julieta Churchill, has been quiet until this point, but now he speaks up about Pat Buchanan. "I also think there is a person who does that, that no one seems to like and he just won New Hampshire. He's a force to reckon with. And there's no doubt that people think he believes in what he says."
Hazeem is listening to Lehman, with whom she has a personal relationship outside of Capitol Hill. "I liked Gramm. I really liked what I thought he would do," Hazeem says. "I liked Buchanan and, as I said to someone, I didn't get the memo as to why suddenly free trade is the issue for Republicans....There are other reasons that people don't like Buchanan and it's not about that. I like Bob Dole and I think that Buchanan has really forced Bob Dole to come out and say what he stands for, what he really believes as opposed to what kind of president he would be."
"I would concede this with Buchanan: He certainly says what he believes," says Lampkin. "You know where he stands, but--and it's a huge, capital but--he's not truly a leader because he's playing into the same kinds of things that leaders don't. When he's anti-trade, that's playing to the common denominator, " he says, mimicking Buchanan now, " 'The reason we're losing jobs and the economy's not growing, it's because we're being sold out overseas.' That's not leadership. America has been successful in competing and we don't need to have protectionist policies for us to compete. We have always made better products that sold across the border."
"Let me reclaim the time! Let me reclaim the time!" Hazeem appeals (perhaps thinking she's on C-Span?). "I don't understand why, and Pat Buchanan has raised this, why you can't just say, 'I disagree with him on his trade policy.' Why does every attack on Pat Buchanan turn into an ad hominem attack?"
"Why does he have these kinds of attacks?" asks Lassiter, somewhat incredulous. "Because, quite frankly, I think he deserves them. Based on some of the statements he's made in the past that come across as being racist, he comes across as not being a man who looks across the United States and thinks about the community in terms of people and individuals and Americans; rather, [he breaks] it down based on gender and race and other things. I don't think he's done a good job articulating that. Maybe those comments were taken out of context, but he does not have the character or reputation that a presidential candidate needs."
"He is running a Democratic, liberal, Jesse Jackson-style attack, the rich guy versus the poor working stiff. That's not what Republicans do," says Lampkin. "That's where the Forbes message is the most resonating. You know, he says, 'Let's not take from Peter. Let's not say [AT&T CEO] Bob Allen shouldn't make his $5 million. Let's make sure the economy is growing enough so that business everywhere can thrive.'"
"That's a fair criticism to say that the consequence of [Buchanan's] policy is something we don't like," Cooper says as he mediates the discussion, "but I don't think it's fair to say at all that his motive is not a sincere desire. Number one, his view is not the most popular view, by the way. A majority of Republicans don't agree with him and a majority of Democrats don't agree with him, according to a survey I saw yesterday. So, he could be demonstrating leadership by saying, 'This is my position and I want to persuade the public.' I happen not to agree with him and I'll give you one reason. We can look at the Depression. Historians say that the single reason that the Depression was as severe as it was, was because of the existence of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and the effort internationally by all countries to say, 'We want to husband our own resources.' What was the consequence of that? The world's greatest depression. What was the consequence of that? You name practically any acronym that's out there on K Street or Pennsylvania Avenue. They were created as a response to the dramatic problem caused by the Depression. So I do not want to say, Let's create an environment where the greatest growth in government is possible again, where we're the enemies of the people, where the big government activists get to come in and say, 'You're downtrodden, you're destitute, the economy is smithereens. Here, let's do this for you.'"
"I don't think it's a question of articulating free-trade policy. I think most Americans are free-traders," Roff says. "I think that as we're moving into the third wave, the information age, the global economy, people are afraid of what may be coming and they are afraid that they are going to lose their jobs to low-wage growth economies in South America, in the Pacific Rim countries. What I dislike most about Buchanan is the foundational negativism of his vision. What made Forbes' rise so meteoric was, in a sense, growth, hope and opportunity. Stylistically, he was a Reaganite in a field of otherwise Nixonian Republicans."
Interestingly, no one has mentioned Alexander. What happened to Lamar? "People confused him with Forrest Gump, walking around all over in plaid shirts," Lassiter says, evoking laughter.
Listening to these staff members, many of whom work 70 hours a week, you'd get the impression that all they do is talk politics and, of course, smoke cigars. Matter of fact, it's possible that the most dangerous place to be on Capitol Hill is not between a member of Congress and a television camera, but between Katherine Hazeem and a cigar. A staffer on the House Judiciary Committee, Hazeem just returned from a fact-finding visit to Cuba, where she looked into property rights and future claims by Cuban exiles. While there, Hazeem further confirmed her love of cigars, which she started smoking at these gatherings. "It's very relaxing at the end of the week to sit and smoke cigars," she says as she puts an Arturo Fuente Hemingway Signature to her lips. "It's tough to get into politics," she says unconvincingly.
The reality is that politics, and cigars, have shaped important parts of Hazeem's life. She has been attracted to cigars ever since her grandfather smoked them before Sunday dinners in Pittsburgh. Hazeem, who attended Oral Roberts University and Catholic University Law School, says she formed her political beliefs "through a process of progressively confronting reality...I used to be a lot more liberal." She takes a puff. "To me, conservatism means there's more than just meets the eye. You have to delve more deeply into some of the issues, because some of the liberal solutions are more attractive: 'People are poor, they don't have money, give them more money.' But when you come right down to it, that's not really going to help people, so it's taken a process of years for me to think about what will really work and the proper role of government and what will really help people and not just what makes you feel good."
Lehman, Hazeem's beau, shares her fundamental conservative views and relates that his outlook was formed while growing up in Orange County, California. "The liberal political philosophy strikes me as being more emotion than intellect; I'm much more attracted to conservative philosophy, especially that which deals with personal responsibility and limited government and that type of thing," Lehman says. "I've sort of always grown up with it, got away from it briefly, but came back to it pretty quickly." He started smoking cigars while attending Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Hazeem feels good about having found someone who is a Republican who works in Congress and, most importantly, who accepts that she smokes cigars. "David and I were at a St. Patrick's Day celebration at Murphy's in Old Town Alexandria," Hazeem recalls. "And I thought, 'This is a cute guy.' And I kinda knew him. We had left the bar and were going to find a place to eat and we were standing outside and we started talking and he said these words, which I thought was the greatest come-on line of all time--I figured he had completely researched who I was and my background--he said: 'I play golf. I drink Scotch. I smoke cigars and I'm Anglican.' And I thought, 'Well, this is obviously the man for me.'
"You knew I did all those things, I believe," she says to Lehman.
"Well, like Pat Buchanan," Lehman answers, "I believe in my convictions so I didn't just say that in order to, uh..."
Hazeem rescues him, "But I thought it was the greatest come-on line of all time. Because I thought I would never find a man who would think it was OK for me to smoke cigars. I thought this was something I'd have to give up."
"As long as she buys them, it's fine for her to smoke," Lehman says, making clear that aid to staffers with cigar dependencies is not in the Contract With America.
Cigars have always been linked to politics for Marc Lampkin. "I had my first real cigar when I was a sophomore in college," says Lampkin, who attended Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. "A friend of mine, who's actually from a well-known liberal family, had some very good cigars and a bunch of us...."
Cooper interrupts, "You can say Kennedy in this room." Lampkin explodes in laughter and amends his remarks. "A friend of mine from college, he was a Kennedy, he broke out a box of maduros after we won a campaign together," Lampkin says, noting that his "default" cigar is the Ashton robusto.
Roff expresses "shock" that Lampkin was once the political ally of a Kennedy. But it is in jest, because things right now are just fine for this bunch of young Republicans. They are enjoying being taken seriously for the first time in four decades. "Before," says Lehman, meaning when the Democrats ruled the roost, "reporters weren't interested in what you had to say. Now they just act as if the legitimate government has been displaced." He grins.
"A lot more people became interested when we won the majority in both houses," chimes in Roff. "We became an 'overnight success,' " he says with a laugh.
Staying in power always depends on success in the next election, but what has happened to Washington since the Republicans took control of Congress is notable. Government is getting smaller; even President Clinton says so. Cigar sales at local shops are up. Even the House restaurant now stocks premium brands. And on some Friday afternoons, if you just happen to be sightseeing in the Capitol rotunda, you can take a deep breath and follow the aroma to one of the premier smoke-filled rooms in modern American politics.
Alejandro Benes is a journalist in Washington, D.C.