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Friday, January 23, 2009

The Puffing President

This article of mine appears in The New Statesman.

Last Tuesday was a momentous day in American political history.

For the first time in more than 30 years, a regular smoker was installed in the White House. But whereas Gerald Ford openly puffed on his pipe in the Oval Office, it is unlikely that the new incumbent will be quite so forthcoming.

"It's not something I'm proud of," says Barack Obama of his long-standing and much-discussed cigarette habit. The 44th president certainly takes great care never to be seen smoking in public.

But is this the right move?

Historical evidence suggests that if Obama really wants to go down as a great American president, being a smoker - and a smoker not afraid to be seen smoking in public - can only enhance his chances.

James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution", was a cigar smoker throughout his presidency, and smoked right up to his death at the age of 85. The Civil War hero - and supporter of civil rights for African Americans - Ulysses S Grant smoked 20 cigars a day. In the 20th century, Franklin D Roosevelt, the man whose New Deal Obama would like to emulate, was seldom seen without his jauntily clenched cigarette holder. And Ford, who smoked on average eight pipeloads a day while in office, has been labelled America's "greatest president" by the political pundit Alexander Cockburn, simply because he did the least damage. In contrast, we can reflect that Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes were non-smokers.

Twenty-first-century America is, of course, a country where some consider smoking to be one of the seven deadly sins. But if the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has the courage to face down the antis and light up a cigar on a live television programme, as she did in 2003, surely the US president could do likewise.

Most commentators agree that the success or failure of Obama's presidency will depend on whether he has the courage to stand up to powerful vested interests.

Lighting up a cigarette in the Oval Office would be a symbolic gesture that, at last, America has a president not afraid to be his own man.

And if Obama really wants to be another FDR, why not buy a cigarette holder?


Madam Miaow said...

In the bad ole days when I used to smoke, I used a cigarette holder — vampish, noir, a great pose, and the crystals extracted gallons of gunk and saved my lungs from being tarmacced over worse than the M1.

Then I switched to little Davidoffs. They would have been cool if they weren't so fearsomely hot and nuked my alveoli to ash.

Now I am a Born Again Non-Smoker and give my cigarette-addicted Loved One hell every time he makes my hair smell of ashtrays like today when he (cont'd pg 94)

Anonymous said...

Anyone who is addicted to smoking is not his or her "own" man or woman.

But of course being the President of the USA is an impossibly demanding job.

In the meantime I consider the election of Obama as the most significant political/cultural event since world war two.

He represents the possibility of something new emerging.

A possibilty which has immense historical forces, and vested interests working against it.

How do you even begin to turn around the current vast juggernaut---or rather collective cultural psychosis.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Anna,

There's a lot to be said for cigarette holders, not just because the greatest US President of all time used one.

"By smoking with a cigarette holder you are doing two things.

First, you are enjoying the pleasures of tobacco in the safest way possible: a silicon filter inserted in the holder reduces the intake of tar and other carcinogens by up to 30% .

Secondly, you are cocking a snook at the puritans and grunge merchants determined to eliminate the last vestiges of style from our lives. Surely, there is no single item known to man more stylish, sophisticated or downright sexy as a cigarette holder. There is also, in this age of corporate induced uniformity, no item more subversive.

Yesterday’s subversives used petrol bombs. Today’s only need a cigarette holder".

"Anyone who is addicted to smoking is not his or her "own" man or woman."

better to be addicted to tobacco than to launching wars of aggression.

olching said...

Nice article, Neil. Discovered it in the NS yesterday. I always enjoy reading your valiant attempt to explain the cultural and social importance of smoking; keep it up!

Neil Clark said...

many thanks, olching. pleased you enjoyed it.

you'll see that my cyberstalker was active on the NS comments thread last night, while normal people were at the pub or doing more interesting things. and in his attempt to smear me, guess which link he posted. Yes, to Stephen Pollard! quelle surprise! (he always links to either Pollard or Kamm).