Dale McFeatters: Tell us, President Obama, how you quit smoking
President Barack Obama, we are told by no less an authority than Mrs. Obama, has quit smoking and been off cigarettes for about a year. Obama watchers are putting his quit date some time last March, right around the time health care passed.
Good for him, but the White House is being quiet about the details of an act — kicking the habit — that most people would find altogether laudatory. Maybe they're afraid talking about it will jinx him.
Coming from an administration that is not shy about boasting of his accomplishments, this reticence is puzzling because one thing reformed smokers love to do is talk about how they did it. My own successful effort to quit is still recounted wherever people gather to tell the great tales of human courage, endurance and determination.
Maybe Obama is just being extra cautious. He'll know he's well and truly quit when he stops having the nightmare where he's started again. We've all had it.
But there are too many loose ends and unanswered questions to let this go. He's the president and these details are important.
Michelle Obama said her husband promised to quit when she agreed he could run for president. Presumably this promise was made some time before February 2007, when he formally announced he was running. Even so, given the most generous allowance for the date, it took him three years to begin fulfilling a solemn promise to his wife.
Did he really even smoke? Obama said some time ago that he used to light up about five times a day. For people with a two- or three-pack a day habit, five cigarettes is not smoking at all. It's breakfast.
And where did he smoke? The public rooms in the White House are smoke-free and since Obama said he did not smoke in front of his family — wife, two daughters and mother-in-law — the family quarters are out.
There's the Truman Balcony but that's in range of any paparazzi with a long lens. There are the White House grounds but the security is tight and in any case the president is never out of sight of his bodyguards when he's outside. And if the first lady got to the Secret Service, every time he took out a cigarette an agent would grab it and wrestle it to the ground.
There's a secluded areaway outside the press briefing room where the smokers in the White House press corps go but then instead of a quiet smoke there's a risk of running into reporters and being pestered with questions.
Given the new Puritanism toward smoking, Obama, until he reformed, may be the last smoker in the White House, ending a long tradition of presidents and tobacco going back to John Adams who both smoked and chewed and could quit neither.
With a handful of exceptions, most of our presidents smoked, usually cigars. Ulysses Grant was said to smoke up to 20 a day. It was hardly a surprise when he died of throat cancer.
Franklin Roosevelt chain-smoked cigarettes. He used a cigarette holder, too, an affectation that would bar him from high office today.
Of the recent presidents, Ford always had his pipe close at hand; Carter, Reagan and the two Bushes were nonsmokers; and Clinton enjoyed the occasional cigar.
Now that Obama has quit, Washington's highest profile smoker is House Speaker John Boehner, the third in line to the presidency. Boehner says cigarettes are legal and his choice and beyond that, "Leave me alone." Kind of like Obama.
Reach Dale McFeatters at firstname.lastname@example.org
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