I note with regret Michelle Obama’s announcement this week that her husband the president, to her evident relief, has kicked his cigarette habit. No details were forthcoming—how he managed to stop smoking, just how serious his habit might have been, and so on—but in the present age, none were necessary. Smoking, especially smoking cigarettes, is now a social pathology far worse than any number of sexual transgressions. Barack Obama’s nicotine habit was a source of distress and embarrassment to friends and admirers.
Smoking is injurious to one’s well being, of course, and few presidents have advertised their addiction to tobacco. When a photographer entered the White House to take a picture of William McKinley, the president quickly put out his ubiquitous cigar: “The young men of this country,” he explained, “must not see their president smoking!” But it is not at all clear that Obama’s onetime habit was especially fearsome: At a reported four or five cigarettes a day, it probably did not put his health in imminent jeopardy—either for cancer or emphysema—and Obama himself has testified that tension tended to prompt him to light up. Is it altogether wise to deny the president a cherished source of comfort in times of stress? Is it better to drink—impairing judgment and destroying brain cells—in the Oval Office than to smoke?
The presidency has a tendency to circumscribe the holders of the office, both literally and figuratively. Prisoners of protocol and oppressive security precautions, there is very little privacy or spontaneity in presidents’ lives, and they seem visibly to shrink, turn gray, and lose vitality. If you look at a photograph of Jimmy Carter in 1977 he will be sporting a wallpaper suit, tousled pompadour, and goofy smile; look at him again in 1980 and he will be encased in a dark suit, starched shirt, and red tie, and his anguished expression will match his slicked-down hair. At the beginning of his brief tenure in office, Gerald Ford could often be seen smoking a pipe, but not at the end. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were fond (in private) of cigars.
To be sure, two presidents’ lives—Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower—were probably shortened by their cigarette habits, and Franklin Roosevelt’s cardiac symptoms could not have been eased by his fondness for unfiltered Camels. But as I have said, Obama’s consumption of tobacco seems to have been microscopic by comparison with, say, Ike’s four-pack-a-day habit; and there is every indication that the president, in his 50th year, is in excellent health. The image of FDR, with insouciant aplomb, waving his cigarette holder for all to see did him no political harm, and might even have contributed to his personal popularity. Obama, who has acquired an unenviable reputation for coldness, even pomposity, might well benefit from being photographed with the occasional cigarette in hand—a human being instead of a robotic politician.