The puffing president

Observations on lighting up

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?

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?