This President's Day seems as good a time as any for asking the question: Which Presidents smoked cigars?
In recent years, ever since the Starr Report, it's been rarer and rarer to hear the words "President" and "cigar" in the same sentence. But cigars have always been associated, in real life and pop iconography alike, with powerful people--think of all those turn-of-the-century Thomas Nast illustrations of evil precinct bosses and wealthy landowners chewing fat cigars. More positively, think of all the well-loved Presidents--from John Adams to Teddy Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to, well, Bill Clinton--who have been occasional or frequent cigar smokers. (Given his much-publicized battle to quit smoking, it's likely that incoming Chief Executive Barack Obama won't revive this tradition.) So this President's Day, light a cigar in honor of the many cigar-smoking Presidents (or just in honor of one or two of your favorites).
It'll add a little fun to a holiday that, often as not, just amounts to a day when dishwashers go on sale--and besides, why not give yourself an excuse to smoke one more stogie?
The two Presidents who are honored by Presidents' Day--George Washington and Abraham Lincoln--may or may not have been cigar smokers, but one of them, Washington, was a major grower of tobacco and (as the movie "Dazed and Confused" reminded us) hemp. Tobacco was a major cash crop on which the Southern economy depended--indeed, Great Britain's many attempts to manipulate that success was one of the many background factors that helped lead to the American Revolution--and thus cigars played a major indirect role in the lives of two early Presidents, Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the third President and intellectual architect of that same Revolution. But nobody knows for sure whether they themselves smoked.
We do know that John Adams--who hailed from, and represented the cultural peak of, the rival Northeastern faction of the new nation, and was thus Thomas Jefferson's friendly rival for most of their lives--was a cigar smoker, as was James Madison, the fourth President.
Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, served as our sixth President--and, like his father, also a smoker. His rival, and the man who unseated him in the hotly contested 1828 elections, was Andrew Jackson, a two-term President and cigar smoker. After Jackson's departure from office, the Presidency falls into the hands of pipe smokers for two terms (under Van Buren and the ill-fated, short-serving William Henry Harrison), before John Tyler, a cigar smoker, takes office in 1841. Other nineteenth-century Presidential cigar aficionados include Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and of course Ulysses S. Grant, who loved the things so much that he smoked twenty of them a day. Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley round out the list of Presidential cigar fans of the nineteenth century.
But the real nineteenth century story, on this topic, might be Henry Clay, the wildly popular Kentucky Senator and Representative who ran for President so many times it became a sort of running gag--like Pat Buchanan during the 1990s, or Ralph Nader in the past four elections. But Clay had more credibility--and much better chances of becoming President than these two campaigners. And he was the first prominent U.S. personality to give his name to a cigar brand: Henry Clays were widely smoked throughout nineteenth-century America, attesting to the popularity both of Clay and of smoking.
During the twentieth century, unsurprisingly, Presidential smoking decreases. Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover probably did some damage to the tradition of Oval Office cigar smoking, as perhaps did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a well-loved President who opted for cigarettes instead of cigars. But cigar smoking receives a Presidential boost again with John F. Kennedy--he loved Cuban cigars in particular so much that he dispatched his Secretary of State, Pierre Salinger, to buy a huge box of them the night before he signed the Cuban embargo into law.
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon also puffed on stogies, as did, of course, William Jefferson Clinton, who was named for Thomas Jefferson, which brings us full circle.
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