Monday, July 12, 2010

Presidential Cigars

The term smoke filled room is long the very image that politics bring forth. Cigars and presidents seem to have always gone hand to mouth. They are part of the very image of power and influence. However common they have been with our presidents, there are a few stories that stand out.

That phrase of the "smoke filled room" actually came from presidential politics. It was at the Chicago Blackstone Hotel in June of 1920. George Harvey was there to attend the Republican National Convention. The top GOP leader from New York City checked into a spacious two room suite. Harvey's name may have faded from history, but his suite # 404 was destined to become the most famous hotel room in American political history.

After four ballots, the convention was deadlocked between General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden. A distant fourth was Warren Harding. Through the hot steamy night a group of party leaders met in Harvey's room, looking for a way out of the deadlock. They decided on little known Harding.

As dawn broke, AP reporter Kirke Simpson filed a story saying, "Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke filled room early today." Harding went on to win the nomination and the Presidency. From that day forward "Smoke filled room" described the back room where political operators pulled their strings out of public view.

Of course it would be impossible to tell this story without the most recent, and likely most infamous White House cigar story. Bill Clinton taught the world a new way to enjoy a fine cigar. For years gentlemen would try dipping their cigars in cognac or rum, however this is not a good idea. It really doesn't add to the flavor, it was a practice before humidors kept them moist. We will leave President Clinton's unsaid, but it is a practice that might make his guests pause before accepting a cigar from his desk humidor.

For a story that is more appropriate for mixed company, one would be that of President Ulysses S. Grant. This story goes back long before Grant was president, starting in February of 1862, when as a little known Union general Grant won a huge victory at Fort Doneleson, Tennessee. After several days of brutal fighting an entire Confederate army surrendered to Grant. More than twelve thousand Confederate soldiers were captured.

Fort Donnelson made Grant famous, and in time was his demise. Grant became the toast of the nation, in the many articles written about him and his valor, several described him as smoking a cigar at the height of the battle.

Up unto that time, Grant was a light smoker, however people from all across the Union began to send him boxes of the choicest brands of cigars. Soon he received more than ten thousand. Grant later wrote, "I gave away all I could, but having as such a quantity on hand I naturally smoked more than I would have done under the ordinary circumstances, and have continued the habit ever since."

Grant went on to win the war and serve two terms as president. Twenty three years after the battle of Fort Donnelson he died of throat cancer at age sixty three. Doctors agreed it was brought on by his years as a heavy cigar smoker. Fort Donnelson claimed it's final victim as his fans loved him to death.

However, my very favorite presidential cigar story was from John F. Kennedy. In 1962John F. Kennedy sent his Press Secretary Pierre Salinger out on a mission one night to round up thousands of his favorite brand of Cuban cigar. Salinger, who was confused as to why he was sent on this mission, reported to the president the next morning that he had done so. "Thank Goodness, now I can sign this" said Kennedy. He then put his signature on a trade embargo with Cuba that banned, among other things, the import of Cuban cigars. A little presidential privilege insider trading.

As Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, a progressive ex-Governor from Indiana's claim to fame, told us. As vice president Marshall was presiding over the Senate when Joseph Bristow of Kansas was making a very long and boring speech about what was the matter with the country, and how to fix it. Over and over again, each paragraph began with "What this country needs is.." Finally Marshall couldn't take in any more, leaned over to Senate clerk Henry Rose and gave a stage whisper loud enough for all to hear "Henry, what this country needs is a good five-cent cigar."
This phrase caught the nation's fancy, he too was rewarded with cigars from admirers from all over the country. By the way, in his day, the average price of a good cigar was about a dime.

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