December 09, 2008

Obama Lights Up: Ruminations from a Fellow Addict

Will the stunning revelations never cease? When pressed during an interview with Tom Brokaw, Barack Obama waffled a bit before admitting that he hasn't been entirely successful in kicking his nicotine addiction. He still lights up from time to time, but he's promised that he won't do it in the White House.

During his interview with NBC News' Tom Brokaw over the weekend, President-elect Barack Obama acknowledged that he has had some trouble kicking his smoking habit but promised that the White House would remain a smoke-free zone.

"There are times where I've fallen off the wagon," Mr. Obama said when asked if he had stopped smoking...


Let's get the obvious out of the way. Smoking is bad. Kids, don't try this at home. Everybody tells you this stuff, so why should I repeat it? In most ways, this item is a non-story. The last eight years of radical misgovernment have left many aspects of our nation's well-being in smoking ruins. A smoking Executive? If he can pull America out of its historical nosedive and make repairs to our economy, infrastructure, international relations and commitment to education, I don't care if Obama likes to pound nails up his nose while singing the theme song from Bonanza at 3:00 in the morning in drag. Really, really bad drag. Get over yourselves, snap snap.

So while I'll readily admit that a smoking president might not be the greatest thing in the world, it's far from the worst. I say this as a smoker myself, and one who, like Obama, has made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to kick the habit. In light of that, my first bit of advice to the President-Elect, were he listening, would be to stay away from Chantix. It did weird things to me when I tried it, and I got my hands on a prescription the week after it went on the market. Chantix impaired my memory and caused me to have multiple episodes of sleep paralysis that left me an utter wreck after about two months on the stuff. We can't risk having that in a president. All things considered, he's better off sneaking out to the Rose Garden for the occasional smokebreak... and so are we if he stays away from varenicline.

So, even though I am painfully aware of how addictive cigarettes are and have a pretty thorough understanding of how and why they're so bad for you, I'm going to play the optimist here and speak about the upside of this nasty habit. Yes, there is one and no, it's not worth the health consequences and no, this isn't an endorsement of inhaling particulate matter. Still, the guy already smokes. Let's think about the lung being half-full for a moment.

In one way, I've benefited from being a smoker. Because we smokers are banned from indulging our habit indoors in the workplace (and rightfully so), we have to step away from whatever else we're doing every so often in order to pump a little sweet, sweet nicocrackatein into our bodies in order to be able to maintain our concentration and evenness of mood. It's boring to do that by ourselves, so smokers naturally form little cliques that take breaks together. From experience, I can say that these little sessions have allowed me the opportunity to learn about all sorts of things — useful things — from other smoking colleagues. This is as true now that I am studying biology as it was when I was a headhunter. It's hard to get time from people to simply learn from them what they know; everyone's days are pretty full. Those smokebreaks make it happen. I've learned about everything from inside information regarding the executive teams at high-tech startups to the problems with designing primers for insect mitochondrial genes from fellow junkies.

Might Obama reap the same sort of benefit from amongst the negative consequences of his unhealthful indulgence? He might. You know, he might not be the only world leader, or staffer employed by a world leader, who smokes. He might not be alone out there on the White House steps puffing away in the dead of winter. Who knows what breakthroughs might come when he's joined out there by some government official from another country? What inside knowledge might he gain from sharing a few tar-tawnied moments with a staffer traveling with the Prime Minister of Brunei? Scorn if you must, but these smoke session are intimate in a way that the inside of an office or conference room can never hope to be. You're removed from that environment. You're outside. Maybe you're cold and feeling a little alienated. It's natural that such a situation breeds candor amongst those involved. Obama's health might suffer just a little, but we as a nation might just come out ahead because of it.

I have another common trait I share with Obama, or at least I like to think so. Both he and I are highly educated and possessed of a level of intelligence markedly higher than the outgoing president. The latter is, in and of itself, not saying very much, I know. Still, from my own experience I can state that my own awareness of both the costs of smoking and my inability (so far) to quit is a rather humbling thing. It reminds me of my own frailties and it probably does the same for Obama. Such weaknesses are intrinsically humiliating things to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness, and Obama's waffling in the interview likely demonstrates that he has experienced a similar awareness and its consequent humbling effect. I've long maintained that anyone narcissistic enough to think they ought to be president probably shouldn't be elected, so it's a hopeful sign that Obama gets this periodic thump upside his head with the two-by-four of an unresolved character flaw. He's aware that he's not perfect, that he can do wrong by himself. He's not likely to wave that silly banner of divine right and council like some Chief Executives we know. I'm aware that plenty of people will disagree with this notion that I prefer my humans both flawed and aware of their flaws. Lots of folks think that a president should be a spiritual leader of some sort, a shining paragon of white knight rectitude. Me, I like to see that the guy knows there are some chinks in the armor. It's hard to be humble when one thinks of themselves as perfected. Besides, as embarrassing a habit as smoking is, is it really any more humiliating than

I think not.

Now, look, the fact that Obama is going to sneak off for a cigarette when the pressure is on every so often is not something to be celebrated. Still, presidents have done a lot worse in recent memory. I'll take smoke-n-choke over shock-n-awe any day of the week.

So, Mr. President-Elect, smoke 'em if you got 'em until you don't need to get 'em anymore. From one smokin' schmuck to another, you have my sympathy on this. It must hurt to have the press and the naysayers jabbing their fingers into this bullet wound in your self-image. I'm sure Michelle gives you as much grief over the habit as LL gives me; I also can't smoke in my home or in my office and I'm quite acquainted with the winter winds of New England as one result. Still, maybe you can leverage this for our benefit somehow. Whatever it takes. If I'm ever in DC and see you out having a dose of the bad stuff, I'd love to come and join in your act of enlightened self-destruction. I've got a few thoughts on research funding, and so do you. We can talk about it while we die just a little.

See? Smokers' optimism.

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