What’s the biggest secret that the president and his administration tried to keep from us? Was it about health care? Did it deal with foreign-policy? Was it where he hides the key to the front door at Camp David? No, it’s about whether the president still smokes cigarettes.
The other day, President Obama signed an historic tobacco bill. It was aimed primarily at protecting kids by discouraging tobacco companies from targeting young people. The president said that he knows what it was like to get hooked early.
“I was one of those teenagers. I know how difficult it can be to break this habit once you’ve started.”
What he didn’t say was, “Even though it’s difficult, it can be done. I’m proud to say that I did it.”
This omission led reporters to ask the president about it. However, he ducked the question like George W. Bush ducking a shoe. When Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was asked the question, he didn’t want to answer either. Finally, Gibbs said that it’s something that the president “continues to struggle with … like millions of Americans have.”
I guess in Nixonian terms, you could call that a non-confirmation confirmation. Apparently, the press thought the inhale-and-puff issue was important enough to continue to press the president for details.
Finally, the next day, he admitted, while he “is 95 percent cured,” sometimes he has “fallen off the wagon.” He said he doesn’t smoke in front of his kids, and obviously he avoids being photographed with a cigarette in his mouth.
With this admission, tabloid TV and papers will probably send reporters to dive into the White House dumpster to look for cigarette butts. The Obamas’ drycleaner will be grilled about any cigarette odors. Disgruntled former generals will give interviews about alleged smoking.
That’s why he should make his struggle with smoking public. Very public. First of all, think of the millions of people who can identify with a person who is trying to juggle a high-pressure job with his family obligations while trying to stop smoking. It would also demonstrate just how hard it is to quit — as if more evidence is still needed. If such a determined man who has overcome so many obstacles has a hard time quitting, that stuff must really be addictive. Finally, those who view him derisively as “Mr. Perfect” would see him walking around with a flaw.
The White House should give out daily bulletins on how he’s doing with giving up smoking. The whole country would get involved. It would be bigger than “America’s Pet Makeovers” or whatever the latest reality show is called.
I can see the television newscasts beginning with, “Today, the president signed a trillion dollar education bill, warned against nuclear attacks, and threw away half a pack of Marlboros.” And then, every day, the evening news would begin with how many days Obama has been without cigarettes. “Today was the president’s seventh tobacco-free day,” “One month and still counting,” or “Obama falls off wagon but will start stopping again tomorrow.”
Instead of pretending that he doesn’t hear difficult questions or saying he can’t answer them because of national security, whenever Obama doesn’t want to deal with something tricky, all he’d have to do is shift the conversation over to his non-smoking.
“The struggle in Iran reminds me of another struggle — my struggle with tobacco. It all started when I was a teenager, lured by advertising that made smoking look cool.”
So if he’s still smoking, why does he feel he has to hide it like a teenager who’s afraid of being punished? He doesn’t live in Santa Monica, so he can’t be scared of being arrested. Is it because he went on television during the campaign and pledged that he was stopping? Is he afraid of going back on a campaign promise?
Nah, that can’t be it. Presidents break campaign promises more often than roided-out athletes break baseball records. So what is it, you ask?
If you remember, he didn’t make his “I’ll give up smoking” pledge to the nation. He made it to his wife, Michelle. A president can go back on his word to the country and the public will probably yawn. But if he goes back on a promise to his wife, he’s in big trouble.
Now that it’s out in the open, he’ll have to come up with something more clever than, “Michelle, I know Boo just went for a walk, but I think I’ll take him for another one. Alone. And the Bidens are barbecuing again, so my jacket might smell smoky when I get back.”
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his Web site at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.