Laura to future mother-in-law: 'I read, I smoke and I admire' for a living

Published: Monday November 20, 2006

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Smoking is being employed by some politicos – including Barack Obama and Laura Bush – as a means of humanizing themselves to voters, according to a piece that appeared in the October issue of The New Republic.

Excerpts from the registration-restricted story follow:


Barack Obama's revelation that he is thinking about a 2008 run for president set off a predictable flurry of prognostications this week. Politics-watchers have speculated about how the electorate would react to everything from his youth to his pigmentation to his acknowledgement that he had messed around with marijuana and "maybe a little blow." But a far more interesting, if less legally dicey, bullet point was buried in a few of the recent stories about the Illinois senator's ambitions: Obama is a cigarette smoker.

In a different time, or a different spot on the socioeconomic totem pole, it might seem a lot weirder for an ambitious pol to admit snorting cocaine than to acknowledge struggling with nicotine. But, among the healthy living smart-set types who represent the elite of both the Democratic Party and the American meritocracy, smokers are about as common as guys with mustaches. I'd venture to say youthful coke-dabblers probably outnumber adult smokers among Obama's fellow 1980s Harvard law students.

Not that any of this means Obama's tobacco news will hurt him in politics. To the contrary: In an age when too many politicians come off as blow-dried confections whose every decision is based on some calculus of future advancement, a public image can actually be helped by the occasional evidence of vice – at least the variety of it that doesn't involve interns, pages, or choked mistresses. Maureen Dowd wrote on Saturday that the smoking habit was an example of how the senator was "intriguingly imperfect," a description that was never applied to the likes of Al Gore of John Kerry. Actuarially foolish and hopelessly out of fashion, it is a behavior that, at least in an overachiever like Obama, seems to assuage our national discomfort with overt ambition. How much of a striver can he be if he's also a smoker?


Obama is not the only smoker to gain authenticity points by copping to this most déclassé of American vices. News that Laura Bush was a smoker – and speculation that the she still puffs away while immersed in the occasional Dostoyevsky tome – is a staple of the glowing press coverage that celebrates the first lady's uncalculated, unpretentious, unpolitical style: Upon being introduced to her future mother-in-law, Laura Bush allegedly showed her non-Washingtonian chops by responding to a question about what she did for a living by saying "I read, I smoke, and I admire."