The first volume of Barack Obama’s mammoth new memoir hits next week, but a copy has been obtained by CNN. And among the details they scooped, one of the most attention-getting nuggets has nothing to do with the crucial business of statecraft: Obama, who professed to be an ex-smoker, reveals that he continued to smoke even in the White House.
He writes, somewhat lightheartedly, about how the stress of the White House led to his bad tendencies, like smoking, noting that he would sometimes smoke eight or nine or ten cigarettes a day and look for a “discreet location to grab an evening smoke.” He said he quit smoking by “ceaselessly” chewing nicotine gum after his daughter Malia “frowned” after “smelling a cigarette on my breath.”
The revelation raises a lot of questions: Who was in on the secret? Given that hundreds of people protect, shadow, assist, and otherwise interrupt the privacy of the president, how was it that his daughter only found out by smelling his breath? Where is this “discreet location”? Is it the same one Bill Clinton used for his own less carcinogenic, but much more scandalous, secret activities? And where did Obama, a ten-a-day smoker who was presumably unable to just pop out to the nearest bodega, get his cigarettes, anyway?
But I’d add one more question: Why didn’t he just tell people? Obama is a hero to many people, but the 44th president and his family—good looks, regular workouts, fantastic educations, sophisticated tastes, brilliant brains—are not exactly relatable, at least not unless you too are preternaturally successful, self-disciplined, and handsome. The private-life details that occasionally slipped out of the White House during his tenure didn’t always help matters. Do you remember the story about how Obama would eat precisely seven almonds as a snack while working late nights in the Oval Office? Even when Obama corrected the story by noting that he did not limit his intake to a precise number of almonds, he also noted that he didn’t snack on potato chips or cake.
Against this backdrop, reports of the president huddling under the awning for a smoke, or shame-facedly bumming cigarettes from the interns, might have seemed a bit more human. Would it have helped him get his way with fellow smoker John Boehner, then the House speaker, or tobacco-state Senator Mitch McConnell? Doubtful. But you never know what the politics might have been. Because let’s face it: Whatever the experts say, smoking does make a president look cool.