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In Praise of the Smoking President

Obama kept his cigarette habit a secret for no good reason

A Promised Land, the massive first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, just dropped, and according to a review by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, he not only avoids inflating his own legacy — he doubts it. He “pushes pins into his own hype balloons” and embarks on a campaign of “savage self-questioning.” A good number of voters who celebrated his election in 2008 also have a less-than-rosy view of his two terms in office; the more left-leaning retrospectives have not been especially kind. “Disillusioned” might be the word.

But there’s one imperfection it’s easy to forgive Obama for. He stayed a smoker.

Remember how the media kept trying to nail Obama for lying about his cigarette habit? The way the White House had to officially deny he carried a pack around with him? It’s actually mind-bending, not only to recall that this was an issue at the time but to think of the most scrutinized man on earth attempting to keep the habit under wraps. I guess it didn’t fit with the he image he wanted to project, but really, it would’ve been nice to know that a leader defined by his preternatural calm was, in fact, stressed as fuck. Now that we’ve endured four years with a psychotic teetotaler in charge (besides the recent course of steroids, it’s unclear what other substances he may or may not be on), it’s all the more obvious that we should err on the side of a president who unwinds with a classic intoxicant.

Wait, what? Joe Biden doesn’t drink? Ah, shit.

Sure, smoking sets a bad example, if you’re worried that people will imitate you. On the other hand, admitting that you’re hooked on something unhealthy can give comfort to others struggling with the same addiction. No doubt the expectations that came with being the first Black president of the United States — the need to seem above petty politics and vices alike — added to the nicotine cravings. But why not let yourself look human? Photos of Obama ripping cigs in the Rose Garden or wherever might also have cut through the right-wing narrative that he was a supercilious operator, too far removed from “real” American lives. More importantly, it would have been honest. A vindication of millions who take parking lot smoke breaks at work.

Instead, he saved the reveal for the book, almost as a brag: I was smoking the whole time, and nobody caught me! Suckers! Can’t say I approve. Give me a president with the courage to slap an ashtray down on the Resolute desk of the Oval Office. It’s executive privilege, baby. Anything beats the pretense of having fully mastered yourself.

At least Joe goes hard on the ice cream.