Hey, have you heard the latest gossip from the campaign trail? Don't tell anyone I told you, but Barack Obama smokes cigarettes -- can you believe it?
No, I'm not actually suggesting it's breaking news I'm passing along -- it hasn't been a secret for a month. But when I was passed along an interview he did with the Chicago Tribune last week, it sure felt like a reporter trying to start a news cycle of "can a smoker win?" stories or a campaign operative trying to start a whisper campaign of "do we really want one of those smokers being our nominee?"
My first reaction was to wonder whether we were talking about the race for homecoming king or president of the United States. We're all adults -- at least those running for president, those covering the race and those with votes to be won over.
Does it really matter if Obama smokes?
"I've never been a heavy smoker," Obama said in the interview with the Chicago Tribune. "I've quit periodically over the last several years." I bet a lot of former and current smokers can relate to that struggle.
And he's choosing the campaign trail to wage his war with the habit. I can certainly think of more convenient times -- perhaps one where the air doesn't already reek with stress. Now, his campaign managers will also be managing the candidate's "nic fits." Maybe filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi can catch Obama yelling at an aide for leaving his pack of Marlboro Reds on the campaign bus. Maybe the paparazzi, which normally follow Paris Hilton, will start staking out green rooms trying to catch that one last puff before Obama hits the stage for the presidential debate.
It should make for some interesting moments on the campaign trail but is it really news?
I just don't buy it that it is. Millions of Americans have tried quitting over the years and many ordinary Americans must have succeeded if the number of Americans smoking has dropped from 80 million in the '60s to just more than 40 million today. Millions of Americans quit smoking every year.
What makes this a story, I suppose, is that presidential politics is all about image. And, right or wrong, smoking is an image most Americans — at least the 75 percent who don't smoke — may be uncomfortable with. Nonsmokers complain about the cigarette smell left on their coats when they leave bars and the butts flung out car windows. Jokes are made about the herd of smokers clustered together outside the front doors of every office building in the city — when it's 9 degrees outside. News reports constantly tell us the enormous burden that smoking and secondhand smoke have on our already costly health care system.
In an era where candidates choose a necktie and suit colors and hairstyles — and just about everything else superficial — based on focus groups, a front page photo spread of Barack Obama dragging on a Marlboro, would certainly give the image consultant on the campaign trail a heart attack.
Maybe not. Some election watchers think an occasional story about a candidate with a vice could be a good thing for a campaign. Michael Schaffer writes in the New Republic:
"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."
Perhaps stories of Obama's rumored vice without the attached photographic evidence will help him to pull off of the balancing act of being presidential while maintaining some down-to-earth appeal. Most candidates these days just do it by going without a necktie.
Not everyone in his party may be so accommodating. Hillary Clinton, who forced the first ban on smoking in the White House, stands in his way. And next door in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi is fresh off of banning smoking in the speaker's lobby — the smoke-filled back room to end them all.
In the end there are much more important issues on the table than smoking as we pick the 44th president. Terrorism comes to mind. But while we still have at least a dozen men — and a woman slogging it out towards Iowa, which is still a full year away — it provides a little fodder for the pundits and a distraction for the masses.
I'm sure at least one campaign will be conducting a public opinion poll on presidential puffing within the week.