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Blowing Smoke on Capitol Hill

November 05, 1995|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Just last year it was the heads of the seven American tobacco companies who marched to Washington and the Democrats who wanted them to atone.

Congress was a tougher place for smokers back then. Not only were those tobacco folk forced to stand with hands raised, like so many naughty boys caught puffing in the restroom, and defend industry practices, but Democrats were actually trying to prohibit smoking in public areas of the Capitol.

Well, the new Republican majority, particularly those in the rebellious House, have set that nonsense straight.

First off, there'll be no more inquisitions for the tobacco industry. In fact, in the very same offices where former subcommittee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) waged his campaign against nicotine, some wily GOP staffer slipped a photo of Waxman under an ashtray. Aides could snuff out their butts right on his nose. "I guess in some cultures you drag dead soldiers through the streets one way or the other," says Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), a militant anti-smoker who failed to appreciate the irony.

Indeed, Republicans have re-established nicotine as a congressional staple, with three out of the four House leaders defiant about it. And you thought "smoke-filled rooms" in Congress was just a cliche.

Seen "puffing like a steam engine" down one of the House office public hallways was Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, No. 2 man in the leadership, a smoldering Carlton Menthol 100 between fingertips.

And there's Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, No. 3 man in the leadership, spitting a dollop of Skoll tobacco (just a pinch between cheek and gum) into the plastic cup held in his hand, right on the House floor.

Sure, anti-smoking regs established by former House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Ore.) in 1993 are still on the books. But who really cares? "Nobody is going to tell a member where not to smoke," says ex-House historian Ray Smock.

Certainly, not one of a bevy of uniformed House police officers scolds Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner of Ohio, No. 4 man in the House leadership, as he strolls among them down a public corridor sucking on a lighted Barkley cigarette. "If I didn't [like the habit], I'd have quit a long time ago," says the congressman, smiling.

And finally, in the ornate chambers where Foley once issued his edicts against tobacco hangs the ever-present aroma of Winston cigarettes, smoke of choice for Tony Blankely, press aide to Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

"In a free society, people should be entitled to have a very broad range of liberties," says Blankely in the clipped shadow of an English accent that has made him famous among the Capitol Hill press corps.

Putting flame to another Winston, only fractionally through his pack-a-day habit, Blankely says that his sentiment is, "I think, more than just a principle of the Republican Party, I'd like to think it's the principle of the Democratic Party too."

*

The late cigar-chomping Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill couldn't have phrased it better.

After all, tobacco in all its incarnations has been a proud part of Congress since the Revolution. Charles Dickens couldn't help appreciate, when he visited the United States and toured Congress, the squishy nature of the handsomely carpeted Senate and House floors, particularly around the poorly targeted spittoons.

"I strongly recommend strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything . . . not to pick it up with an ungloved hand," Dickens wrote in his memoirs.

It was the single greatest alleviator of partisan differences even at the most divided periods of congressional history. Wrote author Grace Greenwood in 1850: "A Whig may be seen passing his [snuff] box to a Democrat, who passes it to a Southern Ultraist, who passes it to a Northern 'incendiary'--all three forget their sectional differences in a delightful concert of sternutation [sneezing]."

From within the columned corridor near the Rotunda, now known as Statuary Hall, vendors unabashedly hawked a variety of tobacco products to members during the Civil War, before reform-minded members thought better of it.

Inevitable change was under way.

"A majority of the senators--a large majority at that--are smokers; and, unfortunately, a pernicious habit has so mastered them that they are nervous and miserable when they do not get the nicotine poison which soothes their nerves," argued the former Confederate, South Carolina Sen. Benjamin R. (Pitchfork Ben) Tillman during a floor debate on smoking in 1914.

"As soon as the doors are closed for executive session, they light their cigars and puff away and the chamber soon has the appearance of a beer garden," he said.

Some argued feebly in its defense. But smoking on the Senate floor was to be banished, with only storied symbols of tobacco remaining.

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