Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leaders Fume Over Clinton's Smoking Ban

The Clinton White House has been officially declared a no-smoking zone by the first lady. But President Bill Clinton sneaks the occasional cigar on the balcony when Hilary is not looking.


When the news came through that the downed U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady had been snatched from Bosnian Serb territory, National Security Adviser Tony Lake declared that he was going to have a celebratory cigar, whether anyone liked it or not.


Clinton decided to join him, and nicotine addicts among the world's leaders are now much relieved because the discomforts of the Clinton ban have been a little-known subtext of international diplomacy for some time.


"I first came to the Clinton White House at the time of the opening of the Holocaust Museum, and I had been given the firmest of briefings by my ambassador that I could not smoke while I was there," Czech President Vaclav Havel confided the other day.


"Lech Walesa came up to me in the East Room and asked me to join him outside for a quick smoke. It was pouring down rain, and it seemed impolite to our host, so I would not join him."


Walesa made some glum joke about how Clinton could hardly declare war on both Poles and Czechs if the two leaders lit up a quick one, even indoors. But he chewed his moustache until they finally left the reception and shared one of Havel's Camel Lights.


And had we heard about Hungary's Gyula Horn, who had been visiting Clinton the previous week? The only direct flight from Budapest to Washington is jointly operated with Delta, which is now a no-smoking airline. Horn had to fly to Frankfurt and take a Lufthansa flight to the United States so he could puff his way across the Atlantic. But even he was under strict instructions not to light up in the White House.


The only time I know that the rule has been broken, apart from Clinton's cigar on the Truman Balcony, the Brits were to blame, or at least the Northern Irish. Clinton hosted a garden party last month on the South Lawn for the Irish Investment Fund. Marquees and Irish bands, lots of Ulster politicians and Irish mayors -- all smoking like chimneys as they knocked back the whiskey.


Divine intervention accordingly struck: A cloudburst drove everyone under the marquee as Clinton began to speak, in a thickening atmosphere that began to take on the characteristic aroma of a Belfast pub. Hilary's nose began to wrinkle. Then the lightning flared out, the rain began to leak through the tent, and the loudspeakers failed. We never heard what Clinton had to say, and Ulster's finest just went back to their booze and cigarettes.


I told Havel about the Irish party, and he sighed and looked glumly at his ambassador, Michael Zantovsky, another smoker.


"It was the same last night, when I had a private dinner with the president at [UN Ambassador] Madeleine Albright's house," Havel explained. "No smoking in the presidential presence. So I had to wait until after dinner."


But now, all has changed, and the cables are winging their way to the smokers among world leaders. But one strict rule remains. Never use that well-worn line, "I didn't inhale." Even over a soothing cigar, it does not go down well in Bill Clinton's White House.