The Caucus Brief- Presidents’ Day Edition

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Because of our proximity to the White House and all things American History here in the nation’s capital, we take special delight in this week’s “Caucus Brief”, underscoring not just Presidents who smoked cigars but two particular Chief Executives who found time during very busy schedules to value private, special moments with a cigar.

For both William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, it was important to enjoy them during private instances of leisure, usually with close friends and staff. They knew how to savor the experience, recognizing, as Zino Davidoff once said that these were “sublime moments…precious moments…fleeting but unforgettable.” Both were men living their lives at a rapid pace, but realizing the moment with a cigar could hardly be rushed, and never just something they could do to simply pass the time.

In a special edition one year into the cigar boom 30 years ago (Fall 1993), historian-author Carl Sferrazza Anthony did a thorough job summarizing which presidents enjoyed the pastime we all know and love in a special issue of Cigar Aficionado. Because of Anthony’s focus on the personal presidency – most of his work has focused on presidential families, particularly first ladies – he provided unique insights into the pretty lengthy list of Chief Executives who smoked while in office.

By his count fewer than half (43 percent) of presidents through 1993 occasionally enjoyed a hand-rolled cigar or a pipe. But one fine fact Anthony highlighted is that more presidents between the Civil War and World War II smoked cigars than those who did not. Many have estimated that at the turn of the 20th Century, 70-80 percent of American men smoked cigars. It was a “gentlemanly” thing to do at the time, something people enjoyed and made time for – much like those of us today who associate the cigar with a certain prestige and even a bit of luxury. Both McKinley and Kennedy, in their own way, brought a degree of their own prestige to the cigar smoking world during their time in Washington.

As Presidents’ Day approaches, we recall both McKinley and Kennedy – both of whom are remembered for their commonalities (despite being in opposite parties): 1- their success while in office; 2- their long-term vision for the country abroad; 3- both were decorated combat veterans (McKinley in the Civil War and JFK in World War II); and, of course for 4- their affinity for the hand-rolled cigar. William McKinley (1897-1901), Republican, and John F. Kennedy (1961-63), Democrat, enjoyed many private, fleeting moments smoking on the White House grounds, pondering the vital decisions of the day. McKinley was known for smoking Cuban Garcia y Vegas and Kennedy the Cuban H. Upmann Petite Coronas. Another commonality? They each smoked Cuban cigars and they both, in their own way, helped create a demand for them.

Few people today know that McKinley smoked frequently, most often after dinner. If one ‘googles’ McKinley today, one instantly comes across his face on cigar bands, ashtrays, tobacco pouches, and much more. One particular “McKinley Tobacco” brand said his tobacco ‘surpassed all others’. Political cartoons of the day also showcased the 25th president with a cigar in hand. Can the case be made that McKinley’s ever present cigar helped drive the demand for them in that first decade of the 20th century? Probably.

McKinley also did the best he could to enjoy his cigar in private. As a child of the 19th century he was never comfortable in the spotlight as president unlike his 20th century successors. As a private man, he detested the thought of being watched by young men taking up his private (but enjoyable) pastime. The presidency of 1900 was a different institution and William McKinley thought his smoking to be special but only in his own world. A trend setter he was not. He was a transitional president who would be remembered, much as Kennedy would later, for something he would never have imagined, much less approved of, himself.

JFK, on the other hand, didn’t mind the extra attention placed on him. By the 1960s, the presidency as an institution was something else entirely. Kennedy welcomed not only the challenges of the office, but the lavish parties, state dinners, and all the attention he could muster. Kennedy’s New Frontier was about a new culture, and a more open relationship with the press. His famous cigar-smoking press secretary (and long-time Georgetown Tobacco customer) Pierre Salinger often led the way toward post-dinner private cigar parties where “Jack” Kennedy was known to indulge.

JFK today is remembered for his youth, vigor, style, and his young family. All which fit into his reputation for leisure and class. He set trends, had the perfectly coiffed hair and he smoked the soon-to-be coveted (and, outlawed) Cuban cigar. Within a year of starting his lone term in office, the 35th president famously instituted the infamous Cuban embargo but not before having Salinger himself procure upwards of 1,000 Upmanns. Writer and Kennedy friend William Styron once wrote about Kennedy’s unique savoir faire, often helped by his comfort with the cigar, usually smoked in moments of solace and privacy among some of his closer friends and associates, far apart from the maddening crowds. As the youngest president ever elected at 43, he represented the future. But many, as writer/pundit George Will recalled in a 2003 column, could tell he lived his life in the moment, in a hurry, mindful of what the future would say about him.

Two presidents, decades apart, but both appreciative of our craft. As you begin celebrating the federal holiday this coming week, remember both presidents for their simple legacies, their achievements and for their love of the art form that is the handmade cigar. But do remember that as men who took their job seriously, they both also seemed to be living life in a hurry. One can say both ultimately did master their craft as presidents while truly enjoying the many special moments with a cigar. They both left this world with their reputations and legacies at an all-time high.

One other commonality? McKinley died at the hands of an assassin on 6 September 1901, just months into his second term. Much like Kennedy himself who would also tragically pass in the same manner on 22 November 1963 never experiencing a second term.

So, on Presidents’ Weekend, remember McKinley and JFK as you light up. Yet another perspective as you ponder the moment. Don’t live your life in hurry, face it valiantly, slowly, savoring every instance, one …puff… at …a …time.

Editor’s Note- About the Author:  Walter Montaño recently celebrated his 24-year anniversary as a part-time employee of Georgetown Tobacco.  Walter is the Director of Boston University’s study abroad program in Washington, D.C., and as a presidential historian, shares his love of history with his students as a full-time faculty member as well.  Join us in the store with Walter on almost any Friday evening or Sunday afternoon to dive deeper into the modern presidency, cigars and pipes!