President Obama's former smoking habit has reared its head again in the form of media reports that he copped a smoke with pop legend Billy Joel during a White House visit last year. The right-wing media has eagerly repeated the tale, and the story of course made it to Fox News, but it all started on Judy Kurtz's The Hill blog, In The Know:
According to our tipster, the 65-year-old entertainer said, “I was at the White House recently, and President Obama did the same thing. He said, ‘I’m going out on the North Portico to have a smoke. Do you want to come with me?”
Joel said he replied, “Well, I haven’t smoked in a long time,” but indicated that he ultimately couldn't turn down a cigarette offer from the president.
Billy Joel was at the White House last December for a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, but Joel has since toldThe New York Daily News that Obama did not offer him a smoke, which is just what you'd expect one guy on the wagon to say about another guy on the wagon. Fortunately for Obama and Joel, the mysterious tipster's story doesn't add up in several key respects.
Most glaringly, there's no way the president, or anyone else, would smoke a cigarette at the North Portico, because that would put him in full view of every tourist in D.C., as well as any of the aerial cameras the networks often train on the North Lawn, and any White House reporter who was doing a stand-up.
There are lots of other places on the grounds where the president could avoid the general public, and as far as I know, smoking is tolerated in most outdoor areas of the grounds. I smoked a cigarette in the Rose Garden once, but that would be a lousy place for Obama to go, because like most everywhere else, he'd still be at significant risk of being busted by the First Lady. The White House has only recently installed one of those smoker's buddy ashtray poles, after years of butts littering the grounds, but it's right outside the press room, so that's no good.
There is one spot that's damn near perfect for a surreptitious cigarette, just outside the White House kitchen. There's an awning that obscures the view from above, along the North Portico drive, and although it is only a few feet away from the rear entrance of the press room, there are always a few bread racks and catering cabinets to hide behind. Besides, I'm not entirely convinced that White House reporters would necessarily tattle on the president for smoking at the White House, at least not the reporters who smoke. Ours is an at-times-inconsiderate clique, but we do have a code. You can't refuse another smoker in need, and you don't rat out a fellow smoker. I'm one of the few out smokers, but I'd never assume someone else is, and I sure wouldn't report anyone for it. An on-the-wagon smoker like Joel especially wouldn't.
Here's something else weird about smokers: They are only menthol-compatible in one direction. If I'm out of cigarettes, I will smoke any and every brand available, but someone who smokes, say, Marlboros, can be ready to commit murder-suicide for a cigarette, but if I offer him one of mine, he'll exclaim "Menthol!" and give me a dirty look like I just offered to shit in his mouthwash.
Fortunately, for our collective health, there aren't many smokers at the White House, which means an even smaller pool of people to bum from. Hopefully, before too long, there will be one less. But, to be clear, because I quit, not because I died.