The arc of the Washington press corps is long. But let's face it, it bends toward occasionally asking some stupid questions. Like about Alex Rodriguez. And about stuff that "humbles" and "enchants" President Barack Obama about being the President, and living in a "white" "house" with an "oval" "office" and Joe Biden. And today, the prize for "Are You Really Going To Use Your One Chance To Ask The President A Question On THAT Topic" goes to McClatchy Newspapers, for this exchange:
MCCLATCHY: Thank you, Mr. President. As a former smoker, I understand the frustration and the fear that comes with quitting, but with the new law that you signed yesterday regulating the tobacco industry, I would like to ask you a few questions, how many cigarettes a day --
OBAMA: A few questions?
MCCLATCHY: Well -- how many cigarettes a day do you smoke? Do you smoke alone or in the presence of other people? And do you believe the new law would help you to quit and why?
First of all, I love the "as a former smoker" construction of the question. "You know, we are just two ex-smokers talking here, Mr. President!" UHM, NO! Raise your hand if you are a former smoker who often finds himself jonesing for a cigarette on those stressful occasions where say, the economy might collapse, or North Korea might point a missile at Hawaii, or a dangerous regime goes TOTAL WIGFLIP BALLKNOCKERS with unrest because of an illegitimate election -- on your watch? Sort of not the same league.
Anyway, I think Obama more or less decodes this correctly, as not being something that has anything to do with the new tobacco law:
OBAMA: Well, first of all the new law that was put in place is not about me, it's about the next generation of kids coming up. So I think it's fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking as opposed to if -- being relevant to my new law. But that's fine. I understand. It's an interesting human interest story. Look. I've said before that as a former smoker, I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family. You know, I would say that I am 95 percent cured, but there are times where -- there are times when I mess up. And I've said this before. I get this question about once every month or so. And I don't know what to tell you other than the fact that, you know, like folks who go to AA, you know, once you've gone down this path, then it's something you continually struggle with. Which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important. Because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place. Okay?
From the standpoint of extemporaneous speaking, that's a pretty good job of bending this exchange back to something more substantive. But it doesn't explain why the press continues to obsess with Obama's smoking. I get that it likely has to do with serving as a role model. If Obama smokes, won't everybody? Won't it be totally cool to smoke because Obama is totally cool and now doesn't everybody want to hang out with Larry Summers and smoke cigarettes and eat Dijon mustard? I have to imagine that if I were to ask this reporter why she felt the question was important, I'd likely get some version of this "role model" song and dance.
Nevertheless, let's hesitate before we rely on reporters to suss out good role models for the nation. A month ago, former Vice President Dick Cheney was presented as Obama's equal, in a "great debate" about national security. This is a man who is proud to have ordered the torture of other human beings. So, maybe everyone who thinks it'd be "neat" to ask about Obama's smoking should drop the pretense of gravitas. The way I see it, the White House Press Corps, if they've an eye toward being fair, should heretofore refer to smoking as "enhanced breathing" or "harsh inhalations." Really, it's the least they can do.