Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I've come to a conclusion today.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is blinded by her adoration for Barack Obama. And that colors (if you'll pardon the expression) how she feels about everything else.

I will admit, there was a time when I was a regular reader of Dowd's columns. In addition to agreeing with many of the things she said, I admired her way with words. But I've felt myself growing more distant from her in the last couple of years, and I have wondered why that was so.

Today's column brought a lot of things into focus for me.

In that column, she writes critically of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's apparent infidelities. This is not a new topic for her. She has written similarly critical columns about Democrats Bill Clinton and John Edwards, but Republicans have not been left out. On the eve of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, she obsessed about John McCain's "dalliances" that led to the breakup of his first marriage — and I presume she will write about John Ensign, too, when she gets around to it. And she'll probably have something to say about Mark Sanford after she's had a chance to absorb the news.

In fact, based on some of the things she wrote about President Clinton, I really thought she would be a supporter of Hillary Clinton during last year's campaign — if only out of sympathy. But she pretty much disabused me of that notion long before she wrote about a "duel of historical guilts" between misogyny and racism around the time of last year's Texas primaries.

Now, in case I haven't made this point clear in my previous writings, I don't approve of anyone, male or female, cheating on a spouse. I believe marriage is a commitment, and I was brought up to believe that you honor your commitments. In fact, it is for that reason that I have supported proponents of same–sex marriage. I am not gay, but I do not believe that two people who want to make a public commitment to each other should be prevented from doing so.

I believe that people who are in the public eye have a responsibility to set a good example. I don't believe that responsibility is confined to the bedroom. I'm not so sure how Dowd feels about it.

Dowd apparently watched Obama's press conference yesterday. She may have been one of the reporters who was there. I don't know. I didn't see her there, but that doesn't mean she wasn't there.

For that matter, she may well have been on hand when Obama signed the tobacco bill into law on Monday.

Whether she was or not, she seems far too eager, in today's column, to give Obama a free pass on smoking.

"Sneaking a smoke now and again is not the worst presidential flaw imaginable," she writes. (I think I can guess, from reading her column over the years, what she does think is the worst presidential flaw imaginable. If infidelity isn't at the top of her list, my guess is that appearing to be weak and indecisive might be, and I'm sure there are those who would agree.)

She goes on to make observations like this: Obama is "positively monkish" compared to Berlusconi. What does the word "monkish" imply to you?

Then, after reciting Berlusconi's transgressions at length, she writes that she finds it "interesting" that Obama, with his "daunting discipline," is unable to "apply his willpower to cigarettes."

She proceeds to turn the rest of her column into a defense of Obama's style. She never takes him to task for the mixed signals he sends to "the next generation of kids" that both Obama and Dowd insist the legislation is designed to help.

Perhaps that is because she fails to recognize that her own language belittles the effort it takes to quit smoking. She falls back on the word "willpower," which tends to imply that anyone who is unable to give up smoking lacks discipline or self–control.

"Willpower," to me, is as misleading, when one is discussing smoking, as the word "habit." Nicotine, as Dowd's own New York Times has been telling people for more than two decades, is tougher to shake than "heroin, cocaine or amphetamines, and for most people more addictive than alcohol."

"Addiction" is the appropriate word. How else can you explain why millions of Americans continue to smoke in spite of the clear evidence of the death and disease smoking causes?

For many people, giving up smoking may require someone's help. It may require medication. It is not simply a bad habit that can be broken by the sheer force of "willpower." It is not a moral shortcoming.

The tobacco companies have known this for a long time. It is why they manipulated the nicotine content in their products.

One of the things this new law is designed to do is allow the feds to monitor the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. That's good, but it isn't enough to deter young would–be smokers.

When I began smoking as a teenager, I didn't read the warning labels on cigarette packages. Tobacco companies might have been manipulating nicotine in those days as well. I don't know. I didn't check whatever such information was printed on cigarette packages when I was in high school.

But I did observe what the adults — the famous and the ordinary — said and did.

What's the message that Barack Obama is sending to the young people he would like to discourage from smoking when he calls himself a "former smoker," yet admits he still smokes from time to time?

Because I have been what I call a "recovering smoker" for more than two years, some of my friends who are trying to shake their addictions have sought my advice. A friend of mine, who lives in another state, called me a few weeks ago to tell me she had gone a month without smoking. I congratulated her, but I knew from experience that it wasn't over.

And it wasn't. About a week later, she sent me an e–mail telling me that she had been on vacation for a week. She visited a cousin who, unaware that she was giving up tobacco, had purchased a carton of cigarettes for her before her arrival.

"I only smoked a couple each day," she said, apparently proud of her "accomplishment." Sorry, but, if you smoked at all, you're still a smoker.

Smokers have a way of rationalizing these things. And that's what Obama is doing when he claims to be a former smoker but he admits that he still smokes from time to time. He rationalizes it by telling people that he doesn't smoke every day, that he doesn't chain smoke.

Mr. President, this isn't about volume or frequency.

The truth is, you aren't an ex–smoker until you've purged your body of nicotine completely. And, even if you do that, you may prefer to continue to think of yourself as a "recovering smoker," as I do. As I wrote yesterday, asserting that you are a former smoker implies that you believe you have won the struggle with tobacco.

I respect this adversary far too much to assume that.

And, for Ms. Dowd's benefit, what does it say about Obama's marital commitment? Before he entered the 2008 presidential race, he made a deal with his wife. In exchange for her support for his decision to run, he would give up smoking.

Obama announced his candidacy on Feb. 10, 2007. That was more than 28 months ago. His wife held up her end of the bargain. Has Obama held up his?

Infidelity isn't the only way someone can betray a spouse's trust.

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