The Smokin’ Speaker

By John R Parkinson

Jan 31, 2011 12:57pm

ABC News’ John R. Parkinson reports:

Just weeks into the new House Republican majority, the headline of this article could reference a streak of legislative accomplishments lined up by Speaker of the House John Boehner and passed by the GOP House.

But, after Boehner fielded a familiar question for at least the third time in the past six months, the speaker is instead making headlines for his slightly improvised answer about his chronic smoking habit.

Fox News Sunday’s host Chris Wallace used the final question of his interview Sunday to ask Boehner, “We like you. Why don't you stop smoking?”

The Ohio Republican seemed somewhat annoyed but pushed his way through yet another response.

“Oh, why do we bring this up again?  You know, smoking.  Listen, it's a bad habit, but I have it.  And it's a legal product,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said. “I choose to smoke.”

Then Boehner added three more words beyond the scope of his usual explanation about his penchant for cigarettes.

“Leave me alone!” Boehner laughed, dismissing Wallace’s concern for the Speaker’s health with the wave of his hand.

It’s no secret in Washington: Speaker Boehner is a notorious, heavy, chain-smoker.

Veteran Capitol Hill reporters and congressional aides fondly recall the days of yesteryear when Boehner puffed away, just off the House floor, in a corner of the Speaker’s Lobby. Then, after House Democrats took the majority in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi banned smoking there.

But that did not stop Boehner and other Members from smoking inside the Capitol. Members are still permitted to smoke as much as they would like in their private offices.

Boehner’s office during his time as minority leader regularly emanated a smoky scent into the adjacent hallways. After word spread late last year that Boehner and Pelosi would swap offices in the Capitol, more than one congressional aide privately joked that the Architect of the Capitol might have to fumigate Boehner’s office before Pelosi moved in for the 112th Congress.

Sunday was not the first time either that Boehner was asked the smoking question on a Sunday morning political talk show. Last September, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” former smoker and cancer survivor Bob Schieffer recounted his own struggle with tobacco before pressing Boehner to quit smoking.

Boehner politely stressed that smoking tobacco is legal before confessing that some day he, too, might consider quitting.

“Bob, tobacco is a legal product in America,” Boehner told Schieffer. “I wish I didn’t have this bad habit and it is a bad habit. You’ve had it. You’ve dealt with it. But it’s something that I choose to do. And, you know, at some point, maybe I’ll decide I’ve had enough of it.”

Last July, months before Boehner and the GOP surfed an electoral tsunami into the majority, the future Speaker was asked whether a smoking-Speaker of the House would be a good role model for children, and if Republicans won the House majority, would he consider kicking the habit?

But even then, Boehner would not commit to quitting.

“I have a friend, close friend, who also smokes, and he has got some health issues,” Boehner said. “His doctor urged him to quit smoking, and I told him that if he’d quit, I’ll quit. I wouldn’t do it for myself, I’d do it for him.”

To be sure, Speaker Boehner is not the first prominent Member of Congress to come under scrutiny for the legal, but frowned-upon, vice.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama faced incessant questioning during his presidential campaign about his heavy smoking habits. Those questions continued through the first year of his presidency and from time-to-time, someone asks White House Press Secretary Roberts Gibbs for an update.

While President Obama has reportedly cut back his smoking habit considerably, it’s an issue that’s continued to plague the president even as recently as last week.

Last Tuesday at an on-the-record breakfast with reporters, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, was asked to share his favorite thing about the president.

“He’s supposedly given up smoking,” McConnell cracked.

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