The smoke-filled room is dead! Long live the smoke-filled room!


Before Paul Ryan settles into the Speaker’s chambers, there’s one last order of business to “clean out the barn” as John Boehner departs: get rid of the cigarette smell.

As the final frontier for the dead-metaphor of the “smoke-filled backroom,” Boehner’s office was one of the last places untouched by D.C.’s citywide ban on smoking in 2007. Ryan compared the smell to a hotel room or rental car that has been smoked in.

201-Smoke Filled Room

Smoking as a metaphor of gritty work and dirty compromises
Smoking has long served as a symbol of “getting things done” in American politics, for better or worse. Before Washington was ever built, the Founding Fathers smoke and drank their way through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Before the revolution even, John Adams described a Boston Caucus meeting in 1763 that would gather “selectmen, assessors, collectors, fire-wards, and representatives are regularly chosen in the town… there they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one end of the garret to the other.”

Nearly a hundred years later, Speaker James G. Blaine, the last Speaker to be elected to the Presidency, would initiate the first ban on smoking while in session in the galleries and the House floor in 1871.

By 1896, the House would prohibit smoking at all times in the House Chamber. As future Speaker of the House David Henderson of Iowa said proposing the rule, “members have been killed not alone because of the polluting effects of tobacco, but generally because of the impure air in this Hall.”

A press cliché rises from the ashes

Relegated to the cloakrooms, tobacco became jargon for a more clandestine type of politics. William Safire’s The New Language of Politics (1968) describes a “smoke-filled room” as a “place of political intrigue and chicanery.”

The Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, where a “smoke-filled room” of party bosses chose Warren G. Harding for their presidential candidate.

Safire recounts an infamous story where Republican Party leaders selected Warren G. Harding as a compromise candidate for president in the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago after a deadlocked convention in June 1920.

Associated Press reporter Kirke Simpson wrote at the time, “Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today” and a political cliché was born.

Smoking sometimes became a shorthand for the “bossism” exemplified by Tammany Hall politicians, but individually elected officials didn’t face a stigma for smoking.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson – all smokers elected to the Presidency before the surgeon general warned of nicotine’s harms in the mid-1960s. As Sarah Kliff wrote for Vox, laws began to limit smoking in public and indoors. Smoking in the American public decreased from 45 percent in 1955 to 25 percent by the 1995.

Over that time, cigar smoking remained common in committee meetings. As Orrin Hatch remembered in Newsweek about working with Ted Kennedy, “the degree to which we were fighting was evident by the cloud of smoke Ted would send my way.”

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The end of smoking in Washington fights?

As the nineties came along, the Clinton administration issued executive orders limiting smoking in federal buildings and pushed for banning smoking in public buildings. D.C. banned smoking in public buildings when it went smoke-free in January 2007.

Anticipating the ban and Nancy Pelosi’s rise to Speaker, there were whispers in late 2006 about banning tobacco from the Speaker’s Lobby, as this whimsically pun-filled report from The Washington Post identifies the culprit from Ohio as a main offender against Henry Waxman’s lungs:

As many as 25 percent of House members smoke, and one of the heaviest smokers is Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who frequently emerges from the House floor and heads straight to the Speaker’s Lobby to consume his favorite brand, Barclay. Yesterday, when he stepped out of the chamber, he gestured to an approaching reporter that he needed a moment before talking. He made a beeline for the southwest corner of the room, pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket, lit it and inhaled deeply.

Banning smoking the speaker’s lobby was one of Pelosi’s first acts as speaker in 2007. After the Republicans took back the House in the 2010 elections and forced John Boehner and Barack Obama to negotiate through tense debt limit showdowns in 2011, Bob Woodward glimpsed what negotiations look like in a transition to a smokeless Washington:

They’re having these private meetings in the White House—what Boehner calls the merlot and Nicorette meeting…on the patio off the Oval Office… Boehner’s having merlot and smoking a cigarette, and the President is having ice tea and chewing a Nicorette to keep him from going back to smoking.



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