The power and prestige of a good cigar

Not long ago, it was common see a member of Congress stride from the House chamber into the Speaker’s Lobby, settle into a large leather chair and light up a tightly rolled cigar.

And while a smoking ban has pushed lawmakers out of the cozy leather chairs and out onto the balconies, the image of the cigar-smoking power player lingers.

John Sullivan, manager of J&R Cigars — located in the heart of Washington’s lobbying sector on K Street — said the association probably dates back to the days when only the wealthy could afford to buy a good cigar.

“The image just stayed that way,” he said. “Now [most patrons] find an affordable cigar they like and just stay with it.”

Sullivan said that, in his experience, few people actually smoke $10 cigars every day.

Over the years, the cigar has had a bit of an image problem, as many things associated closely to power do. During an election year, campaigns frequently will try to paint an opponent as a cigar-smoking, back room-dealing Washington insider. Corrupt politicians in films are often seen chomping on thick, well-masticated cigars as they direct nefarious activities. Indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff was famously known for his cigar smoking and for giving expensive stogies as gifts. And who can forget former President Bill Clinton’s salacious deeds with a cigar?

But Sullivan thinks that image problem is dated. “I don’t think that’s the case any longer, because you can’t smoke in the back room anymore,” he said.

Lawmakers interviewed described a softer side of the cigar smoking culture.

“I’ll have one and a half a week,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), who favors cigars with “pretty much any label you can buy” from Central America. 

Unlike congressional oeno­philes, cigar-smoking lawmakers don’t feel the need to caucus together.

Davis said that while some members may smoke cigars socially, he tends to do so by his lonesome. “Maybe once a year members will get together, but there is no schedule.”

Davis added that some establishments around the Hill once held cigar nights before the ban, but that has become a thing of the past.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) agreed: “I learned never to drink alone in my life, but cigars are more of a solitary thing.”

Sullivan disagreed, pointing to the University Club’s cigar nights — they now occur on the roof until it gets too cold — as a place where the suit-wearing set congregate to puff away uninhibited by the ban.

“Every day, we have regulars who will stop by to talk and smoke a cigar,” he said. “It takes a while to enjoy a cigar.”

From Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who could frequently be seen enjoying a cigar between votes in the Speaker’s Lobby, to former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was rumored to have a humidor in his office, the love of cigars spans the political spectrum.

For his part, Sullivan said that most of the famous patrons he recognized were Republicans, but conceded that he may not know the Democrats on sight yet.

The smoking ban went into effect in January 2007, and only a few remaining establishments in D.C. still allow patrons to light up indoors. Aroma in Cleveland Park is one of those cloudy havens. In October, it became the first D.C. bar to be granted a hardship exemption after the owners saw business fall 20 percent. Its art deco furniture and casual patrons are a far cry from their suit-clad counterparts on Capitol Hill.

Unfortunately, so was the cigar collection.

The selection ranged from one Churchill-sized cigar (6.5 to 7 inches long, with a ring gauge of about 50) to a selection of petite coronas (less than 4.5 inches long, ring gauge of about 40). Some were featured in flavors such as orange-blossom honey.

“No serious cigar smoker would ever want a flavored cigar,” one patron said, adding that all of the cigars were from CAO, a Nashville manufacturer, and were brittle due to a cold humidor.

But to Aroma’s credit, what it lacked in cigars, it compensated for with a good selection of a key accessory: scotch.

A more crowded venue is Shelly’s Back Room, located at 1331 F St. NW. It boasts a large selection of cigars and is a popular place for staff and members of Congress who want to kick back. In contrast to Aroma, it tends to be crowded and loud. Its popularity is a clear signal that the days of cigar-smoking Washingtonians are far from over, even if cigar lovers have been booted from the back room.

“I think that smoking is going to be a specialized niche,” Sullivan said. He added that while cigarettes are slowly being phased out of social settings, cigars remain. “Cigars are something you have to sit down and enjoy. I think you’ll see that cigars will be around for quite some time.”