A varied crowd united by a small pleasure
“If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven,
I shall not go!”
– attributed to Mark Twain
If you have read my articles for this magazine, or if you perused my last book, you may have detected the vague scent of tobacco wafting up from it. That is because I can often be found at my office away from the office: the cigar shop (specifically, Signature Cigars in Washington, D.C., the capital’s best tobacconist). When not there, I can often be found on the twelfth-floor balcony of the American Enterprise Institute, also with stogie in hand. A friend and former colleague and I gave this balcony a nickname, “The Remnant,” in homage to Albert Jay Nock’s notion of an irreducible sliver of right-thinking humanity separate and apart from the “Neolithic” masses.
Nock’s was a thoroughly elitist conception, which is ironic, since smoking cigars may be the most democratic thing I do. At the cigar shop, the clientele is mixed in nearly every way, though you wouldn’t say it “looks like America.” A large proportion of the African-American regulars are D.C. cops. In terms of professions, the crowd leans a bit too heavily toward lawyers (as does the nation’s capital). But there’s no shortage of contractors, manual laborers, college students, and retirees.
Politically, there are all types. As far as I can tell, the most ideologically conservative regular (me included) is a federal employee. The gender mix is thoroughly lopsided, of course. Women do occasionally come into the shop, but when they do, all eyes go up as if a unicorn had sauntered into a library. Dennis Prager, another gentleman of the leaf, has written that cigar shops may be the last place in America where men can congregate and talk as men. It’s not discrimination, mind you, it’s just that cigar smoke tends to have the same effect on the fairer sex that it has on mosquitoes.
What unites us all is a fondness for — or craving for — cigars, not tobacco per se mind you, but cigars. It is generally frowned upon to smoke cigarettes in a cigar shop. Pipes may be welcome (I for one think they have the best aroma), but I don’t think I have ever seen one smoked in a cigar shop, even though nearly all good tobacconists sell pipes and their associated sundries.
In football (a subject of near-constant discussion at the cigar shop) there’s a saying, “Watch the ball, not the man.” With cigars, something similar is at work. The camaraderie follows the leaf. On the road, I will often be seen outside my hotel preparing for a speech or writing a column with cigar in hand. Invariably another cigar smoker will catch the scent and, at a minimum, nod his appreciation. Often he will strike up a conversation about what I’m smoking or where there might be a good cigar shop in the area. One thing he will never do is ask for a cigar. Cigars are things of real value, emotionally and financially, and when they are given away, it’s as a gift. Cigarettes are filthy commodities shared among a lesser genus of addicts. There’s a reason it’s called “bumming a cigarette.”
Indeed, the similarities between cigars and cigarettes are more limited than you might think. For starters, you don’t inhale the smoke from cigars, at least not intentionally, which is one reason why the risks of lung cancer for cigar smokers are tiny when compared with those for cigarette smokers. Sadly, this fact often causes cigarette smokers to take up cigars, only to discover that they can’t kick the habit of inhaling, a practice that horrifies cigar aficionados and doctors alike.
So, what defines a good cigar? Frankly, I am the wrong man to ask. The best short answer to that question is, “Whatever you enjoy.” As with anything of beauty, much depends on the tastes of the beholder. But everyone agrees on a few hallmarks of an excellent cigar, just as everyone agrees on what makes a bad one (commonly referred to in the trade as a “sh*t stick”).
A good cigar must be well constructed and consistent. A well-constructed cigar is one that burns properly and draws well. If it is not rolled properly, a cigar will burn unevenly and it will be hard to draw smoke through. I’ve had a few cigars that were so poorly rolled I nearly gave myself a hernia trying to pull flavor out of them. Consistency is also important: As with a fine single-malt Scotch (there’s no such thing as a fine blended Scotch, if you ask me), each pour must meet your expectations.
What makes cigars enjoyable? Speaking only for myself, I think it is both the yin and the yang. There are few more relaxing things in life than reserving an hour or so to enjoy a fine cigar. But unlike alcohol — against which I have no brief, in moderation of course — nicotine is a stimulant. It heightens my concentration and allows me to focus on whatever I am reading, saying, or writing. It is the combination of these two effects — steadying the nerves and electrifying them at the same time — that makes a cigar so agreeable.
But there is a third variable at work, one I alluded to already. Cigars arouse passions in people. Those who hate them tend to stay away from them. So when you smoke one, you are either left alone to your own enjoyment or surrounded by kindred spirits who share your passion. I cannot stand it when people smoke cigars in mixed company just to prove they can, or in some other way pretend they are sticking it to the Man. One does not have to subscribe to the cultivated hysteria about secondhand smoke to understand that smoking in front of people who do not wish to be around smoke is rude. Life is too short, and cigars are too expensive, to smoke them for any reason other than enjoyment.
I am a conservative in large part because I believe that politics should intrude on life as little as possible. Conservatives surely believe that there are times when the government should meddle in the daily affairs of the people, but they normally reserve those times for large questions of right and wrong, good and evil. Most conservatives, for instance, may want to restrict abortion on grounds rooted in the Decalogue, but few want the government to stop you from drinking raw milk. So much of liberalism is about unleashing the Joy Police on us, politicizing our prosaic wants and desires because some expert somewhere thinks he or she knows better how to live your life than you do. The result is to scrub the Hobbit warrens of our daily lives of the simple pleasures and to make many of those simple pleasures “political” even when properly speaking they are not.
G. K. Chesterton, a devout cigar smoker in every sense, was a great hater of the impulse to politicize that which should remain outside politics. In the late 1920s, Chesterton rejected the idea that you could discern anything of consequence about a man’s morality from the fact that he smoked:
To have a horror of tobacco is not to have an abstract standard of right; but exactly the opposite. It is to have no standard of right whatever; and to take certain local likes and dislikes as a substitute. . . . Nobody who has an abstract standard of right and wrong can possibly think it wrong to smoke a cigar. . . . [American culture] has a vague sentimental notion that certain habits were not suitable to the old log cabin or the old home-town. It has a vague utilitarian notion that certain habits are not directly useful in the new amalgamated stores or the new financial gambling-hell. If his aged mother or his economic master dislikes to see a young man hanging about with a pipe in his mouth, the action becomes a sin; or the nearest that such a moral philosophy can come to the idea of a sin. A man does not chop wood for the log-hut by smoking; and a man does not make dividends for the Big Boss by smoking; and therefore smoking has a smell as of something sinful.
A few years ago, the share of Americans who buy bottled water eclipsed the share who buy beer. It was a watershed moment. Beer is by nature a social lubricant. Bottled water is something you imbibe all on your own. In today’s health-obsessed culture, where progressives see themselves as masters of a sin-eating Leviathan determined to tell you how to live “for your own good,” cigar smoking — smoking of any kind, really, save for the incense of cannabis — is seen as sacrilegious, like using a church as a stable.
Cigars are like a mobile atmospheric catacomb, where dissidents from that health-obsessed culture can hide. People of any political stripe who hate cigars are repulsed by their odor and even their appearance. Those left behind come from every walk of life and partisan affiliation, but the one thing I know about them is that they reject — at least in some small, personal way — the urge to scrub the joys out of life. They may be wrong, even hypocritical, but there’s something in them that tells me they are a Remnant I can deal with, at least for an hour or so.