Cigar Culture

Presidents Who Smoked Cigars

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

Rooms full of smoke were once synonymous with political deal-making. The party bosses would gather and light up cigars, drink good whiskey and start haggling over candidates and the interests – known today as ‘special interests’ – of their patrons and, maybe, their constituents.

Putting aside those smoke-filled rooms, we might be better served these days if the political classes relaxed a little bit and enjoyed a cigar every now and then, but without the accompanying debates over politics and policy. Just chill a little.

Smoking cigars in Washington, D.C., used to occur more regularly in the early days of the nation. A good portion of it happened at the White House where several presidents have enjoyed tobacco.

James Madison

Earliest among them is thought to be James Madison, our fourth president, a Virginian who grew tobacco and smoked ‘seegars’ until his death at 85 years old. 

Andrew Jackson

President number seven, Andrew Jackson, was possibly among the first to ‘pair’ cigars with coffee, having reportedly told his doctor those were the only two things he could not do without. Even Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was known to enjoy a cigar on the veranda of their Nashville home.

Chester Arthur

Other presidents who puffed include Chester Arthur, number 21. Arthur would dine late into the night, history tells us, and would finish his meals with Champagne and expensive cigars.

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president, had the good fortune to have cigars sent to him by a hometown tobacconist in Indianapolis.

William McKinley

And William McKinley, number 25, would not smoke in public or allow his picture to be taken while smoking, but presidential historian Carl Sferzza Anthony has written that the White House’s chief usher recalled that, ‘McKinley had a passion for cigars and was perhaps the most intense smoker of all the presidents during my life. One never saw him without a cigar in his mouth except at meals or when asleep.’ McKinley was assassinated in 1901, the first year of his second term.

William Howard Taft

The robust and rotund 27th president, William Howard Taft, didn’t mind being seen with a cigar, nor did Warren G. Harding, number 29, who relaxed on the golf course with his stogie. The tougher the job got, the more Harding smoked.

McKinley, Taft and Harrison all hailed from Ohio. The president most directly identified with cigar-smoking also was a buckeye.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th president. As a Union general, it is widely reported, he smoked up to 20 cigars a day, smoking more and more as the Civil War progressed. He had been written about smoking a cigar during battle. That resulted in people sending him ‘the choicest brands.’ Grant had more than he could smoke himself and gave away many cigars.

When he became president, Grant would leave the White House at the end of the work day and take the short walk to the Willard Hotel, relaxing in the lobby smoking one or two cigars. Since it was difficult for people who had business with the government to get an audience with the president at the Oval Office, they would wait in the hotel in hopes of getting a few words with Grant. Grant, it’s reported, called them ‘lobbyists.’ Grant died in 1885 of throat cancer.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was number 26. As a young boy, he was forced by his father to drink coffee and smoke cigars despite having asthma. Reports about Roosevelt’s smoking cigars as an adult are in conflict. Some say he gave it up and others have him smoking at least one Cuban cigar a day.

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge, president number 30, often started his day with a Cuban cigar, a big one about a foot-long. By noon, Coolidge had smoked as many as three of these ‘supercoronas.’ After breakfast meetings with members of Congress, Coolidge would hand out cigars and light up, according to his biographer, Duff Gilfond, who reported that Coolidge often used cigars as a prop or a weapon to influence people and conversations. Coolidge, ‘smoked the best’ Havana cigars, some costing up to 75-cents each, but rarely paid for them. He received them as gifts.

Herbert Hoover

Coolidge was followed in the White House by Herbert Hoover, an avid cigar smoker who also was reputed to have smoked up to 20 cigars a day. Hoover smoked strong cigars all the time, reported the White House usher. Several other ‘leaders of the free world’ are known to have smoked cigars, with few details recorded. They were John Tyler, number 10; Millard Fillmore, 13; Franklin Pierce, 14; James Buchanan, 15; Andrew Johnson, 17; and Rutherford B. Hayes, 19.

Dwight Eisenhower

President Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president, would enjoy a cigar and a drink after White House parties.

John F. Kennedy

Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy, is the modern-day president most directly associated with cigars and with an infamous policy decision that affected which cigars we enjoy today.

JFK favored the Cuban H. Upmann Petit Corona and, as a young man, shared cigars with his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. Once in the White House, President Kennedy saw the Cuba crisis land on his desk. Among the moves he made, Kennedy signed the Cuban trade embargo, but not before directing his press secretary, Pierre Salinger (also a cigar lover), to go out and acquire as many Cuban cigars as possible. Salinger returned with an estimated 1,200 cigars. Kennedy then signed the embargo.

Richard Nixon

The last time cigar smoking was looked upon favorably in the White House, at least openly, was during the Nixon administration. While President Richard Nixon, number 37, did not regularly smoke, he would light up a cigar with guests after official dinners. This was the last time cigars were offered during such events at the White House.

Bill Clinton

President William Jefferson Clinton’s tenure in the White House as the nation’s 42nd president was marked by photos of the president with unlit cigars in his mouth, and also by the indelicate use of a cigar by Monica Lewinsky, ‘that woman’ with whom Bill Clinton said he did not have sexual relations. (Read the special prosecutor’s report for details.)

More notably, it was during the Clinton administration that smoking was banned in the White House and ashtrays were removed in later years.

George W. Bush

Lastly, President George W. Bush, number 41, smoked cigars, but like Clinton, was also cautious about being seen doing so in public.

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