About a week ago, the New York Post published a portfolio of photographs of Barack Obama that had been taken on the campus of Occidental College in 1980. According to the paper, the photographer, a university friend, had kept them in a safe-deposit box until after the election, “to make sure they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands and be used for political purposes”.

What made them incriminating? Were they taken at a cocaine party sponsored by the campus Young Communists’ League? No – the scoop was that one of the photos showed Mr Obama smoking a cigarette. And that, in turn, has reignited, if you will pardon the expression, controversy over the first cigarette-smoking president since Lyndon Johnson. The attention paid to Mr Obama’s relationship with cigarettes is evidence of a pathology – and not on the part of the president-elect.

Mr Obama is an extraordinary man in many respects, but he is not particularly impressive as a smoker. His doctor describes him as having been only an “intermittent” smoker even when his habit was at its height. Mr Obama gave it up when he started running for president early last year and has kept his cravings at bay with nicotine gum, which he admits to chewing “strenuously”. One of the most charming moments of the campaign came at an outdoor rally in California last year when someone in the crowd asked him how he had managed to quit smoking. “Nicorette! You want one?” Mr Obama replied, and tossed a tile of it towards the questioner.

But Mr Obama has admitted to “falling off the wagon” in the course of the campaign. The media has been judgmental. “Obama clearly relishes this opportunity to defeat bigotry and reframe the expectations of young people, especially African-Americans,” the San Jose Mercury-News editorialised. “And yet, he smokes.” He can set things right, the paper wrote, but only “if he makes a very public show of quitting”.

It is less than self-evident why Mr Obama’s forgoing the cigarette he sneaks every few weeks should be a matter of national importance. There is no consistent relationship between smoking and performance of official duties. It is true, according to the historian Michael Oren, that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli chief of staff, was taken to hospital with nicotine poisoning at the height of the six-day war, but he was on 100 a day. Cigars buoyed Churchill in the second world war. Whether or not smoking makes you think more clearly, the former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who celebrated his 90th birthday last week, must count as one of the sharpest thinkers and heaviest smokers among world leaders of the last half-century.

Although smoking does not pose any obvious risks to good government, stopping smoking might. People who really need to quit the drug they are taking – whether it is Heineken or heroin or hashish – generally do so by making it their top priority. Addiction counsellors warn recovering addicts that there will inevitably be days when the most important thing they do is not drink or use. Heads of state do not have the liberty to spend days this way, and getting off nicotine is not a sufficient reason why they should. The only harm smoking does is to kill the people who engage in it. It does not rob people of their moral compass or their judgment, or warp their priorities. For a man faced with serious decisions, it is a much less dangerous distraction than alcohol or sex or television. Who would rather have a president addicted to those things than one addicted to nicotine?

The TV journalist Tom Brokaw recently closed an interview with Mr Obama by asking him if he had quit smoking. Mr Brokaw wanted to know, since “the White House is a no-smoking zone”. Whether it is or is not is a tricky constitutional question. The White House has two functions. On one hand it is a government building. Mr Brokaw may well be right that it is, as such, covered by some intemperate smoking regulation. But it is also the living quarters of Mr Obama, citizen, during the time he is president. There is no reason that getting elected president should make one less entitled to privacy in one’s home. It is not always easy to delineate clearly between personal and governmental activities, but smoking is unambiguously a personal one. The rules ought to be whatever Mr Obama says they are. Once you mix up the body personal and the body politic the way Mr Brokaw does, you lose sight of why the president should enjoy any right to privacy, or any personal freedom, whatsoever. If the people feel reassured by seeing their president grovel before taking power, then grovel he must. This was the attitude in some of the negative letters the Washington Post received when columnist Michael Kinsley dared to suggest that anti-smokers should leave the president-elect alone. “He needs to make this sacrifice,” wrote one correspondent unhappy with Mr Obama. What odd language. Did the US elect a president or a priest?

One assumes it is scientific knowledge that has caused the rate of smokers in the US to fall below 20 per cent, and not any rite of self-abnegation carried out by elected officials. But perhaps one assumes wrong. It is not the orderly running of government that is endangered by Mr Obama’s smoking but the quasi-religious role that a confused electorate has grafted on to the presidency. The president not only must do something, he must embody something. He must be a “role model”. He must offer “moral leadership”.

We would do well to remember that moral leadership is not in the constitution. Also that the US has just had eight years of a president who made moral leadership the obsessive focus of his administration. Voters did not seem to like that much, either.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

More columns at www.ft.com/caldwell

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