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Smoking sanctuary

There is a place, not so far away, where you can visit a political age of yesteryear. It's an enclave deep in the heart of the U.S. Capitol, and to find it all you must do is follow your nose through the halls of Congress and around the House chamber. Sooner or later you are bound to stumble into the Speakers' Lobby. Now, my friends, you're in flavor country.

The powers that be in your U.S. House have just made yet more encroachments into the ever-shrinking universe of public spaces where smoking is still allowed. Beginning this week, lighting up is no longer permitted in the outdoor courtyards, garages, lobbies, foyers, etc., on the House side of Capitol Hill. Smokers are now largely confined to two glassed-in, highly ventilated hamster cages in the adjacent office buildings.
But not all smokers.

If you're the sentimental type and you yearn for the days of the smoke-filled political salon -- or if you're simply a militant die-hard -- you can breathe easy. For there remains a hazy sanctuary for the unreconstructed, unrepentant pol who can puff away without concern for the second-hand smoke he is generating.
The Speakers' Lobby is the anteroom of the House chamber, and to enter is to be transported to another era of back room bosses and political machines. Decorum is the uniform of the day here, and even now you may not be admitted unless appropriately attired. Baroque portraits of long-forgotten House speakers hang in a clutter along the walls, their mutton-chopped jowls immortalized in oil. They look down upon a clubby scene that is probably not much changed from how it appeared back in their time: congressmen lounge in wingback chairs, feet up, smoking cigars or cigarettes and producing nimbus, carcinogenic formations of tobacco smoke. If you are a non-smoker or you're pregnant, enter at your own risk. It is the perfect anachronism and almost subversive in its political incorrectness.

There's new majority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, a longtime regular of the smoking klatsch on the Republican side of the room, still popping off the floor during votes to light up another Barclay. Boehner is button-holed more these days, supplicants interrupting his smoke break to petition for this favor or that. Rep. Sherwood Boelhert, R-N.Y., is another regular. Over on the Democratic side Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., can typically be found sitting alone with his nose in a newspaper and his teeth chomping on a gigantic Churchill. There are many other members of the brotherhood (I have yet to see a female member smoke in this space).

It is an indulgence that has survived the ages, destructive though it may be. But perhaps it's about more than just a pause that refreshes. Maybe it's a window on the true nature of the political animal: primordial in its tastes, protective of its turf, and open to reforming itself only when absolutely necessary. After all, this is the home of the sovereign Congress, a co-equal branch of government. The fact that executive branch buildings are smoke-free means little here. Or better yet, it provides a means to make a subtle point: Members allow themselves the pleasure of an indoor smoke as a assertion of their independence. They allow smoking to survive in the Speakers' Lobby for the simple reason that they can.