Butts R Us: Tobacco, Clinton, Gore, and the Doles

           Day after day, Bob Dole writhes as Democratic tricksters dressed up as "Buttman" taunt him at rallies for his fealty to the tobacco cartel. If every politician in America with ties to big tobacco were to be heckled by "Buttman," as Bob Dole has been, there would be enough buttmen to create a full-fledged federal employment program.


           Dole earned his current problems in June by flippantly remarking that he wasn't convinced that nicotine was addictive. Then Dole compounded his predicament by implying to Katie Couric, the perky damsel of The Today Show, that former Reagan Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who had criticized Dole's remarks, had been "brainwashed by the liberal media."

           The brash Kansan tried to regain his balance a few days later. "I'm not advocating that anybody do anything other than stop, S-T-O-P, and don't start if you are young," Dole pronounced. "But are we going to regulate all aspects of everybody's adult life? I mean adults ought to be free to make choices." Of course, Dole's views on free choice are by no means consistent across the ideological spectrum: for it on school vouchers, against it on abortion; for it on tobacco, against it on marijuana; for it on pesticide-soaked foods, against it on sexual preferences.

           Bob Dole's unflinching support of cigarette manufacturers should not be surprising. His resurrection as a politician of national stature owes a lot to the tobacco industry and its political war chest. Indeed, Dole originally gained his powerful status as senate majority leader in 1981 after cutting a deal with Senator Jesse Helms. In order to gain Helms's support, Dole promised to block any significant new regulations of the tobacco industry. In return, RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris have been two of Dole's key political patrons ever since, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaigns and into his foundation for the handicapped.

           Though it may seem odd given her current position as head of the American Red Cross, Elizabeth Dole has also enjoyed a cozy relationship with the cigarette cartel. When she was Transportation Secretary, Mrs. Dole, a native of the tobacco belt, fought valiantly against congressional efforts to ban smoking on domestic airline flights.

           Bill Clinton, however, has proclaimed himself the first anti-cigarette-smoking president of the Republic, and Hillary has declared the White House a tobacco-free zone. At one point, the draft health care bill threatened a $2 a pack excise tax until Al Gore said this would spell death in the southern states to their health care package and hopes for reelection. The excise tax was reduced to 75 cents and the health care package went down anyway. The Clinton administration endorsed a Bush-era EPA report denouncing second-hand smoke and has permitted FDA administrator David Kessler (a Bush appointee) to take on the cigarette makers in congressional hearings.

           But the relationship between Clinton and the tobacco industry is a little more complicated than this simple citation would suggest, and indeed Clinton's own habits reflect the complexity. Unlike Bob Dole, who quit the habit, Clinton is a smoker. Though he once assured the kids watching the Nickelodeon channel that he had given up cigars and smoked a pipe only during the winter months, he was later caught on camera smoking a cigar on the White House balcony with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. Modifying his previous pledge to America's youngster's, Clinton said he "pleaded guilty to smoking six cigars a year." No one has yet questioned HRC on whether she has cited her husband for violating the sanctity of the smoke-free zone.

           Arkansas has never been a big tobacco-growing state, but this didn't stop Governor Bill from raking in enormous contributions from the tobacco lobby. In the years 1988 through 1992 alone, Clinton took corporate money from Northwest Tobacco, Philip Morris, Brown and Williamson, RJR, Lorillard, and the Tobacco Institute.

           As governor, Clinton did veto a Smoker's Rights bill, but even though he favored regressive sales taxes on groceries and excise taxes on beer, he nixed significant increases in such taxes on cigarettes. Clinton also refused to take action curbing the sale of cigarettes to minors.

           As president, Clinton was urged by anti-smoking forces to issue an executive order banning smoking inside federal offices. He refused. Although the lion's share of tobacco PAC money shifted to the Republicans in the wake of the 1994 elections, the Democratic Party continues to pull in about $1 million a year from the tobacco lobby.

           Al Gore hails from Tennessee and was once a proud tobacco farmer, enjoying subsidies under the federal support program. After Dole made his famous remark in Kentucky that he didn't know if science had proved smoking was addictive, Gore was sent out to snap at the Kansan's heels, which he duly did. The Veep went on TV news shows, often flanked with children, and gave the impression that Dole wants to mainline nicotine into the lungs of every young person in America. Gore would conclude with a straight-faced appeal to Dole "not to play politics with tobacco."

           Gore has been playing politics with tobacco for many years. While he was managing the family's tobacco farm, Gore pulled in more than $100,000 in tobacco price supports, and he's taken in more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from industry PACs and executives.

           In 1984 Gore's sister, Nancy Gore Hunger, died from lung cancer. She was a smoker. Gore made an emotional announcement: He would no longer farm tobacco, and would abandon this family business. But in the same tragic year, other family ties tugged at his heartstrings. An old friend of his father, Al Gore Sr., was Horace Liebengood, then chief lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute and formerly chief of staff for Howard Baker. Liebengood came to Gore Jr. at a moment of crisis. A bill authored by Rep. Henry Waxman, then making its way through Congress, threatened to hobble the industry with restrictions on tobacco advertising and new, more brutal warning labels.

           Gore, already anointed the "environmental conscience of the House," heeded Liebengood's urgent call. He offered successful amendments to the Waxman Bill that kept the words "death" and "addiction" from appearing in any warnings, shrank the size of the warning labels, and installed language barring liability suits against tobacco manufacturers who met certain meager requirements and preventing the states from adopting stronger warning label laws.

           A year later, Gore was in the U.S. Senate, continuing his efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry. Gore voted to protect anti-trust exemptions for the cartel and his enthusiasm for tobacco price supports never wavered. In the high profile anti-tobacco bill votes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Al Gore abstained.

           Aside from such personal histories, it has been consistent U.S. trade policy to force American tobacco smoke into the lungs of Asians and other likely customers. When Ron Brown ruled the Commerce Department, he threatened to bring GATT complaints against anti-smoking and public health laws in places like Taiwan and South Korea, and worked energetically to open markets such as China to the U.S. product. The Marlboro plant recently opened in Shanghai received millions in loan guarantees courtesy of Secretary Brown.

           Brown's successor at Commerce is Mickey Kantor, who has a distinguished tobacco pedigree to flaunt in his resume. In 1992, then a lawyer in Los Angeles, Kantor was hired by the tobacco industry to fend off a proposed ban on smoking in restaurants in LA. He was successful.

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