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I quit smoking (for the third or fourth time) two months ago, and I still miss my cigars. At some point, every day, I think how sweet a puff would be right now.

I’m sorry I ever started. I wonder how the habit caught on in the first place, since starting is so unpleasant. The taste is loathsome and the smoke chokes you. Why did the first man who ever smoked persist long enough to learn to enjoy it, especially with no advertising?

Three of my four kids smoke. I wish they didn’t, I hope they’ll quit, but they could do much worse. Booze, drugs, and other thrills haven’t hooked them. But these are things we negotiate among ourselves. All four of them are adults now, and they know what I’d prefer, but I figure that if my affection doesn’t stop them, my nagging won’t either.

Besides, we have more important things to talk about. And when we do talk about smoking, we talk in gentle nudges. We don’t talk in that booming Ted Baxter style that politicians adopt when the subject of tobacco comes up. It’s wonderful the way guys who take bribes, cheat on their wives, and promote late-term abortion preach the urgent necessity of protecting “our children” from tobacco leaves, especially if they can squeeze a few hundred billion out of the deal.

So I’m delighted that the big tobacco bill has flopped in the Senate, leaving Washington’s latest hero, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, with egg on his handsome face. It finally sank in with the brighter members of his party that this bill wasn’t about “our children”; it was about power, money, lawyers, and a level of greed that must have impressed even the tobacco companies.

When men like Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy express their concern for the youth of America, it’s always a good idea to take a close look.

Is it possible that the tobacco debacle will inspire a new birth of humility among our politicians? For reasons that escape me, they always fancy themselves our moral and spiritual leaders, as if they’d been plucked out of monasteries to supervise the country.

The truth — which they ought to know better than anyone — is that they are men with certain low skills, including the ability to raise money and speak in bland cant. As Mae West once said, goodness has nothing to do with it. They hope, after using all their wiles, to be chosen, by a majority of those who bother voting in a two-party system, over a single alternative.

You might think that winning office on such terms would breed realism, the cousin of humility. But it doesn’t seem to. A man can cheat his way up, betray his family and followers, misrepresent his opponent’s views, arrange discreetly illegal campaign donations, mouth platitudes he doesn’t believe in for a moment, and still, after winning by a whisker, feel that his countrymen have selected him to represent them on Mount Sinai. (Never doubting, of course, that his countrymen have chosen wisely.)

Those who repeat Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst form of government “except for all the others” seldom look at the others. The confusion of power with moral elevation is worse under democracy than under any other system.

The Soviet Politburo never seemed to have illusions about itself; dictators like Saddam Hussein don’t seem to think spiritual leadership is their special province; the old kings of Europe enjoyed their mistresses and hired their mercenaries and left the moral stuff to the bishops. Such men understood that they owed their power to fortune, not virtue. Even the most arrogant of them seldom dreamed of correcting the personal habits of their subjects.

It would be a healthy exercise for every politician to look in the mirror every morning and remind himself that he holds office only because, in a two-man race against another mediocrity, a modest majority of those half-informed people who imagined that their votes mattered reckoned that he was the lesser evil. And they weren’t too sure about that.

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