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Smoker’s Voice

How Obama’s filthy habit could win him the presidency.

Sen. Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama has the sort of voice that political consultants dream of: It’s authoritative but comforting, rich and resonant and wise. Whether he’s talking about the Darfur genocide or Monday Night Football, the man sounds like a leader. His voice helps account for why even hardened cynics go weak at the knees when they hear him. One of my friends prides himself on being strictly nonpartisan, but after listening to Obama’s Dreams From My Father, read by the senator himself, he confessed to me, “I shouldn’t say this, but I love him.”

There are plenty of reasons for Obama’s magic voice: where he grew up, how his parents talked, how he breathes. But perhaps most important is one Obama doesn’t want to talk about: cigarettes. Obama is an occasional smoker.

Smoking over time transforms a person’s voice by thickening and drying out the vocal chords. The vocal chords vibrate as your breath passes through them, so their texture and shape helps determine what your voice sounds like. David Witsell, who directs Duke University’s Voice Care Center, notes that the nodules on Johnny Cash’s vocal cords that stemmed in part from his smoking habit helped create his unique sound. “Many famous voices in history have pathologies that are part of their vocal signatures,” Witsell says.

But Obama’s semisecret weapon amounts to a double-edged sword. After all, what sort of successful Democratic politician smokes nowadays? Smoking is GOP old-school. House Minority Leader John Boehner regularly smokes cigarettes—which helps explain why he didn’t hesitate to hand out tobacco-industry campaign checks on the House floor some years back. But Democrats shun the demon weed, at least in public. One of the first acts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to ban smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby, long the haunt of nicotine-crazed legislators. (The most famous Democratic tobacco addict doesn’t even smoke. Former President Clinton likes to chomp on cigars—and, as the Starr report detailed, to occasionally use them for other purposes. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.)

So, it’s understandable that Obama, according to his aides, has been trying to kick the filthy habit as he gears up for a possible presidential campaign. The senator is refreshingly honest about his penchant for cigarettes: When asked about it by the Chicago Tribune in 2005, he replied, “The flesh is weak.” When asked whether Obama still smokes, his spokesman, Tommy Vietor, hedged. “I haven’t seen him for a month, so I don’t know,” Vietor said in late December. Vietor later declined to comment for this piece.

(Though if any politician can make cigarettes cool again, it’s Obama. As GOP consultant Stuart Stevens replied when asked whether smoking might actually help Obama’s presidential aspirations, “You know it’s true if John Edwards takes up smoking [too] … I think [Obama] will be fine, as long as he doesn’t smoke Gauloises.”)

Here’s the problem: If he quits, Obama may lose that wonderful maple-syrup sound just as he begins running in earnest. Since smoking amounts to an irritant, stopping smoking altogether can help restore vocal chords to health. But it’s unclear how long that takes, and whether a person’s voice returns to its pristine state. “You can reverse the changes over time,” said Vanderbilt University Voice Center Director Robert Ossoff, who treated Johnny Cash as well as a host of other country and western singers. “Whether you can get back to the 100 percent original voice, I don’t know.”

Ossoff is well aware that some performers intentionally take a drag or two on a cigarette before crooning; he’s witnessed it in local nightclubs, and has asked singers about it. But in general, his performing patients worry that smoking is damaging their voice.

“They’re losing some range, they’re losing some clarity,” Ossoff said, adding that some record labels now send him singers as soon as they sign them to have his clinic examine their voices and lecture them about bad habits. Even among Nashville performers, Ossoff said, when it comes to smoking, “I do believe it’s way out of fashion.”

Longtime smoker Bob Dylan tried to kick cigarettes for his album Nashville Skyline, and his voice sounds distinctively clearer on songs like “Lay, Lady, Lay.” (Not necessarily better, granted, but easier to decipher.) However, Dylan resumed smoking, and tried to deflect the question of whether his voice had become huskier again in a March 1978 Playboy interview. “No, you know, you can do anything with your voice if you put your mind to it,” Dylan told Playboy. “I mean, you can become a ventriloquist or you can become an imitator of other people’s voices. I’m usually just stuck with my own voice.”

So, will Obama abandon cigarettes altogether, or will he go the way of Cash and Dylan instead? It’s a suitably tough decision for a man who aspires to be president: Quit now, and risk losing his vocal magic while campaigning, or puff on and pay later.