From Carthage, Tenn.
Inside the political arena, partisans on both sides body slam their opponents. Bob Dole attacks the Clinton administration's squishiness on drugs. Bill Clinton hits back by moving the spotlight to tobacco and accepting the concept that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are delivery devices for nicotine and should thus be under the authority of the Food and Drug Administration. Reporters get bored with the debate and move on to other issues.
What's left behind when the story-of-the-day changes? Facts, for one thing: Even a Clinton administration report notes that drug use among teens is up 105 percent since he took office. Personnel records, for another: President Clinton has gutted the office of the Drug Policy Administration. Old TV clips: Candidate Clinton telling an MTV audience in 1992 that if he had it to do over again, he would inhale when he tried marijuana. And new photos: Mr. Clinton's anti-tobacco stance was undermined when an Associated Press photographer caught the president smoking a cigar.
Also left behind, if tobacco becomes in essence an illegal drug, are those families whose livelihoods depend on it. Outside the spotlight, they struggle with the complicated economic and moral issues that even a smoky haze cannot hide.
Dirt roads outside Carthage, Tennessee, lead past empty fields and full barns; it's harvest time and most of the burley tobacco crop has been gathered by farm workers and hung to cure in warm, airy barns. Throughout the Cumberland River valley, a gentle, sweet, and musky smell drifts by on the occasional breeze.
Wayne Taylor downshifts his Ford truck as he pulls off a road and onto one of his remaining fields of bright, golden tobacco. This is his land now, but it once belonged to then-Sen. Al Gore Sr. and his family. When Al Gore Jr. in 1988 spoke proudly of working in a tobacco field, he likely meant this very field.
Mr. Taylor, a lifelong tobacco grower, says it's not unusual that everyone in a family--even a senator's son--would work to raise a tobacco crop. It's one of the most labor-intensive crops grown. It's also one of the most rewarding: A family can cultivate a living on just 10 acres or so, he says.
"And a lot of families do," he notes as he steps from his truck and starts down a row of chest-high tobacco plants. "I know it's a health issue, but around here it's an economic issue, too. Most of all, though, it's a political issue. That's what this latest thing is. Politics."
Vice President Al Gore scored a political coup during his prime-time Democratic National Convention speech.
Speaking softly, he told conventioneers of his sister, Nancy Gore Hunger, who died in 1984 after a bout with lung cancer. She was 45. He told the tearful audience that his thinking about tobacco changed then. "Until I draw my last breath," he said in his speech, "I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."
What Mr. Gore didn't recount was his 1988 speech to tobacco interests, during the presidential primaries, in which he said--four years after his sister died--that he was proud to have grown, cut, spiked, and cured tobacco himself. Nor did he tell of the tobacco money he continued to accept until as late as 1990. He admits to accepting $16,440 between 1979 and 1990 from tobacco political action committees.
One day after his convention speech, Mr. Gore said he had considered but rejected mentioning his family's involvement in tobacco farming during that speech: "I don't know, it just seemed like it might be better to focus on what was most important about this story."
In this warm field in the Tennessee hills, Mr. Taylor measures his words as carefully as he measures the nutrients in his soil. "I don't doubt Al Gore's sincerity, his love for his sister. That was a tragedy. She was only 45. But it's not as simple as all that. They're playing politics with a way of life, with livelihoods."
Mr. Taylor, 53, hasn't known any other life. His grandfather, his great-uncle, and his father all grew tobacco on this land. The barns he's filling with this year's crop have housed Taylor-grown tobacco for most of this century.
Little has changed, he explains. There's still no better way to grow the plants than to start them in greenhouses in the spring, then transplant them into the fields at the beginning of summer. They must be topped individually, and when harvested, cut one-by-one.
It takes about 250 man-hours to grow and harvest an acre of tobacco, compared to about three man-hours for an acre of wheat.
Nowadays, most farmers in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee--the heart of tobacco country--use Hispanic laborers to "spike" the plants (skewer the stalks of four or five of them on a stick that's then hung between rafters in a curing barn). During harvest, he can keep as many as a dozen working six days a week. But Mr. Taylor is not a plantation boss who has forgotten how to do the work himself. His hands are still adept at cutting and spiking stem after stem of the fragrant plant.
Mr. Taylor's son, Kent, is the next generation of tobacco growers in the family. He helps both his father and his grandfather, though he wonders how long that will last.
"I guess I really don't expect to be doing this 10 years from now," he says. "We can see what's coming. Little by little, they're going to kill this industry." Kent and his wife Lisa have a 2-year-old daughter who might not know the kind of life he knew, he adds. "That's a little sad, to me. This is her heritage."
Other crops just can't compete. "When I've asked government people what I'm supposed to grow when they outlaw tobacco completely, they tell me soybeans," said Mr. Taylor. "That's not going to work."
He already grows soybeans, on a limited basis. Because the government's tobacco program only allows farmers to grow an allotted amount of tobacco, Mr. Taylor puts the rest of his fields in other crops.
He'll net about $1,500 per acre from his tobacco crop even in a mediocre year, he estimates. The best he'll earn from an acre of soybeans is $150 net. Since most tobacco growers farm 25 acres or less, families that get by now would face a future without full-time farming.
There's a macroeconomic facet to this story as well. The new stance on tobacco is a gamble for the Democrats: The industry generates 3 million jobs, with more than $95 billion in salaries, wages, and benefits, according to the Tobacco Institute, an industry lobbying group. Tobacco adds more than $167 billion to the GDP and sends $63.75 billion in taxes to the local, state, and federal governments. And lest it go unnoted, tobacco money also went to Chicago last month, when industry PACs helped fund Democratic National Convention events.
The moral issues surrounding tobacco are as complex as the economic issues.
For much of this century there has been, within the church, an underlying uneasiness about smoking . Some denominations have had non-smoking rules, and some insurance companies run by Christians have refused (for economic and moral reasons) to issue policies to smokers. Yet, as North Carolinian Bill Laxton relates, "We grew tobacco through the 1950s. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, and it was just something everyone did. . . . It was a cash crop and it supported a lot of families and the church."
The portrait of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founder B.H. Carroll, which hangs in the Fort Worth seminary's rotunda, reveals the mixed feelings of past and present. A close examination reveals some touch-up work around Mr. Carroll's hand: The painting was doctored to cover up Mr. Carroll's ever-present cigar.
Ministers from several denominations queried for this article all regarded tobacco use and tobacco growing as a hard call.
A typical response came from Mr. Laxton, now a Presbyterian Church in America pastor: "I don't think there's any question it's a health hazard. That's been shown. The habitual nature of smoking is something to be concerned about, as well. The Bible talks about doing things in moderation. Some people seem to be able to enjoy it in moderation. . . ."
Another typical response to the question of whether tobacco use and tobacco farming is a sin came from Saginaw, Mich., pastor Calvin Pearson, a Baptist: "I don't think there's a biblical injunction. I'd put it back in the believer's lap," which raises issues of conscience. North Carolina pastor Robert Drake says it's an issue of the relationship between the believer and God. "We are to bring everything before the Lord with thanksgiving. . . . If you've had six or seven doughnuts and you can't give thanks, it's time to repent," he says. "I put tobacco in the same category."
The concern about tobacco smoking is not unique to the 20th century. An 18th-century song reflected the Puritan attempt to turn smoking into a moral lesson: "Tobacco's but an Indian weed/Grows green at morn, cut down at eve./It shows our decay,/We are but clay./Think on this when you smoke tobacco."
It concludes: "The smoke that does so high ascend/Shows that our life must have an end./ The vapor is gone/Man's life is done/Think on this when you smoke tobacco."
Not far away from Carthage, President Clinton on a hazy Sunday campaigned in rural Kentucky, talking about nearly everything but tobacco. What tobacco farmer Wayne Taylor expressed privately, groups of tobacco farmers declared publicly by protesting at President Clinton's whistle-stops, with signs including one which read, "Smoking won't hurt if you don't inhale--you're the expert."
Kentucky's Democratic governor, Paul Patton, had campaigned with Mr. Clinton all day, but as the President pressed the flesh along a rope line in Wingo, Ky., Gov. Patton was not at his side. Instead, he was behind the campaign bus, smoking a cigarette.