WOSTER: Up in smoke ... the old days

Visitors to the South Dakota Capitol can't see them today, but when I began covering the Legislature, smoke-filled rooms really did exist. I read that the term "smoke-filled room" originated with Raymond Clapper, a reporter with United Press, who...

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Visitors to the South Dakota Capitol can't see them today, but when I began covering the Legislature, smoke-filled rooms really did exist.

I read that the term "smoke-filled room" originated with Raymond Clapper, a reporter with United Press, who used it to describe the process by which Warren G. Harding won the Republican nomination for president in 1920. A back-room meeting of cigar-smoking power-brokers picked Harding after the convention deadlocked, an online source says.

When I joined The Associated Press as a legislative and government reporter in 1969, smoke filled nearly every room in the Capitol building. Smoke circled in the House and Senate chambers, too, and the hallways, bathrooms and elevators. Even the tunnels between state buildings reeked of smoke from cigars, cigarettes and pipes. It was a different time.

I reported on the Legislature so long ago one legislator still had a spittoon by his desk in the chambers. It was no ordinary spittoon, either. Embossed with the state seal, it was heavy, cast from brass, I believe, although I never got close enough to confirm that. I was told that at one time there were more than 100 of those special spittoons, one for each legislator. Apparently they became collectors' items and gradually vanished from the building. A West-River legislator had custody of the one I saw. He brought it to Pierre on opening day and took it home after final adjournment.

That same legislator had a cigarette habit. He had a cigarette burning nearly every moment of the legislative day, sort of a profane eternal flame. He sometimes let the ash grow long, and when he waved his hand around as he spoke, ash flew around the room like a snow shower. In one committee, a legislator who owned a men's store sat next to the West River guy. By the end of committee meetings, the haberdasher's dark suits appeared to be salt-and-pepper tweed.


An ashtray rested on every table in every committee room, decorated nearly every roll-top desk in the House and Senate chambers and sat on windowsills in hallways and on sinks in bathrooms. When legislators returned from their dinners for evening committee meetings, the first order of business often was to make sure there were enough ashtrays to accommodate committee members and the audience.

A blue-gray haze hung in the committee rooms and hallways. No one acted as if that was anything but normal. Sometimes when a floor session ran long and the debate deteriorated into repetitious posturing with no redeeming - or at least reportable - value, I'd lean back in the press box and gaze at the murals on the ceilings. That's when the amount of smoke in the cavernous House and Senate chambers really became obvious. It wasn't quite like the place was on fire, but someone new to the process could have been forgiven for calling it in. Conditions would have been appropriate for nominating a Warren G. Harding.

Eventually, smoking was banned from the chambers and committee rooms. Designated areas were set aside behind the House and Senate. Some offices still allowed smoking for a while, but gradually the tide of public sentiment turned and smokers had to move outside. They'd stand next to the doors, shoulders hunched against the winter wind as they grabbed a few puffs. One year the photographer working with me got a great shot of a legislator smoking outside on the main Capitol steps. She framed the lawmaker through the glass, on which a decal informed that the building was a no-smoking facility.

Even after the building was declared smoke-free, a few hidey-holes existed, including a utility closet off the press room where, unbeknownst to the rest of us, one reporter sometimes had a cigarette. That ended when an indignant employee from the Unified Judicial System next door rushed in to complain that smoke was invading the UJS offices through the air-handling vents.

We've made great strides in public-health conditions in my time, both in the Capitol and across the state. If Capitol employees or visitors smoke, they generally do it out at the street curb. Figuratively speaking, the building still sometimes has smoke-filled rooms. They just no longer contain smoke.

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