McCain Killing Iranians with Cigarettes, Risks Killing Presidential Chances with Bad Jokes

John McCain’s secret plan for Iran: kill them with cigarettes.

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) smiles as he addresses a League of United Latin American Citizens conference in Washington, July 8, 2008. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) Presidential candidate John McCain, who once sang in jest about bombing Iran, on Tuesday reacted to a report of rising U.S. cigarette exports to the country by saying it may be “a way of killing ’em.”

McCain, known for acerbic comments and for sometimes firing verbally from the hip, was responding to a report that U.S. exports to Iran rose tenfold during President George W. Bush’s term in office despite hostility between the two states. A rise in cigarette sales was a big part of that, according to an Associated Press analysis of seven years of U.S. trade figures.

“Maybe that’s a way of killing ’em,” McCain said to reporters during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh. “I meant that as a joke, as a person who hasn’t had a cigarette in 28 years, 29 years,” he added, laughing.

It’s both rather weak as a joke and a stupid thing to say for a man who needs to assure moderates that he in fact does not shoot from the hip but is really a serious leader in foreign affairs, let alone a man who could be elected president and have to lead our diplomatic relations with Iran. Still, it’s probably not worth all the hubbub it’s generating.

Michelle Malkin gets it right: “I can hear it coming already: faux outrage, MSM feeding frenzy, Worst Person in the World designation, and a 24-hour cycle of cable TV teeth-gnashing over McCain’s off-handed joke about cigarette exports to Iran. ”

  • Kathy @ Liberty Street: “That’s not the response of a U.S. president. That’s the response of a 6th grader who can’t answer the question in class because he hasn’t studied.”
  • Matt Yglesias: “John McCain once again “jokes” about his desire to kill Iranians. This time, the joke is a little bit more of a real joke, but the targets of his lust for killing foreigners are clearly ordinary Iranian civilians. If a major Iranian political leader were to repeatedly joke about bombing the United States and killing Americans, you can just imagine the shit-storm about how Iran isn’t a normal country with normal interests, that it’s run by irrational fanatics, appeasement won’t work, etc.”
  • David Knowles: “It’s one thing to declare that you’re not interested in public diplomacy with Iran. And another to continue with the macabre knee-slappers.”
  • Satyam Khanna doesn’t really say anything in a post titled, “McCain jokes about ‘killing’ Iranians by getting them addicted to smoking.”

In the immortal words of Sergeant Hulka, “Lighten up, Francis.” Serious people in high visibility offices ought be careful about their jokes, to be sure, but it’s not as if the Iranian mullahs are going to suddenly become anti-American as a result of an off-the-cuff one-liner. For one thing, they’re already anti-American. For another, they’re grownups who aren’t going to let something like that get in the way of their larger interests.

Ronald Reagan famously joked, as president, about bombing the Soviets, whom he repeatedly referred to as the Evil Empire. He negotiated two major arms control deals with them and presided over the beginning of the collapse of that empire.

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. duckspeaker says:

    Unfortunately, this comment would probably offend those moderate Iranian Muslims that do not view smoking as haram. These are precisely the wrong people to offend, as these are the folks the US would need to court in order to affect internal change.

    True, the ayatollahs are already anti-US, but why needlessly anger students and the bourgeoisie that might actually lean pro-Western by insinuating that we’d like them better dead?

  2. Bithead says:

    Still, it’s probably not worth all the hubbub it’s generating.

    It’s a mark of how weak the liberal’s case against him is that the play this up, this loud.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    I second duckspeaker on this one. The people this type of joke alienates are precisely the people we need on our side. Couple these Iranian jokes with his seeming inability to tell Sunni from Shi’ite and you have a worrisome combination for our next President.

  4. Moonage says:

    I liked it. His ability to fire off off-the-cuff remarks remains fully intact regardless of the perceived pressure he must be under. And, I think regardless of the MSM and left-wing outrage, his comment reflects the opinion of a LOT of Americans right now given the events of the last couple of days. In the big picture, I think it will go over a lot better than you think.

  5. bros says:

    I took a lot of offense at this comment. as a woman engaged to an iranian immigrant with a whole family of moderate, pro-us smokers back in tehran, I thought this was ridiculous and further proof of mccains bloodlust for iran. havent we killed enough us citizens and innocent civilians over the last 8 years? now we have to hear this asshole old man talk about killing ‘them’ as if all iranians can be lumped together, and killed off with cigarettes. its one step away from recommending that we lace the exports with some poison and kill off all these evil non-human iranians. reminds me of someone else: Hitler.

  6. M1EK says:

    Reagan’s joke was in an arena where he was not expecting the media to be present. McCain’s joke was _to_ _reporters_. Big difference.

  7. Ben says:

    I’m glad McCain said this, if only because it led to Michelle Malkin lamenting faux outrage, which totally made my morning.

  8. Hal says:

    So, the reason why this joke is funny is because it’s funny to kill Iranians? One can tell a lot about someone by listening to what they laugh at, or by what they think is funny. And McCain certainly seems to think that it’s funny to joke about killing Iranian civilians – lots of them.

    Guess it’s the same vein of humor which thinks it’s funny to torture people, or – like George Bush – make fun of people who are sentenced to die.

  9. Cernig says:

    As I recall, Reagan’s “joke” caused a shitstorm of international outcry and led to him having a tougher time getting the Soviets to take his arms control offers as those of a good-faith actor.

    M1EK makes a good point too – this is not one idiotic comment but two, and in full knowledge of the public watching. Hasn’t America had enough of a president who can’t control his own actions on an international stage, let alone the country’s foreign policy?

    Regards, C

  10. Triumph says:

    This is just another example of McCain’s unfitness as a candidate.

    More damning is his insane assessment that social security is a “disgrace.” I guess this is to be expected from someone who is married to an heiress and thinks that Americans won’t work for $50/hour.

    Unlike most of his fellow senior citizens, McCain doesn’t have to rely on the “disgraceful” system of social security to keep out of poverty.

  11. davod says:

    I am surprised that even the libtards here do not see this for what it is. Once the shock value wears off maybe they will see this is just an innovative attempt to appeal to the tobacco lobby.

  12. James Joyner says:

    One can tell a lot about someone by listening to what they laugh at, or by what they think is funny.

    Actually, as I meant to note in the post itself, the only reporter whose face you can see in the video seemed to think it was funny. Me? Meh.

  13. Hal says:

    Me? Meh.

    It was meant to be a comment on McCain, who thought it was funny – didn’t know there was anyone recorded who laughed at it, didn’t infer that you were…

  14. Brian says:

    The substance of his comment aside, I’m just troubled by what this says about McCain’s campaign – that they’ve made zero progress in assessing their candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and haven’t any plan for taking the fight to Obama.

    McCain doesn’t joke well. Heck, he doesn’t communicate well, but it really doesn’t work for him when he tries humor. Problem is, he’s up against a world-class communicator.

    It seems like every day we get lengthy sound bites of Obama coming around to a centrist position on another substantive issue and just when they should be taking the man to task, the McCain camp instead serves up some lame-ass “joke” about cigarettes and Iran? It really doesn’t matter if this is right or wrong, good or bad. This is the way it is going to be from now until November.

    McCain is behind and so often it looks like he’ll just be content to fumble around aimlessly for a few more months. One thing’s for sure: “Jokes” like this aren’t going to close the gap.

  15. Hal says:

    It certainly seems like McCain – at least – believes that he’s going win the election via divine intervention – just like he won the nomination. So he’s just doing the same thing, believing it will work for him again.

    My guess is that his election team is running around screaming, pulling their hair out…

  16. sam says:

    One can tell a lot about someone by listening to what they laugh at, or by what they think is funny.

    Hmmm…Ah, right:

    Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, by Sigmund Freud


  17. brainy435 says:

    Yes, McCain’s sense of humor is a big deal.

    If you happen to be a lightweight liberal running for an office that is WAY above your qualifications.

    Funny that most of the people worried about how this joke MIGHT be recieved are the same people who aren’t worried about how the Canadians and Columbians have ALREADY percieved Obamas rhetoric about their respective countries. Bad Presidential humor is more damaging to the US than bad Presedential policy, I guess.

  18. Alex Knapp says:

    Er… did I miss Obama’s “bomb Canada” joke?

  19. anjin-san says:

    Yes, McCain’s sense of humor is a big deal.

    If you happen to be a lightweight liberal

    If you happen to be a person with a working brain and a respect for life…

  20. brainy435 says:

    Alex, it appears you must have missed Obamas doubletalk on NAFTA and the anger he caused with his denouncement of Canadas oil sands as too dirty. Wonder how those slipped by you.

    Thanks for the well-reasoned counter argument, anjin. You moving on to junior high next year?

  21. FREDW says:

    This joke was not as outrageous as it seems. Some time in the 80’s one of the tobacco lobby shills released a statement on how smoking is a positive because, for instance, it helps keep Social Security costs in check by limiting lifespan of a number of recipients ( for real, you can’t make stuff like this up). I still have a copy of the article in my files somewhere; it is one of those things that is so outrageous you have to keep copies as a reality check.

  22. graywolf says:

    Most of you (Kathy, bros…) need to take a grow-up pill and not take yourselves sooo… seriously.

    You remind me of the people who cause constant dissension in an office by being “offended” on a daily basis.

  23. Barry says:

    James: “Still, it’s probably not worth all the hubbub it’s generating.”

    And then you quote Michelle ‘Screamer’ Malkin?!?

  24. Hal says:

    You remind me of the people who cause constant dissension in an office by being “offended” on a daily basis.

    That’s kind of rich considering that the entire right seems pretty much in a constant state of being offended by everything. Focussing simply on Obama, for example, everything from Wright to his elitism to his lack of flag pins to his supposed refusal to say the pledge.

    Seriously, we remind you of people who are offended on a daily basis? Geebus. Look in the mirror.

  25. Hal says:

    Oh, and I forgot about the whole offense around questioning whether being a POW was, in itself, qualification for being President. Any bit of offense on this subject pales in the the whole offense-a-thon thrown by the right wing cry babies over the supposed attacking of McCain’s military record.

  26. Alex Knapp says:

    Alex, it appears you must have missed Obamas doubletalk on NAFTA and the anger he caused with his denouncement of Canadas oil sands as too dirty. Wonder how those slipped by you.

    Yes, because that’s exactly like wishing the population of another country dead…