"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There is much we now know about our 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton. We know about his sexual proclivities and fantasies, his taste in women, his favorite erotic poetry, the size and topography of his reproductive organ and yes, his instinct to dissemble when his secret passions are revealed. Some of the endless stream of fact and rumor about the president’s private life is of public relevance. Most, however, is not. And, as New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis observed on Tuesday, the urge to empty this president’s — or any president’s — inner life of all its contents is morbid and Orwellian. As Lewis noted, “Privacy is an essential ingredient of civilized human existence,” a precious ingredient that has been steadily chipped away in modern American society.
Now Congress has been presented with an impeachment report on President Clinton that is apparently filled with a plethora of details
about his once-private erotic life, and little else. (So much for the endless Whitewater probe, which started this entire national ordeal.) On the basis of this unprecedented inspection of the president’s personal life, federal lawmakers will decide whether he may remain in office.
Ironically, while we are abundantly informed about the president’s private life, we know very little about the man who may finally realize his long-sought goal of undoing the president’s election — independent counsel Kenneth Starr. His power to dominate the nation’s attention and control its agenda seems untrammeled. And yet the media — the voracious eyes and ears of the new era’s Insatiable Curiosity — shows scant interest in Starr. Perhaps this is because there is nothing sensational about the prosecutor’s private life. But it is Starr’s public life that should demand our attention. The front-page news about Starr is not his sexual fantasies — we pray these remain forever locked away within the pious lawman — but his political desires and intimacies. It’s not his private lusts that should concern us, but the passionate fixations and excesses of his investigation.
The only criticism of Starr’s performance that the elite media has been able to muster during the frenzy of the last several months is that the independent counsel is not PR-savvy, that he lacks the conniving political instincts of, say, President Clinton. (Even in this criticism there is buried the glow of approbation, a sense that there is something noble about Starr’s naiveté.) And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Kenneth Starr is a consummately political being, and has been throughout his public life. And his goal from the moment he sought the independent counsel appointment was to hobble, if not destroy, a duly elected presidency that gave him and his conservative allies great offense.
The fact that Starr pursued this political goal during the first three years of his investigation with the key assistance of David Hale, a tainted witness who now stands accused of taking money and legal help from anti-Clinton activists with ties to Starr himself, is now the subject of another federal inquiry. But the media remains stubbornly indifferent to this startling story. Indeed, the New York Times appears to have issued Starr blanket immunity for any and all misdeeds committed in the course of his investigation. In a bland and unrevealing cover profile of Starr in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, staff writer Michael Winerip matter-of-factly asserted: “In the end Starr’s motives no longer matter … It no longer
matters if malicious right-wingers consorted with [Starr's] office to lay a trap for the president … Through Starr’s doggedness, his relentless effort to amass every last fact, he has succeeded in making his investigation about Bill Clinton, not about Ken Starr.” It may no longer matter (if it ever did) to the country’s newspaper of record that a federal prosecutor with unlimited powers consorted “with malicious right-wingers” to overturn the results of the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. But Salon takes a different view.
Ever since Clinton’s Aug. 17 confession, the media have been thrashing around the White House like sharks smelling blood in the water. Now that Starr has “got” Clinton on Lewinsky, it’s become an article of faith among the opinion elite that the prosecutor’s unlimited probe has been completely vindicated and that any attempt to impugn him is folly. The only question allowed for debate in the national Clinton deathwatch is when the president will walk the plank. At the risk of putting a damper on this orgy of prurience and moral pomposity, we would like to remind the country of two salient points: First, Starr’s endless investigation apparently found nothing improper about Clinton’s role in Whitewater — the sole reason a special prosecutor was appointed in the first place. This is why, after years of interrogations and hearings, there is apparently nothing about Whitewater in Starr’s report to Congress. (But don’t count on the New York Times editors’ writing a front-page mea culpa about its irresponsible Whitewater coverage, as the less magisterial San Jose Mercury did when it retracted its “Dark Alliance” report on alleged CIA/contra drug trafficking.) Second, Clinton’s personal misdeeds, while reprehensible, are simply nowhere near the stature of Richard Nixon’s high crimes or the Reagan administration’s efforts to fund a rogue war. Covering up a sexual affair is not an offense against the state. As Carl
Bernstein commented recently, Zippergate is no Watergate — the country
will look back on this strange and feverish episode years from now and
shake its head in wonder at how it convulsed Washington.
As Congress prepares to review Starr’s report on President Clinton, Salon herein presents its own findings on the independent prosecutor. In considering Clinton’s possible impeachment, lawmakers and those who elected them must also examine the motives, tactics and alliances of Starr himself. For despite Michael Winerip’s puzzling assertion, the investigation that has entangled Washington throughout the year is very much about Ken Starr, not just Bill Clinton.
Over the past seven months, Salon has published a massive amount of information about Starr, his investigation and the conflicts of interest between his probe and the Arkansas Project, a secret $2.4 million project to undermine Clinton financed by Starr’s former patron, Richard Mellon Scaife. Below is a summary of our special reports on Starr, which are primarily the work of Salon’s own dogged investigator, Murray Waas. Other key reporting for Salon has been provided by our Washington bureau chief, Jonathan Broder, and contributors Joe Conason, Gene Lyons and Mollie Dickenson.
What these carefully documented investigative stories underline is essentially this: In his zealous pursuit of the president, Kenneth Starr defiled “the temple of justice,” to use his own righteous rhetoric. Lacking a fundamental sense of fairness and judicial proportion, Starr sought first to build his Whitewater real estate case against Clinton using irredeemably corrupt testimony, and then, when this failed, he latched onto Paula Jones’ ill-fated civil suit, and then when that failed, he wired Linda Tripp and finally snared Clinton on adultery — a crime that if aggressively pursued in Washington would depopulate our capital as thoroughly as the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh.
Below is a fact sheet of what every American citizen should know about Kenneth Starr and his probe.
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1. After successful lobbying by staunch conservatives such as North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a three-judge panel dominated by Republicans replaced moderate Whitewater prosecutor Robert Fiske with Kenneth Starr in August 1994. Starr, former chief of staff to Reagan Attorney General William French Smith and a member of an ambitious circle of activist conservative attorneys, accepted the job despite the fact that he had opposed the independent counsel law when he was a Reagan official and helped prepare a brief arguing it was unconstitutional, vesting too much power in one unaccountable person.
2. At the time of his appointment as Whitewater independent counsel, Starr, a $1 million-a-year Washington attorney with the high-powered firm of Kirkland & Ellis, was advising the Paula Jones camp on her sexual harassment suit against Clinton and offered to write a friend-of-the-court brief on her behalf. He was also representing the tobacco industry, an ardent foe of the Clinton administration. Later, Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh would comment that, considering Starr’s conflicts of interest, he should have felt obligated to turn down the job of investigating Clinton.
3. Starr proceeded to build his Whitewater case against Clinton largely around the testimony of confessed felon David Hale, a corrupt municipal judge and businessman who claimed then-Gov. Clinton had pressured him into making an illegal $300,000 loan to Jim and Susan McDougal, Clinton’s partners in the failed Whitewater real estate deal. Starr’s Whitewater investigators unearthed a formidable amount of evidence casting doubt on Hale’s testimony against Clinton, including the fact that Hale had falsely invoked Clinton’s name on a separate occasion to win a $50,000 kickback from an Alabama health company seeking an Arkansas state contract. But Starr chose to overlook this inconvenient episode in Hale’s past, as well as the fact that his star witness had turned his courthouse into a personal ATM when he served as a municipal judge, taking kickbacks from a private collection agency he had installed to gather fines.
4. William Watt, another former municipal judge implicated in the Whitewater scheme, was used by Starr to corroborate Hale’s testimony during the trial of the McDougals and Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. But Watt would later tell Salon that Starr’s investigators ignored exculpatory information he provided them about Clinton and tried to pressure him into telling a more incriminating story about Clinton: “I was told they didn’t like the truth the way that I told it. I had my truth and they had their truth and I was told that they liked their truth better.” Watt also told Salon that he regarded Hale as someone who would “lie and manipulate people. He was a pathological liar.”
5. David Hale, while cooperating with Starr as his chief Whitewater witness from 1994 to 1996, would sometimes stay rent-free at a fishing resort in Hot Springs, Ark., owned by anti-Clinton activist Parker Dozhier, who passed on secret cash payments to Hale. This charge was made to Salon by Dozhier’s former live-in girlfriend, Caryn Mann, and her teenage son, both of whom have repeated their testimony before a federal grand jury. According to Mann, the money came from conservative attorney Stephen Boynton and David Henderson, vice president of the foundation that owns the conservative American Spectator magazine. Boynton and Henderson oversaw the Arkansas Project, an anti-Clinton muckraking campaign lavishly funded by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who funneled his contributions through the Spectator.
6. “We’re convinced that none of our people had any knowledge of any such [Arkansas Project] payments [to Hale],” asserted Starr’s chief Arkansas deputy, W. Hickman Ewing Jr. But the first meeting of the Arkansas Project took place in the Washington law offices of Theodore Olson, a friend, political ally and former colleague of Starr’s, whose relationship dated back to their days as young activist conservatives in the Reagan Justice Department. Olson and Starr were also both beneficiaries of Richard Mellon Scaife’s politically inspired generosity. Starr was scheduled to take a Scaife-funded deanship at Pepperdine University until controversy about his connections to Scaife forced him to resign the post. Olson has served on the board and as the attorney of the Scaife-funded American Spectator as well as on the advisory boards of four other right-wing institutions funded by Scaife. Referring to Olson’s oversight role on the Arkansas Project, one source told Salon, “Olson is somebody who Scaife would trust to see that nothing went wrong and that his money would not be wasted.”
Like Starr, Olson worked on the Paula Jones case. Last year, when Jones challenged Clinton’s claim of immunity from civil suits while in office, Olson, together with Robert Bork, held a moot court to prepare Jones’ lawyers for their successful argument before the Supreme Court.
7. Olson — who, along with his wife, Barbara, is often called upon by the press to defend their friend Starr — also represented David Hale when he was called to testify before the Senate Whitewater Committee. Later, Hale lied under oath about how he came to retain Olson while testifying at the trial of Tucker and the McDougals. Two sources told Salon that by lying Hale was trying to conceal his connection to the Arkansas Project. It was the project’s Stephen Boynton and David Henderson who put Hale in touch with Olson. (Olson’s Arkansas Project connection is never mentioned when the New York Times and other media outlets call on him for comment about Starr’s investigation of the president.)
8. While Hale was cooperating with Starr’s Whitewater case, the independent counsel aggressively protected the man he called “a model witness,” despite all evidence that Hale was anything but. Starr and his deputies tried to stop an insurance fraud case brought against Hale by Arkansas state prosecutors, who charged that Starr’s office tried to intimidate them into dropping the case. The trial, which Starr succeeded in delaying but not stopping, will now begin in October. It will certainly cast a further cloud on Starr’s “model witness,” for Hale is charged with bilking poor black clients in rural Arkansas out of their funeral payments.
9. Some of Starr’s deputies were alarmed by the independent counsel’s unquestioning embrace of Hale. They shook their heads in dismay when Starr argued in court for a reduced sentence for “Judge Hale,” as he called him, telling the court, “I have witnessed his contrition. I believe, your honor, that he is genuinely remorseful of his criminal past. I have been impressed with his humble spirit.” Taking issue with Starr, one Whitewater investigator told Salon, “With someone like Hale, you can never let down your guard. You should never get to a point where you begin to trust him.”
10. Starr deputy Hickman Ewing met quietly several times during the course of his Whitewater investigation with Rex Armistead, a private eye hired by the Arkansas Project to dig up dirt on Clinton. Armistead’s investigation focused on allegations that then-Gov. Clinton had protected a cocaine-smuggling ring operating out of the Mena airport in rural Arkansas. The drug charges were examined and rejected by three separate federal investigations.
One Whitewater investigator expressed concern about Ewing’s meetings with the private eye, because of the controversial connection between Starr and Scaife and because not all the meetings were recorded in official files: “This was either the worst case of judgment or something worse.”
11. At a critical juncture in Paula Jones’ long-running legal battle with the president, the Arkansas Project’s Stephen Boynton, David Henderson and Parker Dozhier intervened to find her experienced litigators, just before the statute of limitations on her lawsuit ran out. The suit was successfully revived — and it in turn would later revive Kenneth Starr’s flagging pursuit of the president.
Another connection between the Jones case and the Arkansas Project surfaced when Salon reported that William Lehrfeld, a conservative attorney who has worked for Scaife and who served as legal counsel for the project, contributed $50,000 to Jones’ legal fund from a little-known foundation he ran.
12. In early 1997, Starr’s Whitewater case against Clinton had reached such a dead end that he made an effort to flee his job for Malibu’s sunny Pepperdine campus. When his attempted escape provoked howls from his political and media supporters, Starr returned grimly to his Whitewater post. But his fortunes would dramatically reverse later in the year when the Jones lawsuit was green-lighted by the Supreme Court — with help from Starr’s friend Olson — and Jones’ lawyers subpoenaed Clinton and a then-obscure former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
And so the Clinton/Starr drama came full circle. By returning to the Paula Jones civil case that he had counseled before his appointment as Whitewater prosecutor, Kenneth Starr was finally able to get his man. Like Roger Chillingworth, the vengeful moralist who relentlessly pursued the adulterous Hester Prynne and her lover, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Starr branded Clinton with the scarlet “I” — for impeachment.
Most Americans, even longtime supporters of Clinton, are feeling estranged from the president these days because of his reckless Oval Office antics and his seven months of legalistic stonewalling. The national media — from the foaming Christopher Matthews to the Monica-fixated Maureen Dowd — are reinforcing this estrangement with a 24-7 barrage of anti-Clinton commentary. This blaring uniformity of opinion (the American media in the ’90s is less politically diverse than China’s) might well further erode Clinton’s support, as Wall Street Journal apparatchik John Fund eagerly predicted this week.
But there is still a strong bedrock of American common sense that resists all the hysterical sermonizing, that understands that Starr’s enterprise was a political inquisition from its very birth, and that his marriage of limitless prosecutorial force and political vengeance is a much more dangerous specter than President Clinton’s libido. It’s this sense of decency and balance that will, we hope, save the country from being torn apart over a matter that should never have been dragged into the public arena.
David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He is now working on a book about the legendary CIA director Allen W. Dulles and the rise of the national security state.More David Talbot.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)