"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)
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“It’s amazing we weren’t all killed,” is how the story usually begins. I have heard it at least a dozen times. Among friends and family of William F. Buckley Jr., it’s a favorite.
Like all old and many-times retold anecdotes, the details are fuzzy, and depend largely on who is recounting them, but the general outline is always the same. It takes place just outside the ritzy Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, in the more low-key village of Rougemont, where Bill and his wife, Pat, spend their winters. Bill is behind the wheel of his white four-wheel-drive station wagon, driving down one of those steep, windy roads that cling to the side of the mountain — a narrow strip of pavement with sheer rock on one side and a hundred-foot drop on the other.
It’s an unseasonably warm day; too warm for Bill, who decides to remove his sweater. The passengers watch in terror as he fumbles with one hand — the other still on the wheel — to yank off the pullover, now wrapped around his head and completely blocking his vision. Amazingly, the car stays on course, and the passengers live to tell the tale.
Which they are happy to do. The story speaks to two of their friend’s most endearing characteristics — his calm disposition and the divine providence that seems to make it possible. Both infuse his writing and explain Bill Buckley’s success at making politics his living, but not his life.
I first met WFB, as his friends and colleagues refer to him in writing, four years ago, when I started working at National Review, the conservative journal he owns and founded. After retiring as editor in 1990, Buckley withdrew from the day-to-day operations of the magazine. Except for the occasional glimpse at a meeting or a luncheon, or a handshake at his annual Christmas party, we junior staffers rarely saw him. But we were always aware of his presence — for young conservatives, the name Buckley is second only to Reagan on the hero scale — and we found it, quite frankly, intimidating. When, 18 months into my tenure at NR, Frances Bronson, his indispensable secretary, summoned me to a 5 p.m. meeting at WFB’s Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, I was terrified. Buckley soon assuaged my fears, offering me an iced coffee (which I despise, but drank anyway) and an invitation to join him for six weeks in Switzerland to provide research for his planned novel, “The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy.” I gladly accepted the assignment.
Buckley writes all his books in Switzerland, and has done so for four decades. On average, he puts out one a year, plus 100 columns and scores of longer pieces, obituaries and editorials. In Rougemont he works eight hours a day, seven days a week, all six weeks. But he is as adamant about maintaining his recreation schedule as he is about finishing his book on time. He lunches at a local inn and skis for one to two hours in the afternoon. Every evening in his study, he hosts a cocktail-and-cigar hour for his male house guests. The one thing Buckley won’t tolerate is idle time. When he gets a haircut, he brings a book. In a restaurant, he usually calls over the waitress to order right away, and then asks for dessert midway through the entree, so that no time is lost between courses. He settles the bill as soon as she brings the coffee.
Eric Alterman wrote in June in an online book club discussion that Buckley has a talent uncommon among those with deep political convictions — that he is unlikely to “ruin a dinner party” with indelicate partisan banter. That’s probably because he has had much practice at the art of dinner partying. Pat Buckley is an accomplished hostess and socialite. In Switzerland, the Buckleys entertain between four and eight friends no fewer than three times a week. The affairs exemplify their commitment to good manners and etiquette, offset by an unwillingness to let convention get in the way of a good time. The appetizer might be foie gras, but the hors d’oeuvre is almost always bread bits covered in peanut butter. (“If peanut butter were as expensive as caviar,” Bill has said more than once, “it would be served at Buckingham Palace teas.”) When guests overstay their welcome, Bill plays “Goodnight Ladies” on the piano.
WFB was born in 1925 in New York City. He was the sixth of 10 children of a conservative Catholic oil man. His early years were spent on the family estate in Sharon, Conn., where he was raised by Mexican household help. His first language was Spanish; he mastered English while attending day school in London. He entered the military shortly before the end of World War II, and then found his way to Yale, from which he graduated in 1950. Then he worked briefly for the CIA.
“For 50 years,” he recently told me, “I never talked about what I did in the CIA because I had pledged not to. But I just picked up a book in England [Frances Stonor Saunders' 'Who Paid the Piper,' not yet available in the United States] that describes what I did do.” With the story on the public record, he no longer saw any reason to keep it a secret.
Stationed in Mexico, WFB edited “The Road to Yenan,” a detailed account of Communist designs for world hegemony by Eudocio Ravines, an influential Communist in pre-war Peru.
Shortly thereafter, he entered the public spotlight and never left. At 25, he penned “God and Man at Yale,” a broadside against creeping secularism at his alma mater. He ran a symbolic campaign for mayor of New York in 1965, and served as public delegate in the mind-numbing bureaucracy of the United Nations in 1973. But as a writer and architect of the modern conservative movement he truly made his mark. He founded National Review in 1955 at age 30, when the world considered conservative intellectuals a genetic impossibility. Just nine years later, NR would prove instrumental in Barry Goldwater’s rise to the GOP nomination for president. In 1980, Goldwater protigi Ronald Reagan won the White House, and made National Review mandatory reading for his entire staff.
In 1976, Buckley wrote “Saving the Queen,” the first of 11 spy novels chronicling the life of Blackford Oakes, a striking and brilliant deep-cover CIA agent. Buckley created Oakes because in the rest of the spy genre the CIA and KGB were often portrayed as moral equivalents, two sides of the same macabre coin. For Buckley, what separated the two agencies, even if they shared some tactics, were their ends, and that made all the difference. America was a force for freedom and democracy, the U.S.S.R. for atheistic oppression and genocide.
The Cold War may be over, but it remains Buckley’s foremost political preoccupation, as evidenced by his new book, “The Redhunter.” Mainstream critics reviewed it unfavorably, often seeing it as an effort to “resurrect” McCarthy, the great bogeyman of American politics.
Buckley’s approach is more complex. His portrayal of Oakes’ expeditions into Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam and elsewhere were commentaries on American foreign policy. But “The Redhunter” is Buckley’s critique of America’s domestic Cold War. He paints a warts-and-all portrait of McCarthy, showing the recklessness, poor judgment, browbeating, grandstanding and alcoholism. But he separates the man from the anti-communist movement he at first embodied and later discredited. “I have thought for a long time,” Buckley has observed, “that McCarthy did more damage to his cause than benefit.”
Buckley is more than an observer of the Cold War; he is also a veteran, having known almost all the major players on the Western side. He peppers his novels with first-person historical insights and anecdotes. Lengthy quotations from Whittaker Chambers in “The Redhunter,” for example, come directly from letters the former communist once wrote to the author. The book features a scene in which Joe McCarthy wakes up fictional protagonist Harry Bontecou in the middle of the night to hear his plan for the liberation of China. The episode is real. Here, as elsewhere, Bontecou is a stand-in for WFB.
Buckley sees little reason to accord democratic privileges to Stalinists who plot to overthrow American democracy. Nor does he believe in extending constitutional protections to those who, if they ever came to power, would immediately rescind them. Certain ideas, he believes — such as Nazism and communism — are simply “unassimilable,” and have no place in a liberal society. He voices this sentiment through the character of Columbia professor Willmoore Sherrill (a proxy for Willmoore Kendall, WFB’s mentor and CIA recruiter at Yale), who argued that there are people who don’t fit under the “American tent.”
It’s the sort of position that critics would categorize as extreme, but it’s more moderate than a First Amendment absolutism that would allow those sympathetic to a hostile foreign power to be privy to national-security secrets. WFB is passionately anti-communist, but prudent enough to have recognized McCarthy’s excesses, and to have decisively rejected the John Birch Society in its heyday. He is opposed to gun control, but cannot fathom the NRA’s opposition to banning so-called assault rifles. He supports drug legalization, but wants distribution managed and regulated by the federal government. Such positions may be, as Eric Alterman says, “far divorced from the mainstream,” but they are tempered, and not dogmatic — which may be why even his most severe critics find him unthreatening.
One almost forgets, when WFB refers to lunch with Henry, a stroll with Ronald or a trip with Milton, that he is speaking of a former secretary of state, a former president or a Nobel Prize-winning economist. But if Bill Buckley walks with kings, he has not lost the common touch. At a recent celebration commemorating Ronald Reagan’s 88th birthday, Buckley, the keynote speaker, was seated at the head table with Nancy Reagan, two former cabinet secretaries and the ex-governor of California. The moment the dinner ended, he ditched the dignitaries, dodged hundreds of autograph seekers and sneaked out to the parking lot to meet old friends for a nightcap.
Many conservatives say that government is unimportant, but behave as though every legislative or electoral defeat is a personal disaster. Buckley is different. He loves politics, he’s intrigued by its sport and he enjoys wrestling with big ideas. But he has other passions — sailing, skiing, playing the harpsichord, studying the English language and, of course, being with his friends, who are legion and just as likely to include a former research assistant as a former president of the United States.
Before all of them, however, comes Pat, his wife of 49 years, a Vassar-educated one-time Miss Vancouver. Whenever she admonishes Bill to fix his tie, or sends a dinner party into a fit of laughter with a well-timed wisecrack, he gazes at her with relentless affection. They are unembarrassed to call each other by pet names, no matter who else is present. Their son, Christopher, is the father of two and a successful humorist — facts that Pat and Bill proudly advertise.
But the work that helps to explain Buckley’s character more than any other is his 1997 book “Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith.” “It seems to me,” he once said of his faith, that “a balanced life begins by acknowledging the insufficiency of purely materialistic considerations, and therefore one instinctively looks out for the other dimension that religion supplies you with.” His is a quiet devotion, which he’d previously made little effort to discuss publicly. But his generosity, his patience, his compassion are all indicative of a grace that strives not only to believe the faith but to live it — even if humility bars him from saying as much.
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)