"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)
You’ve got to have a little sympathy for J.H. Hatfield. The would-be boss-killer turned George W. Bush biographer had a tough job: to make sense of the life of the feckless frat boy turned Texas governor who now wants to be president. The kind of affable Reaganesque emptiness that tortured Edmund Morris, leading him to insert himself as a fictional Reagan contemporary in the unreadable “Dutch,” may have, in the person of George W., helped drive Hatfield to his own flight of fancy: filling in Bush’s self-described “nomadic years” with a badly documented, probably fictional story of a cocaine arrest that got expunged by a friendly judge.
That’s not to defend Hatfield’s dishonesty (or his sloppy, unbelievable sourcing, should the tale be true). It’s just to note that none of the three Bush biographies now out — including his autobiography — has succeeded in penetrating his mildly charismatic, militantly unreflective averageness, to fill in the blanks in his past and explain how this under-accomplished son of privilege amassed a $100 million campaign war chest a year before the 2000 election, making the American presidency his to lose.
Bill Minutaglio’s “First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty” is by far the best of the lot, but that’s not saying much. All the books cover much the same ground: George Herbert Walker and Barbara Bush leaving the Eastern elite and lighting out for Texas; George the elder’s absence from the family as he attempts to make his own way in the oil industry independently (starting out with a job his father got for him, of course); George W.’s sister Robin’s tragic death at 4, when he was 7; the party years at Andover and Yale (friends from those days thought Bush was the model for John Belushi’s Bluto in “Animal House”); the notorious “nomadic years” of the early ’70s.
Then came the putative “entrepreneurial” years, when Bush returned to his dad’s Midland, Texas, oil roots and got family and friends to help him fail ever upward. Eventually he turned his investment in the aptly named, money-losing Arbusto Energy into a million-dollar stake in a much bigger firm and ponied up about $600,000 for a tiny share of the Texas Rangers baseball team, which was worth almost $15 million when he sold it last year. (To be fair, maybe the books explain more than I’ve given them credit for. Because if your life worked out this dang well, you might wanna run for president, too.)
Like a lot of reporters before and since, Minutaglio and Hatfield spend much time scouring the record to find out how Bush made all that money. (Bush’s own book blithely ignores such questions.) They dutifully — and in Hatfield’s case breathlessly — cite the controversies: the lawsuits and the Security and Exchange Commission investigations, the links to people connected to unsavory Saudi investors. But none of his critics have ever pinned him with any crime, or even any clear-cut breach of business ethics. He apparently made his money the old-fashioned way: He got some from his family, and made the rest thanks to the kindness of wealthy friends — or strangers who wanted to be his friends.
These books are less useful as biographies of our would-be president than as primers in American privilege. But as such, they’re very useful. Bush, like Reagan, stands for the open defense of inherited status and power, of the rights of people like us to run the world because people like us have always run it — a kind of affirmative action for the white and wealthy that was challenged, to Bush’s chagrin, in the 1960s and 1970s, but began its rehabilitation under Reagan in the 1980s. The next election could be a plebiscite on the notion of dynasty vs. meritocracy — but only if Bush faces someone other than Vice President Al Gore, similarly privileged and protected from the need to be self-reliant.
And yet, to his advantage, Bush has a shadowy romance with the non-white and non-wealthy that accounts for his political success. He’s in touch with the basic optimism of low-income and minority folks, with their aversion to being treated like victims, as well as their instinctive sympathy for a black sheep like George W. His pedigree makes him dynasty material; his flaws make him interesting to the rest of us. If he can integrate both, he’ll be president, and he might then even be a good one. But judging from the contents of these books, it’s not clear that he can hang onto all parts of his complex past as he moves into his overdetermined future.
Bush’s autobiography, “A Charge to Keep,” is the worst read of the three, devoid of all detail about what makes Bush’s life mildly intriguing: his temper, his years of rowdy drunkenness, his unresolved relationship with his father, the undercurrent of sadness and self-destructiveness that may well spring (we’ll never know for sure; the Bushes are hostile to “the couch”) from the early death of his sister. The book reads like most inspirational bestsellers by famous people on the back slope of their careers — former President Jimmy Carter, Children’s Defense Fund president Marion Wright Edelman, Gen. Colin Powell — as a collection of easy-listening observations best left on the bedside table for a night when sleep is elusive and there’s nothing on TV. Try this:
Faith, family and friends … They guided my father during twelve years as president and vice president; they are the ways by which ultimately, I believe, all of our lives will be measured … I could not be governor if I did not believe in a divine plan that supersedes all human plans. Politics is a fickle business. Polls change. Today’s friend is tomorrow’s adversary. People lavish praise and attention. Many times it is genuine; sometimes it is not. Yet I build my life on a foundation that will not shift. My faith frees me.
And so on. Written by Bush’s communications director, Karen Hughes, it skates over the nomadic period between his graduation from Yale and his entry into Harvard Business School in just a few pages. Most of those pages are devoted to his flyboy years in the Texas Air National Guard. Bush spends just a few sparse pages on his entrepreneurial years, a time when old friends from Midland just happened to hook him up with the right people at the right time to help him make his fortune.
And yet, from all three books, a picture of Bush’s early life emerges. He opens “Charge,” after a meandering introduction, with a stark and moving picture of the day his sister Robin died of leukemia. By his own account and others, it was the trauma of his otherwise happy childhood. He didn’t know she was dying beforehand, though his parents did, and his high-WASP family didn’t discuss her death much afterward, either. But he took it hard, as did his mother, and would be plagued by nightmares for years.
Later, at Andover, asked to write a paper about an “emotional experience” — only Minutaglio’s book reveals the topic he chose was Robin’s death — Bush struggled to find a synonym for the overused word “tears” and came up with “lacerates” in his thesaurus. He described “lacerates running down my cheeks,” causing what must have been a stone-hearted teacher to flunk him.
Of course, Bush’s attendance at cold-blooded Andover was a key stepping stone on his path to the presidency. When the Bush family moved from Midland to Houston, George W. had gone to the tony Kincaid school, known as the place for rich kids who couldn’t get into the more rigorous St. John’s. East Coast privilege obviously didn’t yet cut mustard in Houston, but it certainly did at Andover, where the mediocre young Bush was accepted, like Bushes before him, despite failing to distinguish himself intellectually. And so it would go at Yale, too — where he was a solid C student — and at Harvard Business School.
Through pop foreign-policy quizzes and hapless attempts to list the books he’s read, a question continues to dog Bush: Is he stupid? Time magazine obtained his SAT scores, and it pains me to admit they’re exactly the same as mine, only inverted — he got 660 in math and 540 in verbal, while I got the high score on verbal. (Of course I marched off proudly to the University of Wisconsin without a thought about Yale; those weren’t Ivy League scores even in the ’60s and ’70s.)
Bush mostly thrived at Yale, among other legacy admissions and his frat-boy buddies. But he kept up his Houston roots, becoming engaged to Cathy Wolfson, a brainy coed at Houston’s Rice University, though the pair would never marry. The Hatfield book insists their trouble stemmed from the Bush family’s distaste for her Jewish stepfather (which the Bushes denied); Minutaglio, typically, underplays the story, but does reveal that the girl’s social status suffered due to “whispers” about her “merchant” roots, and that while the elder George Bush liked to play matchmaker, he never matched his son up with the wealthy and beautiful Wolfson. Bush himself devotes only one sentence to their romance.
In “Charge,” he describes his time at Yale as a lost age of innocence, just before the anti-war and civil rights movements ignited the nation’s campuses. This is silly, of course — those were the years of the Watts riots and other urban uprisings. While Bush was there, a majority of Yale students signed an anti-war petition, and the university’s black student union staged a two-day class boycott. He missed all of it. He did manage to rouse himself to protest one social outrage: the increasing attacks on fraternities, especially on their sadistic hazing rituals. He was first quoted in the New York Times in 1967, defending DKE’s practice of branding new pledges. The resulting mark “resembled a cigarette burn,” Bush told the Times.
There was another cause that got his goat at Yale, though he wouldn’t be able to articulate his outrage for some years: the spectacle of privileged youth protesting the institutions of their privilege. This utterly cheesed the young Bush, first at Yale, then at Harvard. Minutaglio quotes him later, describing his sense of anger at his left-wing classmates: “These are the ones who felt so guilty that they had been given so many blessings in life — like an Andover or a Yale education — that they felt they should overcompensate by trying to give everyone else in life the same thing.”
He would find solace, years later, in the works of David Horowitz, a ’60s radical who would become famous for denouncing the decade in the same outsized rhetoric that he earlier used to promote it. George W. resonated to the critiques of Horowitz and other reformed radicals, who gave him solace that his inherited privilege should be enjoyed, not resisted, or — God forbid — redistributed.
(Ironically, his discomfort with Yale’s prevailing liberalism helped
the son of privilege craft an unlikely self-image as an oppressed Texas
outsider, which would serve him well personally and especially politically in the years to come.)
Despite how many others have covered it, it’s still worth spending some time on those entrepreneurial years. These authors, as well as reporters for the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the New York Times and, yes, Salon, have sniffed around Bush’s vaguely dodgy investments, stock trades, buyouts and mergers, and none has come up with a blockbuster story to tell.
Here’s the story in a nutshell (the narrative comes from Minutaglio, since Bush is mostly silent on these issues and Hatfield’s book, which hews to essentially the same story, was withdrawn by the publisher and thus shouldn’t be relied on for factual accuracy): Bush mostly cleaned up his act, went to Harvard Business School (“the West Point of Capitalism,” a Cambridge cab driver told him) and became a loyal foot soldier for the profit motive. He drove out to Midland in a 1970 Cutlass to be a “land man,” a glorified paralegal who researched the ownership of the mineral rights beneath certain plots of land, and hooked them up with those who wanted to drill. He then founded Arbusto Energy (the name means “bush” or “shrub” in Spanish), and began to attract investment to fund his own drilling.
Bush would later call it “entrepreneurial heaven … one of the few places in the country where you can go without portfolio and train yourself and become competitive.” Of course he wasn’t exactly without portfolio. His uncle Jonathan Bush, a stockbroker, would tell Minutaglio, “I introduced him to clients. I marketed his firm. I think I was probably pretty helpful.” One of his best friends, Charlie Younger, added: “He could get into doors with his name that you and I couldn’t — with oil people. His Dad had friends, and he didn’t mind calling on them.”
Even with those advantages, it wasn’t easy for Bush to strike it rich in Midland. He got distracted by an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978, though he won the Republican primary, an amazing reach for a 32-year-old without a résumé. But thanks to Uncle Jonathan, the money-losing Arbusto attracted a growing list of investors, including William Draper and John Macomber, who would later become presidents of the U.S. Export-Import Bank under the Reagan and Bush administrations; James Bath, a front man for shady Saudi investors, including the father of Osama Bin Laden; and, when times were really tough, Philip Uzielli, an old Princeton pal of James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign manager, who invested $1 million and lost almost all of it.
Ultimately the firm — whose name was changed to the snazzier sounding “Bush Exploration” after Bush’s father became vice president — never made a profit; the number of dry holes it drilled would just about equal the number that yielded oil. Bush Exploration was rescued, first by investments from a firm called Spectrum 7, then by Harken Energy, which bought Spectrum and was awarded rights to drill off the shores of Bahrain, beating out giants like Amoco even though the Texas firm had never drilled overseas, or under water.
Six weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait, the son of the U.S. president dumped two-thirds of his Harken stock, earning almost $850,000, or two-and-a-half times its original value, on the eve of Harken announcing a huge quarterly loss. Bush faced accusations that he’d traded on insider knowledge to time his stock sale. Unhappily, he had neglected to file insider trading forms on the sale, triggering a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, and the issue would dog him through his run for governor. Ultimately, though, the SEC declined to file charges.
In the end, baseball was where Bush ultimately struck oil, so to speak. In 1989 he invested $606,000 — or 1.8 percent of the sale price — in the Texas Rangers, and became the team’s managing partner. When the ownership group sold the Rangers in 1998, Bush’s stake would be worth $14.9 million. He was already governor; he had finally made his fortune; all that was left was the pursuit of the presidency, Minutaglio says, and finally Bush felt worthy to pursue it.
All three books make clear that Bush is to his party and his era what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were to theirs — a peerless politician who unites his followers by virtue of his charisma and personal power, and frees them from the tyranny of ideological hairsplitting and circular firing squads. But whereas Clinton and Reagan came to their political personas by way of dysfunctional, working-class homes and absent, alcoholic fathers, Bush was handed everything his predecessors had to work for. And yet they all found redemption the same way, in the endless orgy of approval-seeking known as American politics. Do they have more in common than is apparent from their lineage?
Certainly they all had absent fathers, of a sort. It’s hard not to see Bush’s entire life as an attempt to live up to his father’s achievements and avenge his disappointments. You could read these three books and come to the defensible conclusion that Bush ran for Texas governor mostly to get back at Gov. Ann Richards for her legendary insult to his father at the 1988 convention: “Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” One of the most (unwittingly) poignant moment in “Charge” is when Bush recalls his father giving him cufflinks he’d gotten from his parents when he went into the Navy at 18; George W. finally received them at 48, when he was elected governor of Texas.
And Bush’s path to politics took him through alcohol troubles, too, mostly of his own making. At Yale, his drinking drew notice, but wasn’t a problem — it was part of the curriculum for a member of the rowdiest fraternity on campus. But the partying continued when he joined the Air National Guard and didn’t let up when he left. He bounced around, working on a couple of Republican Senate campaigns and signing on as a management trainee for an agribusiness company in Houston, then quit. His favorite job, he reveals in his autobiography, was sporting goods salesman at Sears. (There is an entry in the index to
“Charge” for Sears Roebuck and Co., by the way, but not for Securities and Exchange Commission.)
Bush apparently reached his nadir around Christmas 1972. Home for the holidays, worrying his parents by working too little and partying too much, he got carried away at a party with his 15-year-old brother Marvin, and drove the boy home drunk, smashing into a neighbor’s garbage cans and infuriating his parents. His father asked to see him in the den, and a drunk George W. burst in: “I hear you’re looking for me. You wanna go mano a mano right here?”
Jeb Bush broke the tension by announcing to his unhappy parents that George had been accepted to Harvard Business School. (Would that all domestic crises on the verge of violence could be diffused so easily!) But the angry young George insisted he didn’t plan to go to Harvard, he just wanted to prove he could get in (no mean feat given his solid C’s at Yale).
After the drunk-driving incident, his worried father got him a job at Project PULL (the placement Hatfield would insist was community service to expunge his alleged cocaine bust). And Bush may be counted among the many young people the inner-city project saved from self-destruction. Bush himself would say he found a “mentor” in PULL founder John White, a former Houston Oiler turned community activist in Houston’s African-American Third Ward. It was White who urged him to accept the entry to Harvard Business School. “If you really care about these kids as much as I think you do, why don’t you go and learn more and then you can really help,” Bush says White told him, and he took the advice.
After the Hatfield firestorm, Jay Leno would make fun of the fact that the Bush campaign was denying a cocaine arrest preceded his Project PULL stint, when the truth was it was only a drunk driving incident — as though the latter wasn’t scandal enough. Even Minutaglio’s softer version of the nomadic years provokes the reader to wonder what was eating at the affable son of privilege, driving him to squander his advantages on alcohol and a badly controlled anger.
And none of the books resolve it. It’s easy to see he spent most of his adulthood trying, and failing, to measure up to his father, struggling to go “mano a mano.” Ultimately, though, he did what his father was never able to do: find acceptance as a Texan and win statewide office. And his personal troubles paradoxically make him a far better politician than his father could dream of being. While Bush hasn’t publicly reckoned with his demons and how he gained control over them, the semi-public struggle has become part of his legend, giving him what depth he has and a sympathetic, instinctive identification with the underdog. He, his handlers, the media and the voters all know that’s the most interesting thing about him.
It also threatens to ruin him, as time and again, he faces questions about his past and flubs them with a series of lame non-denials, leading the public to the inescapable conclusion that sometime more than 25 years ago he did some kind of illegal drug. Odds are he’ll face the questions again, because Americans don’t like mysteries, and they don’t like unfairness. Everybody knows that hard-drinking, drunk-driving, angry C students from Houston’s Third Ward don’t grow up to become governor, after all — let alone president.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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)