"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)
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh must feel like he’s howling into the darkness sometimes. His eighth and latest book, “Against All Enemies,” which gruesomely details the extent of Gulf War Syndrome and the government’s attempts to pretend it doesn’t exist, has been selling indifferently and has been ignored by a surprising number of reviewers. His 1972 “Cover-Up,” a report on the Army’s cowardly investigation of the My Lai massacre — the bloodbath Hersh had previously exposed in his blockbuster “My Lai 4″ — also sold poorly. When he revealed in 1991′s “The Samson Option” that Israel was secretly stockpiling nuclear weapons, the response was yawns. What’s the hardest-working muckraker in the journalism business to do?
Hersh’s response: Soldier on. And hope that once in a while you’ll hit a motherlode that catches the public’s imagination. Because one thing is certain: The journalistic glamour of Watergate sleuths Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” has long faded. The starry-eyed kids who once flooded journalism schools to learn how to root out corruption have been replaced by a crop of college grads who have concluded government is inhabited by Martians, so why bother? Better to go for the money. Woodward and Bernstein are pretty much out of the business, anyway, Bernstein writing biographies and Woodward authoring gossipy bestsellers, replete with made-up quotes, about government figures. Elsewhere, ownership of the media is being concentrated into fewer hands, which have been busy blurring the line between news and entertainment and squelching the venues for real journalism in favor of those for gossip and personality.
We live in a cynical time. Lucky for us, Hersh is too invested to turn away. “I think there are great stories to be written about this pretend government and this corporate world we now live in,” he told the Progressive magazine a decade ago. Those are the stories he writes. For a recent instance, he wrote in the New Yorker that the government pretended to have evidence that the plant the United States bombed in Sudan in retaliation for supposed terrorist activity was something other than a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility. It wasn’t, and we knew it, but we killed people anyway.
It’s been an up-and-down career for Hersh, but he was lucky to have a huge up early on — his exposi of the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam. To refresh: In March of 1968, a division of American troops called Charley Company, led by Lieut. William L. Calley Jr., entered the village of Son My (called My Lai 4 on the soldiers’ maps) and spent a few hours killing every man, woman and child — all unarmed civilians — in the vicinity, about 500 all told. Women were raped; babies were used as target practice. Hersh brought it all out in the open, and helped end the war as a result, because Americans realized that this incomprehensible conflict far away was making their boys act like Nazis.
Hersh, in 1969 a 32-year-old freelance writer in Washington, got onto the story after he received a tip that an officer was about to be court-martialed for the murder of civilians in Vietnam. From his sources in the Pentagon Hersh got a hint of what had happened, then he tracked down Calley, who was stockaded in Georgia. Calley spilled all and Hersh realized he had a career-maker on his hands. He wrote the story, but the magazines to whom he tried to peddle it turned him down. They didn’t want to know about it. But luckily a friend who ran a small newspaper syndicate offered to run the piece. Thirty-six newspapers, including the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and the London Times bought the exposi. Then TV picked it up, including “60 Minutes,” and Hersh was in the saddle.
Others had written about random atrocities in Vietnam before Hersh — most notably Jonathan Schell in the New Yorker — but most reportage on the war focused on policy. Hersh was the first to demonstrate that military brass was ordering soldiers to kill noncombatants, and once he did, Vietnam War reporting was never the same. Hersh went on to track down other members of Charley Company and reported their stories for the syndicate, all of which he collected and amplified for his 1970 book “My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath.” He received the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, the prestigious George Polk Award and a host of other trophies. He was a big deal, and when he wrote a follow-up piece about the Army’s prosecution of Calley, the New Yorker snapped it up. In 1972 he turned it into “Cover-Up: The Army’s Secret Investigation of the Massacre at My Lai,” the lousy sales of which gave him a quick object lesson in the topsy-turvy world of book writing. Hersh blamed the bad showing on Vietnam fatigue. “Nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam in 1972,” he told the Progressive. Apparently, in a mere two years the public’s mood had gone from outrage to ennui. “We were losing the war,” Hersh said. “Until Oliver Stone’s movie ‘Platoon’ came out, I think Vietnam was a dead issue in America.”
Seymour Myron Hersh was born along with a twin brother April 8, 1937, to a middle-class family in Chicago. His father ran a dry-cleaning plant, and he had older sisters who were also twins. In 1958 he received a B.A. in history from the University of Chicago, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Sarah Klein, now a psychoanalyst. After flunking out of law school, Hersh stumbled into journalism when a friend told him that the Chicago City News Bureau, a crime and courts clearinghouse for the city’s newspapers, would hire college graduates with no experience for $35 a week. After brief stints there as copy boy and police reporter, he joined the Army, where he worked as a public information officer in Fort Riley, Kan. Back in Chicago in 1961 he co-founded a suburban newspaper, which quickly failed. That led to a year reporting for the United Press International wire, and then for Associated Press, which shipped him to Washington. There he proved indefatigable, and AP promoted him to Pentagon correspondent in 1966.
Hersh proved much more adept at making contacts than attending press conferences, and soon he had a raft of sources, many of whom were unaccustomed to being courted by reporters. This first paid off when he learned that the Army was busy secreting away nerve gas overseas. AP, however, was less than enamored with the story Hersh wrote, cutting it by 80 percent and rewriting it. So Hersh quit, and at columnist Mary McGrory’s behest, went to work for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, convinced that the senator was the country’s best bet to end the Vietnam War. But Hersh couldn’t stand the game-playing in politics and soon returned to journalism.
Hersh wasn’t a peacenik by birth. One might assume that Hersh, coming of age as he did in a Jewish household in the ’40s, was a red-diaper baby, but he says his family was apolitical. His anti-war convictions came strictly through “O.J.T. — on the job training. I was covering the Pentagon for AP and I’d go to lunch with officers. And what they said was that you had to be a professional liar. It was all about body counts. That’s how they measure success in the military. So they would lie about it. It turned me against the war.”
After his stint with McCarthy he authored several pieces on chemical and biological weapons for the New York Times and the New Republic. This led to his first book: “Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal,” a 354-page tome that exposes exactly what its title suggests, as well as cataloging all the military and academic research helping to bolster the country’s arsenal. And in his chapter on the military’s use of chemical defoliants in Vietnam, Hersh showed why his book was relevant. Certain Hersh traits emerged in “Chemical and Biological Warfare” that would characterize most of his later book writing. On the plus side, he passionately imbued his exhaustively researched, documented, footnoted and indexed work with a sense of mission. On the minus, his writing was a little dense, surviving on the quality of its information alone. More troubling, he tended to give short shrift to points of view opposed to his own, thus inviting accusations of bias.
In 1972 Hersh rode his My Lai rep into the employ of the New York Times, where he engaged in a glorious 7-year run of abundant scoops. He was the Gray Lady’s golden boy, grabbing the nation’s exalted leaders and institutions and revealing them to be twisted and corrupt. The CIA still hasn’t recovered from the thrashings Hersh administered. First he brought to light the CIA’s surveillance of domestic organizations it deemed subversive — a blatant violation of the agency’s charter to gather foreign intelligence only. Then he revealed the CIA’s covert role in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile. The agency came across as a bunch of Keystone Kops when Hersh exposed its hijacking of the Glomar Explorer drilling ship in a failed attempt to raise a derelict Soviet submarine.
And where the CIA dallied, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security advisor and later secretary of state, could generally be found making his special mischief. Kissinger was deeply involved in the CIA’s role in Chile, and so became a big target for Hersh. Hersh blew the lid off the Kissinger-directed secret bombing of Cambodia; he revealed Kissinger’s authorization of wiretaps on his own staff and on several other White House aides; and he reported that documents in Kissinger’s office had been stolen by Pentagon operatives. Hersh had other plans for Kissinger as well, but first the Times decided to play catch-up with the Washington Post on Watergate, and Hersh was given the beat. He caught up, too, scooping Woodward and Bernstein on the coverup part of the story and staying competitive with them in other areas as well.
But thanks to “All the President’s Men,” book and movie, Watergate will always be remembered as the Washington Post’s story. To this day Hersh views Woodward with envy. Woodward’s books generally are bestsellers, no matter how tawdry, and he’s smooth and slick, the consummate Washington insider. Hersh is more like the anti-insider, all rough and blustery, given to the proletarian dress of the traditional reporter. But where Woodward now only has his celebrity and money, Hersh has his integrity.
Hersh’s friend Murray Waas, a Washington investigative reporter, says that the kind of work Woodward and other Washington reporters now do is all too common: “There’s only a handful of reporters like Hersh who are still doing investigative reporting. There’s a new crop of journalists who are what I call scandal reporters, or scandal beat reporters. They only pretend to do investigative reporting. The scandal reporters do their work by receiving leaks from partisans, congressional committees, independent counsels, public interest groups and from political operatives or ‘oppo’ folks. They get a leak from Ken Starr’s office or Sidney Blumenthal and call that investigative journalism. It’s kind of like yogurt — predigested for you. The work they pass off as their own is done by someone else. The problem with this pretend investigative reporting is that the reporters are oftentimes serving someone’s political, ideological or personal agenda.”
Hersh is not one to suffer fools gladly. His temper is legendary, and he’s been accused of bullying sources. Though he denies this — “If you piss off your sources, you’re not gonna get anything out of them,” he says — it’s clear that he is capable of working himself into a state of high dudgeon. One of Hersh’s sources told Time magazine that when he wouldn’t say what Hersh wanted to hear, Hersh yelled “Bullshit! Bullshit!” at him. There’s no question that he’s volatile. But Waas, for one, questions whether at least some of Hersh’s reputation in that regard is more folklore than reality. “It’s more shtick,” Waas says. “He knows he has this reputation so he makes fun of himself.”
Waas recalls a series of phone messages he received from Hersh the day Hersh broke a major story in the New Yorker: “‘It’s 8:30 in the morning. Why aren’t you home like every other normal person in the world having your milk and Cheerios?’” Then another message: “‘So what the hell are you doing that you aren’t home to read my story? What do you have going on in your life that’s more important than this? What do you even have going on in your life at all?’ It’s shtick,” Waas says. “It’s self-deprecation. And it’s funny as hell.”
One can imagine that at the genteel New York Times Hersh was something of a bull in the china shop, and indeed in 1979 he resigned. All the better to work on his next book, “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House,” which hit the shelves with a 700-page whomp in 1983. The book is a feast for Kissinger haters, revealing the Machiavellian official to be capable of practically any nefarious deed in order to stay cozied up with Nixon and dominate U.S. foreign policy. Hersh opens the book with a humdinger — that during the 1968 race between Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, Kissinger was double dealing, giving information he had collected from President Johnson on secret Vietnam peace talks in Paris to Nixon. At the same time, to curry favor with Humphrey, Kissinger offered him Nelson Rockefeller’s files on Nixon.
After Nixon was elected he hired Kissinger, and the two became locked in a pathological embrace of mutual distrust, plotting end runs on various cabinet members in order to create a kind of White House monarchy. Along the way there were betrayals, wiretaps and perverse orders to bomb countries with which we were not at war. Thousands died needlessly, and thousands of others came to know Kissinger as a war criminal.
“The Price of Power” was a bestseller, and added a National Book Critics Circle award to Hersh’s belt, but it remains a bit of a slog and got some justified criticism for its indiscriminate shoveling-on of factoids. Not to mention that Kissinger may have had the last laugh. The book “didn’t make any difference in the press’s perception of him,” Hersh said. “I can barely get through a week of ‘Nightline’ without seeing him on some panel.” On the other hand, “When the rest of us can’t sleep we count sheep, and this guy has to count burned and maimed Cambodian and Vietnamese babies until the end of his life.” Not something you can picture Woodward saying, eh?
Kissinger wasn’t a player in Hersh’s next book — “The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It” (1986) — but his Cold War ethos is all over it. In the early morning of Sept. 1, 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean Airliner that, en route from Anchorage to Seoul, strayed far into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers, including 25 Americans, died in what became one of the worst flare-ups in the history of the Cold War. The Russians claimed KAL OO7 was really on a spy mission, and the Reagan administration countered that the Soviets destroyed the plane even though they knew full well it was a civilian craft. Because the plane’s black box cockpit recorder was never recovered, the truth can’t be completely known, but Hersh — in a virtuoso exercise in penetrating the notoriously hush-hush U.S. intelligence community — showed that the incident was nothing more than a trivial accident compounded by a horrible one. The plane strayed off course, and the Soviets ineptly assumed, without verifying, that it was spying and shot it down. Then when they quickly realized their mistake, they never fessed up, and the Reagan administration — which well knew of the Soviet error — also clammed up. Both sides wanted to score Cold War points, and Kissinger no doubt would have approved.
Hersh’s next book, “The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy” (1991), is another tale of U.S. hypocrisy. Hersh demonstrated that the government, while preaching nuclear nonproliferation, encouraged Israel to secretly acquire and develop nuclear weapons, then kept silent about it. Cold War needs were again served, because many of the Israeli nukes were aimed at the Soviets. Among the fascinating claims in the book: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir gave U.S. intelligence documents that had been stolen by convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and given to the Soviet Union. And: British press baron Robert Maxwell and his foreign editor at the London Daily Mirror, Nicholas Davies, were agents of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad. Outraged at the accusation, the pair sued Hersh for libel. They lost.
A tale of intrigue that perhaps was a little too Byzantine for American readers, “The Samson Option” contained the germs of two later exposis that Hersh wrote for the New Yorker: One delved further into Pollard’s misdeeds in order to persuade Clinton not to grant him clemency, as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was urging. The other, more terrifying, revealed that in 1990 India and Pakistan came close to nuclear war because the United States, under Reagan, illegally sold nuclear weapons to Pakistan, our ally against the Soviet Union in the Afghanistan war. As Hersh pointed out, this was a far more dangerous situation than the also-illegal Iran-Contra scandal, but Reagan got away with it.
Which brings us to a question: Who was the most corrupt president in the post-war era? Reagan? Nixon? Clinton? All have their advocates, but if you’re Hersh, the answer is none of the above. His choice is John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And when he made his case for that in his 1997 bestseller “The Dark Side of Camelot,” the amount of flack he received was astounding. Talk about pack journalism. The media ganged up on him like jackals circling a wounded antelope. Hersh’s sources were untrustworthy, they cried, his evidence sheer speculation and innuendo. And not only media, but academics like Garry Wills and historians like Arthur Schlesinger swarmed Hersh as well, calling him an irresponsible money-grubber. The story of the reaction to “The Dark Side of Camelot” ended up being much bigger than the book itself, which, truth be told, contained less new information than confirmation and amplification of known Kennedy misdeeds.
We know JFK was a sex addict, but Hersh tells us that prostitutes made regular visits to the White House. We know JFK was obsessed with Castro, but Hersh presents evidence that Kennedy gave the order to assassinate the Cuban leader during the Bay of Pigs invasion. We know JFK’s father, Joseph, was a crook who stole various elections for his son, but Hersh gives new sordid details. As far as brand-new information is concerned, the most damning is probably Hersh’s claim that Kennedy ordered South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem assassinated because the leader was negotiating with Ho Chi Minh to end the war, and Kennedy didn’t want the war over until after he was reelected.
Another sideshow that ended up overshadowing “The Dark Side of Camelot” was the saga of the forged documents. The smokiest of the smoking guns Hersh planned to include in the book was his discovery of a supposedly authenticated handwritten note from Marilyn Monroe to JFK in which the actress demanded the president create a $600,000 trust fund for her ailing mother. The quid pro quo was that Monroe wouldn’t reveal her and JFK’s affair. A contract spelling out the terms of the trust fund was signed by both of them. This was sizzling stuff, and there were lots of other damning documents from the same cache. Hersh used them to get NBC to sign a $2.5 million contract to make a Kennedy documentary, and when the network pulled out Hersh signed with ABC for the same amount. But when ABC had the documents tested, they turned out to be phony. Hersh had been duped, and he admitted it.
Yet even though he didn’t use any of the material for his book, he got lambasted for believing it in the first place. And he probably should have been more suspicious, because in hindsight, his attempts to peddle the papers seem unseemly. Says Hersh, “Abe Rosenthal [recently fired New York Times columnist who was executive editor during Hersh's tenure] once told me, ‘Don’t hang your ass out in the air, cause it’ll get bit.’ Well, I hung it out and it got bit.” Still, the negative reaction to “Dark Side” was way out of proportion. Why? “There’s a suspension of belief when it comes to the Kennedys,” Hersh told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It’s a cult. We want to believe.”
That includes several prominent journalists, who didn’t like to be told they were wrong about Kennedy. “What does this book say about Hugh Sidey and Ben Bradlee?” Hersh asked Newsday. “They would love to see me bamboozled.” Bradlee, the dashing former editor of the Washington Post, was a friend of Kennedy’s. “I think Hersh was a pioneer,” he told Newsday. “But this is very sad what is happening now. Some of this stuff defies belief.”
Bottom line: Hersh approached “Dark Side” no differently than any of his other books. It is rigorously documented and relies on interviews with named sources, in this case several former Secret Service agents who never spoke with anyone about Kennedy before Hersh. But because this time Hersh took on the king of America’s de facto royal family, the media pored over the book as though they were scientists examining evidence in a forensics lab. Not surprisingly, not all Hersh’s information turned out to be unimpeachable — but the same could be said for all his other books. What he has been throughout his career, though, is more unimpeachable than practically anybody else. With his latest book, “Against All Enemies: Gulf War Syndrome, the War Between America’s Ailing Veterans and Their Government,” Hersh has come full circle. He wrote about chemical and biological weapons in his first book, and in “Against All Enemies” he shows that there were manifold opportunities for soldiers in the war against Iraq to be exposed to chemical agents, whether nerve gas or uranium traces or faulty vaccinations. He also cites a classified report that said up to 47 percent of the gas masks supplied to U.S. troops were defective.
The upshot: thousands of Gulf War veterans showing up at veterans hospitals have reported debilitating symptoms ranging from headaches and memory loss to chronic fatigue. It’s like Vietnam and Agent Orange all over again. But in that case it took 20 years before the government came clean about Agent Orange and started paying disability benefits.
“What we did to those kids, this is going to be an issue,” Hersh said to a newspaper while on a book tour for “Against All Enemies” in Denver. “We’re going to make this an issue. We’re going to make the American people collectively ashamed that they cared more about Monica Lewinsky than what’s going on in their own neighborhood.”
Hersh is howling again. Sounds like music.
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)