"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)
Half inherited campaign brand, half slogan-for-hire, the curious political juggernaut that now goes by the Bond-like name of “W.” defies easy narrative comprehension. What matters about George Bush 2.0 is not his name, his presidential patrimony, his oddly cavernous and possibly coke-inflected young adulthood, his lackluster career as an entrepreneur, his term and a half in the Texas statehouse — or, least of all, his “compassion” or his “conservatism.”
What matters is the diffuse yet infinitely bankable perception of his electability — and that is anything but a quality of his person or his life story. Indeed, the basis of Bush’s appeal is not leadership, character or moral suasion (those quaint 19th century propositions) so much as a context-defying mastery of affected mannerisms and expensively leased speech that is indistinguishable from performance art.
Dubya extends the Bush brand chiefly by his capacity to stay remorselessly “on message” (no matter how daffy the message or how non sequitur the setting); his soothing ability to incant slogans and catch phrases like meditative mantras; his pliant yet strangely expressionless face; and (most eloquently of all) his $70 million-and-counting price tag. Alone among the current leading contenders for the presidency, W. refuses even to pay lip service to the notion of serious campaign finance reform. Despite a hasty and loophole-ridden “me too” proposal to curtail soft money on the eve of the South Carolina primary vote, he is actually on record proposing that current limits for individual campaign contributions be increased.
It’s not hard to see why. Without generous and enveloping tidal infusions of cash, it would be hard to descry the George W. story at all. Elizabeth Mitchell, at the outset of “W.: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty,” tries halfheartedly to trace an organic basis for W. frenzy in the American electorate. Bush presents himself to Americans “in a fitful dream,” she writes, “when they have grown weary of reinventing morality and monitoring the conduct of their leaders.” If Bill Clinton was an engaging if morally taxing “buddy” to the American people, she continues, “George W. was even simpler fun. The American people saw him as their golfing partner — someone easy to spend time with but who lacked the complications of a bosom friend.”
There it is in a nutshell: You start off talking probity and leadership in all matters Bushian — you know, the, uh, vision thing — and before you know it you’re back on the fairway. You can see how, at one level, this might well make for “simpler fun” — what social relationship is not in fact enormously simplified by boatloads of money? But for the vast, nongolfing American majority, the fitful dream that is Dubya segues a bit too briskly into something like “Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Great Gatsby.”
Indeed, Gatsby’s immortal one-liner, “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!” could serve both as W.’s campaign slogan and the precis for books such as Mitchell’s, which capably but uncritically recounts the strivings of presidential ambition in a stubbornly blank and decentered self. Mitchell was denied access to the candidate himself for the book — often a literary death sentence for quickie campaign and celebrity bios — but here the absence of Bush fils is scarcely noticeable, since the candidate himself is so manifestly beside the point. Indeed, much of “W.: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty” is taken up with the story of Bush the elder — whom Mitchell (a former executive editor of George and hence a master of celebritist hyperbole) unironically dubs “Superman.”
And of course that, too, makes perfect sense, since so much of W.’s tale is his father’s life repeated in blurrier focus, like those deceptively named and badly animated offshore video knockoffs of Disney blockbusters such as “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Like his dad, W. graduated from Andover and Yale (though with a distinctly mediocre academic record); like his father, he served a stint as a military pilot (though in the cozening embrace of the Texas National Guard, a vital waystation for sons of privilege skittish about combat duty in Vietnam); like his dad, he pursued a career as a wildcat oilman, though his efforts continually flailed and sputtered out, requiring last-minute bailouts from his father’s friends and business contacts — culminating in a stock sell-off in 1990 that supplied Bush with a handsome $300,000 profit, just two months before the stock price nosedived into oblivion.
As Mitchell notes in her rather ungainly way with metaphor, “throughout his days, George W. would be trailed by the halo and the shadow of his father.” (She elsewhere likens the Bush family to “America during the Cold War” and “a highly trained, precision Olympic water ballet team.”)
But for all of Mitchell’s determination to carve a compelling political psychobiography out of the W. story, there remains little to propel the plot — except, of course, the tight lockstep of still more family influence and still more money. Even the one notable departure from the Bush Sr. script — W.’s tour of duty as a part-owner of the Texas Rangers — came at the prompting of Bill DeWitt Jr., an old family friend and partner in the W.-brokered oil venture Spectrum 7 (as well as a corporate scion in his own right, the son of a part owner of the Cincinnati Reds).
Clearly intoxicated by even this negligible breaking of Bush Sr. form, Dubya intemperately seized all responsibility for the deal at the press conference publicizing the ownership change. (His borrowed $600,000 share of the team in fact worked out to be only 1.8 percent of the total financing.) Mitchell offers this sympathetic reading of W.’s self-promotional ploy, the sort of acrobatic special pleading that should summon our infinite compassion for her thankless task as a biographer: In contrast to the exploits of Superman Sr.,
George W. Bush’s accomplishments were harder to define: He could only list head cheerleader, fraternity president, and first lieutenant, a commission that would forever be marred by his father’s 1970 election day [loss]. What kind of awards were handed out for fun guy, loyal friend, good old boy, caring neighbor? You couldn’t run on those resume lines.
In other words, an undistinguished, inert, monied background finds its personal and political redemption in … an inert monied takeover bid, disingenuously touted as a solitary work of fiscal genius.
So deep does this confusion between cash and character run in “W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty” that Mitchell can’t seem to distinguish between the preferences of campaign donors and the political instincts of the American citizenry. She writes that Bush’s affinity with the electorate inheres in his ability “to break all records for fund-raising — accumulating over $50 million in the first six months. The voters would rather have someone they could trust than a policy wonk.”
What voters? The most important group to put Bush over the $50 million mark is the rarefied set of cronies known as the “Bush Pioneers” who weigh in with a $100,000 contribution apiece (each a fastidiously bundled grouping of $1000 “individual” donations so as to be in — wink, wink — observance of federal election law). The $50 million figure is itself significant only because it places the Bush campaign beyond the fund-raising restrictions necessary to qualify for federal matching funds. The logic of George W.’s candidacy and George W.’s life pretty much rules out the notion of meaningful popular participation. When the presidency is downgraded to the status of golfing partner, not only does the preponderance of political influence fall to clubhouse habitués; most citizens are quite justifiably indifferent to the sport in the first place.
Which is not to say, of course, that this arrangement does not wreak a great deal of damage on the commonweal. To get the fuller sense of the likely political contours of a W. presidency, the reader is well advised to lay aside “W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty” — in which Bush’s statehouse career fills a scant 18 of 350 pages (most of which, in turn, are devoted to the rigors of campaigning and, yes, fund-raising) — and take up “Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.”
While Mitchell’s book hews tiresomely to the Great Man (or rather, Superman) theory of presidential legacy, “Shrub” aims itself mercilessly at Texas’ political playing field, tracking the state’s key policy disputes and W.’s distinctly uninspiring political record. Even at half the length of “W.,” it is easily twice as informative.
And in marked contrast to the watery, star-struck estimations of the W. “magic” offered by Elizabeth Mitchell, the outlook of authors Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose is suitably scathing. Both veterans of the muckraking Texas Observer, Ivins (now a syndicated columnist) and Dubose (the Observer’s editor and former Legislature correspondent) briskly explain that the only relevant entry on W.’s résumé, the Texas governorship, is a notoriously weak executive office to hold. The Texas Legislature meets only 140 days out of every two-year session, its legislative business is usually commandeered by the lieutenant governor and offices such as judgeships that are often appointed from the statehouse in other states are elected in Texas. In terms of constitutional power, the governor of Texas ranks fifth in the pecking order of state government, behind the lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner.
As a result, W. — who has never exactly been a self-starter — spends many an afternoon in Austin jogging and playing computer solitaire. (One of the things the “gentleman’s C” Yale grad hates most, as Ivins and Dubose note, is “reading 500-page policy books.”) Of course, like any executive post, the governorship of Texas remains a bully pulpit. And as Ivins and Dubose note, W.’s one genuine effort at reform — his attempt to institute a viable and semi-equitable tax plan for the state’s grievously misfinanced public schools — showed how even the enfeebled office of the governor could be turned to productive political use. (This initiative ultimately failed, though, thanks to the intransigence of Bush’s party in the face of a reformed tax code that would have taxed limited partnerships in Texas — aka doctors and attorneys, aka the affluent professional class — for the first time.)
W.’s interest in genuine policy-making seems pretty much to have vanished after this one feint at school reform. Since then, he has not once deviated from his earlier profile as “a CEO’s wet dream,” in Ivins and Dubose’s colorful formulation. In addition to pushing his doomed education program, Bush campaigned against incumbent Ann Richards in 1994 on a platform of cracking down on juvenile crime, welfare reform and “tort reform.” The welfare and kid crime crusades — with all their alarmist scolding and scare-mongering on the stump — appeased the Texas GOP’s culture warriors on the Christian right. But it was the tort campaign — which in plain English made it all but impossible for indigent plaintiffs to sue large corporate defendants and malpractice defendants in the health and insurance industries — that really plumped Dubya’s campaign coffers, to the tune of nearly $1 million in the ’94 race.
Meanwhile, in environmental matters, Bush managed the impressive trick of making Texas — already the No. 1 state in the nation in most categories of air and water pollution — into a yet more obliging playground of deregulation for the big polluters in the state’s oil, chemical and agricultural industries. Flexing one of his only appointive muscles, Bush dispatched all three Richards-appointed members of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (or, as it is known in the colorful argot of the Lone Star political set, “Trainwreck”).
The dismissed Richards appointees were experienced environmental lawyers and regulators; under Bush, Trainwreck was composed of a former director of the Texas Farm Bureau (a lobby and insurance outfit that invests heavily in the chemical industry); a former Monsanto executive and chief lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council; and a voluble, mustachioed evangelical attorney known among his former Texas Senate colleagues as “the skinny Hitler.” The Bush-appointed Trainwreck team promptly set about dismantling the state’s just-instituted “right to know” enforcement regime governing farm workers’ exposure to hazardous pesticides.
It was a bit, well, like turning over administration of the state’s welfare system to pork-starved defense contractors and instituting profit incentives to decrease enrollments — another Bush gambit that the Clinton administration smote down in a rare display of backbone. But a far more gruesome Bush-sponsored welfare initiative speaks volumes about the sort of political imperatives that can pass unremarked under the broad ambit of “compassionate conservatism.” In 1999, Bush moved to limit eligibility for state funding under the federal Children’s Health Initiative Program. With 1.4 million uninsured kids, Texas is second only to California in this depressing social indicator; the standards Bush urged on the state would have denied coverage to 200,000 children.
Why? Because, as it turns out, the federal CHIP program funnels children from families who earn too little to qualify under its guidelines into the Medicaid program, where they get free health insurance. In other words, a broader CHIP program in Texas would have created “Medicaid spillover” — a bureaucratic term of art that means (in the campaign patois that is Bush’s native tongue): If too many poor kids get government health insurance in Texas, other contenders for the presidency will claim that the welfare rolls increased on your watch.
Fortunately, the Democratic-controlled state Legislature overrode Bush’s plan — another reason to be grateful for the feeble powers of the Texas governorship. But such case studies should remind us, for all the chatter about “prosperity with a purpose” and the occasional dramatic pause to intone a talking point in Spanish, that W. was initiated into the national political campaign scene as an understudy of Lee Atwater, head of the 1988 presidential run of Bush the Elder, and the W.-ish Southern frat boy who introduced Willie Horton, “the L-word” and “card-carrying member of the ACLU” into the nation’s sad political lexicon.
“Shrub” furnishes many other scarifying details from the little-consulted annals of Texas politics in the W. years, from the lurid (W.’s execution- and incarceration-happy approach to law enforcement) to the merely sad (his bulldog insistence on ever greater quantities of “tort reform” to appease ever larger campaign donors). True, it does overindulge Ivins’ weakness for ostentatiously down-home prose (continually designating the most powerful force in Texas politics with the folksy term “bidness” and even appending an explanatory footnote on the locution; not to mention repeating at every opportunity the Southern bromide “you got to dance with them what brung you,” which also happens to be the title of one of Ivins’ books).
But such “Hee-Haw”-style asides don’t seriously detract from the useful political education to be had in “Shrub.” Of course, John McCain has given us surprising new grounds to hope that GOP voters could render the need for such self-instruction obsolete. Yet $70 million (and a dynastic name and a polished stump delivery and a patrician smirk) goes a long way. It’s best in the meantime to urge “Shrub” on concerned citizens of any party affiliation, lest we find ourselves stuck at the dance with a singularly callous and store-bought golfing partner.
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)