"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 seems to be some confusion about George W. Bush on the issue of homosexuality.
The questions, however, are about Bush’s political orientation, because of his having waged a fairly public — and yet thoroughly confusing — feud with the Log Cabin Republicans, the leading gay and lesbian Republican organization. In the process, Bush has been lambasted for being anti-gay — or, at the very least, indifferent to the concerns of the gay community.
And yet there are prominent gay supporters of Bush — like Carl Schmid, former president of the D.C. Chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans and a former board member of the national Log Cabin Republicans, Washington City Councilman David Catania and public relations executive Charles Francis — who have hope for the presumptive GOP presidential nominee and who have been working behind the scenes to broker a meeting with Bush. “We’ll be meeting in the near future and there will be a good discussion of these issues,” like nondiscrimination and gay adoption, Schmid says.
Confirms (kinda) Bush spokesman Scott McClellan: “Gov. Bush may meet with supporters who are gay and also members of local Log Cabin organizations and he welcomes their support.”
It’s McClellan’s emphasis on local Log Cabin organizations that’s significant. To Schmid and several other pro-Bush gays, the national LCR has been going about the process of engaging Bush all wrong.
LCR has run to the media instead of engaging in an educational dialogue with the Bush campaign, Schmid says. LCR leaders “did everything they could to elect [Arizona Sen.] John McCain — they raised money for him, they attacked Bush [in the media] over and over,” Schmid says. And eventually, they even took out attack ads against Bush.
In the week before Super Tuesday, March 7, LCR spent $20,000 on radio ads that aired in Los Angeles, New York and Massachusetts. “I was happy to hear George W. Bush say he’s a uniter, not a divider,” a female voice says. “But then he said he would not meet with gay Republicans, and worse, he wouldn’t hire them. Then Bush went to Bob Jones University … and he aligned himself with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. I am sorry — that doesn’t build the kind of Republican Party that wins elections. Do we have to lose our third presidential race in a row because our candidate has pandered to the far right?”
The Wisconsin chapter of LCR objected to the anti-Bush ads — which, according to Schmid and others, reflects how the national LCR has been at odds with state chapters over the Bush issue. The Wisconsin chapter was even put on probation by the national board. Bob Stears, chairman of the national LCR board, called for the charters of three Wisconsin LCR locals to be made “conditional” until members from them met with the national board of directors twice before Jan. 31, 2001, and agreed not to use the name “Log Cabin Republicans” in any activity having to do with the presidential election. “To publicly criticize the National Board … is inappropriate,” Stears said in a letter to LCR members.
“The most important thing is to set up an environment of mutual respect and trust between the governor and the gay community,” says David Greer, state chairman of the Pennsylvania LCR. Greer says that the national LCR should have been working behind the scenes to educate Bush instead of blasting him in front of the media, God and everyone. Such is “part of being a team player when you are — as we are — part of a partisan organization. Governor Bush’s relationship with the gay and lesbian community shouldn’t be entirely characterized by his relationship to one organization.”
“These are very serious issues,” says Schmid, who has sat on the national board of the Human Rights Campaign, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for gay and lesbian rights, and is an alternate Bush delegate for this year’s Republican Convention. “You need to build trust to discuss these issues. And right now there is no trust between Bush and the national office of the Log Cabin Republicans.”
But other gay activists argue that it’s not the national Log Cabin Republicans who are responsible for straining the relationship. David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, agrees the LCR’s radio ads against Bush were a mistake. “They alienated the Bush campaign even further than it had been alienated before,” he says.
But, Smith continues, it’s easy to understand why they did so: “Bush has been decisively anti-gay throughout this campaign.”
Some people wonder why a gay or lesbian would bother trying to change the face of a party whose leaders regularly espouse anti-gay bigotry. Says fiercely partisan Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of Congress’ few openly gay members, “I guess if you’re gay but you’re also rich, and you like to pollute, and you don’t like black people, then you vote Republican. But it’s not rational to think that voting Republican is the best way to advance the gay agenda.”
But LCR exists because of gays and lesbians who, according to the LCR mission statement, believe “in the principles of limited government, individual liberty, individual responsibility, free markets and a strong national defense. We emphasize that these principles and the moral values that underlie them are consistent with the pursuit of equal treatment under the law for gay men and women.”
The group was born during a 1978 fight against an anti-gay California ballot initiative, which was defeated in no small part because of the group’s enlistment of Ronald Reagan in its cause. This became LCR’s model; by engaging and communicating with Republicans, the group hopes to show the party the error of its anti-gay members’ ways.
Historically, the group’s actual impact has been negligible. Gays and lesbians constitute about 5 percent of the American electorate, at least according to recent exit poll data. Generally, gay and lesbian voters tend to choose Democrats over Republicans by at least a margin of 2-to-1. But Bush’s opinion of gays and lesbians isn’t really about just them; Christian conservatives and liberals on the left all carefully parse what he’s saying about them, and quickly attack what they disagree with.
Former Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., who’s gay, says, “I told the Bush campaign in a conversation not long ago, ‘I don’t think your guy is going to get the gay and lesbian vote. That’s reality. But you need to reach out to send signals to those who care about the gay community, the soccer moms, the X generation, to show that you’re fair and open-minded.’”
So far, Bush has played mostly to the conservatives — and not just in his opposition to gay adoption and the inclusion of gays and lesbians in a hate crimes or a job discrimination bill, HRC’s Smith argues. It’s that even if Bush isn’t actually a homophobe, he’s been perfectly willing to play one on TV.
During the last GOP debate in South Carolina, Smith said Bush was gay-baiting when he claimed he didn’t meet with LCR because “they’d already made a commitment to Senator McCain” — which wasn’t true. Then Bush told a Christian radio station in Charleston that “out” gays weren’t welcome in a Bush administration, saying, “an openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn’t share my philosophy.” (The Bush press team later insisted their boss was referring only to liberal gay activists, but that’s surely not the impression he gave the Christian radio station’s audience.)
Additionally, when McCain met with the Log Cabin Republicans, the Washington Times covered the event and the article was later “circulated throughout South Carolina by the Ralph Reed network,” Smith says, referring to the former Christian Coalition director and now Bush advisor.
Support of Bush by gays after such sustained attacks has left activists at the Human Rights Campaign scratching their heads, Smith says. “We don’t understand how there could be in the gay community support for anyone who not only holds Bush’s positions, but who behaved the way Bush did during South Carolina,” he says.
But such is the unique high-wire act of the Log Cabin Republicans, both national and, now, local.
Last summer, gay Republicans like Schmid were hopeful Bush’s message of “compassionate conservatism” extended to them. At a June 1 fund-raiser for Bush in Washington, Schmid says he approached the Texas governor and told him he and other gay Republicans wanted to support him “as long as we have communication with you.”
“You will,” Bush promised, according to Schmid. “And I promise I will always treat you with respect, and that is what you deserve.”
Still, gay Republicans weren’t quite sure where the governor stood. Every time Bush took a stand gay Republicans perceived as anti-gay, it would be followed by one — usually quite modest — offering them a glimmer of hope.
As a gubernatorial candidate in 1994, Bush was asked about legislation to repeal a section of the Texas penal code that outlaws sodomy. Bush pledged to veto any bill repealing the anti-sodomy statute, calling it “a symbolic gesture of traditional values.”
Bush didn’t stop there. “If there is a political agenda that I am uncomfortable with and do not agree with, they’re not going to get appointed,” he said. “That would include an agenda pushed by the gay and lesbian lobby.”
But then, in 1996, during a brouhaha over whether the Texas Log Cabin Republicans would be allowed to participate at the state Republican Convention in San Antonio, Bush decried the “name-calling” going on in the dispute and reportedly told the GOP to let the Texas Log Cabin group set up a booth.
The Texas LCR took this as a strong show of support — which seems a questionable call. After all, with Bush as governor, the state GOP still challenged the LCR on its attendance at the convention all the way to the state Supreme Court (a fight that the Texas LCR lost). And Bush spoke at the convention and supported the party platform, which stated, “The party believes that the practice of sodomy leads to the breakdown of the family unit and the spread of the deadly disease AIDS. Homosexuality should not be presented as an acceptable alternative lifestyle in our public schools … We oppose marriages between persons of the same sex and homosexuals obtaining the right to adopt or obtaining child custody.”
Texas state Rep. Glen Maxey, a Democrat and the only openly gay member of the Texas Legislature, assesses Bush as “pretty benign when you put him up against what he could be.” But Maxey says Bush has “no understanding and no concept of issues that are a concern to gay and lesbian people.” Maxey says he finds it “patronizing” when Bush’s press officers tell reporters the governor has gay friends and supporters. More to the point, Maxey says, Bush’s “gay friends” are the kind who live in Highland Park — an upscale neighborhood in Dallas — “who have never faced an issue of discrimination because they’re rich enough to buy their way out of it.”
Bush’s record in Texas on gay and lesbian issues, Maxey says, is atrocious — and somewhat in the closet. “Bush was responsible for killing the hate crimes bill, and that debate was totally around the issue of whether sexual orientation would be contained within it … On the issue of gay adoption, Bush took the position that gay people were not fit to be parents. But all those occurrences were behind the scenes. He’s not Jesse Helms,” Maxey says, referring to the outspokenly anti-gay North Carolina senator, “but he’s certainly not a friend to the gay community.”
To hear the Texas LCR tell it, however, Bush is just a good guy who needs some coaxing. “Bush has had a fair record, and many gays believe he’s been a good governor. But he does need to move more on some gay political issues,” Steve Labinski, head of the Texas LCR, assessed in the Austin American-Statesman.
This is the lot of gays committed to changing the Republican Party, especially in Texas — they are happy with crumbs of tolerance, even in the face of a loaf of anti-gay zealotry.
Bush opposes the biggest hot-button issues for gays — adoptions, same-sex marriage, domestic partner benefits and adding gays and lesbians to both a job discrimination and a hate crimes bill. But in April 1999, he offered what some LCR members interpreted as a sign of support during the heated debate over the appointment of James Hormel, a gay philanthropist, as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
Bush said he was unfamiliar with the Hormel controversy, but told the New York Times, “As a general statement, if someone can do a job, and a job that he’s qualified for, that person ought to be allowed to do his job.”
LCR — still hopeful (some might say delusional) — popped the champagne. “Bush takes big step in favor of gay rights,” blared an LCR press release.
“Governor Bush has laid the philosophical groundwork for supporting federal nondiscrimination policies and legislation,” stated Rich Tafel, LCR’s executive director, in the release. “By saying that as a general statement, a gay person should be judged in the workplace on merit and never on sexual orientation, he is articulating a core principle at the heart of the gay rights movement.”
“They were looking for ways to say nice things about Bush, to cosmeticize Bush,” says Frank. “They’re selling a really tough product.”
Later, in a closed-door meeting with conservative activists on Sept. 24, Bush said he would never “knowingly” appoint an openly gay person. If an appointee were “discovered” to be gay, however, Bush said that he wouldn’t have him or her fired. Asked to clarify what this meant, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said that Bush would never know what a person’s sexuality was, since he would never ask.
Then in January, C-Span caught an exchange between Hughes and Time magazine writer Jay Carney, after Carney followed up on Bush’s response to whether he would ever appoint a gay or lesbian to a position in his administration.
“He said, ‘First of all, how would I know?’” Hughes said. “That’s not a question he asks.”
“But someone who is openly gay,” said Carney.
“It would depend on their agenda,” Hughes said. “He would expect them to share his philosophy … He views that as someone’s private business.”
“So the issue wouldn’t be his sexuality or her sexuality but whether or not they were promoting …”
“Again, that’s not a question he asks,” Hughes interrupted. “He’s never asked that of prospective employees.”
“But if they’re out of the closet, if they’re open,” Carney said. “If he knew.”
“How would he know that?” Hughes asked. “Based on rumor?”
“If they have a boyfriend or girlfriend,” Carney said.
“He would expect the people who worked with him to agree with his philosophy and his approach,” Hughes said.
“Right,” said Carney, growing frustrated. “But — you see what I’m saying?”
“You’re trying to make me say it the way you want me to say it,” Hughes said.
“So the question is, would he appoint somebody who is known to be gay?” Carney asked.
“It’s not a question that he would ask,” Hughes said. “He appoints people based on their qualifications, and he expects his employees to share his philosophy.”
“Just tell me if you’re trying not to answer the question,” Carney said. “If he knew someone was gay, would he not appoint that person because that person is openly gay?”
“Jay, I’ll tell you what he would say if you asked him that question. He respects individuals,” Hughes said. “That is not a question he asks.”
The Carney-Hughes exchange literally did nothing to illuminate the governor’s stand on the issue of gays. However, it seems to capture Bush’s position just perfectly.
Bush isn’t so “hear no gayness, see no gayness” as Hughes implies. He is fully aware, for example, of the gay orientation of several reporters who follow him on the campaign trail, and has commented about it in private, according to several sources, and these journalists aren’t exactly flaunting pink triangles on their lapels. His comments weren’t made with hostility or anti-gay bias. But they suggest that Bush, like the rest of the world, isn’t as oblivious to the issue as Hughes would have us believe.
Still, to LCR executives, much of this was relatively benign and, in the world of GOP primary politics, fully understandable. As of last fall, they still held out hope.
At least until Nov. 21, when, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Bush told Tim Russert that he would “probably not” meet with LCR “because it creates a huge political scene. I mean, this is all — I am someone who is a uniter, not a divider. I don’t believe in group thought, pitting one group of people against another. And all that does is create kind of a huge political, you know, nightmare for people.” Later, on “Larry King Live,” Bush said he didn’t want to meet with LCR because he “didn’t want to create a ruckus.”
The kind of “group thought” and type of “ruckus” were apparently important, because Bush had spoken to any number of niche groups of the GOP — including the Christian Coalition and, the same week as his “Meet the Press” appearance, the Republican Jewish Coalition.
And on Feb. 2, of course, Bush spoke at Bob Jones University, known for its anti-gay, anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon dogma and, until recently, for banning interracial dating.
But the whole issue of whether Bush would ever meet with LCR began to percolate. Immediately after Bush’s “Meet the Press” remark, Bush education advisor Diane Ravitch resigned. “It was something I found to be intolerable,” Ravitch said to Education Week. “I believe in an inclusive approach to politics.” Ravitch, a New York University research professor and a Brookings Institution senior fellow, had served as an assistant secretary of education in the administration of Bush’s father.
“Just a few weeks earlier, he was urging Pat Buchanan to stay in the party,” Ravitch told Education Week. “I think the Log Cabin Republicans are more respectable than Pat Buchanan.”
It was also at this time that members of LCR’s national board began to support McCain. According to Tafel, the first donation to McCain from the LCR leadership came on Dec. 17 — about a month after his “Meet the Press” comments. “They went to McCain as a reaction,” assesses Frank.
After Bush lost the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1, he “took some visible steps to the right to cultivate the support of social conservatives,” according to Gunderson, the former Wisconsin congressman. While Bush and McCain had basically the same record on a lot of these issues, only McCain “attempted to reflect a national constituency. McCain was much more vocal, aggressive and committed to inclusiveness. It became a key part of his campaign. Bush’s efforts were just the opposite.”
So LCR went on the radio decrying Bush.
Frank, a frequent critic of LCR, says running the radio ad showed “some real integrity.” In the past, LCR has blurred the significant differences between Democratic and Republican candidates on gay and lesbian issues, Frank says, “underselling Democrats, acting as if [President] Clinton and [then-GOP nominee Bob] Dole were the same, since they both supported DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act, which said that states don't have to accept gay and lesbian marriages that take place in other states]. There would be nine other issues that they differed on, but they would ignore them.”
Whether it was integrity or stupidity, McCain lost, and now LCR is stuck at the dance without a date. “Their biggest problem is no longer tactical,” says Frank. “Their biggest problem is that Bush is not the right-wing candidate, and what Bush shows is that a mainstream conservative Republican candidate can be 100 percent anti-gay.” The normally garrulous spokesman of LCR, Kevin Ivers, said on Monday that he and Tafel have “pretty much said all we’re going to say on this.”
They fear that they’re screwed. With the help of Greer, Schmid, Catania, Francis and others, Bush can meet with gay Republicans in the next couple of weeks and still stand by his refusal to meet with the national LCR during the primary season. Bush — on his way back to the political middle — will be able to say that he never had any problem meeting with gays and lesbians. It was just those national Log Cabin Republicans he had the problem with. It’s not true, of course, but whatever. It’ll probably sell.
That national LCR now has several open riffs with local chapters will help Bush make his case, as will Tafel’s proclivity for pugilism. Says one prominent gay Republican pol, “Rich needs to have a fight. In the past he would fight with the Human Rights Campaign; now it’s with Bush. He’s the Wayne LaPierre of the gay community.”
Even with Tafel cut out of the circle, it bears asking: If and when this meeting does go down, what on earth will they all have to talk about? As even Greer says, “I don’t think you’re going to find many people — Republicans, and certainly not any Democrats — who are going to defend the governor’s record on gay and lesbian issues.” Except for Greer himself, of course, who mentions the dubious support Bush offered during the 1996 convention and his innocuous comment during the Hormel fracas.
“The governor has had a wonderful relationship with gays and lesbians and actually came to the aid of Log Cabin during the state convention when the Republican state committee actually didn’t want them to come,” Greer says. “He has had good policy pronouncements before. And the governor did say he was willing to appoint openly gay people to his administration. Although he’s backtracked on that one.”
Yes, he did. Says Gunderson, “He made it sound like Steve Gunderson and [openly gay Rep.] Jim Kolbe [R-Ariz.] and others are not acceptable to serve in a Bush administration. Not that I want to serve in a Bush administration, but he made it sound like people like us who are honest and open about our orientation are not welcome.”
But the gays in Bush’s camp have low expectations, as even they will acknowledge. Greer is reduced to hoping that Bush will just retain Clinton’s executive order banning federal workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“When you’re dealing with conservatives, there’s a big difference between talking about the government workplace and the private sector workplace,” Greer says. Since the government workforce isn’t part of the free-market economy, anti-regulation bells and whistles don’t go off for conservatives as long as the nondiscrimination law remains away from the private sector, he says. Bush, as a free-market conservative, “is still trying to work that issue out.”
Bush spokesman McClellan refuses to say whether Bush would rescind or uphold the Clinton executive order. “The governor is opposed to discrimination in any form or fashion,” McClellan says. “The governor believes that all people should be treated fairly and equally under the law.”
Schmid, meanwhile, asserts that Bush has made progress on the issue of gay adoption. One year ago, when Bush was asked about a Texas court ruling that took a child away from a gay couple, he said he didn’t have an opinion on the issue. According to Schmid, “If you listen carefully, he’s learned to understand the general principle that gay people have adopted children and that he doesn’t think the government should be intruding in private adoptions.”
When asked about Schmid’s interpretation, McClellan says, “I don’t know where he gets that from. I know what the governor has repeatedly said, which is that the best placement for a child should always be in a loving home with a mother and father who are married.”
Gay Bush supporters are pretty much left with being objects of derision from all sides. Says Frank: “There are always gay people sufficiently self-hating to be supportive of a candidate despite the fact that the candidate says he wouldn’t appoint a gay person to his administration.”
Catania, normally one of Washington’s most talkative and media-friendly city councilmen, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in February that “I wish [Bush] would be a bit more progressive on gay issues, but, that aside, I think he’s the best man to lead this country.” Ever since, Catania has refused to speak on the issue, though according to several sources he is as deeply involved in negotiations with the Bush campaign, as are Francis, who did not return several phone calls requesting comments for this story, and Schmid.
They all continue to support Bush, saying they’re committed to reforming the Republican Party, even if that means starting with a less than ideal candidate. “I’m not saying that Governor Bush has the greatest record on gay issues,” says Schmid. “But I’m also interested in meeting with him to educate him on these issues.”
“I’m a Republican,” Schmid says. “I believe in the Republican philosophy on the role of government, on business, on taxes. That’s what I believe in and that’s why I support him. And listen, he’s the nominee of the Republican Party. And the Republican Party is where we need progress on gay issues. The progress isn’t made with Al Gore and Bill Clinton — they’re already on our side. If we’re successful in moving George W. Bush, we’ll be successful in moving a lot of people in society.”
Adds Greer: “He has an outstanding shot to win the presidency of the United States. And what could be worse than if no relationship with this constituency were established before Governor Bush took office and became president?”
Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.More Jake Tapper.
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)