"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)
Were you surprised to hear that the Microsoft Corp., home of those hard-working but culturally freewheeling computer nerds up in Redmond, Wash., had hired none other than former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed to lobby George W. Bush on its behalf? You probably weren’t the only one.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Microsoft hired Reed to get Bush to support Microsoft’s position in the Justice Department’s antitrust case if he wins the November presidential election. Reed signed on with Microsoft in the fall of 1998, but stayed on the company’s payroll after he became a senior advisor to Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999.
Reed’s consulting firm, Century Strategies, released a statement Tuesday stating that Reed has never asked Bush to take a position on the government’s antitrust case against Microsoft.
“Ralph said it was an error on his part,” said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. “Neither the governor nor the campaign has been talked to or personally lobbied by anyone at Ralph’s firm about Microsoft.”
Given the “I didn’t do it and I’ll never do it again” apology that Reed issued late Tuesday afternoon and the stony-faced denials coming out of Bush headquarters in Austin, Texas, one can safely assume that the Bush people weren’t supposed to have heard about it either.
But just what was going on here anyway? Given the grief the software colossus has been getting from the Clinton Justice Department over its alleged anti-competitive practices, it’s really no surprise that Microsoft has leaned increasingly toward the sort of anti-regulatory, laissez-faire economic policy commonly espoused by Republicans. But Reed is known principally not for tax cuts but for opposition to abortion, gay rights and other tenets of the Christian conservative agenda. So what gives? What is a cosmopolitan outfit like Microsoft doing hooking up with Pat Robertson’s former right-hand man?
Reed was always more of a pol than a preacher, even in his heyday at the Christian Coalition. A young Republican political operative before he ever got involved with Christian conservative politics, Reed came to evangelical Christianity both as a personal religious commitment and as a strategy for mobilizing conservative voters. When Reed took the job of executive director at the Christian Coalition in 1989 it was little more than the organizational apparatus left over from Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful 1988 presidential bid.
By the 1990s, however, it had become one of the most powerful organized interest groups in American politics, due in no small part to Reed’s combination of rhetorical and organizational skills. Since Reed’s departure in 1997 the organization has gone into eclipse, with diminishing political influence and persistent financial troubles, a situation which was both a cause and an effect of Reed’s departure. After the 1996 election, Reed seems to have realized that the Christian Coalition’s best days might be behind it. And his departure greatly hastened the process. After leaving, Reed founded Century Strategies, a political consulting firm in Atlanta.
What’s really amazing about Microsoft’s decision to hire Reed, though, is not that a culturally liberal, cosmopolitan company like Microsoft would hire the cherubic former public face of the religious right. What’s really shocking is that Reed can still get clients to pay top dollar for his services even though his track record as a political consultant has been quite dismal.
Reed’s first go-around as a professional political consultant came in the 1998 midterm congressional election. After the votes were cast, Reed claimed that roughly half his candidates won their races. But that reckoning was only after he took into account an undisclosed number of clients whose identities he said he was contractually obligated not to reveal. In fact, almost every one of Reed’s acknowledged clients who faced a remotely competitive race lost.
To be fair to Reed, 1998 ended up a fairly disappointing year for Republicans all around. Though at one point it seemed Democrats might sustain terrible losses in the House of Representatives because of President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, they actually picked up five seats. But few did quite as badly as Reed. More striking is that so many of Reed’s clients’ losing campaigns followed a similar trajectory toward defeat. Most started out strong, with heavy appeals on moral issues (something Reed strongly advocated), faltered in the stretch and, finally, resorted to a blizzard of low-ball (sometimes racially tinged) tactics before stumbling toward defeat.
One of Reed’s clients, Mitch Skandalakis, a Republican candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor, reacted to his slide in the polls by playing what one might call the D.W. Griffith card, launching a series of withering attacks on the alleged incompetence of the predominantly black administration of Atlanta. Skandalakis also aired an ad with an actor resembling his opponent, Mark Taylor, clad in a tattered robe, shambling down a hospital hallway at the Ridgeview Institute, a psychiatric and drug treatment facility near Atlanta. Skandalakis lost by a substantial margin and a number of commentators blamed Reed and Skandalakis for bringing down the whole Republican ticket in the state. (Taylor’s $1 million defamation lawsuit against Skandalakis is before a court-appointed mediator.)
Another one of Reed’s clients, Gary Hofmeister, a Republican congressional candidate from Indiana, ran an ad in which the face of his opponent, Julia Carson, who is black, melded into images of prison doors and hypodermic needles. Hofmeister, too, went down to defeat.
What was most striking about these gambits was not their nastiness, but their fecklessness. It’s bad enough to win with low-ball tactics; it’s unforgivable to lose that way. What’s also strange is that during his time at the Christian Coalition, Reed had frequently talked up the need for religious conservatives to build bridges to religiously committed black and Hispanic voters. Whether Reed was sincerely interested in inclusion is difficult to say. But he at least seemed to recognize the political necessity of expanding the appeal of the Christian conservative agenda.
So what happened? The answer may be that Reed just got desperate and fell back on some of the tried-and-true wedge-issue tactics he’d learned during his apprenticeship as a Republican political operative. “I don’t think [Reed] had seen quite as much live ammo as he thought, especially at the sub-presidential level,” said Alan Secrest, a Democratic political consultant who helped defeat three of Reed’s 1998 clients, including Skandalakis and now-former Alabama Gov. Fob James. “In 1998, when the context wasn’t quite as strong a determinant, you had to rely on swiftness of foot tactically. But his work was just heavy-handed. There was a lot of clumsiness.”
Given Reed’s less-than-stellar record as a campaign consultant, why is it that he continues to be in such high demand? One answer to this question is that political reporters are just lazy. Even after Reed’s embarrassing performance in 1998, reporters and talk-show pundits continued to quote him in their articles and book him on their shows as if he were still the political wunderkind who turned Robertson’s Christian Coalition into a political powerhouse.
Late last fall Reed was telling every political reporter in Washington that he had South Carolina’s Christian conservatives all sewed up for Bush. But when I started making calls for an article on Reed’s operation in the state, few of the local politicos thought he’d spent any time in the state at all. “I don’t know of anything [Reed's] doing in the state,” Lee Bandy, the dean of South Carolina political reporters told me at the time. “I don’t know what [Reed's] been saying. But I don’t sense a Ralph Reed presence in the state anywhere.”
A similar process seemed to influence the political candidates who retained him. His immense star power overcame his woeful batting average as an actual consultant.
But there’s more at work than mere laziness. With his boyish looks and carefully tailored phrases, Reed may not strike you as the most charismatic political figure on the national stage, but he is remarkably effective. I don’t think I ever really knew what it meant to be spun before I first spoke to Reed late last year. In December, I wrote an article about the work Reed was doing building up South Carolina as a “firewall” for Bush. I also suspected that Reed was making preparations to drop all manner of dirt on former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain using push-polls just in case McCain caught fire in New Hampshire, which, of course, he did.
I can’t tell you the specifics the two of us spoke about because part of the conversation was off the record. (The point at issue was rather similar to the firestorm today, with Reed trying to unsay something he’d said after it had become publicly embarrassing.) But in the course of our talk, Reed managed to convince me of something that I went into the conversation believing was demonstrably false. And I still think it’s false. I like to think of myself as pretty hard-nosed. And, truth be told, I didn’t go into the conversation positively inclined toward Reed. But he had me convinced. It was almost like I was under a spell.
After I hung up the phone it took about 20 minutes of thinking through what Reed had told me before I finally shook myself free and realized that what he had said was totally ridiculous.
It wouldn’t do to indict Reed on the basis of my own, albeit temporary, credulity. However, as a political operative he is a difficult-to-fathom mix of high-end political talk and low-ball campaign tactics who has seemed increasingly clumsy in recent years. The trouble for Reed’s clients is that his powers of persuasion are the roots of his strength and the roots of his frequent missteps. Maybe someone should tell Bill G. and George W.?
Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.More Joshua Micah Marshall.
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)