"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)
Colorado Sen. Gary Hart was the original New Democrat when he ran for the party’s presidential nomination in 1984 against Walter Mondale. Hart was ahead of his time in another way: He got derailed by a 1987 sex scandal, his affair with model Donna Rice, which would later seem tame in comparison with the Monica Lewinsky drama.
Hart spoke to the Shadow Convention on Los Angeles this week about how the new New Democrats lost their bearings. He told Salon that, despite some reservations, he’s supporting Al Gore and says, “The Democratic Party is not beyond redemption.
You were seen as the original New Democrat in 1984. What were you about, and how did it differ from the Clinton-Gore version of “New Democrats”?
Our goal was to move the party forward without compromising its principles. These guys have gained power, but I’m not sure they maintained the principles.
What I had in mind was to expand the party beyond a shrinking New Deal base of basically organized labor, some minorities and old traditional Democrats. It wasn’t to abandon those people, by any means. But it was somehow to appeal to young people and independent voters. I believed that there was an emerging new economy. We sought to capture people who understood that the economy of America was shifting away from processing raw materials into manufactured goods, and towards information technologies, communications and so forth.
What was your basic critique of Mondale?
That he simply represented the old elements of the Roosevelt coalition without more. And it wasn’t a critique that this was wrong: It was just not enough. Organized labor’s big issue of the day was legislation called domestic content, which required that a certain percentage of all manufactured goods be manufactured in the United States. It simply was heavy-handed and mechanical and it wasn’t going to work. I was against it, and Vice President Mondale was for it. And that was a big watershed with labor. And I was for a different defense. I was for military reform. And I wrote a book called “A New Democracy” with a lot of so-called “new ideas,” such as individual training accounts giving workers training money as they shifted jobs. We were progressive pragmatists, trying to bring the Democratic Party into the future.
How does your version of a “New Democrat” differ from Bill Clinton and Al Gore today?
Well, I had my own version of the napkin. Arthur Laffer and Jack Kemp had a napkin curve that was supposed to correlate tax cuts and economic growth. I had one that overlaid the left-right spectrum with a vertical future-past spectrum. I think those of us who were trying to find a new way were on the left. We were redistributionists in a sense, and government activists. But we also thought we ought to be exploring new ways of doing things, and not simply holding on to the old programs. But I think the so-called New Democrats today are a different breed of cat. What they did was operate on this left-right spectrum, rather than future-past as we tried to do. I think President Clinton moved the party back here to the center of the left-right spectrum, as on welfare reform. I think that gave away too much what we stood for, our principles; I don’t say he was unprincipled, just that I wouldn’t have taken that approach in welfare reform. I saw a story in the New York Times about the first county in America to eliminate welfare. The welfare officials of that county put enormous effort in understanding each individual welfare person’s problems. They went to a great trouble to put that person together with an available job, and also provide the support mechanisms necessary. I would have made sure that happened on a national basis.
Do you have any major differences with Gore?
I think that this administration has had no defense policy that I can understand. The Defense Department needs desperately to be reformed. Not necessarily taken an axe to, but reshaped, reconfigured. I’ll be very blunt about it. The problem in reform in the Defense Department is one service, it’s the U.S. Army. If you and I were to go up to 30,000 feet, and look at political trends in the first quarter of the 21st century, and you were to ask how you would summarize the biggest political issue of this century, I would put it in one word. The issue is “sovereignty.” Nation-states are eroding. I am firmly convinced of this. And there is one key area that I think President Clinton should have provided more leadership: peacemaking. Right now we have three ways of dealing with conflict. One is, don’t do anything. That’s Rwanda. One is to put together coalitions of the willing. That was the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, the Yugoslav mess. The third is to go it alone. That was Somalia, Haiti. Americans don’t like to go it alone when they lose their lives. On the other hand, they watch CNN, they don’t want to let women and children be slaughtered without doing something. So what’s the alternative? I think an international peacemaking force. Peacekeepers can’t do that, because by definition they’re defense; they stand on a street corner and stop people from killing each other. But if they’re already killing each other, the guys aren’t equipped to stop that. You’ve got to have a combat capability.
Nader is arguing that it’s so important to build a long-term progressive movement that even if he cost Gore this election and Bush won, it would be worth it if it led to a long-term progressive movement. Do you agree?
No, no, because his rock is too small and too slippery right now. And the Democratic Party is not beyond redemption. I hold out hope, principally because of some of the young people coming up, that the Democratic Party can once again redefine itself in more progressive terms. Now I have to qualify my answer in saying this. I haven’t read the Green Party platform. If it’s simply a retreat to standard New Deal liberalism, it’s not going to fly. I definitely disagree on global trade. We’re not going to stop it. We’ve got to help regulate it, we’ve got to make it work for as many people as possible.
What’s your basic solution to campaign finance reform?
Well, scrap the laws and start over again. A combination of McCain-Feingold, free television and radio time for all candidates, abolish soft money and a low limit on special interest contributions to individual candidates. I would abolish PACs. And public financing has to be part of it.
What do you do about the primaries, since you can’t have public financing in the primaries?
I know. I don’t know the answer to that.
If Gore said to you, “Look, Gary, the only way I can get elected is to move to the right,” how would you respond?
I disagree, I disagree. Prove the case. That’s what Dick Morris would tell him. Or (Democratic Leadership Council chairman) Al From. But I just disagree.
What case would you make to him that he’s wrong?
I would say half the voters out there are waiting to hear some new message that’s courageous and bold and truthful, and that alienates the powerful interests. And that indicates that you’re going to govern in a bolder and more experimental way.
Some people say Gore is more progressive than he appears. But he’s afraid to be who he really is because he fears losing his electability, that that’s why he’s so stiff.
I have no idea if that’s true. I can’t peek inside his head. All I can say is that if somebody doesn’t know who they are, or hasn’t resolved fundamental core issues of their own character and principles, they shouldn’t run for president.
What was it like for you on a personal level to raise money for your various campaigns?
I hated it, I hated it.
What did you hate about it?
Because it was an act of ego. It was saying, “Give me money.” If I asked for people’s energy, time, money, I always put it in terms of the effort or the cause, because that’s the way I thought of what I was doing. I mean, I’m so different from Bill Clinton here. He likes to go in a room and say “Give me money, give me money!” He likes it! I can’t do that, I’d say “give my campaign money,” or “we need your help” or something. I thought the system was becoming corrupt. I said that, and I made it a campaign issue. It was like a premonition in a way. It was just the beginning. I had an administrative assistant my first term in the Senate, to illustrate the point. He said that by the time he left in 1980 it was routine in Washington that no interest group came to any member of Congress’ office without leaving a check, an envelope with the administrative assistant, which was legal under the rules. You couldn’t give it to anyone else but the A.A.. They’d just go in, make their case and on the way out toss this check: “Here’s to the Senator’s reelection.” I had no idea. And he said “You were the last guy in Washington not to do that.” He said I had guys, Tommy Boggs and others, who said “Of course, we want to contribute to the Senator’s reelection race.” And he said, no, no, no, he doesn’t do that. And it made them mad. It made them mad. So that was the beginning. And I think I was beginning to feel so teeth-grating about it, that I didn’t like it. I was not looking forward to the 1988 race in part because of that.
You always seemed uncomfortable in fundraising situations.
Oh, that was all right. I mean, I’d been through two Senate races. But the rap on me was “cool and aloof.” Well, I was shy, I wasn’t a back-slapping type of politician. And I used to go in a room, and put my back to the wall, and people would come around. And the press would say he’s never going to make it. Well, there was something about that that people liked, that I didn’t play the game.
Do you think the public’s reaction to the impeachment scandal implies that the public has grown up on sexual matters?
I don’t think the public ever was not grown up. The public always separated the private from the public, always understood the difference between what’s interesting and what’s important. The press people will say, “Yeah, but look, they gobbled it up, they watched the programs, they read the newspapers.” Of course. It’s interesting. But do they think it’s important? No. They make that distinction. The press doesn’t make that distinction. If it’s interesting, it’s important, because they’re interested in selling; they’re selling stuff. I know there’s this theory that we’ve gone through an evolutionary cycle. I don’t think the people have changed, but the press probably has. I think the press learned from the Clinton incident that there’s a tolerable limit. They’re now beginning to figure out where they can go with that.
Fred Branfman can be reached at Fredbranfman@aol.com. His Web site is www.trulyalive.org.More Fred Branfman.
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)