"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)
Topics: Politics News
At the height of the press’s fib-frenzy following the first presidential debate, that week in early October when political reporters and pundits were obsessed with examining Vice President Al Gore’s supposed “embellishments,” veteran Baltimore Sun columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover weren’t content using the exaggeration examples lifted from the debate. Instead, they did some gum-shoeing and uncovered yet another telling instance where the VP had inexplicably stretched the truth.
Their resulting, cringe-inducing column may not stand as the worst piece of political commentary this fall season, but it certainly illustrates just how badly the political press has stumbled in covering Gore’s campaign.
An unmasked contempt has run through much of the coverage of the vice president’s run, an out-of-context scorn targeted not at Gore’s positions, but at Gore the man. The phenomenon explains why Gore’s press has been, at times, wildly hostile and often blatantly dishonest. Take Germond and Witcover.
At a rally in Warren, Ohio, held on the day after the first debate, a buoyant Gore told assembled supporters in passing that they represented “probably the biggest crowd we have had in this campaign year.” Note the qualifier “probably.”
But Germond and Witcover pointed out that some reporters on the campaign trail that day “remembered at least one larger crowd for Mr. Gore in Pittsburgh.” How many people were at the Pittsburgh rally? Readers have no idea. How many were in Warren? Again, no clue. But according to Germond and Witcover, the Warren event was smaller, therefore the rally was not “the record-setter [Gore] had claimed.”
Did Gore ever claim Warren was a “record-setter”? No, that’s the columnists’ phrase. Does the mangled anecdote define trivial pursuit? Yes, although Germond and Witcover thought otherwise: “It raised the question: Why did he say it? He had to know otherwise.” Indeed, the duo built an entire critical column around a manufactured incident.
Such derisiveness is routine. In Thursday’s New York Times, reporter Kevin Sack mocked Gore for his small talk on the campaign trail with a 5-year-old. “Ian, you’re really in kindergarten?” Gore asked. The exchange, Sack wrote, was “less than edifying.”
What explains such nonsense? Turning the tables on the growing army of armchair psychologists who’ve spent so much time seizing on Gore’s missteps in the name of analyzing his personality shortcomings, could the media’s hostility toward the vice president be symptomatic of something larger? Could it actually be payback, passive-aggressive style? Last week, Wall Street Journal columnist Albert Hunt argued exactly that: “Some news people remain furious that Bill Clinton got away with bald-faced lies in the Monica Lewinsky episode.” Revenge, therefore, can now best be served by attacking his understudy.
There’s also the primal instinct reporters have for wanting to spotlight the dirt on the clean linen, the scratches on the silver. Bush seemed to relish sullying his own image in 1999 — admitting to being “young and irresponsible” and a battle with the bottle — before reporters got a chance to. Gore, in both demeanor and through his own campaign pitch, is the quintessential straight-arrow. What better sitting duck is there for a reporter covering a (potentially career-making) presidential campaign?
Whatever the reasons, reporters have crudely inserted themselves into the presidential campaign with careless and misleading reports about Gore’s so-called exaggerations (journalists literally created Gore’s “Love Story,” Love Canal and “inventing the Internet” episodes out of whole cloth). In the process, they have become Gov. George Bush’s most potent allies.
Journalists though, shrug it off. “The story line of Al Gore exaggerating was a novelty last week,” insisted Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, appearing recently on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” A one-week novelty? Back in June, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that between February and April, an amazing 76 percent of Gore’s press coverage focused on scandal, and yes, exaggerations. Of course, the Gore camp, content to ignore mistakes and afraid to pick a fight with the press, shoulders much of the blame for its dysfunctional relationship with journalists. Newspeople today obviously fear no reprisal for skewering Gore with half-truths, an appalling double standard.
In a sloppy piece of schlock psychology in the New York Times on Oct. 15, reporter Melinda Henneberger tried to pick apart various Gore misstatements that stretched across three decades. In one illustrative example, Henneberger accused Gore of being “self-aggrandizing, as when he recalled that when he was a low-ranking enlisted man at Fort Rucker, Ala., Gen. William Westmoreland interrupted a formal departure ceremony to chat with him for an incredible 45 minutes.” Then the Times delivered its zinger: “An Army buddy who was there recalled they talked for just a few minutes — five, maybe.” Sounds like the conversation may have lasted as little as three minutes.
Readers were never told who the “buddy” is, or why he’d have a better recollection 30 years later than Gore. Perhaps Henneberger should reread the recent biography, “Inventing Al Gore,” by her husband, Bill Turque. As pointed out at the media critique site DailyHowler.com, Turque detailed the same encounter with Westmoreland, calling it “a conversation that lasted at least 10 minutes.” Sounds like it could have been even 15 minutes.
Better yet, Henneberger might have just consulted her own clips. In July, she recounted the same tale, but stressed that Westmoreland pulled Gore “aside for a private chat — and kept Mr. Gore’s superior officers waiting, and watching.” Sounds like it could have even lasted 20 minutes.
Truth is, Henneberger has no idea how long Westmoreland spoke with a young Gore 30 years ago, but by relying on an anonymous “buddy,” she clearly left the impression the conversation did not happen the way Gore claimed it had. As an isolated incident, the duplicitous spin may seem minor; a colorful detail to a story twisted just so to maybe add a minor flourish — or the impression of gravitas. But these types of subjective dispatches, where casual readers have no idea how much the reporting is stretched, have become the norm when it comes to Gore.
Double standard? Following the final presidential debate, Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger columnist John Farmer summed up the Beltway conventional wisdom nicely when he wrote that though Bush was “misspoken and stumbling at times,” he’d “won the style points going away.” Now that’s a neat trick.
Another quick example. Earlier this year Bush was facing scrutiny over the pending Texas execution of inmate Gary Graham, who was said by his defenders to be innocent. After Bush announced he would not stop the execution, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, appearing on PBS’s “NewsHour With Jim Leher,” suggested Bush had aced his presidential leadership test because he made his remarks, “in a suit and tie, with appropriately serious words and manner.” If you doubt the press has ever credited Gore for wearing a tie and using serious words, you are correct.
Embellishments? After voters told pollsters Gore had clearly bested Bush in the first debate, pundits went into overdrive with stories of his sighs and fibs, which clearly marked the turning point of the fall campaign. Appearing on WFAN’s “Imus in the Morning” show in New York, “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert reminded Imus the sighs were nothing new: “I’m familiar with the Al Gore sighing. He did 18 in the December debate with Bill Bradley.” Eighteen? At the time, the Bradley camp tried to score points on Gore’s sighs and actually came up with “official deep-sigh count” of seven. So was Russert embellishing?
The orgy of resentment that erupted toward Gore after the Boston debate did not occur in a vacuum. It sprang from a well-stocked reservoir of resentment the press has been tapping for a year. Go back to the night of a Democratic debate at Dartmouth College, where Gore’s answers were greeted with boos and hisses — not by Bradley supporters, but by working journalists. “The 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out by [him],” according to a Time magazine report last winter. “Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd.”
Online columnist Mickey Kaus traveled to New Hampshire and uncovered the obvious consensus among reporters on the vice president: “They hate Gore. They really do think he’s a liar. And a phony.”
That was clear from the coverage. While the press endlessly mocked the color of Gore’s suits and tsk-tsked his assertive style (“a savage campaigner” complained Fox News’ Brit Hume), Gore’s challenger was celebrated as “an implacable, shrewd foe” (Newsweek’s Howard Fineman); an “Olympian” who “caught the Granite State’s fancy with a brainy, perfectly tailored campaign” (Washington Post’s Mary McGrory); a “John Wayne character” (Kaus).
During a debate between the two on “Meet the Press,” when Gore made his dramatic offer to yank all TV and radio ads in favor of twice-weekly debates only to be rebuffed by Bradley, media members were convinced they knew who won. PBS’s Gwen Ifill assured her “Washington Week in Review” audience, “every reporter I talked to thought Gore looked desperate.” Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, who thought “Bradley made Gore look like a complete ass,” was sure the exchange, delivered before the New Hampshire primary, represented “a pivotal moment in the Democratic campaign.”
It did prove pivotal: Bradley’s run for president all but ended that day in December on “Meet the Press.” Why? At least in part because “seven in 10 New Hampshire voters say they support a proposal first made by Gore to end political advertising on television and instead have the presidential candidates participate in twice-weekly debates.” That, according to the Washington Post one week after the “Meet the Press” joint appearance. Gore won in New Hampshire, a primary Bradley had been predicted to win.
Throughout the winter, journalists dutifully tried to prop up Bradley at Gore’s expense. The Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold wrote about a moving encounter the senator had with Cathy Perry, a mother in Pelham, N.H., struggling to meet healthcare costs, who had moved Bradley to tears: “The audience, including reporters and campaign staff, was hushed as the candidate stood before the lectern trying to gather himself.” Dramatic stuff.
But Gold — a reporter, not a columnist — couldn’t resist a jab at Gore: “Unlike Gore’s use of human props to illustrate his policies in recent debates, Bradley’s exchange with Perry appeared genuine and unscripted.” But guess what? Days later, the Washington Post reported: “The campaign had staged the event and knew what Perry was going to say.” Gold never corrected the record for Los Angeles Times readers, and certainly never apologized for the sloppy, gratuitous slap at Gore.
Not surprisingly, the media’s overly optimistic predictions for Bradley fell woefully short. “Hardball” host and columnist Chris Matthews, playing an odd game of “What if?” envisioned how Bradley, “the thoughtful NBA veteran,” could win the nomination: “By licking Gore in New Hampshire on Feb. 1, then delivering victories in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and California on March 7, big-state triumphs that Gore can neither explain nor answer.”
And here’s one Newsweek’s Fineman would probably like to have back: “The news from the Iowa front: Bradley is moving in for what he hopes is the kill. Having already secured his ground in New Hampshire, Bradley thinks he has a chance to devastate Gore with a preliminary victory in Iowa. By the time the campaign gets to New York and California on Super Tuesday (March 7), Gore may have spent a month twisting in the wind.”
Bradley spent nearly $40 million and didn’t win a single contest . The boys and girls on the bus, though, loved Bradley to the end. “Reaching into an oversized baby-blue shopping bag from Tiffany’s, Bradley presented members of his traveling press corps with carefully wrapped commemorative key chains, a token of their shared journey,” wrote USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro, documenting Bradley’s fond farewell. Despite Bradley’s dreadful instincts on the campaign trail, for Shapiro, the senator remained “a visionary a little ahead of [his] time.” And Gore? “A hyperactive fifth grader.”
Gore promptly won all the primaries. The political press then turned its attention to distorting Gore’s record on two hot-button issues: fundraising at the Buddhist temple, and Elian Gonzalez. Both episodes included some gruesome journalism. Although complicated questions were raised by Gore’s April 29, 1996, visit to the Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California, the press wasn’t interested in them. Instead, for nearly four years, and with particular attention paid in 2000, it zeroed in on two items: Did Gore know the temple was being used to raise campaign funds? (If he did than he broke the law; fundraisers are forbidden at tax-exempt religious institutions.) And did he flip-flop on his explanation?
The vice president has always insisted he did not consider the temple visit a fundraiser. No admission was charged for the luncheon, there were no solicitations and no campaign money changed hands at the temple. However, the day after the event and unbeknownst to Gore, Democratic fundraisers Johnny Huang and Maria Hsia collected 42 temple-related checks totaling more than $100,000, $62,000 of which was later deemed illegal.
Most of the ensuing confusion about Gore’s role centered around the simple fact that Huang had scheduled two events on April 29, a formal Gore fundraiser at Harbor Village Restaurant in Monterey Park, Calif., and then a civic visit at the temple in nearby Hacienda Heights. Crunched for time, the fundraiser at the restaurant was canceled and Huang invited the attendees to the temple to meet Gore.
The press has largely ignored that crucial scheduling detail, even though it was spelled out at both Sen. Fred Thompson’s hearings on campaign finance irregularities and at Hsia’s subsequent trial, where she was found guilty of concealing the source of campaign donations.
In a typically overheated, Page 1 account in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 4, Chris Mondics wrote, “One e-mail written by the vice president shows that at some point weeks before the [Hsi Lai] event, he knew he would be attending a fundraiser in Southern California on April 29, 1996.” See how the details are danced around? It’s no surprise the vice president sent an e-mail regarding a “Southern California” fundraiser on April 29, 1996, since one was scheduled; not at the temple, but at Harbor Village Restaurant. It was later canceled. Either Mondics, who dug through “a body of documents” for the story, didn’t know the specifics of the case, or chose to fudge them. For everyday Inquirer readers, the implication was clear: Gore lied. (Perhaps the most laughable evidence that “Gore had many reasons to believe the Buddhist temple lunch was a fundraiser” was offered up by Fortune’s Jeffrey Birnbaum: “[Gore] was attending fundraisers often back then.”)
But hadn’t Gore flip-flopped, and wasn’t the press right to call him out? As New York Times columnist William Safire pointed out ominously, “At first Gore said the fund-raiser was merely ‘community outreach’; months later, he amended that to knowing only it was ‘finance-related.’” Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post was even more blunt: “Gore’s shifting and technical responses on this question — he first said it was ‘community outreach,’ then acknowledged that it was ‘finance-related’ or a ‘donor maintenance’ event — appear only to have added to his difficulties.”
Actually, the only difficulty was that reporters and columnists did not understand that the two phrases “community outreach” and “finance-related” were synonymous, and neither meant fundraiser. In televised hearings before the Thompson Committee in 1997, Democratic National Committee chairman Donald Fowler and DNC finance director Richard Sullivan both testified under oath that “community outreach” and “finance-related” events were efforts to warm up potential or past donors, a chance to greet and get to know supporters, but not to solicit money. Seems like pretty basic stuff in the world of political campaigns, which the D.C. press supposedly covers for a living.
Yet three years later, pundits were still clueless.
This June, when Gore’s temple visit was in the news yet again (like Whitewater, the story lives on despite itself), pundits were still perplexed about “fundraiser” and “finance-related.” CNN political analyst Bill Schneider suggested, “there’s something a little Clintonian in those distinctions. What’s the difference? It’s a little unclear.” To him perhaps. Over on Fox News, Morton Kondracke was stumped, too: “What is the meaning of “finance-related event” if it’s not a fundraiser?” The answer to that question had been in the public record for three years.
And then came Elián González. Last January, the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled the young refugee should be returned to his father in Cuba. At the time Gore broke with the Clinton administration, as well as Attorney General Janet Reno and many Democrats, by suggesting the boy’s custody be decided instead by U.S. family court, not the INS. During a Jan. 10 interview on the “Today Show,” Gore explained he would “like to see the dispute adjudicated in our courts, where traditionally questions like what is best for this child are decided.”
In late March when Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., co-sponsored a bill in the Senate that he said would “move this case from an INS asylum case to a family court,” Gore publicly supported it, stressing, “From the very beginning, I have said that Elián González’s case is at heart a custody matter. It is a matter that should be decided by courts.” It was nearly identical to what Gore said on the “Today Show” 10 weeks earlier.
Regardless, the reaction in late March was immediate and ferocious. Stressing over and again that Gore had “suddenly” broken ranks with the White House, the press was sure of one thing; with an eye on the fall elections, Gore was simply maneuvering for votes. “His pandering to the Miami Cuban community’s view on Elián González reinforced the perception that Mr. Gore too quickly puts politics ahead of principle,” read a New York Times editorial. To even the pro-Gore New Republic, “Gore’s pandering” was “ham-fisted.”
“Let’s be honest about this,” syndicated columnist Steve Roberts told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “He clearly was pandering.” The proof? Journalists offered none. No internal memos detailing Gore strategy, no first-person accounts from Cuban-American activist who’d spoken with Gore. Not even a compelling interview with an anonymous Democratic insider. Instead, the press just knew.
And in a preview of the fall campaign, Bush picked up on the media’s crafty work, suggesting, “Al Gore’s sudden change of position yesterday may have had more to do with the vice president’s political interests than with the best interests of Elián González.”
What’s so striking about the pandering charge, besides the fact that Gore had maintained his position for months, was that by calling for family courts to decided Elián’s case, Gore was actually going against public opinion and risking political fallout in November: A Miami Herald poll taken during the height of the Elián controversy found 76 percent of whites and 92 percent of blacks in Florida disagreed with Gore and wanted Elián sent back to Cuba.
With that sort of deceitful track record is it any surprise we see stories like the Washington Post’s Oct. 8 one by Ceci Connolly and David Von Drehle, “GOP Homes In on Gore’s Credibility.” In it, the two wrote of how Gore had talked of his sister as a Peace Corps volunteer, but “Nancy Gore Hunger did work in the Washington office of the Peace Corps but never volunteered overseas.” Read it again. Did Gore ever suggest his late sister “volunteered overseas”? No, that’s a phrase the reporters created to disprove something Gore never said. Nonetheless, Connolly and Von Drehle casually chalk the example up as one of Gore’s “lies.”
Meanwhile, delivering her theater critique of the second debate on CNN’s “Capitol Gang,” Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson approved of the way Bush had “leaned back” in his chair, and wore “that little bit of a grin.” (To most, it’s called a smirk.) And on the Imus show, Carlson admitted how lazy the Beltway media has become: “You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator or you look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore.”
Well, at least somebody’s having fun.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
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)