"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)
Among those of us who have drunk too much and quit, there is a bond like that among soldiers or mothers or anyone who has been forced by the passion for survival to face elemental truths. We recognize each other by the habits we acquired in the trenches and on the road home: the way a soldier lights a cigarette, the way a mother ties a child’s shoe, the way a reformed drunk pauses before speaking, to let the bad thoughts pass in silence.
And so it is that I see in President Bush not just a tongue-tied conservative scion of empire, bereft of eloquence, stumbling in the suit jacket of his father, but a drinker much like myself who one day awoke and saw that he was drowning and started swimming for his life, and got lucky and made it to shore.
And if our president were like the many drunks who have quit through the good offices of one program of recovery or another, he might on Saturday be stepping onto the shallow plywood stage of a large, well-lit basement off the serving kitchen of a downtown church in some honest if unexceptional American city and looking out at the motley American faces linked not by class or race or gender but only by their peculiar boozy habit and saying to them, “My name is George, I’m an alcoholic, and today I have 15 years.” Because it was on July 28, 1986, that Bush woke up with his last soul-devouring hangover and decided he’d had enough. And if we are to believe him, and I for one see no reason not to, he hasn’t had a drop since.
Of course, a politician might as well announce he’s having a sex-change operation as stand before the nation and say “My name is George, and I’m an alcoholic.” Don’t blame Bush for equivocating. Yes, it’s true he might look like a hero to some if he came out as a sufferer who had been cured, but whom would it help? Alcoholics don’t need another celebrity spokesman. Besides, not being a deeply introspective man, Bush may actually believe that he was never an alcoholic. “I don’t think I was clinically an alcoholic,” he told the Washington Post.
But the pattern seems clear: A man of great affability and charm, not intellectually gifted, finds himself adrift and frequently drinking too much, blacking out, saying things he regrets, unable to drink moderately and unwilling to give it up altogether. He has a conversation with a spiritual leader — the Rev. Billy Graham — and undertakes a course of spiritual study. At a celebration of his 40th birthday, he drinks too much one final time, wakes up with a final hangover and has a moment of clarity in which his life changes. He no longer needs to drink. As the Post pointed out, “Bush takes pride in saying that he never went into a substance abuse program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, but indicated that he was guided by the broader AA philosophy of placing one’s faith in God.”
That is George Bush’s story in outline form, and it’s a classic story of alcoholic recovery. It doesn’t matter that he never went to AA; it doesn’t matter what he calls himself. To be sure, some observers think that Bush’s unwillingness or inability to explicitly acknowledge his alcoholism indicates that he’s a “dry drunk” — an alcoholic who has stopped drinking but hasn’t addressed his underlying problems, because he’s too dumb and privileged. Some see his daughter Jenna’s apparent drinking problems as evidence that he hasn’t dealt with the issue squarely in his family. They think he’s an intellectually vapid, callous child of entitlement.
If Bush hadn’t reported having had a spiritual conversion, but had merely said he just up and quit drinking, I might be inclined to agree that he’s a poser who adopted the guise of a sober man for political gain, the way a fraternity pledge wears the right tie. But throughout history, as Carl Jung and William James have reported, spontaneous spiritual conversions have provided a mysterious but verifiable release from the grip of alcoholism. As much as it hurts to say it, as someone who neither particularly likes the man nor agrees with his politics, I see no reason to believe that Bush, perhaps the luckiest politician in American history, did not also hit the spiritual jackpot of random grace.
Of course, it’s not a point that can be proved either way. He says he never was an alcoholic, but he’s a politician, so I accept that as a necessary political lie. To me, he’s our recovered alcoholic president, and that’s that. (In the world of alcoholics, some people say “recovering” and some people say “recovered,” the position of the former being that recovery is an ongoing process and that one is never “cured” of alcoholism. But Bush has made it plain that he thinks whatever it was he had, he has recovered from it.)
But even that would be of no consequence if his alcoholism didn’t provide a key to his character and a predictor of his behavior. As we saw with our previous presidential poster boy for dysfunctional overachievers, a president’s private, apolitical demons can shape our political fate as profoundly as those public words and deeds about which we can more confidently report and debate.
A drunk hides nothing from another drunk. So when I look at Bush, I don’t see a conservative Republican, a flirter with the Christian right, a Texas oilman, a son of political royalty. I see a guy like me who never wants to quit, who has an infinite thirst and an infinite appetite for whatever you’ve got and who, if he could, would drink up the whole room and then tear it apart looking for more. I see a guy barely containing a murderous contempt for anyone who doesn’t drink like he does; I see a guy who has to pause when answering questions not because there’s nothing in his head but because there’s too much in his head and most of it is vile and the rest is obscene; no doubt the first thing that pops into his head when asked a question at a press conference is “You have the face of a barnyard animal” or “I’d like to fuck you silly.” That apparent blankness, as though his brain is having a rolling blackout, is actually a sign that he’s sorting, looking for an answer that’s both true and bland, something that won’t set off any alarms, something that will satisfy his need to tell the truth yet not give in to the grandiose and contemptuous impulses so familiar to alcoholics far and wide.
Again, those who think he’s merely slick and calculating might argue that what I see in him — the barely contained rage, the gaps in thought, the glinting hunger for a never-ending party — is simply further evidence that he’s a dry drunk, and that whatever Christianity he’s laid claim to is just a pose.
He does seem to have a mean side. This can be seen in the chilling relish he displayed in an interview with Talk magazine when imitating death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker’s voice (“‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me’”) and the alleged Fourth of July incident in which he dismissed a man who said he disagreed with his policies, saying “Who cares what you think!”
But my view is that, like most recovered alcoholics, he’s still got some growing up to do. He didn’t stop drinking until he was 40. You’d expect to see some rough edges. Of course, to be glad that our poor recovered president is finally displaying some genuine human emotion is fantastically weird, and sad, in itself. I don’t deny that. I didn’t vote for him. I’ve seen recovering alcoholics trying to act in an organized way and that was enough for me. But do those lapses mean he’s a dry drunk? I don’t think so. They just mean he hasn’t been transformed into a saint.
What makes the difference between a president with unacknowledged demons and Bush is that, if he has not been detailed in admitting them, he has at least alluded to them. I would argue that his vagueness has been nothing less than honorable discretion. Should he apologize for his lapses into anger? I don’t see why.
As to how his recovery affects how he governs — aside from the chance he might start drinking again (Jenna, drain that Longhorn and help me get George up these stairs!), I would expect it to profoundly influence how he sees the relationship between the individual and the state. Because the common experience among addicts is that nobody can help you if you don’t help yourself.
It’s that experience of utter hopelessness, or moments of clarity, or hitting bottom, at which some sufferers typically call out to a higher power for help and others seek the aid of psychiatrists, healers and scientists. The common paradox in all these experiences is that personal powerlessness is twinned with personal responsibility: You suddenly realize that while no one can cure you, neither can you cure yourself on your own. You need God, or friends, or an institution, or a belief system, or something — anything — not yourself. And thus begins, in myriad forms, the archetypal untangling of epistemological knots that results, ultimately, in an unaddicted ego that knows it is both profoundly free and profoundly interdependent. And that’s the basis of a healthy society. For that reason, many recovered addicts view with suspicion systems of government aid that seem to prolong dependency and/or to shield sufferers from the fundamental hopelessness of their situation.
Thus we would expect Bush, not just as a political conservative, but as somebody who’s experienced deep hopelessness, aloneness in the universe and the need for God, to view welfare and other government attempts to eliminate suffering as simply, and wrongly, shielding people from their true problems, the recognition of which alone could catalyze deep change.
Having for many years simply taken what his family gave him and failed to make a noteworthy contribution, Bush himself lived with a dependency that robbed him of his own dignity and power. Perhaps he came to understand how no one but himself could change that.
While it may be laughable to imagine Bush putting himself in the shoes of the nation’s poor and concluding that what they really need is not government money but to hit bottom, it’s quite possible that, in an unarticulated way, that is precisely the framework through which he views the welfare state.
Even if one grants that Bush may have good intentions, however, for the government to condition aid on a theory that says the creation of dependency is destructive unless the recipient has hit bottom first may be just as paternalistic a kind of social engineering as the liberal philosophy that says aid is a bridge to empowerment.
That same realization of powerlessness that informs his sense of individual vs. collective responsibility is also likely to inform Bush’s thoughts on the usefulness of faith-based social programs. After all, apparently he got sober largely through the church. Basically, established religion saved his life. As the addict’s condition compels him to turn to prayer, meditation and belief in a higher power, churches become a part of his life, but — and this is crucial — not necessarily in any orthodox way.
People who recover through 12-step programs often fashion for themselves a patchwork spirituality of homespun gods that they prefer to the cosmic etiquette guides and codes of spiritual procedure catechized by major religions. Bush’s recovery, by contrast, was catalyzed by a frank discussion with the Rev. Billy Graham, godfather of established religion in America. That’s not to denigrate the spiritual process by which he quit drinking; it’s just to say that in his case the establishment saved his life.
Church basements are cheap, safe, well-equipped and centrally located, so they often are the locations of recovery meetings. Through using their rooms and doing business with church officials, even the atheists among us come to see churches as useful institutions and not the oppressors of free thought that from an intellectual standpoint they may seem to be.
But while contact with them instructs unbelievers on the practical utility of churches, two aspects of Bush’s advocacy of faith-based social programs are troubling. For one thing, such a program could easily become a cynical network of Republican ward heeling. For another, Bush’s bias toward established religion may blind him to the anarchistic spirit of the 12-step movement and ill serve those who have been turned off to organized religion by its authoritarianism. Thus the government could pour billions of dollars into faith-based inner city programs that would, by suspending federal hiring laws, potentially discriminate against the very people they’re supposed to be helping, alienate many others and turn churches, those long-standing bulwarks of community for the urban poor, into branch offices of the Republican Party.
When faced with the question of how to give itself the minimum structure that would allow it to survive over generations as a formal organization, Alcoholics Anonymous initially considered taking large grants of money from nonprofit organizations and charities in order to build clinics and maximize its usefulness in society. But its founders wisely concluded that to avoid the dilution of its primary purpose, it should refuse all such offers, and restrict its income to only the voluntary contributions from its members. This stands as a good lesson for any faith-based organization.
Bush’s tendency to surround himself with competent advisors echoes another thing one learns in recovery: Shut up and listen to others. While such training may have helped in his campaign, it may hinder him in the exercise of power on the world stage. For there are times to consult with advisors, and wait for that little inner voice to tell you what to do, and there are times to boldly seize an opportunity. In fact, when you consider that presidents have to think a dozen steps ahead, and that Bush has to match wits with the world’s most cunning and powerful leaders, it’s all a little frightening. His simplicity and ignorance are indeed alarming at times, as when he said in an interview a couple of months back that he had no idea how many decisions he would have to make as president! All day long, little decisions, big decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions!
What about the course of empire? What about the Constitution? What about when his advisors are wrong, or are lying to him? Let’s hope he really does have God on his side. And let’s hope it’s a God we can live with.
How the art of politics and the reality of recovery coexist in Bush remains a fascinating paradox. For a man who found in the drinking life a perfect setting for glib nonchalance to excel in politics only after giving up the bottle is exceedingly strange. Yet there it is.
But all that notwithstanding, I don’t care if he is the president; to me he’s just another drunk and so I wish him well. I hope he’s celebrating his anniversary with some good sparkling cider.
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)