"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)
In her now-famous defense of a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton, Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison, went so far as to call him “our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” “Clinton,” Morrison wrote in the 1998 New Yorker essay, “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
I remember reading Morrison’s essay and choking. Morrison’s estimation of Clinton’s blackness seemed shallow, offensive and beside the point. At the time, I wasn’t the only one unnerved, and I’m sure many people still have problems with calling Clinton “the first black president,” no matter how Morrison intended it. Yet, in retrospect, I realize that my sharp reaction had something to do with age: I was pretty young when Reagan and Bush were in office. Like most white people, I didn’t understand how Clinton related to the African-American community; I also had a limited memory of how other presidents treated blacks.
DeWayne Wickham’s “Bill Clinton and Black America,” mostly a collection of interviews he conducted with such African-Americans as NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, actor Tim Reid and columnist Betty Baye, fills in both gaps. The book specifically illuminates how blacks responded to Clinton and just how different his presidency was from every other one in American history. The latter might be Wickham’s more important point.
Clinton, despite some notable blunders (especially welfare reform), impressed blacks with his policies — particularly his many appointments of African-Americans. More famously, Clinton radiated a certain style. As Bill Campbell, former mayor of Atlanta, notes, “We know when white folks are comfortable around us and when they’re not.” And while some of that convincing style had to do with Clinton’s genuine interest in black culture, much of it had to do with — as Morrison and many others have pointed out — his poor, Southern roots.
Wickham, a columnist for USA Today, spoke to Salon about what that Toni Morrison essay really meant, why Clinton tops Colin Powell and Jesse Jackson in the eyes of black Americans and why it doesn’t really matter whether Clinton’s sincere or not.
I’ve been waiting for a book about this because I remember the Toni Morrison piece …
And you wondered, “What does she mean by that?”
Yes, and I remember thinking that the reasons why she called him the “first black president” were offensive. What was the general reaction to that piece?
It was very mixed among the people I interviewed. Keep in mind — I set out to interview people who like Bill Clinton. That’s the purpose of this book. The purpose of the book was not to figure out who likes him and who doesn’t like him and why each side takes a position. Ninety percent of African-Americans like Bill Clinton. And when I talked to these people, even among them, I found a variance of opinions about the notion that Bill Clinton might be the first black president. Nobody takes that idea seriously, but people attempted to explain why one would think that way, and there were some who, like you, were offended at the suggestion.
My initial thought was, It can’t sit well with African-Americans to call any white man, a black man. But you note that it was tongue-in-cheek, right?
It certainly was tongue-in-cheek on Toni Morrison’s part. Anyone who reads the totality of what she said clearly understands that she’s painting a picture. But I think that in many ways it diminished what Clinton did to suggest that he is black. Because if you’re black and you did those things, now you begin to argue, “Man, you could have done more than that [for us], brother.” But the fact that he is white and did that much is quite remarkable.
Why do you think white people might wrinkle up their noses at the idea?
Largely because they don’t understand the history of the relationship between African-Americans and the 41 white men who have encumbered the Oval Office.
You do explain how poorly previous presidents have treated — or haven’t treated at all, for that matter — the black community. Do you think the black community’s enthusiasm for Clinton has something to do with the fact that Reagan and Bush were particularly insensitive? Was Clinton refreshing?
Ronald Reagan and George Bush I were part of a long line of presidents who just didn’t get it when it comes to people of color, particularly African-Americans. Of the first 15 presidents, 13 of them were staunch supporters of slavery. Eight of them actually owned slaves. Only John Adams and John Quincy Adams had no stomach for the institution. When you start talking about 41 presidents, you’ve already lost a third of them right there.
Then, what you find is that most presidents ran away from the black community. It was a difficult issue during slavery for white politicians. It was a difficult issue in the post-slavery period for politicians. It was a tough issue for a lot of presidents during the Jim Crow era when blacks were knocking on doors, demanding anti-lynching legislation, and Southern politicians were coming into the halls of Congress and the Oval Office, saying, “Not on our watch will you push that kind of legislation upon our people.” The legislators had the power of the vote in Congress, and African-Americans had only, on their side, the moral high ground. Most presidents opted for the power of the vote. You have to get up to FDR and LBJ — on whose watch the important civil rights legislation in our history was passed. So the list is very short.
What makes Clinton special is that he found a way to connect with us that was personal and up close. He convinced us in words and in deeds that this relationship was at least partly in his heart, as well as in his head. This guy grew up in the back of his grandfather’s store in Hope, Ark., hanging out with black kids.
Do you think that his background, being from the South and from a working-class family, made him different in the eyes of African-Americans?
Very much so. He had great opportunity to be in close proximity to black folk. And he hung out with black folk, he understood our music, he understood our culture and he understood how to connect. So by the time he entered the political world, here was a white man who could say, not just “I have some black friends,” but say it and mean it.
Was there ever the sense that he was exploiting this background? Or that any of it was false?
It was style and it was substance. We all exploit our friendships. We’ve all asked our friend to do something for us to help move us along, or to overlook a transgression because we’re friends. The key to this is that you cannot exploit a friendship that is only perceived on one side of the relationship. The other side has to perceive you as a friend as well. If Ronald Reagan were to say, “I have black friends,” he’d have to enumerate them and, more importantly, he’d have to give them a call to let them know they’re on the list. If Bill Clinton gave you that list, you could make cold calls to these people and they would in fact acknowledge having that kind of relationship with Clinton.
Alexis Herman tells a wonderful story in the book about when she headed the Women’s Bureau in the Labor Department of the Carter administration. Ernie Green, who then was an assistant secretary of labor, said to her, “Come and go with me to Little Rock. The governor down there is honoring the Little Rock Nine,” the blacks who integrated Little Rock High School. She was reluctant; she said, “I have enough bad memories about the South, and a white governor from Arkansas, are you kidding?” He convinced her to go. At the end of the ceremony, Clinton turned to them and said, “What are you guys doing for the rest of the evening? Come to the Governor’s Mansion and let’s hang out.” They go back to the Governor’s Mansion and he orders ribs from a black rib joint and a couple six-packs of beer, and they sit around talking about things that people generally talk about outside of politics — family, friends, growing up, music — well into the night.
A Clinton-hater might say that he just knew how to play the game. But there was something else that many of the people you interviewed touched on, something about his ease, that they could really sense? What was it?
It’s what we perceive. Black folk have a built-in radar for B.S., particularly when it’s racial B.S. It started with slavery, when the master would turn to the slave and say, “We need to clean this yard.” The slave knew that “we” weren’t going to clean this yard. That meant, “You better clean this yard.” We understood that there was a kind of a false sense of familiarity that many white folks have with black folks. And the key to Clinton was not so much what he sought to do, but how what he did was perceived by African-Americans. For most African-Americans, he was real, and he connected in a way that others didn’t.
Let’s go back to this whole pandering suggestion that comes from a lot of folk: “He was just playing to the black community.” OK, let’s say that that’s the case: Then he’s better at it than anyone else in the history of the presidency. If that’s all that there was — and I would argue that that’s not the case — but if that’s all that there was, then come on, whatever happened to the Gipper, the Great Communicator? Why couldn’t he pull that off?
The other thing I thought was interesting was the idea that Clinton was an outsider, especially when the Lewinsky scandal heated up and the Republicans were really after him. Was Clinton an underdog? Could blacks relate to that?
If you look at our struggle, what you find is that there’s great sympathy among African-American people. Even in our greatest time of need, we always seem to have just a little space in our heart for somebody else. Whether we’re talking about the Seminole Indians with whom we formed a relationship when we were slaves, or whether you’re talking about the Asian-Americans who came to work on the Transcontinental Railroad that we bonded with, we always find a spot in our heart for others who we thought were downtrodden.
It all helps, by the way, if the person who we perceive as being set upon is someone that we also perceive as being a friend. And the other piece of it was: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
But Clinton was a centrist, and he did compromise with the Republicans on a few big things, the biggest of course being welfare. How did the black community feel about that?
I think what they decided was that if the choice was between a liberal Michael Dukakis who can’t get elected and a centrist Bill Clinton who could, they’d rather have a centrist Bill Clinton than George Bush. A practical political equation kicked in. We’d love to have Michael Dukakis, oversize helmet and big tank and all, but the fact of the matter is, you can’t elect Michael Dukakis in America today. You can’t elect Walter Mondale, but you can elect a centrist Democrat from the South. And when you do that, what you also know is that you don’t get everything that you want politically. The question that begs is whether you got more than you lost.
Now that we’re starting to see the effects of welfare reform, with people being pushed off the rolls, do you think that blacks will start to look at Clinton’s decisions differently, if it turns out that a lot people are hurting?
There may be some of that, but for the most part, what Bill Clinton found was that the vast majority of African-Americans agreed with him on welfare reform. But now you’re getting to that 10 percent that doesn’t like Bill Clinton, overlapping with a few of the people who do.
Who are the 10 percent who don’t like him?
They tend, disproportionately, to be academics, social and political activists, many of whom are very bright people and who are on the cutting edge of these political discussions. But the vast majority of African-Americans supported welfare reform. More important, the vast majority of African-Americans feel so strongly about cracking down on criminals that they tended not to feel real strong about the gap in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine — which is another issue that he was taken to task on. The issues that his critics tend to beat up on him about tend not to be issues that resonate with the rank and file of the African-American community.
Also, he vetoed the first two welfare reform bills and he had a Republican Congress with blue dog Democrats who were going to force a bill down his throat. Increasingly, more and more conservative and moderate Democrats were signing on to the welfare bill. That’s the kind of rationale that he offers to his critics.
A lot of people talk about his early missteps — one of them being withdrawing his nomination of Lani Guinier for assistant attorney general — but one of the things your book really lays out is his appointments of blacks. He appointed so many more African-Americans than any other president.
It’s amazing. It goes so deep. I’m talking about Clinton and blacks, a recent Washington Post story was talking about Bush and minorities. Disproportionately, Bush’s appointments are Hispanics. If you simply compare black appointees in the Clinton and Bush administrations, you will find that there is no comparison. You have to go beyond the White House staff, as I did, and look at the whole range of appointments throughout the administration.
The amazing thing about government is that the White House, the president and his staff at best can control about 10 percent of what happens in government. When they send appointees over to Treasury or Agriculture or Labor or wherever, they can focus in on the top two or three issues from the White House. The rest they have to leave to the appointees. When you have a large number of African-Americans in those positions, you can understand why in the Clinton administration, black unemployment went down, black home ownership came up, black business ownership grew. You had so many people in place dealing with a broad range of issues that impacted the ability of African-Americans to achieve in those areas.
Even though Bush did not appoint as many African-Americans, he did appoint more minorities. Did Clinton set a precedent that future presidents will have a hard time reversing?
Oh, absolutely. He broke the mold. The mold from Lyndon Johnson to George Bush I was one black in your cabinet at a time. Every president from LBJ forward had at least one: “OK, we appointed all the important people, now let’s find one black who can be secretary of HUD or of HHS.” Clinton, on the other hand, had many blacks in major positions in the White House. The chief of White House personnel, his budget director, his director of public outreach, his deputy chief of staff were all African-American. His liaison between the White House and the Congress — Thurgood Marshall’s son — was African-American.
Was there a sense of sadness in the black community when he left office?
In fact, what I got from the interviews was that there’s a sense of great loss more than sadness. The feeling is that we really became players in Washington politics. We weren’t in the stands, we were on the playing field. Before, the struggle was to get into the arena. And now, we’re back in the stands.
The people you interviewed often talked about Clinton’s style vs. his substance. A few mentioned how he knew the words to the song …
The words to the Negro National Anthem!
Yes, that really blew me away.
I don’t know them. Do you?
No. So he knew the words to the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And journalist Michael Frisby notes that he talked to him about author Walter Mosley. We know he loves jazz. After reading your book, I was convinced that he knew a lot about African-American culture. But did anyone ever have the sense that he just did his homework? And even so, would that have mattered?
Here’s the point of all this. No matter how I answer the question, I don’t think black people will give Bill Clinton any demerits. In other words, does he know the words to the Negro National Anthem because he really studied hard? Did he read Walter Mosley because he wanted to be able to say in some convincing way that he’s immersed himself in black culture? If the answer is yes, you still get the credit. You have to treat this like a motion picture, not like a snapshot and compare him to that long line of 41 white men who have been presidents of the United States. The answer is, he did it and no one else did. Whether he did it because he was serious in his intent to understand a significant portion of the population of this country, or whether he did it because he saw them as the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency, he did it.
I want to ask you what pieces of legislation you think he got passed to help the black community, but I’m also curious: How important is style? What impact does that make and does that mean more than a politician’s legislative record in some ways?
They’re both very important. In some ways the legislation is far more important to those who are close to the process. The vast majority of African-Americans aren’t close to the process, have little if any knowledge about the legislative process or which legislation is in the hopper. But what they get on TV, whether it’s about Bill Clinton or any other president, is a lot more style than substance. We see presidents walking across the lawn outside the West Wing with a head of state, or making a brief statement. Or they give a State of the Union speech that’s 45 minutes long and covers 25 or 30 issues — they’re only giving a fleeting notice to any of them — and all you get is style. That’s what you measure. When you measure that, you come to some estimation of who this person is.
I don’t think that he was without substance. When you look at the lengths to which he went to put African-Americans in significant positions of authority … those who understand the legislative process know that billions and billions of dollars flowed through the controlling hands of these appointees. It would literally take a political anthropologist, if there is such a creature, to figure out the real impact of the flow of that money.
For example, Ron Brown, the secretary of commerce, redefined his role — something he called “commercial diplomacy.” He really wanted to be secretary of state so he found some way to merge the two. This whole thing about commercial diplomacy allowed him to go to Africa and to talk, not only about commerce, but also about politics and how the United States government could help reshape the political map of Africa.
Was it he who encouraged Clinton to make his trip to Africa? That seemed to mean a lot to a lot of people.
I’m not sure; he’d died by that time. Clinton says that he had, from very early on in his administration, wanted to make the trip.
No other president made a trip like that before?
There was a brief stop made by Jimmy Carter, but there was no official visit made by a president.
We ran a story last February by Jabari Asim called “Bill Clinton Isn’t Black!” So I found a critic. And he asked questions like, “What have black men to gain by attaching our loyalty so firmly to a man whose place in history grows shakier by the minute?” How do you respond to that?
That’s the snapshot approach. We live in a very imperfect world, and as we look at the world in which we live and the history of the country in which we live, you have to measure Bill Clinton not against your greatest goals, but against the reality of what has taken place before and what takes place now. If your greatest goals and expectations are not realized, and they never are, what you have to then come to some understanding of is, “Who has come closer to helping you realize these goals among those who have been occupants of the Oval Office?” Bill Clinton is on the shortlist.
Historians might say that LBJ was more important for the black community. Would you say that’s accurate?
I would say that what is accurate about LBJ is that LBJ is unsurpassed in the efforts that he made to enact laws that uplifted African-Americans.
But he won’t be remembered nearly the same way?
No, listen, LBJ fondled dogs. He picked them up by their ears — remember that famous incident? You’re probably too young to remember that, but he was roundly criticized by the people who belonged to animal protection leagues. He was photographed picking up his dog by the ears and kissing it and everybody screamed. LBJ, for all that he did for African-Americans, is better known for telling crude racial jokes than he is for having close and intimate relations with black people.
We give a lot of credit to people who show up and stand with us, who come into our community, who come into our homes. That’s real important to us and I’m not sure that we’re unlike any other race of people in that regard. Clinton showed up early and often, and did things that were quite unusual, like getting in his limousine and driving across town to have soul food dinner, eating chitlins with black folk.
It’s interesting because Mayor Mike Bloomberg has made initial overtures to black leaders here in New York. The press notes how different he is from Giuliani, and you realize that the difference sometimes is that Bloomberg returns phone calls and writes notes. And it seems that Clinton was diligent about the small things like that, too.
If you take it out of the context of race, there have been successful white, maybe Irish, politicians who ingratiated themselves with, say, the Jewish community. They would put a yarmulke on and go to the synagogue or sit shiva. They did it and understood the culture of the religion and they reaped great political benefit from that. Now, people will say they were just doing it to get the votes. Maybe so! But they did it and they did it well. People want leaders to demonstrate some knowledge and understanding of who their constituents are.
Do black people feel stronger about him than, say, Colin Powell or Jesse Jackson?
You’re measuring on different scales. African-Americans are very proud of Colin Powell, proud of his accomplishments, proud of the fact that he, unlike many other black Republicans, did not renounce affirmative action but rejoices and celebrates affirmative action and how it’s benefited his life and the lives of others. But they don’t see him as someone who is on the right political track. Bill Clinton is someone who is cut out of the Democratic mold. Since 1936, a majority of African-Americans have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in increasing numbers. We believe that our political fate rests most comfortably in the hands of Democrats. Yes, we also hold Clinton in higher esteem than we do Jesse Jackson, which is kind of fascinating.
The end of Clinton’s term was a whirlwind, and a mess. He really seemed to be doing some shady stuff with all those pardons. Then, he moved to Harlem. How did the end of his presidency affect the level of support for him in the black community, if at all?
[The pardons] certainly were portrayed to be quite offensive. But I’m old enough to remember that one of the first things George Bush I did was pardon all of the people involved in the Iran-Contra affair, including people who could have implicated him in his role as vice president. I don’t think that concerned the rank and file within the Republican Party. The pardons that Clinton got the most attention for in the black community had to do with African-Americans, including Kemba Smith [a young black woman sentenced to 24 years in prison without possibility of parole for her role in her boyfriend's drug ring]. While most people in the media were focused on his pardoning some rather notorious white folk, the black community was applauding his pardon of Kemba Smith. Again, we separated it out and looked at it from our perspective.
The move to Harlem, again, was something people might have thought he was doing for attention, or that somehow it wasn’t sincere.
It’s amazing: It’s never sincere when he does something for us. Did George Bush say to Enron, “Aw, come on up to the White House for as many meetings as you want,” because he wasn’t sincere? You know what they say? He was only concerned about energy policy, no politics involved there. But Bill Clinton moves to Harlem and he’s “not sincere” and, in fact, it wasn’t even his first choice! Are you married?
You have any friends who are married?
Did they marry their first choice? Most people don’t. Some of the best choices in life are second choices.
Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.More Suzy Hansen.
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)