"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)
One of the buzziest stories in “Blinded by the Right,” the new memoir from right-wing poison penman turned liberal avenger David Brock, comes late in the book, when he describes a night on the town with Internet gossip-monger and conservative star Matt Drudge. Brock reveals how he learned that the two “had even more in common than I thought.”
The rumor that Brock, who is gay, would out Drudge in “Blinded by the Right” began making the rounds last summer, after the publication of a juicy Talk magazine excerpt, and is already being repeated on many leftish Web sites. But what is it that Brock reveals? The Drudge story is a great example of why “Blinded by the Right” is so fun to read, but so hard to trust.
As Brock recounts it, he already had a friendly rapport with Drudge. But he began to suspect that the other man wanted more on a visit to Los Angeles. Drudge picked up Brock “in his red Geo Metro, arriving with an impressive bouquet of yellow roses.”
“Jesus, I thought,” Brock writes, “Drudge thinks we’re going on a date.”
After dinner, they headed for Santa Monica Boulevard and a strip of gay bars “which Drudge navigated like a pro.” While the two danced at one bar, Brock says his attention drifted to two other men dancing nearby, but who then soon disappeared. “I asked Drudge if he had seen where the pair had gone. ‘Yeah,’ Drudge quacked, ‘I saw what was going on there, and I stepped on one of their feet really hard to get rid of them.’”
“The gesture,” Brock writes, taking Drudge seriously, “was sweet, in a way, but also scary, and I quickly called it a night.” Six months later, Drudge sent him an e-mail saying that a mutual friend, blond GOP pundette Laura Ingraham, was “spreading stuff about you and me being fuck buddies. I should only be so lucky.”
But does that prove Drudge is gay? Brock’s not the first writer to try to out him; MSNBC gossip Jeannette Walls quoted an alleged former male lover of Drudge’s in her book “Dish” last year; Drudge continues to deny that he’s gay.
Nevertheless, Brock’s dish on Drudge, and his other former conservative allies, has liberals salivating. Matt Drudge, the man who stole a Newsweek scoop and launched the Monica Lewinsky scandal, has been among Democrats’ most dogged, and successful, recent tormentors. If Drudge was a closet case, it could prove more than a rich irony. With his own personal life treated to Drudge-like sensationalism, would his credibility be strained, especially among his far-right allies?
But did Drudge, after all, actually hit on Brock? We’re left to assume that he didn’t because Brock doesn’t say so, and Brock clearly isn’t shy about serving up details. Did Drudge even tell Brock he was gay? Apparently not. Brock misses — or just purposely ignores — the high-camp style of Drudge, the cornball wordplay and forced retro-irony of mid-1990s Los Angeles, of “Swingers” and swing dancing, that have always helped fuel rumors of his homosexuality. (A political editor friend used to be convinced Drudge was gay because he signed e-mails to him “kiss kiss.”)
That manner has also always provided Drudge with a plausible cover; it’s the same shtick that, in cosmopolitan coastal cities, prompts some straight men to flirt outrageously with gay men, either out of an ill-advised attempt at hipness, or from sheer discomfort. Regardless, Drudge never made a clear advance, and this gives the whole episode an oddly flimsy feel on the second read.
Brock, however, wants to let his innuendo speak for itself, and that suggests a fundamental problem in “Blinded by the Right,” which is meant to be the author’s attempt to redeem himself from his celebrated early career of bending facts and intimidating sources on behalf of a right-wing agenda. The problem is, a mea culpa doesn’t necessarily mix well with a tell-all.
Some of what Brock has to tell may indeed be believable, and when he’s exposing yet another of his own acts of deception, it’s difficult to doubt him. But with “Blinded by the Right,” Brock is striving for historical authenticity; he aims to be the chronicler of an era — roughly from Clarence Thomas to Monica Lewinsky — dominated by the politics of personal destruction. But given the author’s track record, readers of all political persuasions should take his insinuations with a grain of salt.
Some on the left have already claimed this book — and, by awkward proxy, Brock himself — as their own for political purposes. That Brock now hates the same people they do is all the proof they need of his authenticity. And he does go after the left’s favorite enemies: not just Drudge, of course, but the entire “vast right-wing conspiracy” (a term he somewhat implausibly takes some credit for in the book), from conservative activists to editors and Supreme Court justices.
However, Brock’s technique — a few details, lots of sneering and unsubstantiated (except by him) gossip — doesn’t seem dramatically different from what it was in the days when he infamously described Anita Hill as “a bit nutty and a bit slutty” in the pages of the American Spectator. And it prompts an inevitable question any reasonable reader will have when reading the words of David Brock: Why should we believe him now?
The bombshells in “Blinded by the Right” won’t be news to the political junky. The biggest one, revealed in the Talk excerpt last summer, describes how Brock bullied a former colleague of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to backtrack on statements she had made to Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson in their rival book, “Strange Justice.” (The woman’s statements alleged that Thomas had a penchant for porn.) According to Brock, Thomas passed along damaging, unverified personal information on the woman, which Brock then used to blackmail her into submission so that he could then trash the Mayer and Abramson book in a Spectator book review, titled “Strange Lies.”
It’s at this point, Brock says, that he realized that “the strange lies were all mine.” He had ginned up a case against Anita Hill in his book that, by his own admission, “was shoddy, not only in the sources I had trusted, but in the obvious fact that I had missed significant evidence that showed that Hill’s testimony was more truthful than Thomas’s flat denials after all.” He also came to see his infamous “Troopergate” story for the Spectator as equally distorted; he now calls it “a mix of circumstantial observation and rumor.” In the process of contriving such stories, he tells us, “I lost my soul.” An emotional reckoning was in the making.
After that, Brock landed another book deal to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton, but the result, the sympathetic “The Seduction of Hillary Rodham,” enraged his conservative clique, and he found himself slowly banished.
Brock then branched out from his previous exclusively right-wing perch and wrote his first purported tell-all, an article called “Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man,” for Esquire magazine. But, Brock admits, this piece, which detailed his own excommunication from the conservative elite, actually had a “self-serving and even misleading slant” because it refrained from detailing “the truth about myself, about my role in the events described, and about my own flawed work.” That record is one he sets out to right in “Blinded by the Right,” presumably, once and for all.
He starts at the very beginning. His early years, he tells us, were frequently difficult ones. He grew up amid a devout Catholic family living comfortably in suburban New Jersey; at one point his father left the church to join a more extreme sect that continued to celebrate Mass in Latin. “Dad,” Brock writes, “was a winger through and through.”
David’s awkward relationship with his father is described in the familiar, self-serving style of grown children who look back with more than a tinge of bitterness. David was a precocious young man who grew up alienated. “My father and I had a bitter exchange when I insisted he buy me a very expensive three-piece, glen check Pierre Cardin suit for my eighth-grade graduation,” Brock relates.
Initially, David’s political ideas were formed in opposition to his father’s; he recalls cheering on the presidential victory of Jimmy Carter as a 14-year-old. The tension with his father seemed to peak in his high school days, when the “older I got, the more his limitations caused me to disrespect him, while at the same time the more irritated he became with a son who at age fifteen could already outargue him.”
More unique are Brock’s accounts of his own family’s casual familiarity with deceit. Both he and his younger sister, Regina, were adopted, but were trained from an early age to deny it, for fear it would somehow reflect badly upon the family. “Living with the secrecy and lies, I acquired an unusual ability to block out and avoid the truth and to live my life with no inner questioning,” Brock writes.
There would be other, earlier struggles with the truth. He describes the family’s move to Texas when he was a teen and his efforts there to stifle his nascent sexual urges; he threw himself into physical relationships with girls and even with a female teacher. Then came graduation, and a move to the University of California at Berkeley, where things changed rapidly.
Brock began an open gay relationship in college, eventually came out to his family and soon began to switch his political allegiance to the conservatives. The way he describes this shift strongly suggests that he decided to define himself, as many undergraduates do, by what he was against; in his case, it was against the excessive political correctness of Berkeley in the early 1980s. After Brock sparked protests by penning a column in the student newspaper praising the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the battle lines were firmly drawn. “I became as self-righteous and rigid as my critics,” he says.
And with that rigidity came a hint at the ugly tactics he would use later on. He became a pariah on the newspaper, though a “small cadre of loyalists had stuck by me” and he conspired toward “building up my power base.” At one point, he seized an opportunity to discredit another editor by telling the editor in chief that the university’s vice chancellor had called the newspaper to complain about one of his rival’s stories. But when the editor in chief called the chancellor, she learned the truth. “He hadn’t called,” Brock writes. “When the editor confronted me about the lie, I froze, speechless, and walked away.”
His early career as a journalist at the student newspaper had ended, but his career as a crusading conservative had only just begun.
For Brock, advocacy journalism appears to have been a way of seeking out acceptance. He says he was greeted so warmly by the “sectarian right-wing Berkeley campus underground,” from historian Walter McDougall to political scientist Paul Seabury, that he “fell easily under the spell of my surrogate father figures, as though anyone who gave me attention could dictate my beliefs.”
A cynic could quibble with this reasoning; Brock later in the book explains that he believes that he shifted politically in part to repair relations with his father. If so, why the need for surrogate father figures? This self-analysis continues throughout the book: Brock describes himself as an emotionally parched youth striving desperately for affection. After he’s had his greatest success, the publication of his biased hit job, “The Real Anita Hill,” he gets what he was really after all along, “a warm, secure place in the conservative movement.” All he ever needed, it seems, was a little love.
But this brings up another troubling aspect of Brock’s confessions: He often seems willing to accept only partial blame for his own sins.
After graduating, Brock became a staff writer for Insight, the conservative Washington Times’ magazine, and he describes his quick descent into a smothering culture where he found even more surrogate parent figures, like D.C. Circuit Court Judge Laurence Silberman and his wife, Ricky, who served as vice chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Clarence Thomas. These powerful people were able, it seems, to cast a “spell” over him, bending him to suit their political purposes.
But Brock carries this theme to absurd degrees. Looking back at his Hill book, he admits that he was “already committed to a flawed interpretation of events,” but claims “all the scrubbing, smoothing and polishing done by the editors only ended up producing a more persuasive — and therefore more insidious — form of propaganda.” When mentioning that even the New York Times gives the book a good review, he praises his own skills, saying “the intricate fact war — in which the mountain of assertions on each side could be disputed, rebutted or explained away by the other side — had proven especially suited to my analytical mental bias … in print I created an even more convincing appearance that I had caught Hill lying under oath.”
OK, so it was Brock’s manipulative brilliance that duped so many reviewers? Not so fast. “To the extent that the case incited a war of the sexes, it might also be worth noting that my favorable reviewers were mostly men.” Apparently, Brock deserves credit for masterminding such a convincing treatise, but prejudiced reviewers deserve the blame for not seeing through his ruses.
And so it goes on. Brock describes how he let himself “get mixed up in a bizarre and at times ludicrous attempt by well-financed right-wing operatives to tar Clinton with sleazy personal allegations.” Having become entangled, apparently, he could not help but be carried along. He seems to have made the calculation that, in order to get the readers of “Blinded by the Right” to like him, he has to depict himself as the innocent dupe of much greater minds.
This can be hard to swallow, as when Brock describes being approached, in the early fall of 1992, by a graybeard from the radical right who wanted him to check out a rumor about Bill Clinton’s Arkansas past. The man paid Brock $5,000 out of pocket to look into the story. Brock allows that while this may seem “unusual and unethical for a journalist, in my mind it was no different from taking money from politically interested parties like the Olin and Bradley foundations” (which heavily funded projects at magazines such as the American Spectator, where Brock worked).
It’s a transparent dodge; Brock wants to indict the journalism environment he had been seduced into overall, but taking money to consider a story is a bribe by anyone’s definition. Brock, at this point 30 years old, was certainly experienced enough to know “in his mind” that this was wrong, and to take full responsibility for it.
After taking the money, Brock agreed to meet with several conspirators in the growing anti-Clinton movement. They tried to interest him in a supermarket tabloid-caliber story (later proved false) claiming that Clinton fathered a son by an African-American prostitute. “I tried not to laugh as I jotted down a few notes and promised — tongue planted firmly in cheek — to get right on the story.”
Then, apparently, he pocketed the money and ran. Now, even though Brock admits to agreeing that the meeting was to be “kept in the strictest of confidence,” he names those in attendance and invites us to giggle at them. That’s easy enough to do — they genuinely sound nuts — but Brock’s betrayal here is equally creepy. However zany the sources, the request that a meeting be “off the record” (and this one, as described by Brock, most certainly was) should still be honored. That the new and improved Brock now so easily eschews journalistic convention for the sake of a cheap laugh doesn’t exactly cement our trust in him.
Nor, really, do his new friends. Some of the most startling revelations in “Blinded by the Right” come on Brock’s acknowledgments page, where he thanks a liberal A-list — including Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., Salon columnist Joe Conason and Human Rights Campaign director Elizabeth Birch. Later in the book, perhaps to inoculate himself against charges that he’s simply a hit man who’s switched sides, Brock writes about how he “had to resist the fallacy of my first instinct, which was to adopt an ‘us versus them’ mentality in reverse and seek vengeance on the conservatives for spurning me. Instead I worked to find a separate sense of self and move on with my life.”
It’s inevitable, though, to wonder whether Brock is seeking vengeance — and he clearly is — in order to ingratiate himself with his new friends. I can’t think of a single person on the political left who is maligned in this book, the one exception being the writer Christopher Hitchens, who once dined with Brock and is repaid with a particularly mean and random little slap. Hitchens, of course, is a vocal Clinton critic, who also happened to have had a very public falling out with his former friend Blumenthal after Hitchens alleged that the White House was trying to malign Monica Lewinsky.
When Brock is detailing his own mistakes and chronic bad behavior, he does seem utterly candid. And when he describes the machinations of the late Spectator’s Arkansas Project — aggressive investigations into the private life of Clinton funded with roughly $2 million from conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife — he seems on fairly safe ground. “Blinded by the Right” contributes what appears to be concrete elaboration on the project (which was originally exposed and extensively covered in Salon by, among others, Conason).
That’s hardly enough, though, to make you want to don an “I believe you, David” T-shirt. His superficially nasty portraits of media and political personalities like Drudge, Ingraham, Ann Coulter and John Podhoretz reek of payback, more than they resemble any quest for truth. With the notable exception of the above-mentioned incident of bullying a source into making a statement he knew was probably false, Brock’s oeuvre was marked less by making up stuff than for distorting facts to match his own agenda. He brilliantly explains throughout “Blinded by the Right” how he did this over and over again during his long career on the right. And that gives us little reason to think that he’s any more reliable now that he’s on the left.
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)