"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)
I met Democratic campaign wizard James Carville just days after President Bush’s inauguration last January, and it was already clear that political exile didn’t agree with him. Dining with friends at Carville’s Washington restaurant, West 24, I watched the celebrated political strategist try to play the role of celebrity restaurateur, but his heart wasn’t in it. The restaurant was crowded — Washington Post political dean David Broder was dining at a nearby table — but Carville seemed to be going through the motions, flitting from table to table a little too quickly, doing a herky-jerky meet-greet — a handshake, a quick serpent’s smile, a second or two of awkward chitchat and then on to the next party.
But when he got to our table, we engaged him about the recent Florida recount, and then Carville came alive. He railed against the Democrats’ spinelessness, against the media’s giving Bush a free pass, and predicted the only way the Democrats would recover from their defeat was a populist assault on the GOP. A year later, Carville’s restaurant is still going strong, but it may have to do without his nightly hosting, now that he’s been hired as co-host (with colleague Paul Begala) of CNN’s “Crossfire.” They’ll be facing off “from the left” against columnist Robert Novak and writer Tucker Carlson on the right — or as Carville puts it, “Corporal Cue Ball” against “the Prince of Darkness and Bow Tie Boy.”
Carville is probably best known for his role running Bill Clinton’s 1992 war room, for inventing the campaign’s motto, “It’s the economy, stupid” and for his strange-bedfellows marriage to GOP spinmeister Mary Matalin, now an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. But he came to national attention when he and Begala ran liberal Harris Wofford’s successful insurgent campaign for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 1991, in which health care reform, against conventional wisdom, became a cutting-edge issue. It set the stage for Clinton’s presidential campaign a year later.
From the beginning of the Clinton presidency Carville was the administration’s attack dog, defending the president and Hillary Clinton against their enemies in both parties, and in the media. He disrupted a sleepy breakfast club for Washington pundits in April 1994 to rail against the media’s coverage of the Whitewater scandal, as well as the emerging Paula Jones sex scandal. Over bacon and eggs, he presented his homemade chart depicting a “media food chain” — the folksy Carville prefers to call it his “puke funnel theory,” but nobody printed that term — in which anti-Clinton stories were funneled from tabloid newspapers into the mainstream with the help of right-wing media partisans like Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Bartley. Eight years later, Carville says his food-chain chart was the first attempt to document what Hillary Clinton would famously call “the vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband. (He was also a Salon columnist in 1996 and 1997.)
But Sept. 11 blunted even Carville’s political edge, a little. Last fall, a memo he co-authored with his consulting partners Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum urged Democrats “to support the president and set a tone that lacks a sharp partisan quality,” backing Bush on the war while supporting Democratic stands on Social Security and education and health care reform. And on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” last month, he resisted criticizing Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric, and his apparent plan to spread the war beyond Afghanistan, even as Matthews railed against it.
Warning Democrats away from “sharp partisan” stands seemed positively un-Carville, and indeed, when he spoke to Salon last week, he’d changed his tune a little. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had just survived a scorched-earth GOP assault on his patriotism for asking mild questions about Bush’s war in Afghanistan, and the experience seemed to have awakened Carville’s inner partisan warrior. He talked to Salon about how Sept. 11 did and didn’t change the political landscape, what Al Gore did wrong and what kind of candidate he thinks should lead the Democratic Party in 2004.
The morning of Sept. 11, just before the attacks, you were meeting with reporters to go over polling numbers. And things were looking good for the Democrats. You’d found that 43 percent of those polled thought President Bush was “in over his head” at that point. But six months later, a lot has changed — Bush has had approval ratings between 80 and 90 percent …
That’s no longer true — he dropped about 10 points in the last week.
That’s right, I saw that yesterday. But clearly, Bush would be having a very different presidency without this war. Did Sept. 11 change everything politically?
I don’t have the memo we did [before Sept. 11] in front of me, but some things are the same. I think we saw that back then, people thought Bush was just in it for the powerful, and that’s what we’re still urging Democrats to talk about now.
You’ve been quoted everywhere telling Democrats they should back the president full-throttle on the war and the way he’s handled it, but hit him hard on the economy, on Enron and other domestic issues. I’m wondering if your thinking has changed at all, as the war drags on.
Look, I think it’s time for Democrats to be for something, to put their own proposals on the table, and they certainly should contrast themselves with Bush. I think people expect us to support the war — after all, they knocked our buildings down. But many of the issues people were concerned about Sept. 10 they’re concerned about today.
But specifically on the war — Tom Daschle got savaged by Republicans for asking the president to define his goals in Afghanistan. Do you think he did anything wrong?
He’s gonna get savaged by Republicans no matter what he does. What Daschle did then was an interesting thing — he went through his statement on the war, sentence by sentence, with [Minority Leader] Trent Lott, and Lott couldn’t find anything he disagreed with. But there’s a kind of hysterical prism that everything gets put through. I think Daschle had a constitutional duty — look, some people say, even if everything he said was right, you shouldn’t say it because it’s gonna get misinterpreted. Well, that’s too bad — you can’t let the fact that things are gonna get misinterpreted stop you from doing your job. Asking “What is our objective?” is a fair question to anyone who’s engaged in leading our military operations. The Democrats have to understand that they need to go out and be for something — sure, they’re gonna get criticized, but in the end I think they’re gonna be rewarded for it.
Do you think Daschle’s been tough enough at this point?
I don’t think Daschle ought to be the focus he is. I think the Democratic Party has the chronic problem of appearing to be weak, of not standing and fighting for what it believes in, not fighting for its own. I think that America will not trust a party to defend America that isn’t willing to defend itself. And that’s basically my message. The Republicans are hard-hitting, ruthless, and we don’t have to do everything they do, but we ought to be just as willing to stand up for what’s right as they’re willing to stand up for what is wrong.
But Democrats don’t do that …
I agree. I think there’s a culture in the party that has to change.
There’s a great article in the Washington Monthly about that …
It’s wonderful. I called the guy that wrote it and told him he wrote a hell of an article …
You could have written it.
Well, I couldn’t find much of anything to disagree with in it. He points out how a nasty Op-Ed article in the Washington Post can completely paralyze the Democratic Party, and he’s right.
But whose role is it to change that? Yes, there’s too much focus on Daschle, who’s constrained by his temperament as well as his leadership role from really going on the offensive. But who should be doing that? I mean, where’s Al Gore? He no longer holds office — he has the freedom for once in his life to really stand for something — why isn’t he playing more of a feisty leadership role?
Well, I don’t think it’s Gore. I don’t think he’s right. I think people are looking for someone. … If you want to be angry at Gore, be angry at him for not fighting harder in Florida.
Where were you in Florida, anyway?
Where was I? I wasn’t part of the Gore campaign. I thought he was the nominee, he had his people, he was entitled to do it. But I don’t think we fought hard enough there.
Did you try to propose an alternative strategy?
Well, I mean, I talked to my friends, but it wasn’t my turn. I didn’t want to be second-guessing the people that were there. I just thought Republicans exhibited a lot more toughness and strength during the recount than we did. Again, America will be reluctant to trust a party to defend America that refuses to defend itself. You know there’s nothing a Hill Democrat would rather do than criticize another Democrat. It is their favorite activity. Then they can read about how honorable they are in an Op-Ed piece, how bipartisan.
Let me give you an example. Tom Daschle has been criticized by Republicans — they compared him to Saddam Hussein! And to my knowledge, I don’t think a Democrat came to his defense for a long time.
Well, Joe Lieberman did.
When? Weeks later. Now, in 1998, I said on “Meet the Press” that I was rolling into battle and we ought to take on [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich, and the Republican Party had a collective conniption — my God, that Democrats would talk about going negative on Newt Gingrich! Now let’s suppose I was out raising money to run a spot comparing Gingrich to Adolf Hitler. They would have had a traffic jam in the Senate and House of Republicans lining up to decry me. But no one stood up for Daschle.
Why is that?
I have no idea. It seems like it’s the nature of being a Democrat.
I found myself thinking about that in connection with David Brock’s book “Blinded by the Right,” about the lengths to which Republicans went in order to get Clinton. Whether you believe all of Brock’s claims or not, it’s still clear that those people have absolutely no counterpart on the Democratic side — there’s just no Ann Coulter.
Well, I don’t know if we want to be like them.
Be Ann Coulter?
Yeah, I’m not suggesting that! But I am suggesting, when they call our majority leader Saddam Hussein, that somebody wake up and go to the well and do something about it. I’m suggesting that when Karl Rove says he’s gonna use the war for political purposes, somebody do something about it. I’m suggesting that when Bush puts out completely bogus information about Social Security, that somebody stand up and do something about it. That’s all.
How much of this is the media’s fault?
I just reviewed Frank Bruni’s book on the Bush campaign, and I was blown away by how superficial it was, how it was simply about whether Bush was a nice guy and smart enough to be president. And this is from the so-called liberal New York Times.
Well, you look at the reporters who covered Bush in 2000 and the reporters who covered us in 1992, and it was so different.
They were harder on Clinton?
Oh, absolutely. But I don’t know what it’s about. My own theory is they were trying to settle a score because we beat ‘em back on Whitewater and impeachment, but who knows?
The New York Times?
Yeah. But I can’t do anything about them. Mealy-mouthed editorial writers I can’t do anything about. Self-indulged Op-Ed writers I can’t do anything about. But we can do something about Democrats standing up. We can do something about Enron.
Speaking of Enron, I read that Enron offered you some kind of P.R. job?
I went down there. It’s just something that didn’t work out, you know what I mean? I don’t wanna make Enron about me.
Were you even tempted?
Oh, it was a long time ago. I don’t remember that it came to much. But my point is, what the Republicans put out about Enron, and what the Democrats and the media are buying, is unbelievable. They’ve wrapped up this nice, neat story: You’ve got a heroine, Ms. [Sherron] Watkins; you have a dupe, that’s Lay; you have a two-shooter theory, Fastow and Skilling; and Arthur Andersen was an accomplice. So the whole thing is solved and you don’t have to look any further for a culprit. But that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.
What’s your analysis?
My analysis is, the Republican Congress caused Enron.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the Republican Congress was bought off by Enron, most of this wouldn’t have happened. If they’d have passed [former SEC chair Arthur] Levitt’s reforms, separating accounting from consulting, they’d have never gotten away with it; if they’d have passed [Commodity Futures Trading Commission head] Brooksley Born’s proposal to disclose all these derivatives, then people would have known about this. If they’d done Sen. Boxer’s thing to limit the holdings in one company people could have in a 401K, then people wouldn’t have gotten burned like this.
Why aren’t Democrats standing up and saying Republicans caused it? Will the Washington Post write some mealy-mouthed story saying, “Well, you shouldn’t really say that!” Of course, but who cares? Will cocktail parties decry the return of partisanship in Washington? Of course they will, but what difference does it make? None! You’ll get your message out. But Democrats in Washington are completely mortified that somebody’s gonna say something bad about them at a dinner party in Cleveland Park on a Saturday night. You tell them there’s an Op-Ed piece coming out, with somebody saying they’re being divisive, and they’ll fall apart. But that’s what Republicans do. Look at the way they talk about ‘Clinton caused Sept. 11.’ They don’t have any facts — we have facts to prove otherwise — but they just do it anyway.
Do you think there really was a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to use Hillary Clinton’s famous term?
Of course there was. Who doesn’t think that?
I think the media depicted it as a crazy, over-the-top exaggeration.
They just say that. They don’t think it. Who in the media could think there wasn’t a vast right-wing conspiracy? Anybody with a brain knows there was, and much vaster than anyone anticipated.
You never anticipated it?
Oh, I did.
I don’t know about in ’92, but by ’93 or ’94, I sat down with the Washington Post and did a chart. Look it up. I called it “the puke-funnel theory.”
“The puke-funnel theory.” Look it up in Lexis-Nexis. C’mon. Does anybody really think that Ken Starr wasn’t part of it? Now we find out Robert Ray, his supposedly nonpartisan successor, is running for Senate in New Jersey. You know, when I pointed out all these things about Starr, the media went crazy. But I kept doing it, and you know what? I was right. And it worked. You can’t let chitchat at a cocktail party determine what a major party is gonna do and not do. You can’t be intimidated by cocktail chitchat.
Well, not to pat Salon on the back, but we were vilified in those same circles when we ran the story of Henry Hyde’s adultery as impeachment was getting under way. Your boy George Stephanopoulos called us bottom-feeders. They vilified us at those Washington cocktail parties. But we did the right thing. Then the rest of the media ran with the story, and I think the American people, in the end, got it: Impeachment was about sex, not about lying under oath, and the Republicans are hypocrites — their leaders are having affairs, too. We don’t impeach folks for this.
Absolutely. You know a lot of people thought I’d given you the story — everybody in Georgetown and Cleveland Park probably thought that — but of course no such thing was true. A guy was shopping the story around, and you guys decided to publish it.
After much soul-searching.
Yes, and again, what I’m suggesting is, stand for yourself, be for something, and the hell with it. Because the hand-wringers and the editorialists and the sigh-and-pontificate crowd will be against you, whatever you do. But look, if Tom DeLay was a Democrat, we would control the House.
But is it really that simple? I have an ideological question for you. I know you’re a populist, but you were a Clinton person, and there’s no question that Clinton pulled the party to the center — in ways that it probably needed to, to win the White House again. But it also cut the party off from its left-wing base. I think part of the reason the Republicans are so strong is that they’re well connected to their rabid right-wing base, the zealots and the maniacs.
And the left is so dysfunctional, I’m not sure how the Democrats could connect to it, but it seems the lack of an ideological base keeps the party from drawing a line in the sand and fighting as hard as Republicans do.
Well, I don’t know. Look, there are choices people have to make in politics and public policy. And when Bill Clinton had choices to make, he generally came down on the side of the working poor. He wasn’t the best friend that the rich had, and he wasn’t the best friend that the poorest of the poor had — he wasn’t terrible, but … basically, more often than not, he was a very good president for people making between, say, $7,500 and $45,000 a year. The best ever probably.
I’ve been reading reviews of Joe Klein’s book ["The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton"], by Jonathan Yardley and Richard Cohen, saying how Clinton disappointed them. They act like the whole world is what they think. But of all the things in the world that I care about, I just don’t really care if Jonathan Yardley and Richard Cohen are disappointed. I mean, they’re not bad people, but what I really care about is that a woman who cleans bedpans in a hospital has health insurance, or has a better life. Now if that’s what I care about, I gotta be a Clinton person.
But one of Clinton’s problems was, the interest groups don’t care about the working poor. The Republicans don’t care about the working poor — they don’t know any. The Op-Ed writers don’t care about the working poor. The editorial writers don’t care about the working poor. The talking heads don’t care about the working poor. Now the disabled have a lobby in Washington, the charities do, the welfare people — they all have lobbyists. The folks who wanted to get rid of the capital gains and the estate tax certainly had a lobby. But Clinton’s entire constituency — well, there are about 30 people in Washington who care about them.
The problem wasn’t so much with Clinton, though. He was mostly able to placate his left — sure, people quit over the welfare bill, but he mostly kept folks in line. Liberals and lefties felt like he was one of them, deep down. Black people had a cultural affinity with him. He was able to convince the left that he was trying to do the right thing, even if it didn’t look like it. But then you get someone like Gore, who isn’t able to telegraph that he cares about that constituency, and people can’t get excited about him. And now there’s no one who has the fire to take a leadership role and stand up to Republicans on much of anything.
Look, I agree. But we’ve got a lot of people in this party. And I think there’s a real hunger in the party, and in the country, for someone who’s gonna stand up for them, stand up and fight for something.
Who might that be? Do you have a candidate for 2004?
You know what? I’m for the person who can stand up and articulate where this party ought to go, who can do it in a tough way, who’s not saying something one day and apologizing the next. I’ll be for that person. But first let’s give them all a chance to do it.
So you don’t have a candidate yet?
No, I don’t have a candidate. But hey look, it could be somebody who — I don’t care what they did in the past, I care what they’re doing now. It’s a new world, so let’s have at it.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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)