"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)
Before Vice President Dick Cheney gave the opening address at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a three-day gathering of the right-wing faithful outside of Washington, D.C., organizers asked vendor Gene McDonald to put away his “No Muslims = No Terrorists” bumper stickers.
McDonald complied, and for the rest of the conference the jolly white-haired Floridian peddled his popular anti-Islam wares from under a table. As the leading lights of conservatism, including some of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party, gave speeches to a packed house, McDonald did a brisk trade, despite official condemnation by CPAC staff. He offered T-shirts with the words “Islam: Religion of Peace” surrounding a photo of a bomb with the word “Allah” on its timer. A towering linebacker of a man attending the conference with his elderly parents bought a mug saying “Islam” in red Nazi-style block lettering, with the “S” replaced by a black swastika. “They’re going to love me at work,” he chortled.
It was another year at CPAC, ground zero of the vast right-wing conspiracy, the place where in 1994 Paula Jones was first introduced to the world. This year marks CPAC’s 30th anniversary, but not since the Reagan presidency has its agenda meshed so easily with that of the White House, which honored the event by sending both Cheney and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to speak. Republican National Committee chairman Marc Racicot, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, Senate Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and a bevy of other Republican congressmen were also there, cheered by hordes of college boys in blue blazers, soignie blondes in short skirts, and portly Southerners in T-shirts with slogans like “Fry Mumia” and, above a photo of the burning towers of the World Trade Center, “Clinton’s Legacy.”
Held at Gateway Marriott in Crystal City, Va. from January 30 to February 1, CPAC drew a crowd of 4,000, 1,700 of them college students. Most of the action took place in a ballroom on the second floor, where speakers lambasted liberals from a stage draped in red, white and blue and backed by 18 American flags and two enormous video screens. It was like a right-wing version of a Workers World rally, with one crucial difference. Workers World is a fringe group with no political power. CPAC is explicitly endorsed by people running the country. Its attendees are Bush’s shock troops, the ones who staged the white-collar riot during the Florida vote count and harassed Al Gore in the vice presidential mansion. Bush may not want to embrace them in public, but they are crucial to his political success and he has let them know, in hundreds of ways, that their mission is his.
Heralded by the power chords of Survivor’s 1982 hit “Eye of the Tiger,” Cheney got things off to a roaring start at about noon on Thursday. “CPAC has consistently championed those ideas that make America great,” he said, before essentially repeating President Bush’s State of the Union address. In the days that followed, one had to wonder exactly which ideas Cheney was talking about.
Yes, CPAC explored some crucial questions. One panel asked, “Islam, Religion of Peace?” (Short answer: no.) There was a 40-minute talk on tort reform and 35 minutes on “Safeguarding Civil Liberties in a Time of War,” which included a speech by veteran lefty civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, who was treated respectfully by an audience that largely fears big government and holds its privacy sacrosanct.
Yet Hentoff aside, one theme overwhelmed all others: a quaking, obsessive hatred of the liberals who are still believed to rule the world. CPACers exemplify what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” in the 1964 essay of the same name. “Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention,” Hofstadter wrote. “Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.” And George W. Bush has harnessed their obsession and rage for his own political gain.
The conference was packed with events devoted to denouncing the perfidious left. There were panels titled “Modern Feminism: The Bilking of the Taxpayer,” “Real Stories of Real Liberal Bias on Real College Campuses,” “NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus and other Professional Victims” and “Myths, Lies & Terror: The Growing Threat Of Radical Environmentalism.” Dan Flynn, author of “Why the Left Hates America,” was on hand to sign his book. Ann Coulter, there to push her own book, was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation, after which she ripped into the “treason lobby” — the Democratic Party — whose platform “consists in breaking every one of the 10 commandments.”
To attend CPAC is to crash through the looking glass into a world where passionate worship of the president is part of a brave rebellion against government, where Sweden is a hellish dystopia and Tom Daschle a die-hard Marxist. It’s to realize that, despite the conservative hold on the White House, the Congress and the Supreme Court and the utter dejection among Democrats, right-wingers still fancy themselves an embattled minority facing an army of wily, ruthless leftists, who they hate with the righteous fury of the downtrodden.
At the “What Are We Fighting For?” talk, Elaine Donnelly, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, cautioned that the “destructive legacy of Bill Clinton” remains in the Pentagon and “could still make a comeback. We have to be vigilant.” She made the horrifying consequences of such a resurgence clear. Hillary Clinton, she said, is now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where “she will have more power than we may think.” For example, she may tell the military, “If you want those Apache helicopters, you have to put women in combat … think about ‘Black Hawk Down,’ the soldier being dragged through the streets. Do we want to see that on a gender-neutral basis?”
Of course, for decades the conservative movement has been defining itself in opposition to the specter of an amok liberalism that, among other depredations, leaves American women vulnerable to ravishment by savage black men. The right needs liberal power, no matter how illusory, as a foil.
That may be why there were so many college students in attendance, since university campuses are perhaps the only places left in America where conservatives might legitimately feel marginalized. Many students spoke of being radicalized by the hostility they face as Republicans at liberal schools, much as David Brock did in his book “Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative.” Given the p.c. hysteria that has choked the intellectual life of so many institutions, it’s likely they really have been mistreated. Still, some of the examples they proffered suggested something rather less than an epidemic of college Stalinism. At the panel on campus liberal bias, for example, Roger Custer of Ithaca College’s Young America’s Foundation spoke of the oppression he suffered when his group advertised a speech by Pat Buchanan’s sister Bay with signs saying, “Feminazis beware: Your Nuremberg has come.”
“We received a barrage of criticism,” Custer said indignantly. “Leftists said they felt physically threatened.”
The issue of environmentalism shows much about CPAC-style politics. For CPACers, standing up to environmentalists isn’t merely a matter of opposing regulations seen as onerous. Rather, they’ve framed it as a creationism-style holy war. Speakers at CPAC were livid even at businesses that adopted green models out of self-interest. Nick Nichols, CEO of the crisis management group Nichols-Dezenhall, railed against British Petroleum’s attempts to cast itself as environmentally friendly, calling it a “new and improved Neville Chamberlain.” David Riggs, who runs the anti-environmentalist GreenWatch project at the Capitol Research Center, took the stage to the sound of jungle roars and declared that environmentalism “has nothing to do with bunnies and bambies. It’s about destroying free enterprise and eliminating private property.” Floyd Brown of the Young America’s Foundation announced, “A lot of people who used to claim their color was red now claim their color is green.”
Of course, CPACers are ebullient about the Bush presidency, and they have no doubt that Bush will do their bidding. Their understanding of Bush is very similar to the conventional wisdom on the left: He’s seen as a man whose language and image pander to moderates while his actions serve the far right. Tim Weigel, who was manning the Free Republic booth, described compassionate conservative initiatives like Bush’s plan to address AIDS in Africa as, “throwaways, put out there to keep the left quiet while he takes care of Iraq.” Behind him hung a picture of Hillary Clinton’s head Photoshopped onto the body of a pig.
The lobby behind Bush’s social agenda was on full display. Austin Ruse of the Catholic Families and Human Rights Institute told the audience about his success working with Population Research Institute, which opposes family planning in all forms, to pressure the White House to withdraw the United States’ $34 million contribution to the United Nations Family Planning Fund. Population Research Institute did this largely by fabricating evidence that the Population Fund supports coerced abortion in China, a charge that the administration’s own investigators found to be baseless. Ruse offered advice to the crowd about how the U.S. could fully extricate itself from all its international treaties. His was the moderate position; another man on his panel wanted to pull out of the U.N. altogether.
In the exhibitors’ hall, Freedom Village USA, an upstate New York-based Christian drug-treatment center hoping to get federal money under Bush’s faith-based initiative showed just what faith-based drug treatment really means. “Other programs teach you relief,” said Robert A. Neu, assistant to Freedom Village president Fletcher A. Brothers. “Freedom Village offers a cure. It’s a one-step program of getting on your knees and accepting Jesus Christ.” Neu claims a 75 to 80 percent success rate, which he says measures the number of Freedom Villagers who have become born-again Christians. In addition to literature about drug abuse, the booth was selling videos titled “Harry Potter, Witchcraft Repackaged: Making Evil Look Innocent.”
Bush is revered so intensely among CPACers that all successes seem to issue from him, while failures are the fault of others unworthy of the great man. Jason Crawford, a 23-year-old who works in business development in New York, formed his group Patriots for the Defense of America right after Sept. 11 to promote “moral clarity” in the war on terror. Now, convinced that moral clarity requires attacking North Korea and fomenting revolution in Iran, he’s disappointed in the administration. Yet speaking along with Oliver North (who ranted against the “brie-eating, foie gras-sucking French”) at the “What Are We Fighting For?” panel, he put the blame not on Bush, but on some amorphous “us” who failed to rise to Bush’s challenge. “Today we can see from our actions that we lack moral clarity,” he told the crowd. “We are betraying the principles of the Bush doctrine!”
Rev. Lou Sheldon, the founder of the Traditional Values Coalition and sworn enemy of homosexuality, put it best. Asked if Bush was in sync with his agenda, he replied, “George Bush is our agenda!”
But Sheldon, a plump, pink man with pale blue eyes, wasn’t out celebrating the Bush presidency. Instead, the man who has pledged “open warfare” against all things gay, stood in the exhibitors hall before a makeshift carnival game called “Tip a Troll,” in which players were invited to throw gray beanbags at toy trolls with the heads of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Hillary Clinton and Tom Daschle, or trolls holding signs saying, “The Homosexual Agenda,” “Roe V. Wade” and “The Liberal Media.”
Sheldon, like the rest of the right, isn’t letting success distract from a monomaniacal focus on its foes. Indeed, the overwhelming message at CPAC was that it’s time to toughen up.
At a Thursday seminar titled “2002 and Beyond: Are Liberals an Endangered Species?” Paul Rodriguez, managing editor of the conservative magazine Insight, warned that the liberal beast wouldn’t be vanquished until conservatives learn to be merciless. “One thing Democrats have long known how to do is play hardball,” he intoned, urging Republicans to adopt more “bare-knuckle” tactics. The next day, Frank Gaffney, assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, told a rapt crowd about the “well-financed media campaign against the Bush White House.”
The rise of Fox News and talk radio has done little to assuage right-wing resentment toward the supposedly liberal media. “It’s amazing conservatives ever win any victories at all with the left’s hegemonic domination of the media,” Coulter told her listeners. She spent most of her talk mocking antiwar arguments (“Why not go to war just for oil? We need oil”) and antiwar protesters. “Scott Ritter, that’s a liberal for you,” began one bit. “Cleans up, cuts his hair and it turns out that it’s to get underage girls.” Bada-BOOM.
For speakers like Coulter, who performs her act as a kind of stand-up routine, much of this stuff just seems like cynical hyperbole, but among the rank and file, liberal-phobia is real and deep. Virgil Beato, a 25-year-old graduate student at American University, spoke of the “mean-spiritedness” of the left, much of which he’d learned about from David Horowitz (the former Salon columnist). “David Horowitz knows how the left thinks,” Beato proclaimed. “He’s trying to send out the message that sometimes we need to play hardball. That’s the message we’re getting from here.”
Throughout the three days of CPAC, Beato, a gangly, smooth-cheeked blond studying public administration, sat rapt in the audience, sprawling on the floor when all the seats were taken and murmuring, “yes, yes” as people like Coulter hurled imprecations against liberal treachery. An evangelical Christian who proudly announced his virginity to me moments after we met, he was polite and earnest and seemed genuinely worried by what the Democrats have in store. “The liberal ideal is a collectivist utopia,” he said gravely. “In essence, it’s the same as communism. Tom Daschle won’t get up there and say he’s a communist, but ultimately that’s what the left envisions.” He invoked, as many at CPAC did, the Scandinavian hellhole of Sweden. “Sure, some people there might be happy,” he allowed, “but how do you define happiness?”
Beato really believes that Coulter isn’t cruel, only brave and battle-worn. “Ann’s passion is a reaction to a lot of what she receives from liberals,” he said. “She’s had tomatoes thrown at her. She’s trying to communicate with a sense of humor about the mean-spiritedness of the left.”
It’s a telling twist, this idea of Coulter as a victim lashing back at her tormentors. Writing of the paranoid, Hofstadter said: “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.” It’s a will that Coulter has, and that the right has. Over three days, they struggled with various degrees of sincerity to puzzle out why the left, as they imagine it, hates America. A better question, and one they’ll never ask, is why the right hates so very many Americans.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
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)