"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)
As we make our way back to his home in Burlington, Vt., after a full day of campaigning in neighboring New Hampshire, Howard Dean — internist, former Vermont governor, Democratic presidential hopeful — turns to me and smiles. His eyes brighten mischievously. He has some nasty scoop to share with me.
It’s about Howard Dean.
It begins back in August 1991 shortly after Dean, then 43, became governor under tragic circumstances. As lieutenant governor, a part-time job in Vermont, Dean had kept his medical practice, and was in his office performing a physical on a patient when he was interrupted with news that Gov. Richard Snelling, a Republican, had dropped dead next to his swimming pool. That physical would be the last medical act that Dean would perform. Three days later, he would be in Washington, meeting with elected officials as a member of the National Governors Association, whose chairman, Gov. Roy Romer, D-Colo., had quickly assigned him to chair its healthcare task force.
But that’s just background; the story Dean wants to tell me happened when he and Romer met with the Democratic House leadership, including House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and others. Dean, he recalls, was brash. He remembers telling Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the Democrats’ leader on healthcare reform, that he “didn’t know what he was talking about.” Then, he told Foley that healthcare reform was an issue that needed to be tackled, and that the governors were prepared to lead the way.
Foley told him to hold back, that the Democrats wanted to do it at the congressional level.
“Well, why don’t you?” Dean asked.
Foley told him that the Democrats, who then held more than a 100-seat advantage in the House, didn’t have the votes.
“Well, then let us do it at the state level,” Dean said.
Foley told him that he’d prefer if they didn’t.
Exasperated, Dean lashed out, saying, “Well, Mr. Speaker, if I were in charge of an organization that had a 25 percent approval rating, I might move on healthcare one way or another.”
There was silence in the room. Finally, Foley smiled.
“Actually, it’s 27 percent,” Foley joked.
Finishing the story, he smiles again. Later, over breakfast at Henry’s Diner in Burlington, he says, “It’s not a story that reflects well on me. I hope I’ve matured since those days.”
But of course it’s a story that reflects quite well on Howard Dean and he knows it. Dean generally uses his blunt comments like an inmate with a shiv. And already, he’s used it to set himself apart not only from the bland, cautious Democratic bench of presidential wannabes, but from the bland, cautious Democratic Party in general. In an interesting contrast, when I ask Waxman about Dean’s 1991 anecdote — without telling him where I heard it – Waxman, through a spokesman, followed Washington protocol and praised Dean while denying such an incident ever occurred. Dean’s brashness could prove not only refreshing but awfully successful in an era when both the media and the opposition party seem cowed into submission by the White House. On the campaign trail, he’s been cheered — and has seen his New Hampshire poll numbers soar — when he blasts the Bush administration and the congressional Democrats who, to hear him tell it, have been ineffective and wimpy in their dealings with the president. The question is not only whether Dean’s brashness will propel him to the top tier of candidates, but whether — if and when — he gets there, such frankness is what voters truly want.
In liberal Vermont his thorny side has met with unquestionable success, as Dean was elected governor five times before stepping down last year to make his presidential run. When Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the TV show “Murphy Brown” for its depiction of single motherhood, Dean called him “a tramp”; after a welfare policy agreement Dean found wanting was announced, he declared that Speaker Newt Gingrich and GOP governors were “smoking opium in the speaker’s office”; he has referred to the big spenders in the state Senate as living “in la-la land.” But Dean has built a reputation for having a loose tongue when in fact he was almost always in complete control.
In the Foley anecdote, for instance, Dean doesn’t portray himself as anything less than obnoxious in the story, but he is also featured in it fighting against entrenched and clueless congressional Democrats. And of course, he appears right on all counts.
He has now been taking his act on the road for nine months, since being the first of the pack to formally announce his intention to run in May 2002. And his harsh assessment of his congressional opponents and their colleagues — “The time is now to present a very different vision and stop trying to ‘me, too’ the Republicans,” he tells a gathering of Democrats in Manchester — clearly has an appeal to weary members of his demoralized party.
Dean starts most meet ‘n’ greets by saying there are two reasons why he’s running for president. “I’m horrified by the president’s economic policy and I’m horrified by the president’s foreign policy,” he tells the Manchester crowd. “And the sad thing about what’s going on here is the Democrats are voting for this kind of stuff. I think our party has decided that the way to be popular is to be almost as conservative as President Bush.”
He slams Senate Democrats for their tax-cut proposal, which he calls “almost as bad as the president’s.”
He nails rival candidates Gephardt, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., for having “voted for the Iraq resolution, which is essentially a blank check that allows the president to invade Iraq, if he wants to, unilaterally.”
Taking care to remove Lieberman from the list, he slams the other three for then trying to “go to people and pretend you’re against the war after you’ve voted for it,” he says. “That’s what kills us. Because it appears like we’ll do anything” to get elected. The crowd nods approvingly.
“People like what he has to say,” says New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan. “The question is can he get elected. But in the last two months it’s not asked as much.”
He’s made impressive progress. The most recent poll of likely New Hampshire Primary voters, conducted Feb. 6 through 9 by the University of Connecticut Center for Survey Research and Analysis, indicated that in that all-important primary kickoff state, Kerry leads the pack with 32 percent, Lieberman has 18 percent, and Dean has 12 percent. Among self-described “liberals,” however, Dean’s support more than doubles; he vaults into second place and Kerry loses support — 32 percent of liberals back Kerry, 20 percent pick Dean, and 18 percent prefer Lieberman.
Then come the brash pronouncements that have drawn fans from the ranks of antiwar protesters and among key independent voters in New Hampshire. “The president can’t and won’t and isn’t fighting terrorism the way he should because we have no oil policy,” he says. “We send money to the Saudis and the Saudis spend it to fund schools which teach small children to hate Americans, Christians and Jews — that’s the next generation of suicide bombers and terrorists.” The party is afraid of going after Bush on terrorism-related issues, he says, but it shouldn’t be, since “there are plenty of things that he hasn’t done right.” He cites the administration’s December decision to allow the freighter So San and its cargo — 15 SCUD missiles purchased from North Korea — to proceed into Yemen.
His brusque manner appears remarkably candid for a candidate whose party seems so careful that it seems to have tied itself into a straitjacket. When I ask him about Al Gore, he refers to “the Supreme Court, Katherine Harris, that whole charade” — remarks far harsher than anything Lieberman has probably even thought about saying. But at the same time, he shows an awareness of just how candid he can be in front of a reporter. Or, at least, he kind of does.
“I’ll probably dispense with some of the more rhetorical flourishes,” if he wins the nomination, he says. “One time I said the Supreme Court is so far right you couldn’t see it anymore. Next summer I won’t be talking like that. It’s true and I’m not ashamed to have said it, but it doesn’t sound very presidential.”
In the era of calm, passive, out-of-power Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., one just doesn’t hear many Democratic elected officials saying the things Dean does. “This is probably the most dangerous presidency to the country since Herbert Hoover,” he says to me. His take on Bush’s State of the Union embrace of hydrogen-powered vehicles and an AIDS policy for Africa is even harsher; he attributes the decisions to “cynical politics” and says they “disgusted” him for that reason.
He does credit Bush for being “popular because he knows who he is, and he speaks unambiguously about his message.” Dean is clearly trying to do the same. “As governor of Vermont I’ve stood up for a lot of things I believed in that people didn’t think were a good idear,” he tells the Manchester throng, wielding a Vermont twang that the Easthampton/Park Avenue-bred transplant has picked up since moving to Burlington in 1978. “We did ‘em anyway and I always got reelected.” Voters, he says, respect someone who has fought for what he believes in “even if it didn’t have support in the polls.”
Such positioning may allow Dean to point to the numerous enemies he made in his 12 years in the Statehouse — mostly on the left, despite the “ultraliberal” tag some in the national media have slapped on him. His primary opponents’ staffers are ramping up a nice “Dean is an arrogant jerk” narrative for reporters, which has made every one of his impolitic comments subject to particular scrutiny.
Hence, today’s phone calls. It’s Thursday, Feb. 6, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations of evidence of Iraq’s noncompliance with Resolution 1441. Edwards calls it “a powerful case.” Kerry says it’s “compelling.” Lieberman, of course, is already in his fatigues.
Dean isn’t sold. It doesn’t indicate that Iraq is an imminent threat, he says.
From Washington come the barbs — The New Republic calls it proof he’s “not serious.” ABC News’ “The Note” wonders if he’s backed himself into a corner. Dean has opposed the pending war because he didn’t think President Bush had made his case. If he doesn’t support military action now, the thinking goes, then he’s just contradicting himself. Or, at the very least, he’s been put in an untenable and — for the moment, at least inside war-ready Washington, unpopular — position.
He gets a deluge of phone calls from reporters asking him to clarify his position. Which is — “as I’ve said about eight times today,” he says, annoyed — that Saddam must be disarmed, but with a multilateral force under the auspices of the United Nations. If the U.N. in the end chooses not to enforce its own resolutions, then the U.S. should give Saddam 30 to 60 days to disarm, and if he doesn’t, unilateral action is a regrettable, but unavoidable, choice.
“Dean is stirring up antiwar people,” a senior advisor to one of his Democratic opponents says. “They are against all war, not just against war without U.N. support. When we do go to war, and Dean says he’s with our troops and president in time of national crisis, the antiwar activists he’s cultivated will turn on him quickly.”
Dean says that’s fine, and denies that there’s any inconsistency. “I think people are madly trying to find one,” he says. “It’s part of the game.”
And his opponents have an interest in pointing out where he’s vulnerable — he’s a threat. At the first two multi-candidate events of the campaign season, he’s received stellar reviews. The Linn County (Iowa) Democratic Party held its Sustaining Club Banquet on Jan. 18, with Gephardt, Kerry and Dean, and Joel Miller, the Linn County party chairman, reports that “if I had to rate them, I think Dean probably came out the best.” At the Jan. 21 NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner — the first event featuring all six of the Democratic candidates, including the Rev. Al Sharpton — also brought kudos for Dean, pro-choice and, as a doctor, a particularly effective critic of the antiabortion lobby’s attempt to make an issue of “partial-birth” abortion. “He impressed a lot of people that night,” says a NARAL official.
Many attendees would later say they were moved by his story illustrating why he opposed parental notification laws. A 12-year-old patient became pregnant, Dean said, but didn’t want to notify her father since it seemed he had been the one who got her pregnant. “You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said.
After an advisor to a rival Democrat suggests to me that the story was perhaps apocryphal, I ask Dean for more details. He allows that in the end it turned out that the father hadn’t impregnated the girl. But he insists that doesn’t negate the point he was trying to make, since the girl’s family situation was still a mess. “All I’m going to tell you is that her father was not the father of her child, it was more complicated than that,” he says, adding vaguely: “But it was adjudicated and someone was severely punished.”
In describing himself, he searches for a better word than “straightforwardness,” worrying that it suggests his opponents are lying. “Bluntness, maybe. Directness — that’s a more neutral term.” Dean says that he himself doesn’t “say I’m the most passionate, but if you ask people at the NARAL dinner or in Linn County, Iowa …” His voice trails off.
This does seem to invite the most candid of questions, so I go through the checklist. Does he have any “Clinton” problems? He says he’s tempted to say it’s none of my business, but adds, “I’ve been extremely happily and faithfully married for 22 years. That one you can investigate.” Speaking to a high school class in 1996, Dean admitted to past marijuana use, but left it at that. Now, he only will say, “I’m going to take the Bush approach. My exuberant youth was my exuberant youth and it has no relevance towards the presidency.”
That’s not all he has in common with Bush. At the age of 32, when he got married, Dean says he quit drinking alcohol altogether and hasn’t had a sip of even wine ever since. “What was very funny when you were 18 wasn’t very funny when you’re 30,” he says. “So I quit. I just got sick of it. I got sick of doing stupid stuff.”
He told that 1996 high school class that he “used to get hammered on weekends, and it was really bad for me, and it really did ruin a lot of relationships.” But when I ask him to elaborate, I don’t get nearly that much. “Nnnhhhh!” he bellows, making the sound of a game-show buzzer. End of the topic.
Then I ask about race. Despite his Vermont-rustic image and his marriage to the physician Dr. Judith Steinberg of Roslyn, Long Island, Howard Brush Dean III is a Hamptons blueblood whose father was a stockbroker who once managed the campaign of Rep. Stuyvesant Wainwright, R-N.Y. When Dean’s grandmother got married, President Bush’s grandmother was a bridesmaid. The Deans trace their roots back to 17th century Sag Harbor, N.Y. When I ask how he — governor of the second whitest state in the union — can possibly hope to appeal to the Democratic base of African-American voters, who alone are anticipated to comprise 40 percent of the electorate in the crucial South Carolina Primary, he expresses no concerns and offers a curious reason.
“I have in some ways a special relationship with the African-American community because of my college career,” he says.
“I had two African-American roommates in college.”
“I don’t think people today understand what that means,” Dean says, seeming to sense my skepticism, “but when I walked into my freshman dorm I was rooming with two people who didn’t know anything about white people and I didn’t know anything about black people. It was a very important year for me.” Dean compares rooming and having intense discussions with two black teenagers — Don Roman from Memphis, Tenn., and Ralph Dawson from Charleston, S.C. — during his freshman year to former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s decade playing in the NBA.
To be Dean-ly blunt, it all sounds preposterous. Lieberman went down to Mississippi in 1963 to help register black voters around when young Jewish men were getting killed for such things. He, Kerry and Gephardt have decades of legislative work for and outreach to the black community. Edwards did the bidding of the NAACP by leading the charge against the nomination of Judge Charles Pickering; he and Sharpton — who, well, actually is black — are making aggressive pitches to the black community and are the only two candidates to support the NAACP’s economic boycott of South Carolina because of the Confederate flag issue. And Dean thinks he’s going to sell because he roomed with two black men at Yale?
When I suggest that such a pitch might sound far-fetched, one of these black Yalies, Don Roman, agrees. “No question, I would roll my eyes too, probably,” Roman says. “But you really have to understand Ralph and me more to appreciate” that Dean actually has a point. Roman and Dawson were very active in the Black Students Government and were in the first class able to major in black studies, Roman says. Moreover, the year they lived together was 1967-1968 — during the Vietnam War, race riots, the trial of Bobby Seale, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
“He was the son of a Republican investment banker, and he could not get his hands around the political views Ralph and I brought to the table at that early age,” recalls Roman, now a financial planner in Atlanta. “We weren’t Panthers or Weathermen, but believe me, we were definitely on the outskirts of the political spectrum at Yale.”
Dawson, a New York city attorney, agrees that the “I had two black roommates” pitch itself isn’t enough. “I don’t know that [black voters] will care about that so much as I think that if they interact with him they will sense a level of comfort and understanding that comes out of that experience.” Dawson cites the enthusiastic responses to Dean he’s seen from black South Carolinians who met the Vermonter on their own, without Dawson’s prodding — like Rep. David Mack III, South Carolina chairman of Dean for America, and chairman-elect of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus.
OK, that’s one.
At the Keene Library later that night, crowds of the dissatisfied turn out in ponytails and ask him about the minimum wage and yell “power to the people” (seriously). They may not know that he was endorsed by the NRA for eight straight elections (Dean says such matters should be left up to the states, though he supports closing the gun show loophole and keeping the Brady Law and assault weapons ban in place), or that sometime in the mid-’90s he changed his mind and began supporting the death penalty (for kid- and cop-killers, he specifies now). They surely don’t know that during Vermont’s welfare-to-work debate in 1993, Dean snapped that certain “recipients don’t have any self-esteem. If they did, they would be working,” a comment he later apologized for. They certainly don’t know that some of the ugliest fights he got into were with the liberal wing of his party — especially over budgets he deemed too profligate.
“I thought they were spending too much money,” Dean tells me. “I vetoed more bills in the history of the state than anyone else, and I never was overridden.” Not all were out of principle, he allows. “Some of the vetoes I regret, they were really more petulant than based in fact. These were small bills that didn’t mean much, but I was just angry with them and trying to prove a point.”
He paid a small price for it. In 2000, the Progressive Party fielded a candidate who sucked 10 percent of the vote away from Dean, whom many liberals at that point were beginning to tire of. Others saw political savvy in such petulance. “At times he loved to pick on the extreme liberals in the state sort of as a foil, to build allegiances as a moderate and to pull in Republican supporters,” says Sam Hemingway of the Burlington Free Press. “He knew they’d have nowhere else to go.” According to professor Gary Nelson, a liberal political science professor at the University of Vermont and no fan of Dean, while Bill Clinton was forced into triangulation after the 1994 Republican revolution, “Howard is a natural triangulator. I think at heart he’s a Rockefeller Republican.”
Dean does emphasize his balanced budgets and — especially in property tax-sensitive New Hampshire — his opposition to the Leave No Child Behind Act, which he calls an “unfunded mandate” that will raise New Hampshire taxes by $109 million. Like Iraq, it’s an issue that distinguishes him from the four members of Congress he’s running against, and he’s convinced that it’s a winner.
That said, the hype has yet to jump-start his national numbers. According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll that ended Feb. 3, Dean is dead last with 3 percent, behind Lieberman (27 percent), Kerry (18), Gephardt (16), Edwards (14) and Sharpton, who doubled Dean’s score with 6 percent. In Iowa, Dean — with 8 percent — can take some comfort in that he surpassed Sharpton’s 2 percent, but he is still a distant fifth.
And the most important numbers at this stage are similarly disappointing. Dean ended 2002 with about $200,000 in the bank, though he says he raised about $300,000 in January. By comparison, Kerry had $3 million in his campaign coffers as of Dec. 31, $2.6 million or so coming from his Senate campaign. The Nov. 25, 2002, Federal Election Commission reports showed Gephardt with $2.4 million transferred from his congressional account, and Edwards with $2.4 million.
“You don’t compete on money,” Dean says when I ask him about this, “you compete on ideas. John McCain and Gary Hart demonstrated that over the years.”
But they didn’t win, I point out.
“Jimmy Carter did,” he says, unabashedly citing the Democratic albatross who first got him interested in politics in 1980.
Speaking of quixotic elected officials, I mention to Dean, as we drive back to Vermont after a long day of campaigning, how intriguing it is that Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, is such a supporter. (Dean was “a very sensible and a good thinking governor,” Jeffords tells me, saying that he hasn’t formally endorsed him yet but ultimately will.) During the 2000 presidential election, after all, Jeffords endorsed Bush, and now he’s endorsing arguably the most liberal elected official in the race.
“Now why would you say that?” Dean bristles, citing his fiscal conservatism and his support for the death penalty. “What makes me a ‘big liberal’?” he asks.
I say that I thought he might be arguably the most liberal of the five elected officials who are candidates.
“What makes me the ‘most liberal of the five –’”
I point out that he often talks of how the Democratic Party has lost its way, how the party seems to be trying to be Republican Lite, or Bush Lite, and how he definitively is trying not to be that.
“That’s true,” he says.
He ends up agreeing that calling him the most “un-Bush” candidate is a fair characterization.
“I don’t mind being characterized as ‘liberal,’” he says. “I just don’t happen to think it’s true.”
When Governing magazine named him one of its Public Officials of 2002, the magazine said he “made his political mark by defying easy labeling.”
And yet, this sensibility, to avoid labels, to be unpredictable, to revel in his maverick side, has limitations, and invites some confusion. Dean’s confidence, combined with his doctor’s love of precision, could lead him down a path of arguing details and irrelevancies that won’t well serve any attempt to convey a grander vision.
Take the single issue Dean will probably be hammered on most should he win the nomination, the one the Republican National Committee is already highlighting: Vermont’s 2000 law permitting civil unions between gay and lesbian couples. In 1999, the state Supreme Court ruled that gay couples were entitled to the same rights as straight ones, and Dean marshaled the Democrats in the state House and Senate to sign a law to comply with the ruling. As a result, in the next election, the Democrats lost control of the state House. Dean signed the bill into law in a closed-door ceremony, but since it’s the only law of its kind in the country, it’s what he is perhaps best known for.
Intriguingly, however, Dean seems to spend quite a bit of time steaming about newspapers that call his civil union bill “gay marriage.” It’s not gay marriage, he says, since marriage is a religious covenant between a man and woman while civil unions grant same-sex couples the same rights as straight couples — hospital visitations, say — but don’t involve religion. To me it seems like a distinction without much of a difference, but Dean says that when reporters refers to civil unions as gay marriage “it drives me nuts.”
“It’s shorthand,” he says. “The press does it all the time and I don’t say anything about it, but it’s shorthand. It pigeonholes you, and I don’t think that’s what the press’s job is. It makes me think of someone who’s just trying to rush through and get home for dinner on time.”
Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.More Jake Tapper.
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)