"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)
Topics: Bill Clinton
Five years ago, I testified before Congress that history would harshly judge the unconstitutional impeachment drive against President Clinton. My position was fairly mainstream among American historians. By the time I testified, nearly 500 had signed a letter I helped to write with the distinguished scholars Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and C. Vann Woodward, deploring the impeachment on historical and constitutional grounds. Soon thereafter, a group of more than 400 leading legal scholars, including Cass Sunstein and Laurence Tribe, issued a similar statement.
Not surprisingly, Republicans lambasted both the historians’ letter and my testimony, as did journalists and pundits playing amateur historians inside the right-wing media echo chamber. A group of 90 writers — only three of them historians, but with a heavy contingent from the right-wing think tanks plus partisan ideologues from the Reagan and first Bush administrations, such as C. Boyden Gray — composed a counter-statement attacking the historians. But a wide range of editorial writers and columnists in the so-called “liberal media” also denounced the historians for being “gratuitous” “condescending” and “partisan.”
The historians’ verdict was clear: The impeachment drive against President Clinton lacked constitutional and political legitimacy. The journalists’ opinion was equally clear: The impeachment was legitimate, and the historians were really a fusty collection of liberal elitists who had no business sticking their noses into public affairs.
Now an extraordinary thing has happened. Journalists from across the political spectrum are finally acknowledging that impeachment was mostly a partisan crusade on trumped-up charges to bring down a popular president. “From the viewpoint of history,” the conservative Andrew Sullivan wrote recently in the New York Observer, “it’s going to seem deranged.” They have conceded that numerous allegations noisily leveled against Clinton and repeated endlessly in the news media of which they are a part have turned out to be bogus.
The occasion for this sea change in conventional wisdom is the publication of Sidney Blumenthal’s “The Clinton Wars” and the response to it. (I should note that Blumenthal and I have been friends ever since we both wrote for the New Republic, that I read and corrected some of “The Clinton Wars”‘ background historical material in manuscript, and that I, along with Schlesinger, Sunstein and others, am treated kindly in the book.) But what has struck me, now that the reviews of the book have started pouring in, is how an old pattern has reappeared in a new form: Historians and journalists disagree about the book’s import.
Even as journalists admit that Blumenthal has the goods to prove what a right-wing circus impeachment really was, they dismiss his revelations as score-settling, and worse — as “history.” The spectacle of the media, having gotten the story wrong in the first place, dismissing the book that gets it right is stunning, even to someone who lived through the actual impeachment.
Meanwhile, the most respectful reviews have come from historians — Robert Dallek in the New York Times Book Review and David Greenberg in the Washington Monthly. Though not uncritical, both warmly praised the book’s reconstruction of the historical record and called it the place to start in order to understand the Clinton presidency. Once again, the historians get the story right.
Journalists have attacked Blumenthal, a controversial figure in Washington press circles, for writing a memoir they deem a courtier’s brief — too one-sided, partisan and uncritical of Clinton. History is of less interest to these journalists than Blumenthal’s personality, his devotion to the Clintons, and various trivial matters of great import to the news media, like whether “Hardball” host and Clinton-hater Chris Matthews really did lobby for the job as Clinton’s press secretary.
Yet in working up their ad hominem cases against Blumenthal, even his journalist critics concede that the book’s exposure of the partisan campaign against Clinton that culminated in the impeachment is accurate and persuasive.
Andrew Sullivan in the New York Observer: “The real value of this book is in its portrait of Mr. Clinton’s foes … .[T]he account Mr. Blumenthal gives of the haplessness and priggishness of Kenneth Starr is riveting stuff. The testimony of Sam Dash, Mr. Starr’s ethics advisor, is particularly damning. The insane attempt to actually bring down a President over perjury in a civil suit has not yet been more vividly evoked.”
Janet Maslin in the New York Times: “Certainly “The Clinton Wars” can point to baseless, breathless news coverage as a catalyst to the Kafkaesque.”
Lev Grossman in Time: “Blumenthal’s abiding theme is that Clinton’s presidency was the victim of a right-wing political cabal that manipulated the media and the legal system to make mountains out of dunghills, and he makes a surprisingly convincing case by doggedly following countless news stories and allegations to their origins in tainted, planted, unfounded, retracted, distorted, misleading and plain nonexistent evidence.”
Bill Bell in the New York Daily News: “No question, the Clintons were dogged by some extremely malignant, ignorant and hypocritical extremists, funded by a few rich conservatives … .Beyond the settling of grudges and slights, though, is a bigger, dramatic story — of the impeachment itself — and Blumenthal’s riveting account is sharp, spare and focused. It pulses with the energy of clashing ideologies and strategies and is propelled by the force of the legal, political and reputational stakes involved. It sets the standard for subsequent reports, including the one his Oval Office boss is writing.”
Joseph Lelyveld in the New York Review of Books: “Blumenthal holds your attention when he pieces together the various components of what Mrs. Clinton called a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” from Little Rock enemies and haters to the lawyers of the Federalist Society who worked their connections to the Office of the Independent Counsel to shift its focus from real estate to sex … .Disgraceful things did happen. On more than one occasion, an Internet gossip columnist did set the agenda for mainstream news organizations. Stories without sources did gain instant currency. Some were fabricated.”
Clearly, looking back, the anti-impeachment historians get to say we told you so. But the more disturbing point is this: Impeachment isn’t just “history.” Some of the key “right-wing fanatics” who peddled “tainted, planted, unfounded, retracted, distorted, misleading and plain nonexistent evidence” that led to a “Kafkaesque” political “show trial” have more power than ever in politics and the media — and have, it seems, actually benefited, personally and politically, from their attacks on the Constitution. The current corrected revised accounts by journalists leave the misimpression that only a few marginal right-wing zanies of passing importance were involved in the illegitimate effort to bring Clinton down. As the now uncontested facts around impeachment show, that is hardly the case.
One of the chief members of the “cabal of right-wing fanatics” was Theodore Olson, who, as counsel to the rabidly right-wing American Spectator, oversaw the notorious Arkansas Project that spread some of the most vicious lies about Clinton. (Olson was also one of the supposedly impartial “experts” who signed the petition attacking the historians in 1998.) In testimony before the Senate, Olson denied any involvement in the Project — but that testimony was later fully documented as false. Yet Olson is now solicitor general of the United States, appointed by President Bush and approved by the Senate during the confusion that accompanied Sen. Jim Jeffords’ defection to the Democrats in 2001. Among Olson’s current tasks is selecting hard-right nominees for the federal judiciary, with whom the Bush administration is now trying to pack the courts. Many of those nominees are, like Olson, closely connected with the radical activist circles within the Federalist Society, the right-wing lawyers’ group that also produced several of the so-called “elves” who plotted Clinton’s downfall.
Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas did more than any House Republican to coerce his colleagues into supporting impeachment. DeLay privately threatened moderate Republicans who would not go along, using right-wing fundraisers and 60 designated whips to do his dirty work for him. “Coming out of the election,” Republican congressman Peter King later said, “I didn’t hear anyone discuss impeachment. It was over. Then DeLay took over.” One by one, the moderates caved in to what DeLay and his minions were calling “the Campaign.” At the time, DeLay was the House majority whip. Since then he has been promoted for his “deranged” attack on the Constitution by being named House majority leader.
In 1998, Bret Kavanaugh was a conservative lawyer on the staff of Kenneth W. Starr’s Office of Independent Counsel. He coauthored the salacious so-called Starr Report that became the basis for the illegitimate articles of impeachment — and the basis for Starr’s aggressive testimony to Congress, in violation of the Constitution, that led the office’s chief ethics advisor, Samuel Dash, to quit in protest. Today, Bret Kavanaugh is deputy legal counsel at the Bush White House.
In 1995, Michael Chertoff was chief counsel for Sen. Alphonse D’Amato’s Senate Whitewater Committee that churned endless baseless allegations against the Clintons. Since then, he has served as Attorney General John Ashcroft’s assistant atop the Department of Justice’s criminal division (and a leading force behind the authorship of the so-called PATRIOT Act) and been nominated by George W. Bush to the federal bench.
There also are continuities between impeachment and present day politics in conservative funding circles and in the news media. Richard Mellon Scaife has been, by now, thoroughly exposed as the financier behind numerous false stories about the Clintons that led to the impeachment drive, both in his newspaper the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and in various other outlets, including the American Spectator. If history has tracked anyone down, it is Scaife. Yet that has not prevented him from continuing his funding of “extremely malignant, ignorant, and hypocritical extremists” — or shamed numerous respectable institutions, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago, into declining his support.
The story of the media’s complicity in the impeachment drama is more complicated. Historical ignorance, cynicism, self-importance, conformism, gullibility, careerism, hypocrisy, pride, and assorted other human frailties contributed in varying degrees to what Maslin calls the “breathless, baseless news coverage” of the time. History has judged and will judge some media participants more severely than others. Those who unprofessionally suppressed crucial pieces of evidence — including the independent Resolution Trust Corporation report that exonerated the Clintons over Whitewater as early as 1995 — will bear a heavy burden.
Near the top of the list for condemnation will be the multinational media conglomerate run by Rupert Murdoch, including the Weekly Standard, the New York Post, and (in conjunction with Roger Ailes) Fox News. Even before the Lewinsky story broke, Murdoch’s outlets remorselessly hyped malevolent stories about the Clintons — from Whitewater to Travelgate — even after they were proven to be false. In 1998 and 1999, their slanted coverage of the impeachment drama performed a singular disservice to the truth. They have never corrected their numerous false reports, let alone apologized for them. Yet the Murdoch empire is now flourishing. Thanks to Bush administration rulings, its control over an increasingly concentrated and centralized media is likely to grow.
Slowly but surely, most recently with the publication of “The Clinton Wars,” historical facts have changed the prevailing wisdom of the chattering classes about the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Historical research, now recognized as accurate, has made the journalists’ original accounts look tendentious and often false. In the battle begun in 1998 between historians and journalists over the facts of the case and the legitimacy of impeachment, the historians have won.
But the journalists’ insistence that we all put the matter to rest is itself a continuation of the partisanship and hopelessly confused logic that drove the impeachment effort in the first place. That insistence amounts to amnesty for abuses against the Constitution, some of which were committed by persons who now help to run the country, and who are utterly unapologetic for what they did. It is less a pardon than a willful act of forgetting that lets the guilty off the hook — and that leaves them and their rackets, unchallenged, in power.
Abraham Lincoln once remarked that none of us can escape history. That includes those who conceived, aided and abetted the unconstitutional impeachment of Bill Clinton. The trouble is, many of those people are still very much with us, have been amply rewarded for their crimes, and continue to wield extraordinary power. History will condemn the rest of us if we do not now, at last, hold them accountable for what they did.
Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton UniversityMore Sean Wilentz.
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)