"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 had the worst nightmare last week: The Clinton impeachment circus wasn’t over!
Like the rest of the country, I thought that freak show was long behind us. I thought Clinton had been acquitted by the Senate and forgiven by voters, leaving office with sky-high approval ratings. I thought his wife Hillary had been overwhelmingly elected to the Senate from New York, where she was widely judged to be doing a good job. I thought we had a new president, who appeared to be in political trouble for creating deficits faster than he was eliminating jobs and for telling whoppers about why we needed to go to war with Saddam.
But suddenly I was watching Chris Matthews’ “Hardball,” and the apoplectic host and his Clinton-hating chorus were partying like it was 1999! They were shouting “Liar!” — but it wasn’t about President Bush and Iraq. There was David Bossie — he’d left Rep. Dan Burton’s staff in shame for his excesses in “investigating” the Clintons — accusing them again of “defrauding the American people.” The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund was holding forth on the first couple’s foibles, too, as if his own troubled personal life had not made news of late (when will these Clinton scolds clean up their own houses first?). Newsweek’s prissy Howard Fineman was doing that thing he did so well during impeachment, shaking his head with faux-sadness — tsk-tsk, sigh! — over the latest mess Bill and Hillary had gotten themselves into, barely hiding his glee. They were tossing around the old names and allegations all over again: Juanita Broaddrick. Kathleen Willey. Paula Jones.
Matthews even had a former Clinton staffer on the hot seat to defend the couple — this time it was Hillary’s ex-press secretary, Lisa Caputo — and he was shouting the question that was the issue of the hour roughly 42,000 hours ago: “Do you believe that the president’s conduct with a staffer like Monica Lewinsky is public or private behavior?” Caputo was briefly struck dumb. “Oh wow,” was all she could muster for a moment.
Me too. Oh wow. What a nightmare. But of course I wasn’t dreaming. Hillary Clinton’s memoir “Living History” has awakened all the old demons. From “Hardball” to the Free Republic to the New York Times editorial page, the Clinton-bashers were at full throttle last week. The Times could not bring itself to mention Whitewater — perhaps all that Jayson Blair-inspired soul-searching on 43rd Street has finally made the editorial board concede there was nothing to that non-scandal after all — but it did dredge up Travelgate and those missing files, in a spiteful bid to pin something, anything on Hillary, no matter how silly, in her moment of publishing glory.
Why did a junior senator’s unrevealing memoir merit such a furious barrage? There are no shockers in its pages, or even any news. But this didn’t stop the book from flying off the shelves — 200,000 copies sold on the first day, according to its publisher Simon & Schuster, a book industry record. One week after the book hit the stores, the publisher announced it had already made back the hefty $8 million advance it paid Hillary, after selling 600,000 copies. On Monday, Simon & Schuster said it was rushing to print 500,000 more copies of “Living History,” bringing the total number of copies in print to 1.5 million. Average Americans are obviously much more forgiving of — and curious about — the Clintons than the noisy claque of Clinton haters in the New York-Beltway echo chamber. This at least partly explains the chattering classes’ distemper — they simply can’t stand the fact that despite their best efforts, the Clintons are still basking in the public’s glow.
Unlike the vast majority of its critics, I read “Living History” all the way through. Occasionally it was rough going, but it wasn’t awful. As the Times complained, it is an odd mix — a coming-of-age story, a memoir, a self-help book, a political tract. It is also, quite clearly, the opening salvo of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. This too explains the spluttering reaction from the couple’s critics.
Some reviewers have scratched their heads about all the foreign travel tales the book contains; but that’s Hillary telling you how much she knows about the world she wants to lead. Some have trashed the wonky bits on healthcare, childcare, the environment, the “Save America’s Treasures” campaign. But that’s Hillary showing you she knows policy. She appears to mention every world leader, and every local activist, she’s ever met — the better to hook all of them later to the “Hillary in ’08″ Express.
Yet “Living History” is more than just the diary of a political know-it-all. Clinton actually does a lot of things in the book her enemies thought her incapable of — admits she’s wrong, pokes fun at herself, and occasionally even cracks a joke. And, oh yeah, she talks about her husband’s affair with the intern. Those sections are overwrought, a little bit “Can this marriage be saved?” meets “Oprah,” but I actually believed the story of the way she found out the truth about Monica Lewinsky, the way she raged, and the way she recovered her marriage.
To be fair, there is plenty in the book for Hillary haters to hate, too. I know, because I used to be one. I just read a review I did of Gail Sheehy’s Clinton biography, and I cringed. Boy, was I mean. Not Chris Matthews mean, but mean enough. But I really couldn’t stand the sanctimony, the elitism, the entitlement, the importance of being Hillary — and the fact that she, a half-generation older than me, had always tried to have it both ways, folding her life into a man’s while kinda sorta pursuing an independent career, all the while blaming sexism for thwarting her.
And it’s all still there in the book, in places. Every other person we meet is a Rhodes scholar. She admits she’s wrong, sure, but not as often as she reminds us she was right. She writes a lot about sexism — but this time around, she convinced me: Much of what she’s endured really was because she served as a Rorschach test for the way we view female power, at a time when the role of women — in the family, politics, world affairs — was rapidly shifting.
My change of heart about Hillary isn’t all about the book — I’ve grown to admire her more over the years, especially after her tough run for the Senate, and every day I’ve become more convinced of the danger and perfidy of her political enemies. But the book helped. It made me like and understand her better. Oh, and more important: It made me hope she runs for president. And I think a lot of her critics — especially her female critics — who read the book will feel the same way.
Maybe that’s why Clinton’s enemies are determined to tell you how bad “Living History” is: If you read it, you might conclude they’re wrong about her. She should have paid Simon and Schuster $8 million for this, not the other way around, because the book’s potential windfall to her political future and presidential hopes is priceless.
Reading “Living History,” I found myself thinking about another politician’s pre-election autobiography, “A Charge to Keep,” President Bush’s vapid, snoozy, utterly incredible 1999 memoir (which everyone knew was really written by Karen Hughes). Clinton’s is a lot better — and though she had research and writing help, too, it reads more like it’s the work of her own hand. She’s way more forthcoming about her marital woes, for instance, than Bush was about his self-described “nomadic” or “young and irresponsible” years. But no cries of outrage greeted the silly Bush book when it was published on the eve of his presidential run four years ago. Why the double standard?
Well, Bush didn’t get $8 million to write it, for one thing. To whom much is given, much is expected. And it wasn’t billed as his answer to questions he’d long dodged. The president still claims a “zone of privacy,” to use Hillary’s much-criticized phrase, around key mysteries from his past — allegations of drug use during his lost years, the months he was missing from the Texas Air National Guard, the questions about who bought his Harken Energy stock before the company went bust — and unbelievably, the media mostly grants it to him. Maybe most important, no one expected Bush to write a readable book, to lay out his policy priorities in detail, to bare his soul. Our expectations for Bush have always been so low it was a success that the book wasn’t an embarrassment.
But there’s also a Hillary-specific reason for the savaging of “Living History” in the press. She’s a woman, so she’s expected to do soul-baring and intimacy, as well as policy and politics. And she doesn’t always do it well. The book is filled with self-deprecating jokes about her terrible eyesight — and the thick, ugly glasses she would occasionally go without, thanks to vanity, always with disastrous consequences. After a while, the cracks about her eyesight began to strike me as an unintentional symbol of Clinton’s internal myopia, what she can’t see about herself, the troubles she’s blundered into thanks to her blinders. Sometimes “Living History” reminded me of a Jane Austen novel hinged on an unreliable female narrator — you can’t trust everything she says, and yet she’s capable of growth and insight on her amazing journey.
“Living History” is very much the work of someone with big political ambitions, who can’t afford to burn her bridges to the future. Sidney Blumenthal’s “The Clinton Wars” is a better read, because in the course of setting the record straight, as he sees it, he’s not afraid to settle some scores. In fact, Blumenthal knows history requires it. But Hillary still wants to avoid coming across as too aggressively partisan — she’s ever the Republican debate-club girl who can argue any position and still respect the other side in the morning. The only part of the book that made me gag was when she lamented the Republican Party’s sharp drift to the right since her youth (when she worked for Barry Goldwater). “I sometimes think I didn’t leave the Republican Party as much as it left me,” she sighs. Blech.
The Clinton haters charge that “Living History” is a pack of lies, but they haven’t been able to offer any proof. So mostly they attack her not fully owning up to her own role in the Clinton administration’s political troubles, which is held to be typical of “the Clintons’ reluctance to assume full responsibility for their own mistakes and evasions,” in the words of the Times’ Michiko Kakutani. “Living History’s” description of the healthcare debacle is the best example: Certainly she cops to political and tactical errors, but you never get the damning details, widely recounted elsewhere, about the combination of naiveté, arrogance, disorganization and bad strategy that doomed the effort — or of the role she personally played in all of it.
On the other hand, though, Hillary is right to spend time detailing the fierce lobbying assault on her health plan from the right. I’d forgotten so much about that time: William Kristol and Bill Bennett, those omnipresent intellectual hit men of the right, pop up in the book as architects of a Republican strategy to defeat the bill; opponents spent millions of dollars on a media blitz to defeat the Clinton effort. Isn’t that just as important to understanding what defeated healthcare reform as Hillary’s lack of deference to certain congressional poobahs, or the fact that her fellow health policy wonk Ira Magaziner convened too many task forces and constituencies to ever make the process manageable?
Clinton is even more combative when it comes to Whitewater. She refuses to concede she made a mistake — as is widely charged in the press — by convincing her husband not to hand over all documents about the real estate mess to the media. (The Clintons gave everything to federal investigators, but stonewalled that fourth branch of government, the Washington Post, whose outraged editors made them pay the price.) And she insists that she was correct to argue against the appointment of an independent counsel, a battle she of course lost. She writes that the independent counsel law required credible evidence of wrongdoing, and there wasn’t any — and she feared an open-ended witch hunt. Well, she had that one right.
Following her husband’s crushing defeat in the 1994 midterm elections at the hands of Newt Gingrich’s anti-government revolutionaries — a political disaster she and her ill-fated health plan were blamed for — Hillary went into a sort of exile, throwing herself into travel in the Third World. She still went to the glamorous capitals and seats of power — London, Paris, Moscow — but usually only with her husband, as the deferential first lady. When she traveled solo, she was mostly wandering in places Americans don’t care much about — and more important, in places where nobody cares much about women.
I found these passages to be some of the most interesting, oddly affecting in the book. The first lady in exile, visiting a women’s self-employment group in Ahmadabad, India, a mothers’ microcredit project in Managua, Nicaragua, a school in Jessore, Bangladesh, that paid parents to educate their daughters, in violation of local custom. The wandering is sort of mythic: Having suffered a crushing defeat, the heroine retreats to the underworld, where she does the tasks required of her with humility and diligence during her exile. On those official presidential visits to the capitals of power, she even learns to enjoy the time she spends with the other first ladies, to lose the reflexive sense of entitlement that makes her think she really ought to be with the men.
At first I felt like these stories of wandering abroad and accepting her second-class status were vaguely humiliating, but then, Hillary Clinton needed to learn humility, and to accept that she was in fact only entitled to a secondary role. She wasn’t the president, or co-president. Nobody elected her to anything. And her travels contributed something uniquely useful to the world, too. She brings daughter Chelsea on many of the trips, and notes the symbolic importance of their presence in these patriarchal, even misogynistic cultures: “The President of the United States has a daughter whom he considers valuable and worthy of the education and health care she needs to help her fulfill her own God-given potential.” And her travels taught her that the political persecution of a pampered first lady really didn’t stack up next to the suffering of rape victims in Rwanda, AIDS patients in Uganda, or girls who couldn’t go to school in one Muslim country after another. It seems that once she accepts her role, just like in myths and fairy tales, she finally gets what she wanted: Respect and admiration. Of course, she never gets more respect and admiration than when she was the wronged spouse, that awful summer of 1998. Still she bore the nation’s sympathy with comparative grace and few complaints — and, rather unbelievably, rode it to the U.S. Senate.
Can Hillary Clinton take her amazing journey even further, all the way to White House? Even as tough a critic as Camille Paglia now says — thanks to “Living History” — that she deserves to try. Paglia’s been nastier about Clinton than I have, so when I saw her revisionist take in the Times of London on Friday, I had to admit Hillary may have done the impossible with this book.
It’s not just the book, of course — many polls this year, even before the splashy media launch of “Living History,” show her far ahead of any of the Democrats who are off and running for president in 2004. She’s hovering around 40 percent, while her closest competitor, Sen. Joe Lieberman, usually pulls less than half that. Nobody expects her to run this time around. But folks close to her have been whispering for a while that if a Democrat doesn’t win in ’04, we’ll see her in New Hampshire and Iowa in ’08.
I hope we do. Both Clintons have their flaws, but they have also moved the country’s political culture forward. Both truly came out of the ’60s (as opposed to simply drifting through them, like the current occupant of the White House) with all that implies, bringing along the lessons of the civil rights movement, Vietnam, feminism. But they figured out how to sell those values in the ’90s. To their enemies on the left and right, that made them liars, shapeshifters, chameleons; opportunists who’d do anything for votes. But Hillary drew even more distrust in some quarters — certainly in this one — by seeming to claim a share of the power that belonged to her husband, without putting herself through the rigors of the democratic process.
Now she’s done that hard work, and she’s ready to do more. I’ll always have problems with some of her political corner-cutting — giving Bush a blank check on Iraq was only the latest example — but she’s shown a strength and charisma in the last three years I hadn’t seen before, and I hope we see more of it.
Certainly she’s going to need it. My God, she drives her enemies crazy. By the end of that nightmarish “Hardball” show last week, Lisa Caputo was gone, and I watched four angry white men trashing her. Here’s Matthews on the interview she gave to Barbara Walters: “Those two women hiding behind a gauze-covered lens to make them both look good was an embarrassment.” His buddies all howled! (Note to Chris, and Howard too: Guys, your hair is a different color every month. If you’re going to throw age jokes at women, check those jowls in the mirrors.) Fineman insisted with his trademark Beltway pomposity that unfortunately, she’s a polarizing figure, “just like Richard Nixon,” who could never be elected president. And you got the feeling he and his friends would do their best to make sure of that.
I would never deny that Clinton is polarizing, though she’s far more charming and self-aware than sweaty, paranoid Nixon. But it’s worth remembering that even Dick was actually elected president, twice. It’s clear her enemies are going to have Hillary Clinton to kick around for a long time — and I look forward to watching her kick them back.
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)