"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 the conservative host for a high-profile political debate show, the boyish, bow-tied Tucker Carlson is someone you’d expect to have a lot of critics. What is impressive, though, is the range of people carping about him. There are angry liberals, of course, like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who, Carlson recounts, once called him “filled with hatred.” But there are also conservatives, like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who complained to the New York Post that Carlson was “not a real Republican,” after he assumed his “Crossfire” post — an opinion echoed by Carlson’s future co-host, the truly crotchety Bob Novak.
In his new book, “Politicians, Partisans and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News,” Carlson settles a few of those scores and dishes on some of his contemporaries: Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, as well as a variety of other politicians, media personalities and insiders such as the particularly pitiless CNN producer he memorably describes as “a middle-aged man with perfectly hairless arms.” And he also reveals his own brush with the ultimate political scare in Washington’s world of high-wire politics: A near-sex scandal that threatened to end his nascent broadcasting career. Recently, Carlson spoke to Salon by phone:
What does your CNN co-host Bob Novak think about the book?
I haven’t talked to him about it. I think he loves it. I think he said that it was the best book he read all year.
Hmm. You “think” he said that.
I think he said that.
OK … what was it like working with him after you learned he had complained that you weren’t, what, conservative enough?
Right. Well, I am conservative enough. I’m not a Bush defender, particularly. I defend him when his actions intersect with my beliefs, but I’m not a partisan at all. I’m not interested in parties, in fact I’m opposed to party loyalty in principle. It sort of makes me sick, actually. So in that regard, I’m not a reliable defender of the White House. But I am certainly a reliable defender of broadly defined conservative principles.
I’m not particularly anti-drug, and I’m opposed to the death penalty as I am adamantly opposed to abortion. Arnold Schwarzenegger is anti-drug, pro-death penalty, pro-abortion. So I guess we’re both conservatives? I don’t know. All I know is I can only represent my own views, and there was this concern that I was secretly liberal.
It was McCain.
Payback for your coverage of McCain for the Weekly Standard?
I’m not sure it was really payback, but I liked McCain. And I would have voted for McCain for president happily, not because I agree with his politics; I never took McCain’s politics seriously enough even to have strong feelings about them. I don’t think McCain has very strong politics. He’s interested in ideas almost as little as George W. Bush is. McCain isn’t intellectual, and doesn’t have a strong ideology at all. He’s wound up sort of as a liberal Republican because he’s mad at other Republicans, not because he’s a liberal.
My attraction to John McCain had nothing to do with ideas at all, I just liked McCain very much as a man, and I was never embarrassed about saying that. And I think some people on the right took that as code for liberalism or something.
But partisans on both sides regard any independence as a threat, don’t you think?
Yeah, well, I don’t know if I ever rose to the level of threat, but clearly some thought that I was secretly liberal. But I’ve generally had an easy time. I’ve never felt the need to hide my beliefs, and they generally are pretty conservative.
OK, but back to Bob Novak …
I never heard really much about it. My life doesn’t intersect with Bob’s directly very often. I’ve only seen him in person maybe three times in the last year.
You work alternating days.
Right. Bob’s been around for a long time and I respect that. He’s reported more stories than I ever will, and I respect that, too. We don’t agree about everything — I like Israel, for one thing — but we don’t need to agree on everything.
What about DeLay?
I don’t think DeLay feels the need to apologize to a member of the press. I don’t believe I’ve ever met Tom DeLay. Honestly? I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen Tom DeLay in person. He’s got a high voice, doesn’t he?
Possibly. What about your profile of George W. Bush in Talk in 1999? That had to be the most damaging profile of him yet written — swearing like a truck driver, making fun of Karla Faye Tucker’s death penalty appeals, mimicking her saying, “Don’t kill me!” — because of its high profile, and because of your access to him. Did that bring you flak from conservatives?
Well, it’s always disconcerting when something you write is received in a way you don’t expect. I have no problem hurting someone’s feelings — obviously, I work on “Crossfire” — but when you don’t expect to, it’s disconcerting. As I put in the book, the day before I filed the piece my wife asked, “Aren’t people going to think you’re sucking up?” And that was my concern, that people would think it’s a suck-up piece.
And the response from team Bush?
It was very, very hostile. The reaction was: You betrayed us. Well, I was never there as a partisan to begin with.
Then I heard that [on the campaign bus, Bush communications director] Karen Hughes accused me of lying. And so I called Karen and asked her why she was saying this, and she had this almost Orwellian rap that she laid on me about how things she’d heard — that I watched her hear — she in fact had never heard, and she’d never heard Bush use profanity ever. It was insane.
I’ve obviously been lied to a lot by campaign operatives, but the striking thing about the way she lied was she knew I knew she was lying, and she did it anyway. There is no word in English that captures that. It almost crosses over from bravado into mental illness.
They get carried away, consultants do, in the heat of the campaign, they’re really invested in this. A lot of times they really like the candidate. That’s all conventional. But on some level, you think, there’s a hint of recognition that there is reality — even if they don’t recognize reality exists — there is an objective truth. With Karen you didn’t get that sense at all. A lot of people like her. A lot of people I know like her. I’m not one of them.
Did you suffer from it?
No, I don’t think I suffered for it, really. It wasn’t, in the end, that big a deal. I see Bush every year at the White House Christmas Party, and he’s nice enough to me.
How do you place yourself with other TV conservatives? How do you feel when people mention you in the same list with, say, Sean Hannity?
I don’t know much about Sean Hannity. I’m not offended. I don’t think about my image all that much, so I’m not quite sure how I’m perceived. But I never say anything that I don’t believe. If I felt the administration was right about something, I would go down swinging on behalf of that idea. And if I thought they were wrong I would say so.
But that’s not true of a lot of these guys. A lot of the Fox stars, for example, come from right-wing radio, where a blowhard, black-and-white approach that strictly follows a partisan line works really well.
Well, what I think the problem is in general and, not just with Fox, but the genre, is that it encourages you to use a straw man. So for example you see hosts bring on, “This is Jeffrey Mohammed X, and he’s the president of the Association to Kill White Motherfuckers,” and he’ll be presented as a spokesman for black America. And then the host will say, “Well, how can you support lynching white people? That’s just wrong!”
Well, of course, it’s wrong! This guy doesn’t represent anybody! The classic flipside, which I’ve seen much more, is that you get some 62-year-old, semi-retarded cracker whose like the lone member of his chapter of the KKK, and he represents white supremacists. How many white supremacists are there in America? There are about nine, and they’re all mentally retarded.
We really try to be above that. If we have some crackpot on the show, that crackpot speaks for people.
OK, but that sort of demagoguery is fueling a big part of the success of Fox. Do you feel the pressure to do the same thing?
I don’t like partisanship because it abets lying. And I think you burn out fast when you demagogue. I really do. I mean, Morton Downey to me is a metaphor for all TV talk. There’s a reason he reached his apogee two years into his career.
In your book, you compare Bill O’Reilly a bit to Downey.
Well, look, O’Reilly is really a talented broadcaster. Bill O’Reilly gets much better ratings than I do and there’s a reason: He’s better than I am.
Better in what way?
He understands the medium better than I do. He’s a better communicator than I am.
Is he better in a way you would emulate?
Absolutely — as a communicator, sure. But his shtick is a really dangerous one, in my opinion.
But his shtick is a big part of that success.
It is, but his shtick is predicated on the idea that he is who he pretends to be. It’s all about him. It’s Bill O’Reilly, the gritty son of the working class made good who is looking out for your best interests against the powers that be. Bill O’Reilly’s not right-wing, he’s a populist. And of course the normal, stupid FAIR-type groups miss that. Rush Limbaugh is right-wing, but O’Reilly is an Irish Catholic populist.
But the second that image blows up, the whole edifice comes crumbling down. So the first time he makes people take all the green M&Ms out of his bowl, and that makes Page Six, it’s over.
What about the Fox suit against Al Franken, which it appears O’Reilly was a big part of? Does that come close?
Yeah, but I’m not sure how much that hurts him. What did we learn about that? We learned that Bill O’Reilly is a thin-skinned blowhard? Well, I think we knew that. The potentially damaging charge — that he’s a liar — now that is a big deal.
But no, I have a lot of respect for Bill O’Reilly’s talents. TV is a very democratic medium, and people succeed for a reason, and almost always that reason is that they’re talented. And he is much more talented than I am. However, I don’t know who would want to watch that shit. Do you?
Not entirely, no.
Do you watch it?
Sometimes, to see what he’s doing.
That guy has no sense of humor about himself. At all.
So when you went into television, who were you trying to emulate, since it clearly wasn’t O’Reilly?
Of course I wouldn’t want to emulate O’Reilly. I think he’s a humorless phony.
But then who?
Honestly, my dad is who I always wanted to be like. [Richard Carlson is a former television anchor in Los Angeles and San Diego, who became director of the Voice of America during the Reagan and Bush administrations.] He wasn’t an internationally well-known TV figure, but he was a great print reporter and a great TV newsman, and was completely incapable of taking shit from anybody. And I always admired that, wish I had more than that. And I just admire people who tell the truth. You can smell it; you can tell when someone’s telling the truth. And I also admire people in TV who have original ideas.
It always strikes me whenever a television person writes a book, it’s invariably chockfull of the most conventional banalities you can think of. It always boils down to: Children are our future. You never hear someone in TV say something that’s interesting, challenging, politically incorrect. Why is that? It bothers me.
Could you ever see yourself working for Fox?
It’s hard to imagine. CNN has been really nice to me. Also, I like foreign travel. And I’m always struck that if you’re in Gambia, as I was this summer, or if you’re in Peshawar, they’re not watching Fox News Channel, they’re watching CNN. I know it sounds trite, but I love the fact that CNN is engaged with the world. CNN USA, our domestic network, doesn’t carry a lot of foreign news. But it’s a great organization.
Even after they’ve juggled you around in the past three years, and dropped you from prime time …
Well, whenever your show is cut in half and moved to the afternoon, it’s not a vote of confidence. No way to spin that. On the other hand, I’m used to — having grown up around it and having watched it happen to my father — I’m used to the nature of TV, and the nature of TV is fluid, and nobody has a job forever.
About your own, bizarre almost-sex scandal. Did it make you, say, the TV talk show host most sympathetic to Kobe Bryant?
I was definitely the most sympathetic to Gary Condit, I’ll tell you that.
Did that happen before, or after, you got the legal letter that started your own mess?
It happened at the same time — like a week later this thing happened to me.
I just thought it was totally unfair to assume Condit killed Chandra Levy when there was no evidence that he did. I’m not defending Gary Condit, but it never seemed to me, beyond committing adultery, that he had done anything wrong, and I was offended by the unchallenged assumption that he must have been up to some sort of criminal no good. There was never evidence, and now it’s obvious that he was completely railroaded, mostly by the press.
It’s a completely different situation of course — he was actually involved with Chandra, you’d never met the woman making allegations for you. But did it make you any less sympathetic considering the way he bungled his handling it?
Not at all — my sympathy increased! The facts were unconquerable from a public relations point of view. He’s fucking some intern in her 20s and he shouldn’t have been. But as far as I can tell, he never really lied about it.
It was so striking to me that the same people who defended Clinton’s behavior as a personal matter totally pissed on Gary Condit. I never understood that! I never thought they had a principled defense of Clinton in the first place, it was just a defense of power. But any pretense was completely given up.
You write about how “the one thing every journalist knows about sex scandals is that they’re always true” — and how this altered your perspective forever. So did it cause you to sympathize, in retrospect, with what Clinton went through?
No, you know what? The thing that made me unsympathetic to Clinton then is the same thing that prevents me from feeling sympathetic now, and that’s the reaction, the lashing out, the trying to crush people. There’s no question that Clinton had enemies who wanted to destroy people. I don’t defend that. But members of the Clinton administration on the federal payroll, and their sycophants, including David Talbot at Salon, tried to destroy other people in response. So outing Henry Hyde as an adulterer, under no pretense of principle at all, just tit for tat, I mean, that’s every bit as wrong, I’m sorry.
But wait — the argument for running that wasn’t a simple tit for tat; Hyde was a House manager, pressing for Clinton’s impeachment.
Look, I realize that was a story that was written in context of the times. But strictly speaking about the Clinton administration and its employees, I would have had some sympathy I think if the president had stood on principle and would have said, “Look, it’s none of your business what I did, you know, with people I’m in private association with and buzz off, I’m not going to tell you.” I would’ve said, you know, OK. I didn’t hate Clinton because he cheated on his wife. I hated the sanctimoniousness, and the constant self-aggrandizement.
OK, so you’re angry about the reaction from the administration. What about the accusations?
I’ll tell you what I feel sympathy for, is a middle-aged man totally cut off from all of his friends, living in the most remote place in the planet, the White House, and feeling restless, and frustrated, and having an opportunity to fuck some cutie walking through his office, I completely sympathize with giving in to that impulse. Absolutely. That was never at the core of my dislike for Clinton.
Why talk about your specific case now?
Well, my criterion for writing is always the same: Is it interesting? And I thought it was an interesting story, quite apart from its effect on my life. I’m not particularly interested in writing about my personal life, but I just thought it was an interesting story that I couldn’t tell anyone for the longest time because I feared being fired if it got out.
It’s also the kind of story that needs to be set out in print. If I had told my bosses at CNN about this two years ago, I wouldn’t have gotten past the phrase “sexual assault” before I would have been in trouble. In print, you get to control it.
Isn’t this also a way to neutralize it? Even after you quashed her allegations, you must have worried about it winding up as a rumor on, say, the Drudge Report?
If it’s going to get out, you want to control it. I worried about it partially getting out, and, you know, I just worried about my name being within three words of the phrase “sexual assault.” But also think there’s a moral of the story in that even though we claim to withhold judgment until we know all the facts, but we don’t, all the times. And our prisons are not packed with innocent men, but there are some. And I think we all, especially those of us in the press, ought to remember that.
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)