"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)
People like Kevin Phillips aren’t supposed to exist anymore. In a country that’s become “two nations,” this time not black and white but Red and Blue, conservatives rarely engage with liberals (unless it’s to lampoon or attack them), let alone read their publications, reckon with their arguments, or — perish the thought! — even agree with them. But here comes Phillips, the renowned Nixon White House strategist who wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority” in 1969, a Nixon/Reagan/John McCain kind of Republican, with the most damning book to date about the Bush administrations (yes, that’s plural), “American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush.”
Sure, we’ve had great Bush-bashing tomes in the last year: Joe Conason’s “Big Lies,” Al Franken‘s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” David Corn’s “The Lies of George W. Bush” (Phillips is old school; he prefers “deceit” to “lies”); “Bushwhacked” from Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. Most have surged onto bestseller lists, thanks to the unquenchable Blue-state thirst for the truth about Bush misdeeds. Ron Suskind’s “The Price of Loyalty: The Education of Paul O’Neill” is in a class by itself, the first tell-all from a member of the famously loyal and tight-lipped Bush administration. And while it bolsters the Bush critics’ case against the president — showing his indifference to policy, his slavish devotion to politics and his determination to do the bidding of the superrich — its reach is by necessity narrowed, given the focus on the former secretary of the treasury.
Phillips, by contrast, has written a dark, sprawling, provocative, sometimes almost paranoid book — which is not to say that its most troubling conjectures can’t be true. He assembles a wide array of evidence to show how, over four generations, the Walker-Bush clan has been on the front line of the rise of the military-industrial-intelligence complex, the ever-growing national security state that its fourth-generation heir just happens to run today, like his father before him. Various Walkers and Bushes have popped up, like patrician Forrest Gumps, in hot spots all over the globe in the last century — pre- and post-revolution Russia, pre- and post-Hitler Germany, in Cuba before and during the Castro regime, and of course everywhere in the Middle East. (The Bush family has been loosely involved with Iraq, Phillips shows, since George Walker joined Averell Harriman’s efforts to rebuild the Baku oil fields in the Soviet Caucasus, a few hundred miles north of Iraq, against the wishes of the U.S. government.)
All these international men of finance, with heavy interests in the energy industry, occasionally clashed with American officials over the years — by doing business with the early Soviet Union, or rearming Germany in the 1930s (some say into the ’40s) or, if you include Dick Cheney in the family (and Phillips practically does, with good reason), lobbying against U.S. sanctions on Iraq from the corporate headquarters of Halliburton. But mostly they do their patriotic duty when asked to, duty that has sometimes included spying and other kinds of shadowy dealings with foreign nations. George H. Walker and his son-in-law Prescott Bush (great-grandfather and grandfather of the current president, respectively) can be tied to an amazing roster of Cold War national security potentates, including CIA director Allen Dulles and his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Defense Secretaries Robert Lovett and James Forrestal, and National Security Advisor Averell Harriman. Phillips calls Prescott Bush a “national security gray eminence,” and speculates, on inconclusive evidence, that the Connecticut senator may well have been a CIA asset, “perhaps even a shadow CIA director”; his son George H.W. Bush, of course, wound up as CIA director under Nixon. If the connections sometimes seem sinister, they also make sense, given the way the free flow of capital and natural resources, especially oil, would come to be equated with national security in the middle of the last century.
What’s sinister to Phillips is the way the Bush family, using that vast network of business, intelligence and government connections, managed to elect not just one president against all political odds (George H.W. Bush lost two Texas Senate races, only to be saved by Nixon with appointments as ambassador to China and then CIA director) but an incredible two. Given the size of the first Bush loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, as well as the mediocrity of the son who aspired to succeed him, Phillips finds it astonishing that the family was able to use its vast web of shadowy and sunshiny connections again to “restore” the Bush dynasty in the White House — “a turn that would have surprised and presumably appalled the founding fathers,” he writes.
Now, a surprised and appalled Phillips observes, we have a second George Bush running the country and advancing his family’s perverse agenda: serving the rich domestically, increasing the dominance of the energy industry, enlarging the security state, and pursuing a bumbling foreign policy that’s clearly made the world less safe, from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Middle East.
Phillips is at his best showing how the sins of the first George Bush continue to plague the U.S., which must now suffer the sins of the son. Clearly we’re still living with the consequences of so many Reagan-Bush foreign policy bungles today: backing the mujahedin in Afghanistan against the Soviets, which gave rise to the al-Qaida-sheltering Taliban; arming Saddam to fight Iran during the Iran-Iraq war; playing games with Iran, too, first through the 1980 “October surprise” (there’s strong evidence that Bush, along with Reagan campaign manager Bill Casey, another spymaster, played a role in reaching out to Iran’s leaders to prevent a pre-election release of the U.S. hostages that might have helped Jimmy Carter), then with the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal at the end of Reagan’s term. He also traces the political, personal and financial ties between the Bush family and the House of Saud, which has driven a foreign policy that’s coddled the Saudis, who have, arguably, in turn coddled al-Qaida.
Then there was the first Gulf War, launched after Bush signaled to his former ally Saddam that invading Kuwait wouldn’t trigger U.S. military action, then changed his mind, then ended the war without toppling Saddam, then encouraged the Kurds and Shiites to revolt, then abandoned them to Saddam’s vengeance, finally leaving Iraq a cesspool of weapons and tyranny and suffering for the Clinton administration to deal with. You can see in today’s headlines the legacy of all those bad decisions, which are costing Americans and Iraqis and Afghans their lives every day. The notion of “blowback” from disastrous American foreign-policy adventures has been a staple of lefty debate for years, but the conservative Phillips sees blowback from Bush mistakes everywhere, and documents it throughout the book.
How do the Bushes evade a public backlash against these foreign policy disasters? Phillips’ most disturbing chapter may be the one on the religious right’s rise to power, to which George W. Bush owes his presidency. He learned from his father’s 1992 defeat, which many blamed on his failure to court the culture warriors and evangelicals who never trusted the Eastern elitist, formerly pro-choice president. He was his father’s liaison to the Christian right in both the 1988 and ’92 campaigns, and it paid off for him in 2000. Although he only got 48 percent of the vote overall, Bush drew a staggering 84 percent of Christian evangelicals — only 75 percent of them went for Ronald Reagan — and they form the backbone of his base. Phillips details how, even as Americans overall have gradually become less religious, power and numbers have shifted from mainline Christian churches — Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and so on — to more conservative, fundamentalist sectors. Where the mainline Protestant groups, when getting involved in social issues, tended to take on the plight of the poor, the fundamentalists are more concerned about abortion, gay rights, school prayer and individual salvation through Jesus Christ.
“American Dynasty” makes you realize, if you hadn’t already, why Bush is the ideal Christian-right president. He fits the Fundamentalist Project’s criteria for the type of person who’s attracted to this rigid brand of Christianity: He was a rootless (albeit wealthy) ne’er-do-well who couldn’t quite find his way in business, fought a drinking problem and then turned his life around, with the help of Billy Graham, when he adopted a fundamentalist approach to Christianity. He was almost literally saved by Jesus, and where fundamentalists and Southerners never trusted his father, they embrace George W. as one of them. He repays them with coded biblical imagery in his speeches, from his constant references to “evil” to his public reliance on the power of prayer, plus a Middle East policy that seems tailor-made to Christian right “end times” dogma.
Both Christian fundamentalists and ultra-Zionists believe Israel is meant to inhabit the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria — the Christians because that will supposedly trigger Armageddon, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist. Phillips gets up to his elbows in creepy “end times” activism — Christian Southerners funding Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, Texas cattlemen breeding the mythic “red heifer,” whose appearance is supposed to signal Israelis to rebuild the old temple in Jerusalem and usher in Armageddon. He also cites polls showing that fully 45 percent of American Christians see the world ending with an apocalyptic battle. You start to wonder if somehow Bush really was destined to play this role — and if there’s a safe place anywhere on earth to sit out the cataclysm that, between his religion and his foreign policy, he seems capable of provoking.
Occasionally Phillips slides partway down the slippery slope of conspiracy theory. He wades into the most sordid — and mostly unproven — allegations against the Bush dynasty: that Prescott Bush actively propped up Hitler through his businesses, even during the war; that Yale’s secret Skull and Bones society was central to the Bay of Pigs scandal, and that George H.W. Bush was a CIA asset working with anti-Castro Cubans back then; that in 1980, he personally flew to Paris to lobby Iranian leaders and make sure the American hostages weren’t returned before the November election; that a young George W. Bush was arrested on cocaine charges and his father had his record expunged, and that he went AWOL during his National Guard service. He throws water on some but not all of those theories, but lets most stand as possibilities. (It’s true that Prescott Bush owned a small interest in a New York bank that helped finance the Nazis, and which was seized by the U.S. government in 1942. Other allegations of Nazi links remain unsubstantiated.)
He quotes, respectfully, the best-known conspiracy theorists on each issue: Ron Rosenbaum on Skull and Bones, Robert Parry on Bush’s personal involvement in the October surprise, and, far more dubiously, the late J.H. Hatfield, author of “Fortunate Son,” which peddled the notion that Bush was busted for cocaine in the 1970s but his father got his record expunged. Rosenbaum and Parry might be wrong, but their work is respected; Hatfield’s allegations (looked into by Salon, among other publications) probably shouldn’t be quoted in a serious book except to debunk them.
But Phillips’ retelling of how Bush won the presidency in 2000 is exhaustive, authoritative and disturbing. In some ways it’s oddly soothing, in this politically polarized terrain, to see a once-loyal Republican (Phillips has registered as an Independent in reaction to the Bush takeover of the GOP) assemble the evidence that’s mostly been confined to liberal magazines and Web logs that Bush wrongly seized the presidency by playing aggressive politics during the Florida recount, and finally, by appealing to his father’s friends on the Supreme Court. Phillips goes everywhere — the bourgeois riot in Miami, when thuggish conservatives stopped that county’s recount; elderly Jews who supposedly voted for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach, thanks to the butterfly ballot; irregularities in Broward and Volusia counties — and shows how Gore essentially lost when he didn’t demand a statewide recount that would also have looked at the issue of “overvotes,” ballots where more than one candidate was inadvertently selected, but the voter’s intended choice was clear. (And he rails against the media outlets that sponsored their own recount for choosing to mute their findings — which were that, using every conceivable recount standard, Gore won Florida — in an outburst of patriotic restraint after 9/11.)
It’s the scandal of Florida that gives credibility to Phillips’ sometimes paranoid-seeming claims that the Bushes are a “dynasty.” Of course, it’s not a literal dynasty: President Bush did not inherit the office from his father. But when I pointed that out to Phillips, trying to argue that, like him or not, Bush had “obviously” been elected, the author laughed. “Obviously? I’m not so sure about that.” And he had me. Bush’s lingering lack of legitimacy, post-Florida, is part of what has polarized the nation, encouraging the paranoid to weave conspiracy theories about a shadow government — and even sober liberals to wonder if it’s possible to defeat the potent combination of money, fear and religious fervor the Bushes have marshaled, especially post-9/11, to continue their control of the White House.
Given how much ink has been spilled lately about “Bush hate,” which supposedly afflicts only crazy lefties and their Democratic Party panderers like Screamin’ Howard Dean and the reinvented Angry Al Gore, it’s fascinating to see a conservative who despises Bush. Phillips admits his dislike for both George Bushes in the book, and in a mostly respectful New York Times review, Michael Oreskes suggested the author should have revealed the personal basis for that dislike. Phillips insists there isn’t one, and I believe him. Of course the GOP strategist who preached a conservative populism, a rejection of both Democratic and Republican elites, would be appalled by the rise of Bush Republicanism, a winner-take-all social Darwinism imposed by a mediocre family that rigged the rules of the game to benefit itself. You can tell Phillips particularly loathed the first President Bush, with his Ivy League affect and his pork-rind pretenses; but he’s not much higher on the allegedly more down-to-earth son, refusing even to grant the authenticity of his roots: Midland, Texas, as Phillips notes, was overtaken by Easterners during the oil boom of the 1950s and ’60s, and its streets were named after Ivy League schools.
Phillips believes that a Democrat who can channel populist disgust at the corrupt, patrician Bushes has a chance of toppling George W. Bush this year. And while his chapter on the power of the Christian right is alarming, it also contains what Phillips says are the seeds of hope for Democrats. Because just as he thinks Democrats bungled the ’60s by embracing the counterculture without reassuring the anxious white ethnics who were their base, Phillips now believes the Republicans are bungling by embracing Christian right extremists who are going to lose the culture wars for the GOP.
“American Dynasty” made it to No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list last weekend, which can’t be good news for the Bush campaign. On the other hand, I find myself wondering if the book is being bought and read by conservatives, or only by Bush-weary Democrats. It’s well known that the country’s Red vs. Blue polarization is reflected on bestseller lists, where Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly shriek at Al Franken and Michael Moore, but almost nobody reads from both sides of the aisle. Here’s hoping some Republicans do reach past Coulter’s invective and pick up Phillips’ passionate call to arms. If they’d take their party back, we’d be closer to getting our country back. Howard Dean, less angry, might get his voice back, and the Bushes might have to settle for being wealthy folk who just can’t win a national election, no matter how much they try to rig the rules.
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)