"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)
Concern about a U.S. dynastic presidency first emerged in 2000, prompted by skeptics of the Bush succession, as well as by amateur historians unnerved by analogies to the 17th century English Stuart and 19th century French Bourbon restorations. The topic gained force and more widespread credibility when the 2002 elections confirmed George W. Bush’s popularity and when the war of early spring 2003 displayed his personal commitment to resuming his father’s unfinished combat with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Controversial wars and geopolitical ambitions, after all, have frequently originated as dynastic ambitions.
Other institutional aspects of a family-based presidency warrant national attention. Dynasties tend to show continuities of policy and interest-group bias — in the case of the Bushes, favoritism toward the energy sector, defense industries, the Pentagon and the CIA, as well as insistence on tax breaks for the investor class and upper-income groups. By inauguration day of 2001, Houston-based Enron had a relationship with the Bush clan going back a decade and a half. Families restored to power also have a history of seeking revenge against old foes as well as recalling longtime loyalists and retainers. George W. Bush’s record has included retiring such taunters of his father as Texas governor Ann Richards (in 1994) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Bush helped to force him out after the 1998 elections) and appointing former officials dating back not just to his father’s term but to the Ford administration of 1974-76, a virtual incubator of the Republican Party’s Bush faction.
This dynasticism was hardly a phenomenon unique to the United States. In the first few years of the 21st century, the restoration of old European royal houses was discussed in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Italy. As in the United States, the principals were political conservatives.
Another questionable aspect of dynastic control is the effect of biological inheritance. History is all too familiar with hereditary traits like the Hapsburg chin and the Tudor temper. Some pundits have queried whether heredity might likewise explain certain behaviors shared by the two Bush presidents — frenetic activity, scrambled speech, the hint of dyslexic arrangements of thought. Although the press has been reticent to pursue such matters, they do have a genuine relevance. Three, perhaps four, generations of Bushes have displayed great capacities for remembering names, faces and statistics. Dallas News reporter Bill Minutaglio, a biographer of the younger Bush, discovered that George H.W. Bush “went so far as to tell his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater to gather together the photographs of the Washington press corps so he could memorize all their names; the Bush men were always startlingly better than anyone else at memorizing names.” At the same time, both father and son have shown little talent for conceptualization or abstraction. Is it a coincidence? Dynasty, with its subordination of individual achievement to gene pools and bloodlines, always involves a gamble on the nuances of heredity.
In the United States, as we will see, the 20th century rise of the Bush family was built on the five pillars of American global sway: the international reach of U.S. investment banking, the emerging giantism of the military-industrial complex, the ballooning of the CIA and kindred intelligence operations, the drive for U.S. control of global oil supplies, and a close alliance with Britain and the English-speaking community. This century of upward momentum brought a sequence of controversies, albeit ones that never gained critical mass — such as the exposure in 1942 of Prescott Bush’s corporate directorship links to wartime Germany, which harked back to overambitious 1920s investment banking; the Bush family’s longtime involvement with global armaments and the military-industrial complex; and a web of close connections to the CIA, which began decades before George Bush’s brief CIA directorship in 1976. Threads like these may not weigh heavily on individual presidencies; they are many times more troubling when they run through several generations of a dynasty.
We must be cautious here not to transmute commercial relationships into a latter-day conspiracy theory, a transformation that epitomizes what historian Richard Hofstadter years ago called the “paranoid streak” in American politics. (Try a Google Internet search for “George Bush and Hitler,” for example.) On the other hand, worries about conspiracy thinking should not inhibit inquiries in a way that blocks sober examination, which often more properly identifies some kind of elite behavior familiar to sociologists and political scientists alike.
The particular evolution of elites within nations that became leading world economic powers over the last four centuries is a subject I have discussed in several previous books, especially “Wealth and Democracy” (2002). The rise of a nation’s “establishment” to its zenith is invariably an accretive process, not a successfully executed sequence of plots. Still, “old-boy” networks or their equivalents usually play a significant role in maintaining a group in power.
Treating the Bush presidencies as growing out of a four-generation interaction with the so-called U.S. establishment is, in a word, essential. Likewise, dealing separately with the administrations of George H.W. and George W. — or, worse, ignoring commonalities of behavior in office — is like considering individual planets while ignoring their place within the solar system.
Four examples are illustrative. One is the repeated use of family influence in arranging or smoothing over difficulties in the military service of three generations of Bushes: Prescott, George H.W. and George W. Similarly, the involvement of four Walker and Bush generations with finance — in several cases, the investment side of the petroleum business — helps to explain their recurrent preoccupation with investments, capital gains and tax shelters. George W. Bush’s 2003 commitment to ending taxation of dividends was simply an extension of his father’s frequent calls for reducing capital gains tax rates as the solution to any weakness in the national economy. Third, the family’s ties to oil date back to Ohio steelmaker Samuel Bush’s relationship to Standard Oil a century ago, while its ultimately dynastic connection to Enron spanned the first national Bush administration, the six years of George W. Bush’s governorship of Texas, and the first year of his Washington incumbency. No other presidential family has made such prolonged efforts on behalf of a single corporation. Finally, there is no previous parallel to the relationships between the Bushes and the CIA and its predecessor organizations, which began in the invisible-ink and Ashenden, Secret Agent days of George Herbert Walker and Prescott Bush. Quite simply, analyzing separately the two Bush presidencies risks losing sight of such essential and revealing leitmotifs.
Arguably, a clan lacking such continuity of interests and relationships probably could not have succeeded in establishing a dynastic presidency. It would not have developed the requisite links to the establishment. It should be noted that the term “dynastic” is used here to describe a fact, not a theory: Namely, the succession of 2000, in which the eldest son of a defeated president was eight years later chosen by his father’s party and inaugurated as the next president. Such inheritance has no American precedent; it trespasses, at least spiritually, on the governance framed by Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Madison. Hereditary rulers were to be feared, the founders knew, even when, like the 15th century Medicis of Florence, they initially chose to keep the framework of the Republic in place.
While the election of 2000 became an obvious pivot by marking a full-fledged family restoration, the election of 1994 must be considered a secondary milestone, for it served to anoint formally eldest son George W. Bush, already the most logical choice to follow in his father’s footsteps. Winning the Texas governorship that year established him as the family political heir over his younger brother, who lost a statehouse bid in Florida. Sharing his father’s name, looking eerily like him, and having a similar electoral base in Texas, George W. was able to embody a much more resonant promise of “restoration” among voters than could have been managed by his younger brother Jeb. Also to the point, the 1994 elections suggested the motivational potential for a restoration: Namely, the moral anger of a large portion of the American electorate — pollster Gallup came to call them “the repulsed” — with the new president, Bill Clinton. Not a few voters felt apologetic, survey takers found, for having turned the elder Bush out of office in 1992.
Were history to posit a “Bush era,” lasting from George H.W. Bush’s triumph in 1988 through 2008, the two family presidencies might well define the entire two decades, turning the Clinton years into the political equivalent of sandwich filler. On the other hand, were Senator Hillary Clinton to achieve in 2008 a second restoration, this one Clintonian, public perception might well lurch toward some American equivalent of the 15th century Wars of the Roses, during which the English Crown was contested by the houses of York and Lancaster.
National politics, in short, has begun to take on the aura of a great family arena. Of the four wives of the major-party presidential nominees in 1996 and 2000, two quickly gained U.S. Senate seats: Hillary Clinton in 2000 and Elizabeth Dole in 2002. A third, Tipper Gore, decided not to make a Senate bid in Tennessee. Other seats in the U.S. Senate, in the meantime, began to pass more like membership in Britain’s House of Lords. Regionally, the prime example of family continuity in national government has been New England. In Rhode Island, Republican Lincoln Chafee took the Senate seat of his father, John Chafee, when the latter died in 1999. Next door, Edward Kennedy occupies the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by his brother when he became president, and just to the west in Connecticut, Senator Christopher Dodd sits where his father sat from 1958 to 1970. Parenthetically, both senators from New Hampshire are the sons of former governors. One of those from Maine is the wife of a former governor.
Dynasticism, then, is clearly not just a peculiarity of the Bush presidency. Yet there was a vital catalyst in the 1996-98 jelling among Republicans of a commitment, backstopped by favorable national polls, to running the Bush family’s eldest heir for the presidency. It helped to legitimize a larger trend, broadening its momentum.
In this context, religion furnished another critical engine for a Bush triumph. To many Republicans and independents, the Bush family appeal was renewed in 1993-94 by ongoing revelations of Clinton’s moral turpitude and his eventual impeachment. Perhaps because of how this tide of moral outrage had come to arouse Southern fundamentalist constituencies, George W. Bush began to emphasize and display unusual personal religiosity. He cast himself as the prodigal son, brought back to God after waywardness and crisis. From 1994 to 2000, he repeatedly used such biblically inflected language about good and evil that one could almost hear the words of Daniel and Jeremiah. So close did he draw to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant leaders that in 2001, the Washington Post suggested that the new president had virtually replaced evangelist Pat Robertson as the leader of the U.S. religious right. To have suggested any similar role being assumed by his father would have been laughable.
In contrast to the sophisticated 1990s dialogue saluting globalization, Internet democracy and the supposed end of history, much of the world’s population, especially its poor and dispossessed, was participating in a quite dissimilar expression — a swell of fundamentalist and evangelical religion, often with a strong admixture of nationalism. While a few nations were actively seeking restorations and the resumption of power by kings, this larger trend, affecting Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike, dwelled instead on prophets and pharaohs, awaited or feared ones (red calves, Mahdis and Antichrists), holy cities and desecrating unbelievers, along with more ominous events like jihads, end times, raptures and ultimate Armageddon.
Well might embattled Americans, weary of warfare in the Holy Land, yearn for the simple “family” issues propounded in the cultural politics of the 1980s and 1990s — most of which were used in a calculated courtship directed at low- and middle-income voters stressed by two-earner households, lengthened work hours and day-care and tax pressures. Unfortunately, by the time these day-to-day issues were overshadowed by stock market crashes, terrorism and war in the early 2000s, little net economic progress had been made. If anything, the stress on ordinary families was now even greater.
Thus the irony: The dominant “family-related” trend taking the United States into the 21st century turned out to be a form of classic reaction. In economics, it favored aristocracies of both capital and skills, from Wall Street to major-league baseball. Family values were brandished to save multimillionaires from the federal inheritance tax. In politics, “family” bred dynasties and elite entrenchment. Even more broadly, amid the fear of additional barbarian attacks in the 9/11 vein, Americans slid toward another historical reversal: Allowing the 18th century republic to be re-conceptualized as an embattled 21st century imperium, threatened by dangers and strains not unlike those that plagued 3rd and 4th century Rome.
The central purpose of this book is to interweave several strands of analysis and thought that need to be considered together if we are truly to understand the perilous state of the American political system. One is the political and religious fundamentalism that has gained strength as the new century has unfolded. A second is the ever-changing importance within the United States of different economic sectors and elites — from investment banking and oil to the military-industrial complex. The third is the 20th and early 21st-century emergence of the Bush family, which this volume seeks to track along a trajectory of American wealth and power through the heydays of Wall Street investment banking, Ivy League clubdom and Texas petropolitics and into the post-World War II emergence of the CIA and rise of the national security state.
Until now, our political history has embodied a different, mid-century flavored saga centered on careers of men like Dean Acheson, Robert A. Lovett and W. Averell Harriman, who played their starring national roles from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Now a new dynasty warrants a different national story. The Bushes and their initially more influential Walker family in-laws were also “present at the creation,” to use Acheson’s term, but in secondary capacities. The family stepped into public visibility only in 1952, when Prescott Bush, managing partner at Brown Brothers Harriman, for many years the nation’s biggest private investment bank, won election to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. He also became a favorite golf partner of President Eisenhower, also impressing the then vice president, Richard Nixon.
When Nixon, in turn, won the presidency in 1968, he would treat George H.W. Bush, a first-term congressman, as befit the son of Prescott Bush. The younger Bush had also been commended to Nixon by former Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, probably the one man most responsible for convincing Dwight Eisenhower to take Nixon as his running mate back in 1952. Thus did the Nixon administration become the all-important career elevator for the little-known U.S. representative from Houston.
Eastern patricians, even the oil-stained variety, were rare in the Nixon entourage — and for that matter, rare in national Republican elective politics. Nixon wore them as badges of social acceptance; he had taken one, former U.S. senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, as his vice presidential running mate in 1960. Eight years later, he let the name of George H.W. Bush make the vice presidential rumor mills, less because of any possible appeal Bush might have in Texas than for the socioeconomic reassurance he would offer to New York and Connecticut Republican donors and Ivy League clubland.
Appointments to the United Nations (1970) and the Republican National Committee (1973) brought Bush cabinet and Nixon-inner-circle status, maintaining the Washington visibility critical to his future. Nixon valued Bush’s family connections, gung ho spirit, personal likeability and social outreach. Similar considerations helped to guide President Ford’s 1975 selection of him to head the CIA, a famous repository of Yale alumni. Bush wanted to be — and perhaps was — taken as qualified for the cabinet in the unelected, bred-to-it manner of a Curzon, Cecil or Lansdowne in Edwardian England.
This, to be sure, is getting ahead of our story. What made it possible to consider Bush for vice president in 1968, almost out of the blue, was that some fifty years earlier, his two grandfathers — George Herbert Walker, a well-connected St. Louis financier, and Samuel Prescott Bush, a wealthy Ohio railroad equipment manufacturer — had managed to implant themselves and their descendants in the eastern establishment. This helped Prescott Bush get ahead, much as later connections helped George H.W. and George W.
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)