"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)
In the 1960s Kevin Phillips helped Republicans ride to power on a wave of populist frustration with know-it-all elites in both parties. Now he says Democrats can ride a similar wave, if they nominate somebody who combines a populist critique of Bush “crony capitalism” with strong national security credentials. In a long conversation with Salon the day after the Iowa caucus, he gave free advice to Democrats scrambling to take back the White House.
Earlier in the primary campaign you praised Howard Dean for channeling anger at the war in Iraq. What do you make of the fact that he did so poorly in Iowa?
I actually think it was a good thing for the Democrats. I think that Dean had lost his connection, and he started to drop quickly. I think it’s crucial for the Democrats to nominate someone who can substantively, effectively indict several combinations of George Bush politics: One is the economy, and the others are foreign policy and terror and Iraq. I think if you’ve got either a Kerry or a Clark, you’ve got somebody who’s able to reverse the jujitsu of the war on terror issue. Because Bush is somebody who doesn’t have any military skills, and who also has a dubious record of time in the Texas Air National Guard.
Do you think that story could have legs again? Your book looks a lot at the dark side of Bush’s past: The holes in his résumé, the circumstantial evidence for drug abuse, as well as the charge that he went missing in the National Guard. Why do you think those things never got the spotlight from the media that every Clinton scandal did?
Well, I don’t agree there was a spotlight on every Clinton scandal. At all. I do agree they haven’t put enough of a spotlight on Bush, or the two Bushes. One of the reasons is 9/11.
Even before 9/11 — during the campaign there wasn’t the same kind of scrutiny on Bush.
Oh, I don’t agree. I mean, there was a lot of attention to the draft business and the obvious question marks in his résumé. That’s why, from the summer of 2000 when he was six to eight points ahead of Gore through the fall, the race really tightened up, from exposure. People began to see there were shortfalls. And then came Florida …
Which we’ll talk about. One thing your book makes clear: God, the last two generations of Bushes are bad at business. Neither George Bush was a smashing success, despite the help they had from friends and family — and don’t even talk about the fringy business dealings of Marvin, Neil and Jeb. Clearly the father wasn’t so good at foreign policy — first he built up Saddam, then fought him, then left him in place. But now we’re pursuing the family’s global grudges because they’re good at politics and they elected their second president.
See, I don’t think they’re even that good at politics. I think they got a terrific break in 1988: The Democrats picked Michael Dukakis, a Harvard dweeb type of Democrat. Then in 2000, they get Albert Gore. OK, he didn’t really claim he invented the Internet, but here’s this guy, the son of a senator, he certainly couldn’t use the dynasty issue, he couldn’t use any of that. So the Democrats have run people against the Bushes who’ve given the Bushes a fair pass on their issues.
Well, wouldn’t you say they’re getting better at politics? The first George Bush couldn’t get himself elected to the Senate — he really wasn’t accepted in Texas. But thanks to his appointments, he became vice president. But Jeb and George W. became governors, and the current president really managed to get rid of the Eastern elitist thing, all the things about his father that Texans found grating.
But there are a new set of things in the son that other people find grating. I mean, the father had things that annoyed the city ethnics, the Southern fundamentalists, he seemed too much an Ivy Leaguer. The son took care of the fundamentalists and the Texans, the good ol’ boys love him, but an awful lot of people from New England and the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest listen to that twang and see the Texas Ranger foreign policy, and say, “I can’t take this.”
Your chapter on the religious right was eye-opening in a couple of ways — especially the way the son cultivated the right, and how dependent he is on it. But also, it made me realize how he is the perfect standard-bearer for this kind of politics, because he’s a sinner who was redeemed through Christ. It’s part of his appeal — the struggles of his youth, alcoholism, and then being saved by Billy Graham and Jesus.
Well, up to a point. If it turns out alcohol was only one of his problems, if he had substance abuse problems, he could blow the redemption factor a little bit.
Yes, you take the idea seriously that he may have used cocaine, as rumored, in the ’70s. And he more or less admitted some kind of drug use before 1974. [In 1999 Bush's campaign staff said he could have passed the FBI's seven-year drug-use background check for federal appointee even if it went back 25 years, but Bush refused to say he'd never used illegal drugs.]
He didn’t more or less admit it, but he more or less set up a circumstantial presumption, and that’s an important distinction.
You’re right, but at any rate, I’m aware of no allegation that any drug use continued past the ’70s. Long-ago drug use, by someone who’s now clean and sober and born again, probably isn’t that big a deal, especially given his heartfelt religious conversion.
There’s some truth to that, because he carried about 84 percent of the fundamentalist/evangelical folks. That was extraordinary. But you know, you’ve also got a generation gap in Republican politics. Most of the people involved in the Nixon or early Reagan years, they’re older than I am, they’re in their 60s and 70s, and this crowd is not particularly high on the Bushes. But you’ve got most of Congress on the Republican side that’s in their 40s and 50s, and they’ve come up in a Bush-friendly era. They’re used to the Bushes. I went off the reservation at the time of the first Bush. But an awful lot of Republicans my age and older — in the Northeast, in the Pacific Northwest, in the Great Lakes — they’re very unhappy …
Do you see a defection to Democrats?
Well, there’s been a defection for years. Dukakis carried Wisconsin and Minnesota and half of New England against George Bush. A lot of people have left the Republicans already. George W. carried only one state in New England. He lost Washington, Oregon and California. So there was some softening for Republicans and some growth for Democrats.
Yeah, that was the point of a great book by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, “The Emerging Democratic Majority” — the title, of course, a tribute to your book. Did you read it?
No, I don’t read anybody who’s talking about an “emerging Democratic” anything anymore, because they’ve been wrong for 30 years. On top of that, 9/11 scrambled everything again, so I wouldn’t pay attention to anybody’s “majority book” right now, because nobody knows yet how this is going to play out. What’s really amazing to me is there’s been no attention to the continuity between the two Bush administrations, the continuity of the involvement with Iraq, the conflicts of interest in their involvement with the Saudi Arabians, the continuity of involvement in the Middle East. That really deserves attention.
You really zero in on the alleged October surprise of 1980. I think you make a good point in saying that nobody will ever prove that Bush himself went to Paris in the summer of 1980, but clearly there were negotiations between the Reagan-Bush camp and the Iranians.
Clearly, and there were very credible witnesses to it. But the credibility emerged after Bush was defeated in 1992, very lopsidedly. He got the weakest share of the votes, for an incumbent, since 1912. He was history, so it didn’t seem worth paying attention to. That’s why it’s so unbelievable to me there hasn’t been a willingness to look at the continuity between father and son — the same name, the same supporters and the same preoccupation with the people at the top. The same preoccupation with the Middle East, with Iraq. This is Bush II in a very literal sense, but they’re not making the connection.
Do you see the book helping people make that connection?
Let’s put it this way: The book got a very favorable review on the front page of the Washington Post Book World. On Sunday, it got a good review, considering the circumstances, from the New York Times.
Considering the circumstances? What circumstances?
It’s the New York Times. It’s the national paper of record, really. They want to preserve a caveat there. They don’t want to say, “This book is it.” They give it a very nice review, they push it forward, but they express reservations. That is the national newspaper — you can buy it, and people do, in San Francisco. It’s the national newspaper of record. They have to be more cautious.
Michael Oreskes, who reviewed the book for the Times, raised an odd objection — that you didn’t reveal the origins of your “dislike” for the Bushes. It made me want to ask you that question: What is the nature of your dealings with the Bushes? Is there a personal basis for that dislike?
It’s really very simple. “The Emerging Republican Majority” was about the idea of Middle America taking back the country, a kind of semi-populist conservatism. It produced “Joe Sixpack” and terms like that. It never suggested that we wanted a new elite. It was an anti-elite idea, the idea that the liberal elite had been empowered for too long, and had failed on many fronts. Generally in history when you see this kind of cyclical change you have outsiders coming in, in this case from the South and the West. It was a repudiation of the old Republican elites, who’d lost touch with everything, as well as the liberal elites. So the whole idea of this family that couldn’t win elections — George Bush lost twice running for the Senate from Texas, but he succeeded thanks to these connections — well, that was anathema to me. In 1990, when I wrote “The Politics of Rich and Poor,” which was an indictment of Reaganomics but especially Bush and his cotillion set, Richard Nixon gave me the lead quote on the back of the book jacket! I mean, you can say what you want about Richard Nixon, and people say a lot, but he wasn’t somebody who went into politics for the elites.
So there’s no personal reason for your enmity.
No, we’ve had hardly any interaction at all. It’s legitimate to ask that, but the bulk of my reaction to the Bushes has really been that they represented an elite type of Republicanism that was hostile to my whole Middle American thesis about the party. I represented the part of the Republican Party that thought he was born with a silver foot in his mouth and never should have gotten into the White House. And, as far as I know, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan shared that opinion.
I’ve always wanted to ask you this: “The Emerging Republican Majority” was about more than race, but clearly racial politics was one of the things that contributed to the Republican majority that’s still with us. But what could the Democrats have done differently in handling the race question? I think you’d agree that history shows the Democrats were on the right side of the issue — and yet it haunts them to this day. Was there anything they could have done to mitigate the impact? I think of Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act and saying, “I just handed the South to the Republicans.”
I don’t think that the Democrats could have done anything, really. But what happened was that they misfired on three crucial issues: They misfired on the way they handled the war issue, they misfired on socioeconomic issues, they misfired on the cultural issues. You can’t misfire on all three fronts. But you know, right now, the conservatives are coming close to misfiring in the same way. They’re botching the economy, they’re botching Iraq, they may have botched 9/11, and they’ve got the religious right running loose, so they’re going to botch culture. And when you get to that point, the motion of your elites — the forward motion of your interest groups inside the Republican Party — gets very hard to turn around.
So you feel them moving inexorably toward disaster?
They get carried away with hubris. That was the problem for the Democrats with Johnson. After the Kennedy assassination and the Goldwater defeat [in 1964], they got so carried away they went into hubris. But, you see, the Democrats don’t use any of this very well. They have very little institutional memory. Why don’t they use the fact that it was Bush’s father who participated in building up Saddam Hussein? They aren’t good at framing any of these things. When the maneuvering towards war was beginning, there was none of this framing: Why was Saddam still there? The president’s father spent six or seven years building him up. The Democrats don’t have much going for them at all. You have a Michael Dukakis, then an Al Gore, who just really wasn’t much of a fighter in 2000.
Your reading of the Florida recount period was chilling, especially Gore’s failure to fight there. It really brought it all back for me.
That’s right, you had that fellow who wrote a good book …
Yeah, it was really very good.
And we broke the voter-roll cleansing story you cited …
That’s right. So you know.
You think if the newspaper consortium that recounted the votes hadn’t squelched their findings in the wake of 9/11, there might have been more of a public outcry. I guess I’m not so sure.
Oh, there would have been. Since you followed the story, you know the importance of the overvotes. What you had with the overvotes was something in the neighborhood of 160,000 to 175,000, and most surveys said you could really retrieve 25 percent of them very clearly.
Meaning it was clear who the person was voting for.
Absolutely. So if they had been counted, and if the Democrats had shrewd lawyers — instead, they had some self-appointed corporate superstars from Ivy League law schools who were impractical — they would have gotten the overvotes in the ball game from the beginning, and they’d have won. And the other thing they missed, that was incredible to me, was the fact that the state of Florida was run by the nominee’s brother, the secretary of state in charge of the election was the Bush campaign’s co-chair. All you had to do was show collusion between these people and you had the equivalent of “state action” and you had a reason to bring in equal protection issues.
People were making those charges, but I guess your point is Gore wasn’t pressing those claims at the highest levels.
See, that’s the thing. You clearly had a potential Comstock Lode if you could link Katherine Harris to Jeb Bush, to something happening in some county election board and to messages that could be found on her computer that she got from Jeb. What you needed was somebody with stature demanding that this connection had to be examined. Gore didn’t do it, and you had the incredible idea that you pick Bill Daley to go down there — the son of the guy who stole Illinois in 1960 [legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley].
Well, the name has become synonymous with election fraud.
Yes, how do they do these things, the Democrats?
Well, what should they do now? You praised Dean for getting the anger about Iraq message, but you think it’s a good thing that he lost in Iowa.
Well, he got the issue with Iraq. But by the time everybody got onboard about the failure of Iraq, his judgment wasn’t good enough to create a new set of issues.
Do you think it’s over for Dean?
I really do. First of all, I think it’s very difficult to hold a big lead when you have it too early, unless you’re the sitting president or maybe the vice president and about to succeed.
But then the front-runner becomes John Kerry, and he’ll be savaged by the RNC and also by the media. Remember? He used to be too haughty and French-looking …
Kerry’s bought himself some respect, Edwards likewise. You could say, hey, there’s the ticket. Edwards could be good on the domestic, populist side of things and Kerry on the military side. But it’s important for them that they’ll be inoculated from cockiness by Clark coming in. Plus, I have no use for Lieberman, but he’ll be a factor in New Hampshire.
Why do you have no use for Lieberman?
He was an apologist for Iraq. And I live in Connecticut, so I know that Joe Lieberman is about as populist as the head of the Chamber of Commerce. But he can be an important factor — if he can get his 9 or 10 percent, he’ll get some delegates. Sharpton can get some black delegates, plus Dean will win some. Actually, if he doesn’t win New Hampshire, he won’t win anything.
But you think Kerry and Clark will go at each other in New Hampshire.
That’s right, so he could still win New Hampshire. We’ll see. But if Kerry and Edwards and Clark and Dean each stays a factor, and some of those other candidates get some delegates, you could keep anybody from actually getting the nomination for quite a while.
And you think that’s a good thing for the Democrats, even though they front-loaded the primaries to avoid that.
I think that’s a very good thing. See, the Republicans were hoping that somebody like Dean would emerge as the early nominee in the primaries, so they could have all the money and one target and the Democratic race dries up, and it’s hard for Dean to raise money. Or somebody like Dean, but I think the Republicans were thinking of Dean, because he’d be a wonderful advertising target. Now they’re facing a long campaign in which Democrats get excited and keep sending money to people and the Republican money advantage is lost or narrowed. Plus, they don’t have one target.
Can you imagine a deadlock scenario?
If they have a total deadlock, the best bet might be Gore, who really got a kind of rejuvenation and actually, finally, says something these days. I mean, Gore could raise the whole Florida thing.
What did you make of Gore backing Dean?
I think it was Machiavellian. You either set yourself up to inherit the Dean people and their network at some future point, or you incur a debt that can be paid in 2008, if Dean is nominated and doesn’t win in 2004. It doesn’t work if Dean is nominated and wins in 2004 — but I doubt Gore thought that.
How do you think the Democrats come back on the economy issue? It looks like the tax cut provided a short-term stimulus, at least.
Well, if it was a stimulus, it was what went to the top 1 percent of Americans, who have as much disposable income as the bottom 100 million Americans. So it was simply that by giving the top 1 percent more money, you stimulate everything from Architectural Digest to Tiffany’s, and it shows up in GDP. The fact is that it doesn’t do squat for people who go to 7-Eleven. A Democrat who was worth something could explain all this.
Virtually every review of the book I’ve read makes the point that you sound like a liberal or even a lefty. What do you make of your embrace by the left?
Well, it’s understandable. But it’s too much of a reach to say my ideology is of the left. I think it’s a combination of iconoclastic and anti-corruption, and anti the metamorphosis of the Bush family into the first American dynasty. But my book is also about the incipiency of a new Clinton dynasty if Hillary were to run in 2008, which conservatives are concerned about. We’ve got this developing in both parties.
Looking at four generations of Bushes, and all that inherited wealth and power, there’s really no comparison between the Bushes and the Clintons.
No, they’re not the same at this point. But if she were to run and win in 2008, the idea of a wife succeeding her husband is just as interesting as a son succeeding his father.
In some ways it’s more interesting, but it’s not a dynasty. You can even quibble about the use of the word “dynasty” with the Bushes, because obviously, he didn’t inherit the presidency. We did elect him.
Obviously? I’m not sure it’s obvious at all. [Laughs.]
OK, you got me. Let’s put it this way: Obviously they used the political process to get where they are, we can say that much. He didn’t just inherit it. Still, when you’ve got a family with four generations of power and wealth, it seems a stretch to compare that to a possible Clinton-to-Clinton presidency. Unless she gets in thanks to a Supreme Court justice appointed by her husband.
I think that’s true.
Can you imagine any scenario in which you vote for Bush?
It’s very difficult. I suppose if Hillary Clinton ran with Joe Lieberman on a platform of “the war was really smart, plus we want our dynasty back,” well, if they do that, they can forget me. Otherwise the odds are pretty good that I’ll go with the Democrat. I couldn’t stand to support this dynasty of deceit.
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)