"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)
The story keeps changing. And regardless of what the White House says about George W. Bush and his time in the Texas Air National Guard, journalists tend to accept the explanation. I can’t. The president of the United States is lying to hide his behavior while he was a young pilot during the Vietnam War, and he has almost taken away reporters’ ability to get the whole story. Unfortunately, the national media have other distractions, and they apparently don’t think the Guard story is important enough to warrant additional effort. I think they are wrong.
The president’s behavior while under oath to serve in the military is an important matter. By George W. Bush’s own admission, there were at least eight months in 1972 when he was not performing assigned Guard duty. What if today’s Guard members behaved as irresponsibly as Bush did during his hitch? Where would our war on terrorism be if they all acted as capriciously as he did and they took off to go do something else while they were still under oath to serve? That’s what the records prove George W. Bush did. Aren’t there young Americans in Iraq, who have been called to active duty in a war zone, who would rather be in Alabama?
The president and his staff are doing a very good job of convincing the public he has released all of his National Guard records and that they prove he was responsible during his time in Alabama and Texas. But the critical documents have still not been seen. The mandatory written report about Bush’s grounding is mysteriously not in the released file, nor is any other disciplinary evidence. A document showing a “roll-up,” or the accumulation of his total retirement points, is also absent, and so are his actual pay stubs. If the president truly wanted to end the conjecture about his time in the Guard, he would allow an examination of his pay stubs and any IRS W-2 forms from his Guard years. These can be pieced together to determine when he was paid and whether he earned enough to have met his sworn obligations.
The narrative trail of the president’s time in the Guard isn’t easy to follow, and I have been pursuing it since Bush ran for governor of Texas in 1994. When he began planning his race for the presidency, a few journalists filed Freedom of Information requests for Bush’s retained records at the Texas National Guard Headquarters at Camp Mabry in Austin. The file they received contained 160 pages. Dan Bartlett, now the White House communications director, who was working for the campaign at that time, said that represented the entirety of the record. However, when the Bush administration provided White House reporters with the “complete” file in the dead-news zone of a Friday night in early February, there were about 400 pages. Two hundred forty pages, unavailable to us during the presidential campaign, had suddenly been discovered. Nonetheless, the most important documents were still missing. Reporters just didn’t know what was absent.
In April of 1972, the young lieutenant made a unilateral decision that he was no longer going to fly. Although he had taken an oath to serve for six years in his privileged position in the Texas Air Guard, George W. Bush left for Alabama two years before his hitch was up. Taxpayers had spent close to a million dollars training him to fly a fighter jet, but he was intent on working in a U.S. senate campaign. Bush’s Guard file shows that he did not request a transfer until a few months later, and it was turned down. Bush, who was due to report to his Houston air base for a physical on or before his July 6 birthday, failed to return from Alabama. He was subsequently grounded on orders from Maj. Gen. Francis Greenlief. And this is where the mystery begins.
Taking away a pilot’s wings was not a minor decision. During the course of investigating this matter over the past decade, I was told by numerous Guard sources that pilots simply did not skip their physicals for any reason. Bush may have thought this was a good strategy for getting out of his obligation to the Guard. However, there had to be an investigation into his grounding. Normally, a formal board of inquiry would have been convened to examine the pilot’s failure to keep his physical status current. At a minimum, a commanding officer would have been expected to write a narrative report on why one of his pilots had been taken off the flight duty roster. Either that report, or the findings of the board of inquiry, would then be sent to the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver and to the Texas Guard headquarters in Austin. A pilot simply did not walk away from all of that training with two years remaining on his tour of duty without a formal explanation as to what happened and why. This narrative report is the document the public has never seen and the Bush White House is unlikely to ever release. Disciplinary action taken against Bush ought to be a part of his personnel record. No such files have ever been disclosed.
When the Bush campaign began pressuring Sen. John Kerry to release his complete military file, Bartlett spoke as though Bush were occupying the moral high ground on the issue. “The president made a pledge before the American people, and he made his complete file available to the media and the public,” Bartlett told the Boston Globe. “They were able to review all of his medical records.” Bartlett, who acted as liaison between Gov. Bush’s administration and the Texas Guard, has insisted all of the president’s service points documents, performance sheets, and any existing records have been made public. This is, of course, patently not true. There is nothing that offers a report of disciplinary action against the young pilot, nor has anyone seen pay stubs or a total retirement-points sheet.
And there are simple explanations as to why those documents disappeared. If the materials were ever provided to reporters, it would be an uncomplicated exercise to determine whether Bush served enough time to have met his legal obligation. We would also learn if his grounding was a product of inappropriate behavior for an officer, and if, in fact, the rumors of excessive use of alcohol and drugs played a role in his loss of flight status.
Unlike lawyers, journalists pay little attention to concepts like chain of custody for evidence. In the case of the president’s Guard records, whoever possessed them and had the motive and opportunity to clean them up is a critical question. When Bush left the Guard about a half year early to attend Harvard Business School, his hard-copy record was retained in a military personnel records jacket at the Austin offices of the Texas Guard. Eventually, those documents were committed to microfiche. A copy of the microfiche was then sent to the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Those records are considered private, and they cannot be released to anyone without the signature of the serviceman or woman. The White House has never indicated that Bush has signed the authorization form. And this is what prompts unending suspicion.
The documents given to Washington reporters were printed from one of those two microfiches. According to two separate sources within the Guard who saw the printout and spoke with me, the microfiche was shipped to the office of Maj. Gen. Danny James, commander of the Air National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va. James’ staff printed out all of the documents on the film and then, according to those same sources, James vetted the material. Subsequent to being scrutinized by James (who commanded the Texas Guard and was promoted to Washington by Bush,) the records were then sent to the White House for further scrutiny prior to release to the news media.
This is a considerably different process from what was practiced by Sen. John McCain during the 2000 presidential campaign. McCain, who spent several years in solitary confinement during the Vietnam War, was the target of a whispering campaign during the South Carolina primary. Political reporters, who suspected the story originated with Bush political strategist Karl Rove, were being told by third parties that McCain had mental problems that made him a presidential risk. McCain signed a release form, and his entire record, a stack of papers more than a foot tall, was made available to reporters without being vetted by the campaign. The allegations about his mental health died shortly after McCain authorized full disclosure.
The Bush administration is playing semantic games with the public regarding the president’s Guard files. While Bartlett insists they have been released, there is no proof that Bush has even signed a release-authorization form. The limited release of those 400 pages may have been over his signature. However, the White House is clearly deciding what papers to share and what to keep private. No one has ever seen proof that the president did sign the necessary release forms, and officials at the Denver and St. Louis records centers are no longer commenting. If the president did write his name on the necessary forms, why not share that with the public? It would be a positive indication that he was in favor of the flow of information about his Guard years, and it could be expected to have a positive political effect.
Even if Bush had cleared the public viewing of his entire file, he ought not to have shipped it to James for printing and examination. According to Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, who was a strategic planning officer for the Texas National Guard during Bush’s gubernatorial administration, James ordered a cleanup of the Bush Guard files in 1997. Burkett said he was waiting outside James’ office when he heard a speakerphone conversation between the commander of the Texas Guard and Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s chief of staff in Texas. Recounting the conversation, Burkett said he heard Allbaugh tell James to “clean up the governor’s files and remove any embarrassments in case he wants to run for reelection or something higher.”
“Karen [Hughes] and Danny [Bartlett] are going to be coming out to take a look at this file,” Allbaugh said. “They’re going to write a book.”
In a telephone conversation with me late last year, James denied the conversation ever occurred. Burkett, nonetheless, said James repeated the orders the next morning around the coffee machine while Burkett, James and two other officers were having a conversation. I leaked Burkett’s story to the national media shortly after filmmaker Michael Moore described the president as a “deserter” and set off a furor. White House reporters suddenly began asking questions and the Bush administration was compelled to respond. Allbaugh went on NBC News with correspondent Norah O’Donnell and called Burkett “some goober from West Texas.”
But Burkett’s story fits with what we know.
About 10 days after he overheard the conversation, Burkett said he was led to the museum on Camp Mabry by an old friend, Chief Warrant Officer George Conn. According to Burkett, he and Conn came upon Gen. John Scribner, who was standing next to a 10-gallon gun-metal-gray wastebasket. Scribner had the military personnel records jacket of George W. Bush open in front of him and was sorting through papers it contained.
“What are you doing?” Conn is said to have asked.
“Just going through this,” Burkett recalled Scribner answering. “It looks like they are going to have to reconstruct this out of Denver.”
In Burkett’s recollection of this meeting, Conn took Scribner aside to talk and Burkett went through papers that had been placed in the trash. He said he saw critical documents, such as retirement and cumulative-points records, being discarded. He was unable to determine if the report on Bush’s grounding was in the trash.
Scribner, who is now retired, refused to take questions from me. However, when the story broke nationally, he denied the incident.
“I have no memory of anything like that taking place,” he said.
Burkett, though, had already taken up his claims about the Bush file cleansing in official channels, and there was earlier evidence to corroborate his claims. He had written a letter to Texas State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, and, in testimony before legislators, spoke of numerous irregularities in the Texas National Guard. But no one wanted to hear it. The hometown boy, George W. Bush, was running for president, and everyone was getting on the bus.
A few years later, Dave Moniz of USA Today spoke with Burkett about allegations that the lieutenant colonel had witnessed a senior official at the Guard removing documents from Bush’s military personnel records jacket. Burkett again said the papers bearing Bush’s name were being dropped into a wastebasket. Conn, in interviews with Moniz, confirmed Burkett’s description of events for the paper. For whatever reason, Moniz’s editors chose not to run the story.
The key to proving Burkett’s allegations was Conn. I contacted him in Europe via e-mail. He was nonresponsive to my inquiries. Conn did, however, offer a character reference on Burkett to Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times, which described Burkett as truthful and honorable. Conn wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Harvey Gough, another Texas Guard officer, recalled being told about the Bush file incident by Burkett right after it happened, and several others within the Guard attested to Burkett’s integrity. Conn, in fact, had stuck by Burkett throughout his Texas senate testimony on Guard malfeasance, in his letter to the state senator, and while serving as a source for USA Today’s eventual report. In seven years, Burkett’s story has never changed. The only thing new is Conn’s failure to support his friend. Why?
Conn is a civilian employee of the U.S. Army in Germany. The White House can pull any number of levers to influence his comments. Conn, undoubtedly, had reason to worry about his employment if he stuck by Burkett. Burkett, however, understands what he is confronting. He still considers Conn a friend. “But I can’t expect him to give up his life for me over this,” Burkett told me.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Conn said Burkett’s memory was inaccurate and no such encounter had ever happened. Reporter Michael Rezendes failed to explore why Conn may have decided not to back up Burkett. In a half hour conversation with me, Rezendes ended up using one terse quote in his piece where I described the standoff as a classic “he said, she said.” He did not tell his readers all of the people I interviewed about Burkett’s claims. Rezendes’ piece was ultimately posted on the Bush/Cheney campaign Web site because it did such an effective job of discrediting Burkett.
A writer’s job includes connecting the pieces. I told Rezendes that a combination of facts made Burkett’s story believable. Reporters had discovered there were documents missing from the Bush file in Austin. Combine that fact with Karl Rove’s history of deceptive political tactics, Burkett’s impeccable reputation as an officer and a man, and his story is worth telling, even after Conn withdrew his affirmation of events. The information speaks for itself, and rather loudly. Burkett is in poor health, living on the edge of the desert in West Texas, and trying to enjoy his retirement after 28 years of service in the National Guard. His wife was an organizer in the state for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Burkett is uncomfortable on camera, and, as a result of a virus contracted while on duty in Panama, is subject to physical collapse. This is hardly the profile of a man who would choose to make up a story and take on the White House.
Burkett’s story about the manipulation of Bush’s “retained record” has never changed nor has he ever wavered in its retelling. And the “retained record” of Bush’s time in the Texas National Guard is what reporters were using to write their first stories on the presidential candidate. If it had been cleaned up, as Burkett alleged, the only place to find the complete file would be on the microfiche. This is undoubtedly why the president has not simply ordered the entire file printed out and released without restriction to news media outlets. The paper records, which may explain the grounding and prove the president did not serve sufficient time to meet his legal obligation to the Guard, have likely been removed from the Austin files. But the microfiche has the whole truth, and that’s why its dissemination is being controlled.
The irony in all of this is that I am largely responsible for reducing access to those records. During the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race between Ann Richards and George W. Bush, I was a panelist on the only televised debate between the two candidates. The question I chose to ask Bush first was about the National Guard. I had lost friends in Vietnam, and many of them had tried to get into the Guard. We were all told that there was a waiting list of up to five years. The Guard was the best method for getting out of combat in Vietnam. You needed connections. George W. Bush had them.
“Mr. Bush,” I said. “How did you get into the Guard so easily? One hundred thousand guys our age were on the waiting list, and you say you walked in and signed up to become a pilot. Did your congressman father exercise any influence on your behalf?”
“Not that I know of, Jim,” the future president told me. “I certainly didn’t ask for any. And I’m sure my father didn’t either. They just had an opening for a pilot and I was there at the right time.”
Maybe. But it’s more likely he was there at the right time with the right name. Col. Buck Staudt, who ran the air wing in which Bush served, had filled his “champagne unit” with the politically connected and wealthy. The sons of U.S. Sens. Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower of Texas were in that unit, along with the son of Texas Gov. John Connally and the two sons of Sidney Adger, George H.W. Bush’s closest friend in Houston. I should have let that speak for itself.
“As soon as you asked that question,” one Guard officer told me, “they went about the business of building their alternative story. They contacted all of Bush’s commanders and friends from that time to make sure they would all stand by Bush.”
And, undoubtedly, Rove and company went to work on cleaning up the files. The stonewalling on this is still succeeding. Reporters calling the National Guard offices in Arlington and the Pentagon are being told the staff is no longer authorized to speak about the president and his time in the Guard. One national reporter, who is still trying to get to the bottom of the controversy, told me the White House said they were not going to talk about the Guard matter any further.
And, sadly, the questions have stopped.
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)