"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)
Unlike CNN’s “Crossfire,” “The Mclaughlin Group” — highly rated and closely watched during the 1980s — did not try to create the appearance of balance. The media spectrum was expanded to include the Far Right in the 1970s; yet now, a combination of the conservative biases of media executives, commercial market forces, and a ready stock of warm bodies from the subsidized right-wing message machinery was conspiring to narrow the spectrum of opinion again, only this time in reverse. Suddenly, conservatives had not only won an even berth, as on “Crossfire”; with the advent of “The McLaughlin Group,” they ruled.
At its high point, the syndicated “McLaughlin Group,” which airs on NBC and PBS affiliates nationally, had 3.5 million viewers, far more than the top-rated FOX News Channel opinion shows today. Host John McLaughlin, a former Jesuit priest, aide to Richard Nixon, and National Review alum, chose the topics, the sequencing, and his four fellow panelists. The show always pitted three or four conservatives against two or even only one liberal. Over the years, one of the liberal slots typically went to a nonideological reporter, such as the Baltimore Sun’s dyspeptic Jack Germond. Often, the “liberal” guest, usually the bumbling Morton Kondracke, then of The New Republic and now with the FOX News Channel, was booked to endorse and bestow legitimacy on conservative views.
This arrangement left Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, the sole woman panelist, who was typecast as a screechy feminist, to fend off two or even three angry, white, conservative men. Among the regular panelists, only the liberals — not the conservatives — were trained reporters. Putting Clift and Germond — rather than liberal opinion writers — up against conservative ideologues bolstered the conservative caricature of all reporters as closet liberals; at the same time, it ensured that liberals would be more restrained and nuanced in their advocacy than their opponents.
This imbalanced and exaggerated TV picture was projected, to Washington and the nation, as if it were somehow a representative microcosm of political dialogue in the country during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, leaving the indelible misimpression that conservatism was the dominant view in the country. Meanwhile, McLaughlin’s buffoonery — his exaggerated manner, his nicknames for panelists, his reduction of politics into a game show — made conservatism seem unthreatening, and even funny. From the composition and tone of “The McLaughlin Group” panels sprang the stereotype that conservatives are entertaining, while liberals are whiny and boring — another seeming advantage engineered by the Right as the values of entertainment, rather than those of journalism, were prevailing on television.
“The McLaughlin Group” also was instrumental in establishing the now-widespread practice of “buckraking,” whereby TV pundits take their show on the paid lecture circuit and for substantial fees reenact their TV roles, playing themselves before industry and trade associations looking for the Washington “inside scoop” or after-dinner levity. Buckraking added a powerful financial incentive for pundits to “stay in character” on television and for aspiring pundits to adopt a marketable style. Belligerent, cocksure conservatives, with liberals as their compliant whipping boys, seemed the meal ticket for both sides. Often, entire panels from shows like “McLaughlin” and CNN’s “Capital Gang” go on the road, raking in tens of thousands of dollars apiece. Conservative TV pundits like George Will have taken huge fees speaking before industry groups about which they opine; the corporate market for left-wing pundits is not lucrative.
“The McLaughlin Group” plucked John McLaughlin from his relatively obscure post as National Review “Washington editor” — where, according to The New Republic, he employed ghostwriters to write under his byline — and made him one of the most influential media voices in the 1980s. When it began, the show was underwritten by the Edison Electric Institute, a front for the electric power industry with close ties to the GOP. The institute has been a client of Grover Norquist, who, in addition to his leadership of the conservative movement, has dabbled in lobbying on the side. McLaughlin had hoped to launch a conservative-slanted talk show since the mid-1970s, after raising his profile in TV appearances defending the Nixon administration and hosting a local Washington talk show with Robert Novak. He took money from a former Nixon aide to explore the idea.
In 1986, when General Electric bought NBC’s parent company, RCA, GE announced that it would become the show’s exclusive sponsor and pumped cash into promoting it nationally. The deal was struck following a meeting between McLaughlin and GE chairman Jack Welch, convened at McLaughlin’s request by President Ronald Reagan. McLaughlin already had been promoted by NBC with appearances on “Meet the Press” in the early 1980s; McLaughlin’s then-wife, Ann, was a high-level Reagan official; and Reagan himself was a fan of “The McLaughlin Group.” Reagan also had a relationship with GE, dating back to his stint as host of television’s “General Electric Theatre” in the 1950s. According to media critic Ben Bagdikian, GE had “launched Ronald Reagan as a national political spokesman by paying him to make nationwide public speeches against Communism, labor unions, Social Security, public housing, the income tax, and to augment the corporation’s support of right-wing political movements.”
Thirty years later, GE’s agenda hadn’t much changed. Known as “Neutron Jack” for his hard-charging management style, Welch, who headed GE until his retirement in 2002, was a conservative Republican; like Ted Turner’s early influence at CNN, Welch’s role in promoting McLaughlin was an example of how the Right was able to steer the political debate with the approval of top-ranked media executives. McLaughlin expanded his visibility with the GE-sponsored “One on One” syndicated interview show, and he was given a third show on CNBC when that cable network was established by GE in the 1990s. Welch used his influence over “The McLaughlin Group” to promote commentators whom he saw as up-and-coming talent, such as Reagan economics adviser Lawrence Kudlow, “economics editor” of National Review, member of the right-wing Club for Growth, and “fellow” of Newt Gingrich’s Progress and Freedom Foundation. Kudlow now has his own CNBC show, on which he was forced to apologize on air for insulting a government witness in the Martha Stewart case as “limp-wristed.”
GE funneled financial support directly into the right-wing message machinery. The company gave money to William Simon and Irving Kristol’s Institute for Educational Affairs, which funded the racist, sexist, homophobic right-wing campus newspapers; to C. Boyden Gray’s Citizens for a Sound Economy; and to the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In a 2002 interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball” with Chris Matthews (who got his start on television with guest appearances on The McLaughlin Group), Welch spoke openly about his political views. “And this guy came in named Ronald Reagan that they all thought was stupid and he had a pretty simple thesis and you can disagree with some of his policies or other things, but this guy got American back on track. And the country thrived …” Welch endorsed George W. Bush’s proposals for “tort reform” and for ending taxation on stock dividends, an idea heavily promoted by Kudlow on CNBC’s “Kudlow and Cramer” before the Bush administration adopted it. Welch has conceded that on Election Night 2000 — when a critical call had to be made by network officials about who had won — he was in the NBC News Control Room, one of “two or three of us cheering for George Bush.” He labeled as “crazy” unconfirmed stories that he had said, “What would I have to give you to call the race for Bush?” NBC subsequently refused to release to congressional investigators a videotape of what went on in the room. NBC followed the FOX News Channel in calling the race, wrongly, for Bush.
In the Reagan years, “The McLaughlin Group” was the new normal. Twenty years later, it would be normal up and down the cable dial. The right wing was on call 24/7, while bona fide liberals were an endangered species. Syndicated columnist and former Moral Majority official Cal Thomas got his own show on FOX, while AEI’s Ben Wattenberg got a PBS series. Until recently, the Wall Street Journal editorial board had its own hour-long weekly show on CNBC. The Journal’s Peggy Noonan and John Fund are regulars on the GE-owned MSNBC cable network. Alone among the nation’s editorial page editors, Tony Blankley of the Washington Times is a highly visible TV pundit, with a permanent berth on “The McLaughlin Group.” Time’s right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer, who has not published a book, is a fixture on FOX News and “Inside Washington,” the D.C.-based political affairs show. Time’s left-liberal columnist Barbara Ehrenreich, a runaway best-selling author, is invisible.
GE launched CNBC in 1989. In 1991, GE made a fateful hire that shifted the entire cable news industry dramatically to the right: Republican operative Roger Ailes became president of CNBC.
Ailes entered politics working for Richard Nixon, showing the campaign how to present paid political events so that they would appear to be news, in order to manipulate public opinion about the candidate. A false warm-and-fuzzy Nixon was sold by Ailes like a “car or a can of peas,” as Joe McGinniss put it in “The Selling of the President, 1968.” Ailes’s father was an Ohio factory foreman who complained of being talked down to by corporate executives at the plant. Ailes shared with Nixon contempt for “elites” and a knack for speaking to the racial prejudices of certain lower-class white men. Discussing the addition of a panelist to a staged Nixon “Man in the Arena” forum, Ailes said: “You know what I’d like? As long as we’ve got this extra spot open. A good, mean Wallace-ite cab driver. Wouldn’t that be great? Some guy to sit there and say, ‘Awright, mac, what about these niggers?’”
Ailes, who met Nixon while working as the producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” went to work at the Nixon White House; but his relationship with the president’s inner circle soon cooled, and Watergate dealt his career a further setback. Over the next few years, Ailes, a fine arts major who worked his way through Ohio University as a radio disc jockey, toiled in the political wilderness as a speech coach for business executives and moonlighted as an off-Broadway producer. He ran a few political races in the late 1970s before returning to television in 1981 as executive producer of Tom Snyder’s hugely successful “Tomorrow: Coast to Coast.” When Ailes took the show down-market, ratings plummeted. In 1982, the show was replaced by “Late Night With David Letterman”; once one of NBC’s biggest stars, Snyder never fully recovered. Ailes was more resilient.
By 1981, the Reagan revolution had dawned, and Ailes’s ability to craft appeals to Nixon’s disaffected cultural conservatives was to prove invaluable. Working with his second wife, Norma, a TV producer, Ailes rose to become the country’s preeminent GOP political consultant. He spoke the language of the so-called Reagan Democrats: the construction workers and housewives featured in his widely imitated ads.
Still, he was never truly a Reagan insider, and it was not until George H.W. Bush came along that Ailes finally found his horse. His relationship with Bush was cemented after he helped the vice president turn the tables in an interview about the Iran-contra affair with CBS anchor Dan Rather. Ailes prepped Bush to equate his misdoings in the scandal with a temper tantrum that the voluble Rather had once thrown on the CBS set. “Dan Rather is the most biased reporter in the history of broadcasting,” Ailes exclaimed after the interview.
Under the direction of Ailes and the late Lee Atwater, the Bush campaign questioned Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis’s patriotism, tarred him as an unfit commander in chief, and portrayed him as soft on crime. Though he claimed he had nothing to do with it, Ailes was burned in a controversy over an advertisement produced by an independent pro-Bush group that featured convicted African American murderer Willie Horton, who had committed rape after escaping from a weekend furlough program while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts. According to Time magazine, Ailes said at the time, “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife or without one.” Atwater said that Ailes had “two settings: attack and destroy,” yet Ailes had the temerity to call Dukakis “the dirtiest campaigner in America.”
As a result of the ugly race-baiting campaign, Ailes himself became an infamous figure; his future clients, notably Rudy Giuliani in New York City, suffered a string of defeats. Frozen out of the 1992 Bush campaign, Ailes renounced his political career and announced a return to television.
One evening a few months previous, Ailes had run into Rush Limbaugh at the posh Manhattan restaurant 21. Limbaugh’s radio show had established him as a political powerhouse, and Ailes convinced Limbaugh that a syndicated TV show was the obvious progression. Ailes became executive producer of Limbaugh’s late-night syndicated talk show. Yet once he left the segmented medium of radio, Limbaugh failed to attract a large broadcast TV audience. Something about Limbaugh did not easily translate to mainstream TV viewers or advertisers, and he eventually quit the show. In the meantime, Ailes — who had nursed resentments against the press in twenty years of dishonest political warfare — became a cable network news executive.
In the early 1990s, NBC president Bob Wright was looking for someone to take over CNBC. A friend recommended Ailes, who promptly flew to Nantucket and convinced Jack Welch that he was just the programmer NBC was looking for. Even as NBC executives offered assurances that Ailes had left politics for good, Ailes’s NBC deal allowed him to remain affiliated with the floundering Limbaugh broadcast. While serving as both CNBC’s president and Limbaugh’s producer, Ailes went on Don Imus’s radio show to promote Limbaugh’s reports of a “suicide cover-up, possibly murder,” in the death of White House counsel Vincent Foster. “The guy who’s been doing an excellent job for the New York Post [Christopher Ruddy]…for the first time on the Rush Limbaugh show said that…he did not believe it was suicide…. Now, I don’t have any evidence…. These people are very good at hiding or destroying evidence.”
Politics aside, Ailes was a talented marketer and had a keen sense of production values. In just two years at CNBC, he helped transform it from a ragtag network into the number one financial news network in the United States. During his tenure, ad sales doubled, ratings tripled, and the asset value of the channel soared from about $400 million to more than $1 billion.
While the core of CNBC was business news, NBC’s cable outlets fueled the proliferation of political talk television. Working within the confines of a mainstream cable network, Ailes seemed to resist his blunt right-wing instincts in favor of a broad political mix. Added to the roster of cable hosts that included Tom Snyder, Dick Cavett, and John McLaughlin were former Bush campaign aide Mary Matalin, former Clinton aide Dee Dee Myers, Cal Thomas, tabloid showman Geraldo Rivera, liberal actor Charles Grodin, and Ailes himself.
Yet Ailes’s attraction to entertainment and partisan opinion — often uninformed and irresponsible opinion — over hard news and information had a subtly subversive political impact. In the late 1970s, the only Washington chat shows on the air were the traditional network Sunday morning shows and PBS’s sober pair of journalism roundtables, “Agronsky & Company” and “Washington Week in Review.” In the 1980s came “The McLaughlin Group,” “Crossfire,” and “The Capital Gang.” Now came a second generation of McLaughlin knockoffs as more cable channels sprung up. As Edith Efron predicted in “The News Twisters,” if the spectrum could be expanded to equate professional journalists and Far Right ideological polemicists, if standards of discourse could be altered, if objectivity was no longer prized, if consensus could be destroyed as everything in politics was made into a “he said/she said” standoff, then the right wing would win critical political inroads.
“Confining myself to ‘McLaughlin’-like shows and ‘Capital Gang’-like shows, every single one of them, if it disappeared tomorrow, journalism would be better off,” the writer and editor James Fallows told the American Journalism Review in 1995. Fallows bemoaned the substitution of news for opinion and of solid analysis for pithy sound bites and prognostications: “The world would be better off. Government would be better off. The only people who would be worse off are the actual members of the shows.”
While turning CNBC around, Ailes’s real interest was creating a new cable channel that he vowed would become the next MTV or ESPN. The new channel was christened America’s Talking, and it was designed to reflect Ailes’s “homespun woman-by-the-hearth, man-baling-hay Midwestern rugged individualism,” according to one former producer. The shows, which Ailes created, included “Bugged!,” in which a film crew conducted man-on-the-street interviews to uncover what was “bugging” Americans; “Pork,” a call-in show about government waste and fraud; and “Am I Nuts?” on which therapists dispensed advice. None of these corny entries succeeded. The only legacy bequeathed by America’s Talking was Chris Matthews, a former Democratic political aide whom Ailes had chosen to coanchor a prime-time political gabfest.
Within NBC, it was not Ailes’s politics but, rather, his temperament that rankled. Ailes’s bond with Nixon had been instant and deep. As his colleagues described him, Ailes was paranoid and quick to abuse his power to punish perceived enemies, whom he belittled mercilessly. In late 1995, when GE was close to a deal with Microsoft to launch MSNBC, using the subscriber base of the defunct America’s Talking channel, a power struggle broke out within the senior ranks of the company. “Let’s kill the SOB!” Ailes exhorted his loyalists in discussing their approach toward a corporate competitor.
In a management reshuffling, Ailes in effect lost operational control of CNBC; when MSNBC was unveiled one month later, Ailes was given no role. Within a few weeks, he resigned. A few days after that, Ailes was appointed by Rupert Murdoch to head a new cable channel to compete with both CNN and MSNBC. It would be called the FOX News Channel.
Excerpted with permission from “The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy” by David Brock. Published by Crown Books.
David Brock's latest book is "The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy." He is also the author of "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative.More David Brock.
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)