"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)
Through a glass, darkly. That’s how most Americans see the character and personality of George W. Bush. The only difference is the tint: Bush’s supporters look at him through a rosy filter that makes him look like a man of moral fiber and resolve, unpretentious and commonsensical. His detractors see everything he does with a sallow brown tinge, tainted by greed, dishonesty, bellicosity, self-righteousness and ignorance. But even the most alarmist descriptions of him clash: The Bush-bashers’ Bush is either a scheming, shameless champion of the rich and powerful or their empty-headed puppet, a soulless tool of corporate power or a religious fanatic convinced he’s preparing the nation for the Second Coming. None of these versions jibes very well with the accounts of people who actually know him, and so — once you step outside the cartoon universe of pure polemics — Bush himself has never quite come into focus.
“Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President,” by Justin Frank, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center, is supposed to offer a more in-depth portrait. To say that it succeeds would be to give Frank and his publisher too much credit. This is a sloppily written and edited book, padded with repetitions and laced with dubious psychological theories. It is also — despite Frank’s avowed intention to “preserve a distinction between my personal questions about President Bush’s politics and my psychoanalytic evaluation of his character,” far too partisan a work to make any claim to being a judicious examination of Bush the man.
Nevertheless, if you can hack your way through the underbrush, “Bush on the Couch” brings together a lot of provocative information, and some genuinely enlightening hypotheses, from which the resourceful reader can assemble a portrait of Bush that accounts for his seeming contradictions. Combine it with Peter Singer’s “The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush,” a clear-headed and superbly reasoned dissection of Bush’s much-touted morality, and the forthcoming “Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents,” a comparative evaluation of Bush and his predecessors in the office, by Steven J. Rebenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer, and the portrait gains more heft.
What emerges is the image of a man shaped by rage and fear. Frank, who subscribes to the variant of psychoanalysis formulated by Melanie Klein, has his own ideas about where Bush’s anger and anxiety come from. Some of those ideas are silly and difficult to support, like the belief that newborn infants blame themselves for their expulsion from the paradise of the womb, and feel both guilt about and fear of their own destructive capabilities. Others make sense, like the probability that Bush, who surely experienced the usual sibling rivalry, felt some unconscious guilt over the death of his younger sister Robin, from leukemia, when he was 7 and she was 3.
Bush’s parents dealt with Robin’s death by squelching any expression of grief; there was no funeral and they played golf the day after she died. This, according to Frank, is a key example of the family’s approach to all such painful emotions, and the result was to distort and cripple the psyche of their firstborn son. Frank provides an elaborate description of how the healthy process of psychological “integration” is supposed to work, some of which is based on such unconvincing Kleinian theories as the “good mother” and the “bad mother.” But in general, his thesis is credible: If a child’s parents teach him that his feelings of suffering, fear, weakness and rage are so unacceptable that they can’t even be acknowledged, he is likely to spend his life projecting those feelings onto other people and punishing them for it. It’s one of the ways bullies are minted.
George W. would find plenty of opportunities to practice the art of projection as he grew up. Frank, who is always on firmest footing when he’s working from concrete biographical material, points out that from an early age, George W. Bush consistently failed in everything at which his father excelled. He got poor grades at the same schools where his father did well, and was a disaster in the same industry (oil) where his father made his fortune. His father was a varsity athlete; George W. had to settle for the cheerleading squad. His father was a torpedo plane pilot in World War II; George W. was a desultory member of the Texas Air National Guard.
Frank’s psychoanalytic training pays off in one aspect by giving him an eye for the eloquent detail. There’s George W.’s first, abortive engagement at 20, the same age at which his father married. And then there’s George W. celebrating his role in the purchasing of the Texas Rangers by printing up baseball cards with his picture on them, a pathetically transparent effort to erase the fact that “he could never be the baseball star his father was.” Even the exhaustively analyzed “Mission Accomplished” charade on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 takes on new meaning when you interpret it as a “pantomime of [George W.'s] father’s war heroism.”
Some observers have read George W.’s obsession with ousting Saddam Hussein as motivated by revenge for Saddam’s attempted assassination of his father. It could also be seen as the determination to pull off something that his father failed to achieve. But dig a little deeper and it also looks like an attempt to exorcise what must be one nasty case of Oedipal resentment. By Frank’s formula, families like the Bushes, where difficult emotions are banished, produce children who cast other people as the symbols of their own unintegrated negative urges and feelings: “I don’t want to kill my father, he does, and to prove that I’m devoid of such bad impulses, I’ll take him out.”
Of course, not everyone faced with such a nightmarish Oedipal setup as George W. Bush’s deals with it by simply playing through. Most, in fact, probably do something like what George W. himself did in his youth: act out, get in trouble and stifle the internal conflicts with booze. Bizarrely, seen in context, George W.’s drinking actually starts to look like a relatively straightforward way to confront a miserable situation, as in the notorious 1973 incident in which the 26-year-old George W., called on the carpet for driving drunk with his teenage brother, crashed through some garbage cans and called out his father to “go mano a mano right here!” Sure, it’s a messed-up way of venting, but it’s better than starting a war.
Now (ostensibly) sober, George W. toes the family line, and when he’s not letting off steam geopolitically, he uses the outlets favored by his mother, a less-discussed but probably more significant influence on his character. By most reliable accounts a truly scary piece of work, Barbara Bush is known around the Bush home by the nickname “the Enforcer.” (A family friend described her to George W. biographer Bill Minutaglio as “the one who instills fear.”) Barbara seems to be the source of George W.’s penchant for teasing, that overtly chummy but covertly hostile technique he especially likes to use on the press, who alarm and intimidate him. The animosity swirling beneath the placid surface of the Bush family keeps leaking out in little puffs of chilly spite disguised as jokes, whether it’s George W.’s cracking wise about his mother’s cooking, referring to his wife as “the lump in the bed next to me,” or telling the press that a daughter recently hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy might join the family for a Florida vacation, but “if not, she can clean her room.”
How much do these personality traits affect Bush’s performance as president? As unsavory as they are, they aren’t necessarily guarantors of a disastrous presidency. As Rebenzer and Faschingbauer point out in “Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House,” several presidents rated by biographers and historians as vindictive and domineering are also considered effective leaders, Lyndon B. Johnson being one prime example. The president whose personality assessment most closely matches George W. Bush’s is Andrew Jackson, a controversial but undeniably accomplished man, rated as “near-great” by most of the historians polled. (Native Americans, of course, would strenuously disagree.)
Jackson, however, was also rated as a particularly creative leader by the same respondents, and creativity is not a quality anyone, not even his supporters, would attribute to Bush. He’s just not that flexible or adventurous. Frank, who considers Bush to be “an intelligent person whose access to his intelligence [is] hampered by his disabilities” (he suspects attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia), comes up with several reasons for this and other behaviors that cause many to dismiss Bush as stupid. Above all, he points to the president’s rigidity. In some of the most insightful passages of “Bush on the Couch,” he suggests that Bush’s semiparalytic manner when speaking publicly, his insistence on rigorously scripting such appearances and the obviously enormous effort he puts into maintaining his focus during official occasions point to a horror of spontaneity, even if it comes in the form of a rudimentary dialogue.
While the conventional wisdom might suggest that Bush fears being unmasked as a dolt, Frank believes that Bush’s rigidity — also manifest in his ironclad daily routine — protects him from inadvertently revealing the darker emotions he’s never come to terms with. In addition to the fear of not living up to his father’s example, there’s the anger at being expected to, and the fear of the destructive power of that anger should it ever be unleashed. The primitive moral vision Bush subscribes to — in which the world is divided into the good, “freedom-loving” people of America and “evildoers” like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein — is another inflexible schema that imposes order on the internal chaos that’s always threatening to rise up and swamp him. Maintaining such control takes a considerable amount of energy, according to Frank, which may be one reason why Bush needs so much sleep and finds it so hard to concentrate.
Bush’s born-again Christianity, an anomaly in his patrician East Coast clan, serves a similar function. For Bush, faith is less about the joyful worship of God in a community of believers (as Frank points out, he seldom attends church) than it is about forcing a structure on both the world and his own life without the risks inherent in a genuine attempt to understand either one. As Frank shrewdly observes, unlike your garden variety AA member, the born-again Christian need not ever examine his pre-conversion past; it can be partitioned off and dispensed with as irrelevant, which is just what Bush has done. The rowdy George W. who drank too much and, when soused, actually owned up to his wrath at his father and his own lot in life, now no longer exists.
Unfortunately, not all of Frank’s insights are so welcome. If political commentators often resort to overly simplistic notions of character, psychoanalysts tend to overly personalize politics. Frank regards every act of the Bush administration as a direct emanation from the psyche of George W. himself. He seems unaware that a presidency is a collaboration, or that sincerity is not always a viable political option. What can you say about a book that deplores the vindictive dirty tricks the administration uses on its critics yet never once mentions the name of Karl Rove? Likewise, when a politician reneges on a campaign promise to supply funds to one downtrodden constituency or another, the motivation is much more likely to be expedience than a sadistic delight in seeing the needy disappointed. It’s unlikely that Bush personally decided to release photographs of the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, and in any case, the more plausible motive was the stated one, to forestall Iraqi rumors of a hoax, not to crow over the victory and gross out the world. A lot of what the administration does is driven by simple greed and political calculation, not complicated unconscious desires.
Psychoanalysts also have an annoying propensity to interpret every behavior that they don’t approve of as a manifestation of pathology, teeming with hidden meanings. As a result, Frank, your basic liberal, never honestly engages with the conservative ideology that Bush espouses and all the counterarguments it makes to liberal ideals of good government. The underlying premise of “Bush on the Couch” is that because Bush is a conservative, he must be suffering from “an array of multiple, serious and untreated symptoms.” Bush may indeed be gravely troubled emotionally, but that conclusion doesn’t automatically follow from his conservatism and it’s neither respectful nor adult to act as if it does.
That’s why Peter Singer’s “The President of Good and Evil” is a necessary companion to “Bush on the Couch.” Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, subjects the various moral and policy pronouncements of the president to rigorous but fair scrutiny, unveiling them as a mass of contradictions and inconsistencies. “The President of Good and Evil” is no semihysterical denunciation, and it’s more credible for that. Yet, interestingly enough, this stringently impersonal survey of Bush’s ethics conveys a sense of how Bush thinks that jibes well with “Bush on the Couch” in many areas.
Of course, there’s something slightly absurd about applying the reasoning of a philosopher to what’s essentially an instinct-based moral code. “I’m not a textbook player,” Bush told Bob Woodward, “I’m a gut player.” Still, at every point where Bush’s stated values come into conflict with his actions or other stated values, a little flash of light goes off, and what’s illuminated is a vision of life rooted in fury and terror and a need to dominate the self and others as a way of containing both. Maybe that’s one reason why George W. Bush is always talking about freedom. He’d probably like to know what it feels like.
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)