"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)
For David Bossie, professional Clinton-era agitator and renowned Republican dirty trickster, these must seem like the good old days. During the 1990s Bossie, as a grass-roots activist and congressional staffer, was often at the epicenter of churning out stories about President Clinton, deftly feeding the press and Capitol Hill investigators outlandish — and usually unsubstantiated — assertions about White House wrongdoing. Once Clinton left the national stage, Bossie, a political hit man by trade, seemed adrift professionally.
But with the emergence of a new political campaign and a new Democratic presidential candidate, Bossie has returned to his partisan groove. This week sees the publication of his quickie attack biography, “The Many Faces of John Kerry,” which is sure to garner him cable-TV face time during and after next week’s Democratic Convention, as bookers seek out Kerry critics to liven up their coverage. This product comes on the heels of Bossie’s May release, “Intelligence Failure: How Clinton’s National Security Policy Set the Stage for 9/11,” in which Bossie reinvents himself as a national security expert and blames Clinton (of course) for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In June, Bossie hit a publicity — and presumably fundraising — geyser when the archconservative Citizens United group, of which he is president, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, insisting that TV ads for Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” if aired after July 31, would violate new campaign finance laws because they double as political advertising. The FEC has not ruled on the matter, but the complaint itself once again thrust Bossie into the media limelight.
Topping off Bossie’s comeback was the recent release of Clinton’s memoir, “My Life.” Not only did that publishing phenomenon give Bossie yet more opportunities to spout off against Clinton in the media, including an anti-Clinton attack ad broadcast during the former president’s “60 Minutes” interview, but the book also solidified the unusual status Bossie had achieved. Anyone who gave Clinton’s hefty book the Washington read (that is, a quick skim of the index pages) quickly discovered that Clinton made several mentions of Bossie.
“How often does a president know the name of a Hill staffer?” asks Glenn Ivey, who battled Bossie during the congressional Whitewater investigation. Ivey served as Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes’ counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, while Bossie worked behind the scenes as a staffer for congressional Republicans. “That’s a strong statement as to the level, the profile, Bossie has developed.”
Ivey rarely, if ever, agreed with the relentlessly partisan Bossie during the investigation. Yet he did see something he admired: “I respected the energy David brought to the enterprise. He was their driving force.” One of Ivey’s former congressional colleagues, who was also immersed in the perpetual Whitewater investigation, is less generous, recalling Bossie as “a lunatic.”
Bossie’s style during the investigation was to lob scattershot allegations toward an appreciative press corps that rarely seemed upset when the charges he gave them to amplify — that Whitewater was a criminal enterprise, for instance — failed to pan out as factual. As Democratic strategist James Carville once put it, “He made collective fools out of about 80 percent of the national press corps.” But none of this appears to have marred Bossie’s reputation with reporters, even when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich — no stranger to hardball partisan politics — reportedly ordered Bossie fired from his congressional staff position in May 1998. Bossie had overseen the bungled release of supposedly incriminating recordings of Whitewater figure Webster Hubbell’s jailhouse phone conversations about Hillary Rodham Clinton — recordings that had been edited, deleting obvious exculpatory remarks.
Now some critics wonder how a political prankster like Bossie has managed to maintain respectability in Washington, particularly among the press. A Nexis search retrieves more than 100 press references to Bossie this year, with MSNBC proving to be especially accommodating toward him. “Pat Moynihan had that wonderful phrase about defining deviancy downward. Now we’re defining credibility downward if we take David Bossie seriously,” says former Clinton aide Paul Begala. “There are a lot of credible critics of Democrats. David Bossie is not one of them.”
“We’ve evolved into celebrity journalists. We judge them by Hollywood standards; if you’re big enough, it doesn’t matter why or how you got big in the first place,” says Gene Lyons, coauthor with Joe Conason of “The Hunting of the President,” which details many of Bossie’s misadventures. “Now the same is true with political operatives. The fact that Bossie’s name is known and he’s achieved a certain celebrity status trumps the fact that he achieved that celebrity status by making shit up and twisting evidence to vilify Democratic politicians. He’s a modern-day Donald Segretti,” says Lyons, referring to the young Republican attorney hired by Richard Nixon’s 1968 election team to sabotage Democratic campaign events — “rat fucking” is what Segretti and his buddies called the tactic.
Bossie, through his spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story. So did Citizens United’s founder, Floyd Brown.
Bossie joined Citizens United in 1992 as its director of political affairs, which he quickly transformed into a full-time job of hounding the Clintons. The group was essentially a two-man operation. Four years earlier Citizens United had produced the infamous race-baiting Willie Horton ad. “That spot was, is, will ever after be a nightmare,” GOP strategist Mary Matalin once told the Chicago Tribune.
In fact, in 1992, Bush’s father condemned Bossie and Brown’s gutter practices, telling reporters: “We will do whatever we can to stop any filthy campaign tactics.” During that same campaign, George W. Bush, on his father’s behalf, even sent out a letter to 85,000 Republican contributors encouraging them not to contribute to Brown and Bossie’s effort.
“What does the RNC [Republican National Committee] say about Bossie today?” wonders Begala. Terry Holt, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection campaign, did not return calls seeking comment regarding Bossie, whose group bankrolled an anti-Kerry ad earlier this year.
The press has also been hesitant to discuss, or dissect, Bossie’s current role. For instance, during the controversy surrounding the release of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” many news outlets, including the New York Times in a June 27 article, simply identified Bossie as the president of Citizens United. But the Times is well acquainted with Bossie’s modus operandi; he has boasted about feeding information to its reporters, especially Jeff Gerth, every step of the way in their ill-advised, and since discredited, Whitewater investigation. “We have worked closer [on Whitewater] with the New York Times than the Washington Times,” Bossie’s colleague Brown once bragged to the Columbia Journalism Review.
And as the Washington Times noted, Bossie made a deal to leak the Senate Whitewater Committee’s final report to the New York Times. Yet years later, when Bossie reemerges in the news as a critic of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” to unsuspecting Times readers he’s described simply as another grass-roots Republican activist.
“At the very least, you’d expect viewers and readers to learn Bossie was fired for doctoring tapes,” says David Brock, the president and CEO of Media Matters for America, a liberal online research and monitoring organization. “That doesn’t seem like the type of person whose words are worth much.”
“As a principle I’d agree readers ought to know where particular sources are coming from,” says Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, who has dealt with Bossie for many years. “On the other hand, I don’t think David Bossie makes any secret about what his agenda is and where he’s coming from.”
In the past, reporters who fed off Bossie’s wayward leaks were reluctant to shed light on his ability to engineer stories behind the scenes. In the early 1990s, the press printed and broadcast verbatim the Whitewater allegations being leveled by Citizens United and its ready-made press packets. Yet reporters rarely made public the source of their Whitewater leads. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted at the time, the press “has shamelessly taken the hand-outs dished up by a highly partisan organization without identifying the group as the source of their information.”
“There’s no doubt journalists have been compromised by [Bossie],” says Begala. “Once [they] make a commitment to somebody like that, they stick with him through thick and thin.”
Adds Ivey: “If you look at how the press covered Bossie’s ethical lapses and compare it with how they covered ethical issues raised about the Clinton administration, he really got kid gloves — because reporters were the ones he had been feeding information to.”
Bossie has generated unusual loyalty from some in the press corps. “Dave Bossie has never lied to me, and the Clinton White House has lied to me,” ABC News producer Chris Vlasto notoriously told the Washington Post in one of its several Bossie profiles in the 1990s. Vlasto, who did not return a call for comment for this story, made that statement in 1997, five years after the accusations about Whitewater were first raised and two years after the Clintons were exonerated by the Resolution Trust Corp., whose conclusions were confirmed by every subsequent official investigation. “On this record,” the RTC reported, “there is no basis to charge the Clintons with any kind of primary liability for fraud or intentional misconduct … It is recommended no further resources need be expended on the Whitewater part of this investigation.” Yet those reporters who subsisted on Bossie’s handouts, including some at the New York Times, the Washington Post and ABC News, did not report the RTC’s vindication of the Clintons. ABC’s Vlasto, who had invested mightily in the Whitewater story, insisted in ’97, “If it comes down to a question of whom do you believe, I’d believe Bossie any day.”
Reporters weren’t the only ones who paid a price for cozying up to Bossie. During the 1990s he worked most closely with four members of Congress investigating Whitewater and other Clinton-related matters: Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C.; Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y.; Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.; and Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa. Bossie served as Faircloth’s personal aide on the Senate Whitewater Committee and later as Burton’s chief investigator on the Government Reform Committee. He was also a key source of Whitewater allegations for Leach’s press spokesman, Joe Pinder, and personally funneled information to D’Amato. None of these four politicians survived their reliance on Bossie with their political reputations unblemished, and two — Faircloth and D’Amato — were voted out of office in 1998.
The truth is that Democrats saw Bossie as something of an insurance policy during Whitewater and subsequent Clinton hearings, because with him onboard the inquiries would never be taken completely seriously. After all, it was reportedly Bossie who urged Burton to reenact the death of former White House deputy counsel Vince Foster by shooting bullets into a melon in the backyard of the congressman’s Indiana home.
Bossie’s habit of shooting himself in the foot, or at least his political allies’ feet, persists to this day. Despite his prediction on the eve of its release that “Fahrenheit 9/11″ would “go nowhere,” the movie became the most successful documentary ever made and is likely to be one of the summer season’s most profitable films. Of the movie’s historic $24 million take during its first weekend in theaters, one could argue that some large portion may be the result of Bossie’s publicity campaign against it, which in many news accounts was rendered in the shorthand “Group tries to censor anti-Bush movie.” Moore has promised to send Bossie a holiday card later this year to express his gratitude for Bossie’s help in creating a bonanza for the film.
Bossie stands in a long and dubious tradition of political attack hacks whose hyperaggressive tactics frequently lead them to step over the line of fair play. On the media side, the granddaddy of the GOP hit men, credited with creating the modern attack ad, is Alex Castellanos, who is now producing commercials for the Bush-Cheney campaign. In 2000, for instance, Castellanos embarrassed the Bush campaign when someone discovered that an attack ad he had produced flashed the word “rats” on the screen for a split second. Castellanos denied using subliminal advertising, but put on the defensive, Bush had to yank the spot.
Bossie has engaged in such questionable or downright slimy tactics on many occasions. Here are some of his more famous misses:
The breaking point came in May 1998, when Bossie, then 32, oversaw the release of the doctored Hubbell tapes. As Roll Call reported at the time, “At Bossie’s request, Burton sat on the tapes for nearly a year until word started to leak that Hubbell might be indicted by [Kenneth] Starr for tax evasion. Bossie, who supervised the tapes along with investigator Barbara Comstock, oversaw the editing of Hubbell’s prison conversation[s] and decided to release them the day before Hubbell was indicted.” According to Roll Call, Bossie enjoyed unusually close working relations with Starr investigators.
The tapes were edited for “privacy” considerations, according to Bossie. But they were also edited to completely omit key exculpatory passages, including one in which Hubbell exonerated Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing. Gingrich ordered a reluctant Burton to fire Bossie.
Yet, in 1999, Bossie was given the Ronald Reagan Award by the Conservative Political Action Conference for his “outstanding achievements and selfless contributions to the conservative movement.” And it wasn’t just the conservative base that continued to embrace Bossie after the Hubbell tape disgrace; so did many in the Washington press corps.
It’s hard to imagine that if a high-level Washington operative with a rap sheet like Bossie’s even existed on the left, he or she would be celebrated by the Democratic Party or courted by the press the way Bossie has been. “There are kooks on the left, no doubt about it, people who believe Bush is guilty of murder,” Begala says. “The difference is, journalists don’t pay attention to kooks on the left, and neither do Democrats.”
When the Clintons exited the White House, Bossie seemed rudderless as he jumped from one political target to the next. During the 2000 presidential campaign he coauthored another quickie attack book, “Prince Albert: The Life and Lies of Al Gore,” but it didn’t seem to play much of a role in the disputed election. During the summer of 2001, Bossie played the Gary Condit game, going on cable TV to tie the Democratic congressman to a dead intern. (“Gary Condit doesn’t have much credibility left,” Bossie said.) No evidence linking Condit to the murder ever emerged, and he was never charged. The next year, when the Enron scandal broke, Bossie appeared on Fox News and repeated GOP talking points that both political parties deserved blame because, after all, Enron’s former CEO, Kenneth Lay, slept in the Lincoln bedroom once while Clinton was in office. But that in fact never happened. Also that year, Bossie appeared on TNN’S late-night show, “Conspiracy Zone With Kevin Nealon,” where he dissected, yet again, the supposed mysteries surrounding the suicide of Clinton aide Foster. Plus, Bossie guaranteed that Sen. Hillary Clinton would run for president in 2004.
In early 2003, Bossie’s group released a pro-Iraq War commercial starring former Tennessee senator and “Law and Order” actor Fred Thompson — to “combat the left-wing propaganda” Bossie asserted was coming from Hollywood. Bossie also made TV appearances to rail against France for its Iraq stance and call for an American boycott of French products.
This spring Bossie returned to his roots, producing an anti-Kerry ad that used recent “priceless” MasterCard ads to parody “another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts.” (According to Bossie, the ad’s light touch was meant to stand in contrast to the left’s “hate-filled speech and vitriol” aimed at Bush.) The spot, actually seen by very few TV viewers, produced a nice publicity bump for Bossie as the same network of reporters and pundits he’d cultivated for years with tips and leaks welcomed him into the unfolding campaign coverage. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews announced on “Hardball”: “Let me go to David Bossie. That ad is great, by the way.”
Bossie’s press welcome extended into May, when he began promoting his polemic claiming Clinton was responsible for 9/11. In June, Bossie boasted to the Washington Times that he is “one of the few people who actually know the facts about Whitewater, Travelgate, campaign finances and the Monica Lewinsky affair,” and declared, without citing any facts, that Clinton’s just-released memoir was not truthful.
Then came the “Fahrenheit 9/11″ press bonanza and Bossie’s self-styled cameo featuring the FEC. Thanks to Citizens United’s filing, the FEC is considering a ban on the movie’s TV ads because the new campaign finance law prohibits corporate-funded ads that identify a federal candidate just before a primary or election. For purposes of the law, the Republican National Convention, which begins at the end of August, is considered a primary. The same ban would hold for 60 days prior to the general election in November.
What is odd about this is that if the FEC ultimately agrees with Bossie on the ads, all Moore has to do to make them legit is to replace Bush’s fleeting image in the TV ads with someone else, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In addition, Moore’s distributor spent a relatively tiny $3 million on TV advertising on the eve of the movie’s premiere, and the chances that it will spend anything in August are very slim.
Even the editorial page at the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post mocked the notion that ads for a movie should be regulated for political content. “Have affairs really come so far that government has vested in itself the power to constrict the political debate — right before an election, when voices and opinions matter most?” the paper asked.
Yet Bossie, once again, insists that the fight is about the rule of law and taking on a proven liar. During an online discussion hosted by Washingtonpost.com, Bossie insisted that Moore “never lets the facts get in the way of a good story. He doesn’t exactly have a track record of credibility. His reputation as a liar are well documented.”
For those who have watched Bossie wrestle with the truth over the years, that’s a curious claim for him to make.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
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)