"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)
After weeks of bracing by the Bush White House, the Category 5 storm has hit: Hurricane Kitty. Bestselling author Kitty Kelley’s withering portrait of the Bush dynasty, “The Family,” is landing in bookstores on Tuesday — more than 720,000 copies of it. And the White House is already on high alert. “This book is fiction and deserves to be treated as such,” snarled Republican spokeswoman Christine Iverson, as the RNC fired off an anti-Kelley talking-points memo to friendly media assets. The media blowback against Kelley, author of controversial biographies of Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, has already begun. On the Monday morning “Today Show,” host Matt Lauer showed how tough an interviewer he can be when not questioning presidents and other potentates, pressing Kelley on who she’s going to vote for in November (“Who’re you voting for?” Kelley shot back) and the timing of the book’s publication, weeks before the November election (“Why not? It’s relevant,” countered the author, who’s been working on the book for four years).
The hottest dispute sparked by the book involves the allegation that George W. Bush, who claimed to be clean and sober at the time, snorted cocaine with one of his brothers at the Camp David presidential retreat when his father was president. One of Kelley’s sources — and the only one on the record — was Sharon Bush, the deeply aggrieved ex-wife of W.’s younger brother Neil. She is now in strong denial mode, even though her own publicist, who was present at a lunch where she told Kelley the story, confirms the accuracy of Kelley’s account. Nonetheless, Lauer produced the Bush divorcee after his interview with Kelley to repeat her denials.
While the Camp David coke party is getting the headlines, Kelley’s book is filled with many other tawdry stories about the Bush dynasty. Here is a family that looks “like ‘The Donna Reed Show,’ and then you see it’s ‘The Sopranos,’” Kelley tells Salon in the interview below. As Kelley tells it, the dynasty had respectable origins — in the form of family patriarch Prescott Bush, the distinguished, moderate Republican senator from Connecticut — but rapidly slid into cynical opportunism, skulduggery, and a mean-spirited sense of entitlement. The first President Bush is presented as a weak yes man, driven not by political vision but a savage preppy spirit of competition instilled in him by his whirlwind of a mother. But it is his wife, Barbara (whom the ex-wife of White House counsel C. Boyden Gray calls “bull-dyke tough”), and their eldest son, George, who are the true pieces of work in Kelley’s book, a mother and son team brimming with such spite and ambition they would give the ruthless duo in “The Manchurian Candidate” the shivers. In one of the creepier passages of the book, a family gathering from hell at Kennebunkport, Maine, Barbara is shown mercilessly baiting her dry-drunk son, then governor of Texas, as a teetotaling “Chosen One,” while he keeps pleading to skip the cocktails and put on the feed bag, and his elderly father “drools over [TV newswoman] Paula Zahn’s legs.”
One of the major themes in Kelley’s book is the family’s weakness for liquor and drugs. Alcoholism, she writes, runs deeply in the family and among its victims, according to one Bush family friend, was Prescott, a “major-league alcoholic,” who was in the habit of checking himself into his men’s club and country club to go on benders. And Kelley writes that George W. Bush is not the only one in the first family who enjoyed illegal substances. While a student at Southern Methodist University in the 1960s, first lady Laura Bush was known “as a go-to girl for dime bags of marijuana.”
But, as one of W.’s Yalie frat brothers tells Kelley, it’s not the substance abuse in Bush’s past that’s disturbing, it’s the “lack of substance … Georgie, as we called him, had absolutely no intellectual curiosity about anything. He wasn’t interested in ideas or in books or causes. He didn’t travel; he didn’t read the newspapers; he didn’t watch the news; he didn’t even go to the movies. How anyone got out of Yale without developing some interest in the world besides booze and sports stuns me.” New Yorker writer Brendan Gill recalls roaming the Kennebunkport compound one night while staying there looking for a book to read — the only title he could find was “The Fart Book.”
According to Kelley, the Bushes aggressively maintain their all-American family image by scrubbing government files of embarrassing facts, stonewalling journalists, and terrorizing critics. “Some people felt that George’s past did not seep out and embarrass him and his family,” she writes of the White House’s current Bush, “because he was protected by a coterie of former CIA men with an allegiance to his father.” An Austin, Texas, political consultant named Peck Young told Kelley that when a woman claiming to have been a call girl from Midland showed up in Austin with “intimate knowledge” of W. during his oil wildcatting days, she was approached by what she described as “intelligence types” and left town abruptly. According to Young, the men “made her realize that it was better to turn tricks in Midland than to stop breathing.”
George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara dismissed Bill Clinton as a pathetic hillbilly when he challenged the incumbent in 1992. But, Kelley writes, Clinton was one of the few Bush opponents who knew how to back them down. As colorful stories from Clinton’s sexual past in Arkansas began to surface during the campaign, a Clinton aide began digging into the senior Bush’s own robust adultery. This included, writes Kelley, two long affairs — one with Jennifer Fitzgerald, Bush’s White House deputy chief of protocol, who, as the Washington Post once slyly put it, “has served President-elect George Bush in a variety of positions,” and one with an Italian woman with whom he set up house in a New York apartment in the 1960s. The Clinton aide told Kelley, “I took my list of Bush women, including one whom he had made an ambassador, to his campaign operatives. I said I knew we were vulnerable on women, but I wanted to make damn sure they knew they were vulnerable too.” After the eruption over Clinton’s mistress Gennifer Flowers died down, sexual infidelity did in fact become a moot issue in the campaign.
While Kelley is being savagely attacked as a tabloid sleaze queen, her book is more heavily researched and documented than Bush advocates allege. (It is also thoroughly entertaining.) On occasion, she relies on sources that are less than reliable — inserting the story Hustler publisher Larry Flynt tried to put in media play about a girlfriend’s abortion that W. allegedly paid for before it was legal. Kelley says she decided to put the story in her book after interviewing the two investigators Flynt had hired to track down the story. But despite her flaws, Kelley has vigorously pursued leads about the powerful American dynasty — from Bush senior’s shady CIA past to W.’s missing National Guard records — that the rest of the media should have.
Salon spoke with Kelley on Monday afternoon at the midtown New York offices of Doubleday, her book publisher.
The Bush forces are coming after you very strongly. And now the media is too.
Yes, they are, this is what they do, this is how they operate. It’s interesting, from talking with the media today, the European media is much less intimidated than the American press. The Americans are all saying, “Well, why should we listen to you. Look at the books you’ve written.” Well, excuse me, those books have stood up, I stand behind everything in those books, they’ve stood the test of time. And this book will too. So I see how this media spin is working, and I’m not surprised. You’d think the media would look at my book and follow up on it — all right, she says here they instituted drug testing in the National Guard at such and such time, let’s call up and find out if that’s true. But don’t beat me up just because I’ve come to you with almost a thousand sources. You know, I’ve gone through four sets of lawyers, because I’m dealing with a sitting president.
You’ve gone through this before, of course, when Frank Sinatra tried to block publication of your unauthorized biography of him. How would you compare the heat you felt from Sinatra and his crowd and what you’re going through now?
It’s worse now, because there’s more at stake. With Sinatra, you just worried about getting the bejabbers beat out of you. But with the Bushes, they work on all sorts of levels to destroy the messenger so the message can’t come through. But the message is the message. The stuff I’ve done is solid. Did I get everything? No. And you know something, we better hurry and try to get all the information we can get — because this president is trying to lock it all up through executive order, which means you won’t be able to get presidential history, because the files and everything will be locked up.
You write that the Bushes are particularly good at cleansing anything in government files that will besmirch the family reputation. How does that work?
Well, you see it on all sorts of levels, from the trivial on up. For instance, I got a copy of the Bush family tree from the Bush presidential library. And at first we just thought a couple things were left off, but it was a number of things. Mentally retarded children from one branch of the family erased. Too many divorces in one family — that doesn’t fit with the family-values image, so some ex-wives simply disappear. You could say that’s just an oversight or mistake here and there. But when you see a pattern as I’ve seen over the past years of files redacted, too many mysterious fires that destroy records, State Department files simply missing, gone, National Guard files.
You also allege that the Bushes have tried to block people from talking with you and put pressure on your publisher.
Yes, imagine the former president of the United States calling your publisher. I wrote George Herbert Walker Bush requesting an interview. He always responds to letters; he’s famous for it. He even responded to Bob Woodward for a book. But he didn’t respond to mine — he had an assistant phone the publisher of Doubleday, Steve Rubin. Imagine that pressure. All of a sudden, your publisher is told that not only does the former president of the United States not want this book to be written, he’s not going to talk, he’s not going to verify anything. Most publishers would have caved at that point. And I think Bush thought it would work.
Let’s talk about Sharon Bush — she is your only on-the-record source for the Camp David cocaine story. But she’s now gone public denying she ever told it to you. Why would she do that?
I don’t know; my guess is she’s scared. Over that lunch we had in New York she did tell me that her husband, Neil Bush, had left her a message on the phone machine saying if you continue with [your allegations against the Bush family] you might find yourself in a dark alley. And she said that in front of [her publicist] Lou Colasuonno. She talked about everything with me that day, mostly about the breakup of her marriage, and how the Bushes don’t have family values. And she said to me that the affair that Neil had that broke up her marriage was aided and abetted by his parents, Barbara and George. She was crying and crying and she said, “They let him have an affair. And I called up Barbara and threw myself on her mercy and said please, please tell him to come back home.” And I said, “How can his mother tell him to come back to his wife?” And she said, “You don’t understand — they’ll do anything she tells them.” But she said her mother-in-law wouldn’t do that, she was cold as ice. And she cried, “You’d think Barbara would have been more sympathetic to me, considering all the infidelities she’s had to put up with.”
Now over that lunch Sharon and Lou told me that she was in the midst of an alimony battle, she was angry that she was only being paid $1,000 a month alimony. And they told me they thought that if they leaked the fact she was having lunch with Kitty Kelley to the press, the Bushes hate you so much, that will scare them. And it might be leverage for her in her divorce. And Lou said, “Well, this lunch might find its way into the New York Observer.” And in fact it came out in the Observer the next week.
So Sharon Bush was using you to put some heat on the family to get a better divorce deal?
Yes. And I understand that. And she did get a better deal. Her alimony went up to $2,500. So that told me something else about the Bushes and how they operate.
So she got a better alimony deal out of it. But then she goes on “The Today Show” Monday morning to say you’re wrong. That takes nerve, to go on network TV to challenge a bestselling author. Why would she have done that?
Her kids. Her kids are in touch with her grandparents and they go, “Mom, how could you, how could you?” I think it was pressure from her kids, coming down hard from her grandparents. Absolutely. She has three kids — one who’s still a minor, Ashley, one, Pierce, who just started Georgetown University and wants to be a politician, and then she’s got the model, Lauren. And I think kids are the first casualty, and they didn’t ask for this and just want it all to go away. They probably love their family and are just appalled at what their mother did. And Sharon was probably at a very vulnerable time, and is not quite as vulnerable now. But she got on nationwide television and denied what she said, and I have a witness.
Why didn’t you tape it?
It was in a restaurant, I never tape in them. It’s loud and clattery. Also I knew it would probably be a sensitive interview. I don’t tape every interview, but I have a lot on tape.
In another explosive part of your book, you tell the story of a Midland prostitute peddling embarrassing stories about George W. Bush who’s suddenly run out of Austin by some threatening “intelligence types.” You name one source for that story. Do you have others?
One on record, and two unnamed sources.
Why didn’t you name them?
I don’t remember why in that case.
With a charge like that, it seems like you’d want more than one named source. I’d also want to know if the source you named, this political consultant in Austin named Peck Young, had an ax to grind, if he was a Bush hater. What made you give that story credit?
Because he was impeccable, that source, I feel very comfortable with him.
And you believe the Bushes are capable of doing something like that — of threatening a woman who is shooting her mouth off like that? You think the family really operates that way?
I know the family operates that way. I wish you could see the stuff that’s on the cutting room floor, that got left out of the book. There are other people who will tell you stories like that, but they won’t go on the record. And you can’t blame them. And I don’t know how to convince them, that it’s history, that it’s important. Because I can’t in good conscience tell them that. But I do feel comfortable with that story. I’m surprised by the number of people who did go on the record.
Another inflammatory passage in the book is about the girlfriend whose abortion George W. Bush allegedly paid for as a young man. There again it seems like you go with one source, and it’s somebody many people don’t find credible — Larry Flynt.
Not just him — I relied on his two detectives.
So you went and interviewed them as well?
Again, I’m trying to figure out your methodology and why your enemies come after you and say, “She relies on shaky sources or she’ll lump a variety of sources together, no matter how they vary in credibility.”
Yes, I’ve read that one too.
So how do you respond to that — say on this one in particular, this abortion story?
Well, I took the public record a little further and went to the investigators and asked for their stuff, and got their stuff. I have the woman’s name, address and phone number …
Did you make an effort to reach her?
And she wouldn’t talk?
But you found the two investigators credible after talking to them?
Yeah, I did.
So your method is to leave it to the reader to make up their minds?
Right. And to tell you how far I went.
That falls short of the standards of the New York Times, say, or the Washington Post. Why do you feel it’s legitimate to fall short of that standard?
I don’t think that falls short of the standards of the New York Times or the Washington Post in every single instance. I think that especially the Washington Post has pushed things in the past, far beyond where I would go.
What’s an example of that?
Well, that was exposed as a work of fiction!
Jayson Blair …
But the Times and the Post were both humiliated by those scandals.
And I would be too if you find something in my books that didn’t stand the test of time. I honestly would.
So you wouldn’t have put a story like that in unless you’d done enough work on your own to satisfy yourself that there was something there, that it would hold up?
What do you think W. will do if he loses in November? Will he happily go back to baseball?
No. You know something that I have found out from this family after four years — he doesn’t plan to lose. They know how to win — no matter what.
What does that mean?
That means these people can put “The Sopranos” to shame.
Does that mean vote stealing?
That’s a bit overt. But nothing will stand in the way of these people winning. Nothing. You start out looking at the Bush family like it’s “The Donna Reed Show” and then you see it’s “The Sopranos.”
David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He is now working on a book about the legendary CIA director Allen W. Dulles and the rise of the national security state.More David Talbot.
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)