"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)
Steve Brozak is running for Congress in New Jersey against George W. Bush. Sure, his opponent on the ticket is Republican incumbent Mike Ferguson. But as Brozak sees it, Ferguson is just a synecdoche for the Bush team, whose failings drove Brozak out of the Marines and the Republican Party and into the first political campaign of his life.
“The bottom line is I’m going to take him down,” Brozak says of Ferguson. “I’m just going to keep hitting at him. This is a national race because I’m going to start hitting not just him but his boss. They lied to us, they misled us about what was at stake in the war with Iraq, and they’re misleading us about what is going to happen going forward.”
A candidate who has actually served in the Middle East during the Iraq war, Brozak has seen the quagmire up close. A dark-haired, broad-shouldered man, he has a deep, authoritative voice and enunciates crisply — it’s easy to imagine him in uniform, barking orders. When he speaks of the Bush administration, though, it’s with the stunned incredulousness of one who’s seen all his assumptions about the world upended. Before the war, Brozak says, he wanted to believe his president. It barely occurred to him not to. Now, his voice gets heated when he talks about Iraq, which is the subject he talks about most. “There were no weapons of mass destruction,” he says. “There was no planning, just this sense of arrogance and contempt by the civilians in this administration.”
Running in an affluent, solidly Republican district — one that Bush carried over Gore in 2000 — Brozak is making this race a referendum on the president’s handling of the war. Like many Democrats, he believes Iraq is so self-evidently catastrophic that it’s only a matter of time before people across the political spectrum wake up and realize it. He attacks Ferguson as a “water boy” for Bush and mocks him for putting color-coded terror alerts on his Web site.
The campaign between Brozak and Ferguson is almost a microcosm of the race for the presidency, as it turns largely on how people view Bush, Iraq and the war on terror. It hinges on whether others in New Jersey’s District 7 have moved along the same ideological trajectory as Steve Brozak. Like John Kerry, Brozak may be able to win only if at least some of those who voted for Bush in 2000 have come to see the president as either incompetent, mendacious or both.
Conservative New Jersey pollster Rick Shaftan insists that there’s no way a Democrat can win the district. He says voters simply don’t buy Brozak’s grim view of Iraq. “People support Bush’s handling of Iraq,” he says. “I don’t think people see it as being a screw-up. People think we did the right thing.” Recent polls show Bush running competitively in New Jersey as a whole, alarming Democrats who thought they had the state locked up and leading John Edwards to make a recent campaign stop in Newark.
But David Rebovich, managing director of the Institute for New Jersey Politics and chair of political science at New Jersey’s Rider University, says that if Kerry can turn things around, Brozak has a real shot. “This is the closest thing to a competitive race in New Jersey this fall,” he says. “Shaftan misses Brozak’s attempt to locate President Bush’s vulnerability on the war, on healthcare, on things like stem-cell research and exploit them through this creative, in-your-face campaign. Is this a winning strategy? I don’t know. But it’s a good strategy and one that might yield results.”
Influential Democrats have already thrown their weight behind Brozak. His campaign team, says Rebovich, “are first-class people in New Jersey.” The DNC gave him a speaking slot at the convention. Former presidential candidate Wesley Clark has campaigned for him. Last week, MoveOn.org chose him as one of five antiwar congressional candidates to raise money for, and they’ve already collected more than $100,000 for him. Veterans of the Clark and the Howard Dean movements in New Jersey are mobilizing for him.
Democrats think Brozak’s background makes him particularly suited to capitalize on moderate unease about Bush. The son of Eastern European immigrants who lived under Nazi occupation, he joined the Marine Corps almost 22 years ago after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian studies. He served on active duty for three years and then joined the reserves. He earned an MBA at Columbia and worked on Wall Street before co-founding Westfield Bakerink Brozak, an investment bank that specializes in biotech and healthcare research.
A married father of two girls, he volunteered to return to active duty during several international crises, serving in Haiti in 1995 and Bosnia in 2000. After Sept. 11, he volunteered once again and went on extended active duty in October 2002, leaving his firm in the hands of his partner. “I went back on duty after 9/11 because our country was faced with an impending threat,” he says. “A group of terrorists wanted to bring down not just our democracy but all democracies.”
During the Iraq war, he served as national spokesman for the Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which is charged with enforcing the law that protects the jobs of reservists called up for military duty. He soon realized that many employers were openly flouting the law and firing soldiers, who were then left with little recourse except lengthy litigation. Extended tours in Iraq were plunging many reservist families into economic misery. “It was bad, but we didn’t know how bad it was,” Brozak says.
To find out, he volunteered to lead a study for the military about the effects of the Iraq war on reservists and National Guardsmen. Last summer, he was sent to Kuwait and to southern Iraq to interview such soldiers about their call-ups.
What he found was anxiety and rock-bottom morale that boded ill for reenlistment. “They were completely unsure of whether or not they’d be financially taken care of,” he says. “They were unsure of whether or not they’d have jobs to come back to. They were certain they were going to get out of the Guard or reserves system when they were done.”
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground shocked him. “The number of people there and how they were prepared in terms of equipment and training was, across the board, criminal in terms of its inept management,” he says.
He saw the potential for calamity. “What we are faced with today is our active duty force stretched to the breaking point,” he says. “The National Guard and reserve systems are broken, possibly beyond repair. We are staring down the barrel of the draft.”
“Do the math,” he continues. “How many people do we need going forward? How many people do we have? Where are these bodies coming from?”
When Brozak returned from the Middle East to his post in Arlington, Va., he tried to alert civilians in the Defense Department to the trouble on the ground. But, he says, they were uninterested. “It was that same arrogant, contemptuous attitude. When I came back and said we have a problem, we need to address it right away, we are fighting for our lives, their attitude was, ‘We know better than you do.’ It was their contempt for the people in uniform, it was their contempt for all Americans” that finally drove him out of the Republican Party.
In fact, Brozak says, Republicans’ contempt for soldiers — coupled with their mawkish reverence for the military in the abstract — had been bothering him for a while. He first started souring on his party when the Bush team smeared John McCain during the 2000 primaries; he was outraged by the 2002 attacks against Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who was tarred as a traitorous ally of Osama bin Laden despite the fact that he lost three limbs serving in Vietnam.
Brozak changed his party registration shortly after he returned from Iraq last year, but he didn’t speak out against the Bush administration until he retired from the Marines this spring. The fact that he waited until he’d left the military didn’t stop his old party from going after him. A Republican operative, he says, filed a complaint against him under the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from partisan political activity.
It’s likely to get a lot uglier. Ferguson recently paid $20,000 to Benjamin Ginsberg, the Washington lawyer who resigned from the Bush campaign this summer after revelations about his ties to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The congressman’s ties to the right-wing attack machine are well known in New Jersey. “When the political mud starts flying, it seems that U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson is always in the right place at the right time,” Tom Moran, a columnist for the New Jersey Star Ledger, wrote on Sept. 7. “His opponents get smeared. And he has enough distance from the action to claim he knew nothing about it.”
Brozak, meanwhile, is going on the offensive. He recently hired one of the state’s high-profile election attorneys, Angelo Genova, to ask the state’s department of elections to review whether Ferguson is even eligible to run for Congress in New Jersey. As Brozak revealed on Tuesday, Ferguson claims his primary residence in Bethesda, Md., on his Maryland tax forms, thus qualifying for a tax rebate. The Constitution, though, requires that congressmen live in the states they represent. The Web site PoliticsNJ.com has already speculated on possible last-minute replacements, should Ferguson be thrown off the ballot, saying, “This is New Jersey, where anything can happen.”
Meanwhile, Brozak continually pounds away at Ferguson’s integrity. He notes over and over that earlier this year Ferguson was fined $210,000 by the Federal Election Commission for illegally financing his 2000 campaign with money borrowed from a trust fund set up by his father. Brozak also points out that Ferguson has received $10,000 from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s ARMPAC, which is at the center of several money-laundering indictments.
When he’s not bashing the incumbent for corruption, Brozak is attacking him for fanaticism. Ferguson opposes both abortion and, more controversially, stem-cell research. With his background in biotechnology, Brozak is a zealous advocate of such research and accuses Ferguson of endangering his constituents’ heath by backing Bush’s ban. “Mike Ferguson’s special interests are a few religious fundamentalists that would impede scientific progress in the name of a misguided ideology, rather than the thousands of his constituents suffering from debilitating disease,” Brozak says in a press release.
Brozak’s strategy, says political analyst Rebovich, is to label Ferguson “an ideologue who doesn’t really think for himself and doesn’t advocate for the district. Brozak is saying, ‘What do you think, I’m a liberal? I’m a friggin’ Marine, and on top of that I’m a businessman. Ferguson is a guy who inherited Daddy’s money.’”
Ferguson did not return Salon’s calls seeking comment.
Brozak isn’t saying how much money his campaign has right now. But he acknowledges that he’s nowhere near as well-funded as his opponent. To counteract that, he’s working hard at retail politics. Three days a week he puts on a suit and stands in front of train stations from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., greeting commuters on their way to work. “Steve is the only man who’s out there early in the morning,” says Anthony Stevens, manager of the Cranford Station, a small stop on the New Jersey Transit.
During the blurry dawn this past Monday, the candidate stands outside Stevens’ station and greets each harried commuter as he or she walks by. “Hi, I’m Steve Brozak, and I’m looking to become your congressman,” he says, pressing campaign literature into their hands. After that, he goes to local diners, again introducing himself to everyone there. His bearing is slightly stiff and all the glad-handing seems like humbling work for a man who’s used to being saluted. But it seems to be paying off, as people are starting to recognize him.
At the train station, several people slap his back and promise him their votes. At a diner afterward, he approaches Bob Beller, a graying assets manager in a blue blazer who was finishing his breakfast, only to find out that Beller has already contributed to his campaign and plans to give more. Ferguson, says Beller, is “a Stepford wife. All these local Republicans say exactly what they’re told to say.” Nodding approvingly at Brozak, who had moved on to another table, he says, “He’s the kind of guy the Democrats need to win.”
Brozak remains a fiscal conservative and a fervent booster of the military. But there’s not much Republican left in him. These days he shares the conviction, nearly ubiquitous among Democratic activists, that the current administration represents something new and uniquely threatening in American life. The Republican Party, he says, has been “hijacked by a reactionary group that is truly dangerous.”
He talks about what he learned in Bosnia four years ago. “Here was a country where people were living normal lives, and everything just fell apart overnight,” he says. “It showed me how fragile societies can be. Make no mistake. Our society is very fragile.”
Of course, the right is quick to seize on this kind of language to attack their critics as raving leftists. Yet in the past few years, this note of crisis has been sounded by those who’ve spent their lives as staid centrists: Al Gore, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Joe Wilson, Richard Clarke. No matter how many respectable establishment types sound the alarm against Bush, though, much of the media continues to write off their warnings as irrational “Bush hatred.”
Eventually, Brozak says, “people will start to realize how bad things are.” After all, he says, 70 percent of New Jersey’s National Guard has been called up. A unit from Westfield, one of the towns in his district, is about to be sent to Tikrit and probably won’t be home until 2006.
At the same time, the crisis in enlistment and retention that Brozak predicted is starting to come true. Last week, it was reported that the National Guard missed its recruitment goals by 5,000, the first time it’s fallen short in a decade. On Sept. 27, the New York Times reported that some Army planners want to cut soldiers’ 12-month combat tours to improve morale and reenlistment. But others say they can’t do that and still meet requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Rocky Mountain News has reported that some Iraq veterans stationed in Colorado have been threatened with second tours in Iraq if they refuse to reenlist. On Monday, USA Today reported that more than a third of soldiers called up from the Individual Ready Reserve failed to report on time.
Bad news about Iraq only matters to voters, though, if they are paying attention to it. Shaftan, the conservative pollster, says they’re not. “Yeah, there’s activity going on there, but there’s nothing going on here. The terrorism, national security issue is one where Bush has a huge lead. People don’t know the details, they just know that things are safer and nobody’s flying planes into buildings.”
This kind of thinking poses a particular challenge to a candidate like Brozak. How does a man warning of imminent disaster talk to voters who prefer optimism to candor? Brozak’s energy comes from the huge gap between the military reality he’s seen and the rhetoric he’s hearing from the administration. Still, that same gap can make some voters think he’s the extremist.
The danger, says Rebovich, is that voters will hear him and think, “Pal, you think you’re well meaning, but you’re an angry Marine. That’s the downfall of a military person. In some ways, that was the downfall of Wesley Clark. At some point, people say, ‘Oh my God, we hope a lot of Marines aren’t thinking like you. Just shut up and fight.’”
Brozak sees the danger. Indeed, it’s part of what so alarms him about this political moment. “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will start to believe it,” he says.
He only hopes the same maxim will apply to the truth.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
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)