"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)
In the 1960s, right-wing strategist Richard Viguerie — in search of troops for a conservative revolution — realized that one of the most effective ways to recruit small donors and foot soldiers was through a simple letter in their mailboxes. And the political direct-mail industry was born.
Written in blunt and alarmist language, Viguerie’s direct-mail pieces tapped into conservative discontent on a range of issues, from taxes to immigration to the United Nations to abortion. His Virginia-based firm, now called American Target Advertising Inc., claims to have mailed more than a billion pieces of mail over four decades. Thousands of recipients responded with donations of $10 or $15. They helped fund a network of conservative think tanks, advocacy organizations and pressure groups that, Viguerie believes, has finally achieved its end with the reelection of President Bush.
“Now comes the revolution,” Viguerie recently told conservatives, according to the New York Times.
But first, there are still a few ideological outliers to crush. On Thursday, the conservative movement icon was busy helping lead a campaign to block moderate Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., from rotating into the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The cause of the uproar was an Associated Press story that quoted Specter as bluntly warning Bush not to nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices.
“When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe vs. Wade, I think that is unlikely,” Specter said, according to the AP. Referring to Democratic successes over the past four years in filibustering judicial nominees they deemed too far out of the mainstream on social issues, Specter added: “And I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning.”
But with conservatives gunning for him, Specter backed off, issuing a statement Thursday in which he said he had no “litmus test” for Supreme Court and other judicial nominations. “I did not warn the president about anything and was very respectful of his constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges,” Specter said.
Viguerie, who is the author most recently of “America’s Right Turn: How the Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power,” took a break Thursday from his work blocking Specter’s ascension to the Judiciary chairmanship to talk with Salon.
You were quoted in the New York Times Thursday saying, “The revolution begins now.” But I thought the [conservative] revolution has been going on for a while.
Well, it has; that’s a good observation. But it hasn’t been at the public policy level. The conservatives have been engaged in building the movement for 43 years. Actually, it really started 49 years ago, when Bill Buckley launched the National Review. Morton Blackwell [one of Viguerie's contemporaries and fellow activists] said many years ago that when he first came to Washington he realized that conservatives had never nominated anyone for president. That was our first challenge, and we did that in 1964 [when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona won the Republican nomination for president]. Then, we needed to nominate and elect somebody, and we did that in 1980 [with Ronald Reagan]. Then our next goal was to nominate, elect and govern. And that’s what we have not yet done. We have not yet governed.
You haven’t? I think that would come as a surprise to many of our readers.
Well, in 1980, [Reagan Chief of Staff] Jim Baker told us, “We must put your issues on the back burner until we get our tax cuts and national defense issues, like rebuilding the military and missile defense. The social issues were always put on the back burner, and they stayed on the back burner for eight years. They certainly did not move forward on our agenda at first. George W. Bush has been a very good president from the social issues and conservative perspective — in many ways more than Ronald Reagan. But now with the whole conservative agenda, it’s time to move forward and implement it.
If we don’t move forward now, what was the purpose of building the movement? We were told under Reagan we couldn’t do this and that because we didn’t have the House or a majority of conservative senators. Now, we’ve got everything. We’ve got a president reelected based on running a conservative agenda. We’re thrilled and pleased. We’ve got a good comfortable [conservative Republican] majority in both houses. Now’s the time to do it.
But you can’t call it a revolution anymore if you’re in power, if you’re the government? Or can you?
It would be [a revolution] in terms of legislation. The time is now to take a very different approach to governing that this town hasn’t seen since the 1930s, when Democrats took control of the White House in the 1932 election [with FDR]. Since then, the big-government establishment has driven the political agenda. They started driving it in the early 1930s, and they pretty much drove the agenda through 1994 [when Republicans seized control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years].
Then things kind of came to a halt. It was difficult for the conservatives to implement a lot of their agenda. [With Bill Clinton's election in 1992] they didn’t have the White House. The president could veto our legislation, as he did. And then, we had slim [conservative] majorities to none in the Senate. Now we have a comfortable margin. And George Bush has a mandate. It’s humorous and amusing to hear people in the media and liberals in the country — and even some Republicans, though not many, just one as a matter of fact — who are saying we’re not going to move on [our conservative agenda].
You’re talking about Arlen Specter?
Yes. And you’ll notice that his staff has been backtracking all day on it. You can’t turn on the television right now without hearing someone talking about the Republicans, saying Bush has an obligation to unify the country. That’s code for “abandon your conservative allies and move to the left.” That’s what they mean by unity: Stop trying to promote a conservative agenda. That’s just what the country needs, one more politician to break his promise hours after he was reelected.
But Bush himself tried in his news conference Thursday to reassure Americans who don’t share his conservative, evangelical Christian view of the world. “I will be your president regardless of your faith,” he said. Is that what you call breaking his promise?
No, I don’t. I find it almost humorous to hear the Democrats and the liberals try to influence the president in that direction. I think they are going to fail.
How will you ensure that Bush keeps his word to religious conservatives?
We’re going to try to put pressure on the elected officials to support the president, help the president enact his agenda. We want to pass a constitutional amendment [banning] same-sex marriages, for the protection of marriage. And we’ll have a grass-roots fire to pressure the congressmen and the senators to support the president.
What is the agenda?
As the president said, we want to make the tax cuts permanent. Two, we want new tax cuts. We want the president to start vetoing spending bills. We want to ratchet down the size of government.
But isn’t the huge increase in government spending and the budget deficit already the fault of Bush and the Republican-led Congress?
He certainly had a big role to play in that, certainly. And we’re going to focus on the conservative agenda, which is to reduce government. I don’t know if we’re going to abolish the [new Medicare] prescription drug benefit, but we’d like to. It’s just an expansion of government. When government grows, individual liberties are reduced. We’d like to see oil and gas exploration increased in the continental United States. We want a constitutional amendment on marriage. We want the culture of life expanded — that was one of the big issues that this election was fought over.
Christians feel there is a war against Christians out there. We would like to make sure that the president, and he’s inclined to do this, understands how there’s an anti-Christian environment in the culture, at the national level, in Hollywood, television, the media generally, a lot of the institutions — legal institutions, educational institutions. We want to change that. People of traditional values have a role to play in the public arena.
But many Americans feel it’s the non-Christians and liberal Christians who are under attack these days. They feel that it’s their rights and beliefs, not those of conservative evangelical Christians, that are under assault and threatened.
No one has to believe [in Jesus Christ]. I’m not forcing them to believe. And if [John] Kerry had been elected, he would have forced his views on abortion — killing babies a minute before they’re born — on the rest of us.
So you want to overturn Roe vs. Wade?
We want judges appointed who will not legislate from the bench.
But isn’t that just code for outlawing abortion?
I don’t know. If Roe vs. Wade is not in the Constitution, I guess you’d have to look at that. We just don’t want judges who impose their personal views.
You want to block Specter, one of the last Senate moderates, from obtaining the Judiciary Committee chairmanship. [The current chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is term-limited as the panel's leader.] Is there any future at all for moderate Republicans in the GOP?
Absolutely. It’s just that the election was fought not on moderate Republican issues but on conservative issues. It was conservatives who made the phone calls and pounded the pavement and turned out the big vote for Bush and the Republicans in Congress. But yeah, sure, unlike [with] the Democrats, there’s a place for moderates in the Republican Party. The Democrats do not tolerate dissent in their party. You have zero chance of having a successful career in national Democratic politics if you’re not pro-abortion and [don't] pass the homosexual litmus test. Not so in the Republican Party. Not only are you welcome, but we put you on TV. We give you platforms to speak out on.
I assume you’re talking about moderates like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who were given prime-time speaking slots at the Republican National Convention. They’re moderates on abortion and stem cell research. But they really seemed just like props in a façade to make the party seem less threatening to the rest of the country. They don’t have any real power in the party, do they?
How are they moderates on stem cell research?
They support it.
That’s not a moderate position.
Lots of Republicans support stem cell research — for example, Nancy Reagan. By definition that’s a moderate position.
Yeah, but the election was fought out on the president’s position on stem cell research. [Bush opposes it because it involves the destruction of human embryos.]
Is there any future for people who believe in abortion rights and stem cell research in the Republican Party?
Oh, absolutely. If they believe in a pro-abortion position, well, we’re not going to accommodate it. Absolutely not. But we do welcome them in the party, and they have made some welcome contributions. To the extent they support lower taxes, a fiscally sound government and a strong national defense — absolutely we welcome them.
You accept moderates as long as they abandon the very positions that define them as moderates? That sounds like your own kind of litmus test.
I remind you that it was conservative issues that won this election. And George Bush, on matters of principle, why, 40 hours after the polls close, should he abandon us? It would be dishonest.
How did you feel when you learned Bush had won?
Ecstatic. This is a quantum leap forward. I’ve been working at this for 43 years. And we’ve made an enormous amount of progress. For the first time since Calvin Coolidge a Republican president has won reelection while gaining seats in the House and Senate. It’s historic, and he did it running on a conservative agenda.
So what about the 49 percent of Americans who didn’t vote for Bush and don’t agree with this agenda? Too bad? Their views aren’t relevant?
First of all, it was 48 percent. Well, yeah, their views are relevant. We’d love to have them support a fiscally sound government and a strong national defense against the forces of evil out there. And this is a pluralistic society, and conservatives are going to have to compromise.
Bush will likely get the chance to make as many as three Supreme Court appointments. Do you think a staunchly anti-abortion judge can make it through the confirmation process?
We’re not looking for a pro-life judge. We’re looking for a judge who will interpret the Constitution and not put his thoughts or views before those of the legislature’s. That’s all we’re looking for.
Again, that sounds to me like code for overturning Roe vs. Wade.
Well, that’s up to you all to say.
Spoken like a politician!
I don’t know if that’s a compliment at all. But listen, I’ve got another conference call. I’ve got to go.
Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.More Mary Jacoby.
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)