"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)
One recent Sunday, at Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute, a dozen students meet for the second and final day of training in grass-roots youth politics. All are earnest, idealistic and as right wing as you can get. They take careful notes as instructor Paul Gourley teaches them how to rig a campus mock election.
It’s nothing illegal — no ballot stuffing necessary, even at the most liberal colleges. First you find a nonpartisan campus group to sponsor the election, so you can’t be accused of cheating. Next, volunteer to organize the thing. College students are lazy, and they’ll probably let you. Always keep in mind that a rigged mock election is all about location, location, location.
“Can anyone tell me,” asks Gourley, a veteran mock electioneer, “why you don’t want the polling place in the cafeteria?”
Stephen, a shy antiabortion activist sitting toward the rear of the class, raises his hand: “Because you want to suppress the vote?”
“Stephen has the right answer!” Gourley exclaims, tossing Stephen his prize, a copy of Robert Bork’s “Slouching Toward Gomorrah.”
The students, strait-laced kids from good colleges, seem unconvinced. The lesson — that with sufficient organization, the act of voting becomes less a basic right than a tactical maneuver — doesn’t sit easy with some students at first. Gourley, a charismatic senior from South Dakota and the treasurer of the College Republican National Committee, assures them: “This is not anti-democracy. This is not shady. Just put [the polling place] somewhere where you might have to put a little bit of effort into voting.” The rest, Gourley explains, is just a matter of turnout.
When the state or national candidate you’re backing wins by a suitably large margin, as he or she surely will, have the nonpartisan group that sponsored the election sign off on your prewritten celebratory press release and send it statewide. Reporters will almost certainly ignore it, but after a dozen similar victories, they’ll start dashing off articles about the youth phenomenon behind your candidate’s campaign — or better yet, just start plagiarizing your press releases.
There is no better place to master the art of mock-election rigging — and there is no better master than Morton Blackwell, who invented the trick in 1964 and has been teaching it ever since. Blackwell’s half-century career in conservative grass-roots politics coincides neatly with the fortunes of the conservative movement: He was there when Goldwater lost, when Southern voters abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, and when the Moral Majority began its harvest of evangelical Christian voters. In the 1970s, Blackwell worked with conservative direct-mail king Richard Viguerie; in 1980, he led Reagan’s youth campaign. Recently, he’s been fighting to save Tom DeLay’s job.
Yet Blackwell’s foundation, the Leadership Institute, is not a Republican organization. It’s a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) charity, drawing the overwhelming majority of its $9.1 million annual budget from tax-deductible donations. Despite its legally required “neutrality,” the institute is one of the best investments the conservative movement has ever made. Its walls are plastered with framed headshots of former students — hundreds of state and local legislators sprinkled with smiling members of the U.S. Congress, and even the perky faces of two recently crowned Miss Americas. Thirty-five years ago, Blackwell dispatched a particularly promising 17-year-old pupil named Karl Rove to run a youth campaign in Illinois; Jeff Gannon, a far less impressive student, attended the Leadership Institute’s Broadcast Journalism School.
The institute’s classes aren’t tickets into an exclusive and shadowy club, however: I am also an institute graduate. In March, I attended its Youth Leadership School, a one-weekend, 28-hour crash course in political organizing. Registration was open to the public and cost $60, which got me a sourcebook, six free meals, up to three nights in a dorm, and a six-hour lecture on political principles delivered by the 65-year-old Blackwell himself. The morning I arrived at the Leadership Institute, I identified myself as a reporter for Salon. “That’s great,” said communications director Michelle Miller. By the end of the weekend, Blackwell took me on a tour of the headquarters, chatted with me for nearly an hour, and gave me a copy of the institute’s antisocialism in-house film, “The Roots of the Ultra Left.” The institute is a very friendly place.
Over the last 25 years, more than 40,000 young conservatives have been trained at the institute’s Arlington, Va., headquarters in everything from TV makeup for aspiring right-wing talking heads to prep courses for the State Department’s Foreign Service exam. Classes are taught by volunteers recruited from the ranks of the conservative movement’s most talented organizers, operatives and communicators.
The Leadership Institute has succeeded, in part, because it’s had little to no competition from the left. College campuses may still be havens for liberal thought, but the right-wing students are the ones organized enough to win major battles. Perhaps expecting that American youth would organize themselves as they did in decades past, progressive organizations have been outstripped by their conservative counterparts in professionalizing the ragtag world of college activism. “When it comes to campus controversy, from affirmative action to free speech, the right wing pumps in money and expertise and shows [students] how to out-hustle their opponents,” says David Halperin of the liberal Center for American Progress.
Still, Blackwell says conservatives are underdogs on college campuses. Conservative students may be better organized, but they’re still outnumbered. The Leadership Institute contends that liberal higher education is robbing the conservative movement of new blood — and thereby handicapping the institute’s efforts. “You know, the most conservative students are the freshmen,” Blackwell told me. “There is an acculturation there.”
And that’s where the institute is taking its fight. For most of its 25-year history, it has focused on grooming students to work in conservative politics; it’s now increasingly devoting its efforts to making campuses more conservative places. Through its Campus Leadership Program, the institute is leading a growing effort to found and support a national network of conservative student groups and publications capable of permanently altering the intellectual and social environment of universities to conservatives’ advantage. That goal alone is a stark rejection of the standard conservative complaint that post-Vietnam War higher education is not just grossly liberal, but irredeemably so. Already, the program has shown considerable success. Asked about his campus initiative, Blackwell simply says, “You’re talking about the major project for the rest of my life.”
In the wake of the 2004 election, some progressive groups have been working to reinforce their positions on campus. Last February, the Center for American Progress launched Campus Progress, a student activism support center, to combat what Halperin describes as “30 years of effective organizing” by conservative groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young Americans for Freedom, and of course, the Leadership Institute. But Blackwell is unfazed by the competition. “If they asked me, which they haven’t, I could let them know that it’s a lot harder than it appeared on the surface,” he told me. “You’ve got to work years before you see any results.”
And Blackwell has put in those years. A young Louisiana Republican in the days when Democrats owned every statewide office, he cut his political teeth on Barry Goldwater’s doomed 1964 presidential bid. “Don’t fully trust anyone until he has stuck with a good cause which he saw was losing,” is an institute maxim rooted in Blackwell’s own political education. “After Goldwater’s defeat, the number of people who would admit to being movement conservatives could all have fit into an average phone booth,” Blackwell said in an interview. “And among us, we didn’t have a dime for a telephone call.”
That was a long time ago. According to Blackwell, allied “movement conservatives” took the first steps toward outmaneuvering their party’s moribund minority leadership in the ’70s. More than a test of character, conservatism’s formerly abject status provided the key to those gains. With a wealth of political talent but few resources or constituencies, conservatives had no choice but to look beyond the two- and four-year cycles that dictate traditional political strategy. Instead of fighting an intra-party struggle they were certain to lose, they built an infrastructure outside the Republican Party dedicated to promoting talent, not winning the next election.
The Leadership Institute is a perfect example of that strategy, according to Peter Murray, a progressive management trainer who studied the institute’s model before launching his own nonprofit political training organization, the Center for Progressive Leadership, last year. “Being a 501(c)(3) not only means they can get tax deductions for their donors and build endowments, but they’re forced to look long term,” Murray says. “They’re not allowed to endorse candidates and get sucked into electoral politics. Year in and year out, all they do is build leaders.”
It’s an approach, Murray believes, that has long since paid off. “Sure, [Blackwell] has trained Karl Rove and Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist and 223 other legislators and members of Congress,” Murray notes, “but more importantly, he’s trained 40,000 other local organizers.” The institute’s graduates, in other words, are part of a movement. “We spent $2 billion trying to win this last election,” Murray says of progressives. “They already spent 25 years, and nearly $100 million, building the talent pool that won the election. And which will consistently win them elections for the next several decades.”
The structure of Blackwell’s Campus Leadership Program is simple. The Leadership Institute trains promising conservative college graduates over the summer and dispatches them to campuses in the fall with a mandate to start conservative student organizations. Need $500 and some ideas to start a combative right-wing campus publication? The institute would love to help you. Is the campus administration discriminating against your Second Amendment club? The institute will help you take your cause to the Internet. No one on campus at your Christian college has ever heard of the institute? Staffers will be glad to drive down, take you to a steakhouse, and talk it up. Last year, the CLP doubled in size, to 418 clubs and counting. By the end of 2006, Blackwell is confident he will have created 1,000 conservative campus organizations.
Unlike chapter-based political organizations, CLP clubs are unaffiliated with either the Leadership Institute or each other. According to Blackwell, this trait offers a serious advantage: “No purges.” The clubs’ independence also comes with the benefit of plausible deniability. “You can get away with stuff that you would take a lot of flak for doing in the College Republicans,” says CLP director Dan Flynn. “Because we’re independent, we can do activities that push the envelope,” agrees University of Miami senior Sarah Canale, whose CLP-organized Advocates for Conservative Thought threw an affirmative action bake sale last year in which the price of a cupcake varied according to the race of its buyer. That it was controversial, she believes, was a victory in itself.
The Leadership Institute teaches the same principle. Controlled controversy — making your point in a manner so bombastic that your opponents blow their cool — is a Blackwell specialty. Before the 2004 Republican Convention, the conservative elder personally went to a drugstore and bought little pink heart stickers, bandages and purple nail polish. At home, he made the “Purple Heart Band-Aids” that he later distributed in Madison Square Garden to mock John Kerry’s war wounds. From Blackwell’s perspective, the Kerry camp’s outrage at the gag was a tactical disaster. Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe, Blackwell says, kept the story alive for days by “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
A stunt is one way to get press — but a more effective and sustainable method is to start your own publication. The Leadership Institute trains around 250 students yearly in its student publication workshop, and CLP staff assisted in launching 22 campus publications last year alone.
The Rutgers Centurion is a conservative monthly that got off the ground this fall with institute help. Rutgers student James O’Keefe founded the magazine after coming across a conservative publication at Tufts. “I said, why don’t we have this?” O’Keefe remembers. He taught himself a page-layout program and got in touch with the Leadership Institute, which dispatched a staffer to take him and his coeditors to dinner at an upscale local brewery. The institute gave O’Keefe books on starting a publication, awarded him a $500 “Balance in Media Grant,” and suggested never-fail places on campus to ferret out liberal excess. “They were really excited,” O’Keefe recalls.
The Rutgers Centurion has since analyzed faculty campaign contributions that favored John Kerry over George W. Bush 104 times over, and it accused one of Rutgers’ most esteemed alumni, African-American author and actor Paul Robeson, of being a Stalinist. The magazine has published poetry about abortion from a fetus’s point of view and run allegations of prejudice against Condoleezza Rice, “The Black Woman Liberals Love to Hate.”
The Centurion’s favorite subject, however, seems to be people who don’t like the Centurion. Rutgers student Tabitha Rice earned the February “Liberal of the Month” title for allegedly defacing copies of the Centurion’s previous issue, and in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, the editors framed an excerpt from their hate mail — “‘F*** [The editors of The Centurion.] F*** Them till they’re dead’” — in a heart-shaped box.
The Centurion’s assertion that campus liberals are intolerant lends its vitriolic criticism of leftists the veneer of the free speech movement. CLP coordinator Flynn, the author of “Why the Left Hates America,” recalls that during a speech at Berkeley, he encountered “a Nazi-style book burning” of his work and an attempt to rip his microphone cord from the wall. That might not have quite the allure of Mario Savio’s rallying a crowd from a squad car’s roof during Berkeley’s student protests, but it’s a start.
CLP publications play a crucial role in publicizing such run-ins. Right-wing watchdog groups like Accuracy in Media have railed against liberal bias in the classroom for years, but as outsiders, they lack both standing and a direct connection to campus life. CLP publications have both, allowing them to monitor bias in every classroom. In December, the editor of the Louisville Patriot, a CLP-organized publication at the University of Louisville, reported that sociology lecturer John McTighe had made a very, very tasteless joke about how religious conservatives who had voted for Bush ought to be shot. With sufficient outrage, the story jumped from the Patriot to the local media and the Internet, resulting in McTighe’s suspension and a thoroughly public debate of liberal bias in, of all places, Kentucky.
Sparking such scandals is “absolutely” a part of CLP’s plan, Blackwell says. “In the last year or so, not taking into account the flap over Ward Churchill, you have no doubt noticed more news coverage about complacent leftists’ abuses on campus,” he says. “Academia is the last unbreached citadel of the left, and I believe we are today over the moat.”
There’s still plenty to do before then. Chris Stio, an institute staffer who directed the Bush-Cheney field operations in northeast Michigan, warns his students not to buy into second-term crowing about America’s irrevocable slide into conservatism. “Enough people were yelling and screaming about the president that if they’d actually picked up the phone book and started calling, they might have won,” he says. “They went to concerts, they bashed the president, but they didn’t work. If enough people had, maybe we’d have a different president. The election was not inevitable. And too many think it was.”
Some progressives have come to that conclusion as well. “This was certainly needed 25 years ago,” says Peter Murray, of the Center for Progressive Leadership. “Investing beyond any individual election cycle is the way that we’re going to develop the progressive movement into a more robust, coordinated, compact force that can win elections.” But getting donors to think beyond 2008 is a tough sell. “Our budget this year will be just over a million. We’d love to be bigger than that,” he says. “It’s really going to be up to the progressive donor community as to whether they’re going to look long term and invest in a superstructure. If they do, we can build it relatively quickly.”
In the meantime, the Leadership Institute will continue its work. Blackwell has found plenty of humor in his recent vilification as the evil genius that smoothed fake reporter Jeff Gannon’s path to White House press briefings. “If they want to believe that there’s a vast conspiracy, and they want to waste their time trying to decide who gives all the orders to the conservative movement, well, let ‘em spend their time on that,” he says, laughing.
The Leadership Institute has better things to do, Blackwell says, than conspire to put a male escort up to lobbing softballs to White House spokesman Scott McClellan. For example, training the next generation of Karl Roves.
“Everyone knows that for certain breeds of dogs it is customary to cut their tails short when they are a few weeks old,” begins Blackwell’s lecture to us on the importance of releasing negative information on your opponent incrementally. “Every time you clip the puppy’s tail it hurts. It hurts. You might traumatize the puppy for life.”
“The moral is that if it’s your tail that’s being clipped, you want it clipped once,” concludes Blackwell. “But if you get a chance to clip your opponent’s tail, clip that puppy as often as you can.”
It may be hardball, but it isn’t cheating, and it would be far less effective if it were. “These are powerful techniques,” Blackwell tells the class at the end of his marathon lecture. “So I don’t want anyone going out of here and acting unethically. It’s not necessary.”
Jeff Horwitz, a former Salon editorial fellow, writes for the Washington City Paper.More Jeff Horwitz.
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)