"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)
Topics: Politics News
The tension of possibly being asked an impertinent question about Valerie Plame was unbearable for Robert Novak. Before it could be posed on CNN’s Aug. 4 “Inside Politics,” Novak growled a vulgarism, threw off his microphone, and stalked off the set. Within an hour, a CNN spokesperson announced that the Washington columnist, who had been one of CNN’s original marquee attractions, had engaged in “inexcusable and unacceptable” behavior and was suspended: “We’ve asked Mr. Novak to take some time off.”
After his 49 years in Washington, rising to become a virtual institution unto himself, was this hasty exit the end for Bob Novak? He had operated for decades according to the rules and folkways of Washington as he understood them. He had worked and badgered and bullied his way to the top of the greasy pole. Novak was not just a reporter, or even a columnist who could make or break political careers, but a media celebrity. He was accepted as a charter member of the guild of Washington correspondents. Until now his status lent him insulation from any error or offense.
CNN executives and producers had held discussions that reached a recent breaking point about what to do about their Novak problem. Ever since he had written a column on July 14, 2003, revealing the identity of an undercover CIA operative, citing “two senior administration officials” as his sources, he had become a principal figure in a major news story. On July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, disclosing that he had been sent on a secret mission by the CIA before the Iraq war to assess whether Saddam Hussein was seeking to purchase enriched yellowcake uranium in Niger. Wilson had concluded that Saddam was not. Despite Wilson’s finding, confirmed by two other reports to the CIA, Bush included 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address declaring that Saddam was seeking Niger uranium to produce nuclear weapons. That fear became the ultimate rationale for the invasion of Iraq. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” said then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Wilson’s Op-Ed piece was the first revelation that the reason given for the war was based on false information. The administration reflexively sought to strike back at Wilson’s credibility by suggesting that his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA operative, had been responsible for his being sent on that mission. The original assignment, however, came from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and others in the CIA had authorized Wilson’s trip. Robert Novak was the first person to expose Plame’s identity.
Soon a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate whether the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, stipulating a 10-year prison sentence, or any other law, had been violated as a result of the leak to Novak. As fingers were pointed in the direction of Bush’s senior political advisor, Karl Rove, and Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the prosecutor questioned the president and vice president as well as other White House officials.
The prosecutor then turned his gaze to reporters who might have had information. He subpoenaed Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times. Cooper eventually agreed to testify, while Miller refused and was jailed for contempt of court. Both had argued that revealing their sources was a breach of their First Amendment right as journalists.
While Cooper and Miller were embroiled in legal proceedings — and Miller is now locked in a federal prison in Alexandria, Va. — Novak, who wrote the initial story, maintained silence about whether he had testified and what he knew. He had become the man of mystery.
Miller’s sentencing tightened the ring around Novak. He had covered numerous politicians in trouble, but finding himself in this spotlight was a novelty for him. Appearing on C-SPAN just before Miller went to jail, he expressed irritation at her and Cooper for making a case against testifying about their sources. “I don’t know why they’re upset with me,” Novak said. “They ought to worry about themselves. I worry about myself.”
Over the past two years, he has offered several conflicting accounts of the circumstances surrounding the information he received about Plame’s identity. “I didn’t dig it out; it was given to me,” he told Newsday in his first explanation. “They thought it was significant, they gave me the name, and I used it.” Then, on Sept. 29, 2003, the day the criminal investigation was formally announced, Novak declared on CNN, “Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this.” Shifting back and forth in his chair, he engaged in a show of bravado. “It looks like the ambassador [Wilson] really doesn’t know who leaked this to me,” he said. He turned to a guest on the show, Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, and asked, “Do you know whether my source was in the White House? Do you know that at all?”
Two days later, back on CNN, Novak decried the investigation. “This kind of scandal … is Washington at its worst,” he said. Three days after that, he appeared again on CNN to defend his source as someone who “is not a partisan gunslinger.” Then he fell into radio silence, declining to answer questions, on his counsel’s advice.
But according to the Washington Post, on July 27, 2005, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow “testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson’s wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed. Harlow said that after Novak’s call, he checked Plame’s status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame’s name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.”
Suddenly, an obviously upset Novak broke through his wall of silence. Five days later, on Aug. 1, he wrote a column that reflected his internal churning. He began by noting that his lawyer “urged me not to write this” but that he felt compelled to defend “my integrity.” He insisted that he had used “suggesting,” not “authorizing,” to describe Plame’s role, and that Harlow’s statements in any case were “meaningless.” He explained: “Once it was determined that Wilson’s wife suggested the mission, she could be identified as ‘Valerie Plame’ by reading her husband’s entry in ‘Who’s Who in America.’”
But Novak raised more questions than he answered. Had he in fact learned Plame’s identity from “Who’s Who”? What happened to those “two senior administration officials”? Most important, Novak still would not reveal whether he had testified and what he had said. Under the circumstances, it is unimaginable that he has not already proved to be a cooperative witness before the prosecutor. Had he not cooperated, he would have been subjected to the same subpoenas and contempt proceedings as Cooper and Miller. He also would have had to appear before the grand jury. It seems almost certain that his attorney arranged for Novak to give his testimony under oath in an interview with the prosecutor. Unlike an appearance before the grand jury, where no lawyer is permitted to be present, a witness who agrees to an interview is allowed to bring his attorney. Matt Cooper’s detailed account of his grand jury testimony, published in Time, continued to fuel the question of what Novak told the prosecutor.
At CNN, Novak’s Aug. 1 column created something of a crisis. For some time, the news director and producers had tried to ask Novak about his knowledge of the Plame affair. How could the network claim to be a serious news organization if it gave Novak a free pass? Now they decided that Novak had to be asked about “Who’s Who.” Is that where he learned about Valerie Plame? Or was he diverting attention from where he really got the information?
CNN anchor Ed Henry placed a copy of “Who’s Who” on the desk in front of Novak as he prepared to parry with his usual foil, Democratic political consultant James Carville. The proximate subject was the Senate candidacy of Republican Rep. Katherine Harris of Florida. “Don’t be too sure she’s going to lose … all the establishment’s against her and I’ve seen these Republican anti-establishment candidates who do pretty well,” Novak said. Carville attempted to make a comment, but Novak cut him off. “Just let me finish what I’m going to say, James. Please, I know you hate to hear me, but you have …” Carville replied that Novak has “got to show these right-wingers that he’s got backbone, you know. It’s why the Wall Street Journal editorial page is watching you. Show ‘em you’re tough.” “Well, I think that’s bullshit!” spat back Novak. “And I hate that.” He turned to Henry, glancing at the volume of “Who’s Who,” and said, “Just let it go.” With that, he removed his microphone and departed.
“I’m sorry as well that Bob Novak obviously left the set a little early,” Henry explained to viewers. “I had told him in advance that we were going to ask him about the CIA leak case. He was not here for me to be able to ask him about that. Hopefully we’ll be able to ask him about that in the future.” But perhaps not for a long time, until CNN decides when to lift Novak’s suspension, which some at CNN have suggested to me may not be until the Plame imbroglio is entirely resolved.
Just last year, the investigation was a laughing matter for Novak. He appeared onstage at the annual dinner at the Gridiron Club, the exclusive inner circle of the Washington press corps, of which he is a long-standing member. As a gag, Novak was attired as former diplomat Wilson, wearing top hat and cutaway coat, singing to the tune of “Once I Had a Secret Love”: “Novak had a secret source who lived within the great White House … so he outed a girl spy the way princes of darkness do … Now John Ashcroft asks Bob who and how, could be headed to the old hoosegow.” He belted out his last line with panache: “Cross the right wing you may try, Bob Novak’s coming after you.” The press corps hooted and clapped. They loved that Bob.
Novak began in one era of journalism and helped pioneer another. His career spanned the transformation of the Washington correspondent into media star, from front-page grub to buck-raking showboat. Novak came to Washington from the hinterlands in 1956 as a young man to report on the Associated Press’ congressional beat. The Wall Street Journal snatched him up as its Senate reporter, drawing the eye of Rowland Evans, a writer on the New York Herald-Tribune. Evans was looking for a partner, what journalists call a “legman,” to produce a syndicated column. Novak, the wire service machine, fit the bill.
Evans and Novak’s column was highly successful, and together they coauthored valuable books on the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. (Their later book on Ronald Reagan was a rush job that was not of the same quality, as Evans freely admitted to me.) The polished, Yale-educated Evans was a smooth social presence within the Georgetown set. Novak was someone he worked with every day but rarely, if ever, saw in the evening. The two men were an odd couple, not because of any divergence of political perspective, but of class.
Novak did not truly come into his own until the advent of cable television altered the character of the Washington press corps. Once the archetype of the old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter and political inside dopester, Novak’s identity changed overnight when he appeared on CNN on its opening week in 1980. The raw no-name network saw in Novak a symbol of credibility and authority. In addition to his frequent appearances on news programs, he and Evans were given a weekly interview show. Two years later, Novak became a regular on “The McLaughlin Group,” which broke the mold of TV talk shows. It was not a calm, modulated, informative round table of polite reporters but a food fight. Novak thrived in the format, emerging as a vituperative, dismissive and mean-spirited bully, a cartoonlike character who attracted and repelled viewers. CNN promptly rewarded him with another show, “Crossfire,” after the initial conservative host, Pat Buchanan, left. The liberal side of the program was filled with a shifting cast, while Novak was its constant centerpiece.
Although both Novak and McLaughlin were conservatives, they had an abrasive relationship. In the final analysis, Novak was jealous that McLaughlin was the sole proprietor of the program and reaped the profits. So he pulled aside the other figures on the show — his friends Al Hunt, then bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and Mark Shields, the columnist — and made them an offer to join a new talk show. Novak cut a deal with CNN that made him the executive producer and star of “The Capital Gang.”
Novak had now become a cottage industry. Evans retired, but Novak’s column remained syndicated to more than 300 newspapers, including the Washington Post. The Evans and Novak show turned into “The Novak Zone.” Novak was ubiquitous on CNN. “He’s Novak — he can do what he wants,” a CNN source told me. He was also a frequent guest on the political panel of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He continued the political newsletter he had begun with Evans, an important stream of income. He charged high fees to business executives to attend his retreats, which featured leading politicians who appeared at Novak’s beck and call. They understood the implicit exchange for positive coverage.
Novak’s columns always play favorites, ranging from neoconservative Richard Perle to supply-sider Richard Gilder. Gilder, who has run the Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee, also happens to be Novak’s investment advisor, in charge of his financial portfolio. Twice, Karl Rove was dismissed from George H.W. Bush’s campaign, in 1980 and 1992, respectively, for leaking to Novak. Those who agree to serve as sources for him receive protection from his wrath and an outlet when their interests and Novak’s coincide. “Look, I’m not David Broder,” Novak told Amy Sullivan of the Washington Monthly. “I’m not one of the real good guys. They try to make things nicer. That’s not my deal.”
Novak lives and breathes the nuts and bolts of politics, so it was somewhat startling when he held a public conversion to Catholicism from Judaism in 1998. He was raised as a Jew in Joliet, Ill., but his columns have been almost uniformly hostile to Israel. No one had ever seen his spiritual side before. His conversion ceremony at St. Patrick’s in Washington was packed with invited guests, liberals and conservatives alike, with whom he has appeared on talk shows, from Fred Barnes to Margaret Carlson.
Novak’s conversion was more than met the eye, as he became a member of the tightly knit far-right Catholic coterie clustered in Washington. Andrew Sullivan, the conservative Catholic writer, observed: “Perhaps the least-known aspect of Robert Novak’s public persona is that he is a convert not just to Catholicism but to its most hard-line sect, Opus Dei. It helps explain Novak’s occasional, weird digressions into defenses of the most far-right social causes, and also why those columns appear, without this context, to be, well, slightly unhinged.”
Just as the children of many notables in Washington land jobs in politics or government, so Novak’s son Alex surfaced as the marketing director of Regnery Publishing, the conservative book imprint. Since Alex has held his position, his father has promoted four Regnery books in his columns and on TV shows. During the 2004 campaign, Novak went all-out to hype Regnery’s big product of the season, “Unfit for Command,” a smear job of John Kerry’s war record, by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Regnery’s owner, Tom Phillips, also owns Eagle Publishing, which is the distributor of Novak’s newsletter.
For years, Novak has used his various platforms to promote whatever causes and individuals he deems fit. Along the way, he has fostered any number of false assertions, accusations and innuendoes without any consequences to his standing in Washington. In 1989, he published a malicious rumor promoted by operatives at the Republican National Committee about the supposed sexual orientation of then House Majority Leader Tom Foley, referring to “the alleged homosexuality of one Democrat who might move up the succession ladder.” Foley felt prompted to declare: “I am, of course, not a homosexual.”
After the death of I.F. Stone, the iconoclastic, independent journalist of the left, Novak said on CNN that Stone had been a paid agent of the KGB. Author Eric Alterman, a columnist for the Nation and a friend of Stone’s, wrote, “Since Stone was dead by this time, however, Novak was free to make his McCarthyite accusation without fear of a libel suit. I wrote to the president of CNN shortly thereafter to ask for a correction, but received no response.”
Throughout 1997, Novak relied upon a source who had in fact been in the pay of the KGB, FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was apprehended and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Novak used Hanssen as his principal source for stories attempting to prove that Attorney General Janet Reno was covering up Clinton campaign finance scandals. The innuendo that Novak published turned out to be a flow of disinformation. In 2002, he wrote a column divulging his dependence on the spy. “To be honest to my readers, I must reveal it.”
But none of this caused any disquiet at the newspaper that syndicates his column, the Chicago Sun-Times; at CNN; or at his most important outlet, the Washington Post. His friends and acquaintances continued their celebration of Novak the celebrity. In 2001, he was the honored guest at one of Washington’s major charity roasts. When the media stars had finished their mild ribs, he took the stage. Above all, he said, he had learned one primary lesson from his long Washington experience: “There are two kinds of people in this town — sources … and targets, and you better make up your mind which you are.”
For Novak, the Plame leak was business as usual. The only extraordinary wrinkle was the appointment of a special prosecutor. But immediately after Patrick Fitzgerald was named to the post, Novak’s colleagues rallied to the defense of his reputation. Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor, declared: “All of us who know Bob Novak know he’s one of the best reporters in the business and has been for nearly half a century.” The editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Steve Huntley, reminded everyone that Novak remains “one of the best reporters in this country.” But no testimonial, Gridiron Club dinner or charity roast had the power to lift the pressure that prompted Novak to walk off the set of his beloved CNN last week.
As Novak now attempts to fend off his pursuers, he resorts to his old bullying; he brandishes his status, invents new stories, and tries to bargain with the truth. With each failed effort, he has become more frantic, racing from pillar to post, from television talk show to syndicated column, tossing off ever more illogical and tortured alibis that only heighten suspicion of him. By plying more tricks of the trade, his patented tidbits of disinformation, he confirms the impression of petty squalor. Instead of escaping through the fog of his distortions, he rivets searchlights on his desperate flight.
The self-described “prince of darkness” appears blinded by the light. He cannot see himself as everyone else does. He has called so much attention to himself that he casts no shadow at all. He is completely exposed. He has become a fugitive who cannot find a safe house in the town that he thought was his bailiwick. His craven torment and wild flailing at his inability to halt his self-destruction might cast him as a Dostoevskian figure. But his absence of doubt deprives him of the depth of existential crisis. Bob Novak now resembles Gypo Nolan, the Judas of John Ford’s classic 1935 movie, “The Informer,” an IRA traitor on the run, used to the comfort of matey sycophants, but whom no one will shield and who unwittingly betrays himself in the end.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.More Sidney Blumenthal.
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)