"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)
As soon as President Bush finished the first-year commemoration of Hurricane Katrina he turned to the fifth-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in order to restore his faltering popularity and set the themes for the Republican Party in the midterm elections campaign. Through a series of speeches he proclaimed that he would “stay the course” in Iraq, which he conflated with his war on terror. Polls, after all, showed that his standing on Iraq was sliding while his standing on terror was steady. His effort to merge one into the other, as he had done since before the invasion, was an act of political alchemy. Speaking at a Republican fundraiser on Sept. 28, he proclaimed, “The party of FDR and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut and run.”
But on Oct. 5, an unimpressed Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, declared that Iraq was “drifting sideways,” and that if Bush’s policy was to continue it was time to “change the course.” On Oct. 8, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, a close associate of the elder Bush and now the chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that will report its recommendations early next year to the president, declared his support for Sen. Warner’s call to “change the course” “Yes, absolutely. And we’re taking a look at other alternatives.”
On Tuesday, a New York Times/CBS News poll reported, according to the Times, that “83 percent of respondents thought that Mr. Bush was either hiding something or mostly lying when he discussed how the war in Iraq was going.” That staggering number is the exact mirror image of the 83 percent of respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in September 2002 who believed Bush had a clear policy and therefore supported the invasion of Iraq.
Why did this change take so long? Why didn’t the public figure out the facts earlier? Was the press an obstacle to information and understanding?
The distance between the two polls has also been marked by the publication of two books written by Bob Woodward, “Bush at War,” in the fall of 2002 as the case for invasion was building, and “State of Denial,” published this fall during the greatest violence in Iraq since the invasion ended. In between, just before the 2004 election, Woodward issued “Plan of Attack,” a transitional volume. Woodward’s latest volume has provided further documentary evidence to buttress criticisms of Bush’s incompetence in Iraq and has contributed to the collapse of Bush’s fall political offensive.
In Woodward’s “Bush at War,” Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld appeared as decisive, commanding and resolute. In “State of Denial,” the same characters appear as ignorant, arrogant and out of control. In one book they are principled and stalwart; in the other they are devious and self-serving. Woodward sees no contrast between these obviously contradictory depictions and says merely that “circumstances” have changed. He judges himself to be the same Bob Woodward today that he was before, the same reporter getting the story, the same collector of facts.
Woodward’s self-conviction is that he pursues the story as he always has and as a result gets it straight. He insists he has not altered his method of proof, the sort of evidence he seeks and finds persuasive. Was he looking in the wrong places before? Did he change his mind? He rejects any attempt to reconcile his conflicting portraits. He is Sgt. Friday of “Dragnet”: Just the facts, ma’am. But his exposés almost always require further explication. His confidence about his power to produce the most revealing story is the basis of his limitations. And the apparent earnestness with which he follows his linear method makes him susceptible to the dangerous liaison.
Woodward doesn’t see himself in any political context, but as someone who can be trusted to report what he sees and because of this virtue entrusted by insiders with their true accounts. By secret sharing with insiders he is certified to tell the story, and that certification gives him the aura of truth. As the insiders’ insider he becomes the Washington journalists’ journalist. He remains assured of the power of his method — matter over mind. In his books Woodward is the constant narrator and hidden protagonist. Now Woodward becomes Pirandello: “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”
Though Woodward presents himself as antiseptic, wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves, immune to the political infections he handles, he has made obvious choices to devote himself to certain stories that might have clear consequences rather than others, and these stories have led his readers down a winding road. It is not only the circumstances that have changed; his perception of them has shifted as well, though he does not acknowledge it. Woodward’s demurrals obscure his political journey over the past decade.
On one level, the Woodward story is a transparent, easily reported tale of a Washington player who in his own idiosyncratic way represents the drift of chattering class conventional wisdom, from envious contempt for Bill Clinton (and Al Gore) to blind infatuation with Bush the hero to sudden disdain for Bush the failure.
In the 1990s, Woodward hopped aboard the pseudo-scandal bandwagon, hoping to bring down a future president, Gore, by relying once again on a Deep Throat in the FBI. Instead of former Deputy Director Mark Felt, Woodward’s Watergate source, he was promoted, befitting his stature, gaining then Director Louis Freeh as his source. Freeh had his own motives. As director of a bureau beset by scandal and mismanagement, threatened with evisceration by the cannibals in the Republican Congress, he threw in his lot with them. Congressional investigations into the FBI screeched to a halt. Freeh assigned more than 1,000 agents to a criminal probe of campaign finance corruption in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, the largest FBI investigation in its history until after Sept. 11.
Woodward’s drumbeat of stories portended the unmaking of the vice president. His byline appeared on pieces flatly reporting that the Chinese government had siphoned funds into the Clinton-Gore campaign. Here is Woodward on Feb. 13, 1997: “A Justice Department investigation into improper political fund-raising activities has uncovered evidence that representatives of the People’s Republic of China sought to direct contributions from foreign sources to the Democratic National Committee before the 1996 presidential campaign, officials familiar with the inquiry said.”
On March 2, 1997, as Republicans demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Gore, Woodward weighed in with a 2,700-word story on Gore as “solicitor-in-chief.” But Woodward’s stories came to naught. In the end, no special prosecutor was named, a Republican Senate committee issued a report admitting the charges were baseless, and not a single Clinton administration official was indicted for wrongdoing. Thinking he was a big-game hunter, Woodward had played paintball. But Woodward’s splattering of Gore helped set the stage for the Republican smear campaign of 2000. To the degree that Woodward damaged Gore’s reputation, he contributed to the narrow vote margin that wound up with the Supreme Court giving the presidency to George W. Bush.
On Bush, Woodward is the storyteller whose self-amazement at the twists and turns of his own stories provides a dramatic element. As he draws back the curtain, he presents his astonishment as the emotion to be mimicked by the audience. It’s a manufactured surprise that genuinely surprises him. The reaction to his recent exposés derives impact from his confabulation of the characters in his two previous books. He fails to grasp his complicity in creating the stereotypes he’s now debunking. For Woodward, surprise is the lesson — it’s the big story. And it’s his state of denial.
Woodward’s paramount claim of authority is that he has unparalleled access to the inside. But his surprise is the proof he was never an insider. He’s not blinkered by being too much the insider, as some critics assert, but by the illusion of being an insider.
The Bush administration critique of Woodward’s latest book is that he has provided an outlet for losers. Rather than being the story of the insiders and the winners, like “Bush at War,” this is the tale of the defeated. “In a book like this,” White House press secretary Tony Snow briefed on Sept. 29, “you’re going to see people who are on the losing side of arguments being especially outspoken about their opinions and nobody will listen to them.”
The things Woodward discovered were not what the Bush administration was prepared for him to find. In “Bush at War,” he was leaked National Security Council documents with official approval and given unexampled access to top officials, including hours of valuable face time with the president himself. Woodward, in fact, had never had much access to a president before. He confused the interviews with access to truth and perhaps intimacy.
Woodward was even more expansive in his laudatory description of Bush during his TV interviews than in the book itself. On CNN’s “Larry King Live,” on Nov. 18, 2002, Woodward explained that Bush was “very reflective about how he digested the presidency, what he had learned, what he had learned from his father, some of the convictions he had.” (In “State of Denial,” we learn some of what Bush ignored from his father.) “Bush is in control,” Woodward continued. (In “State of Denial,” we learn some of what the president didn’t know and when he didn’t know it.) Woodward also rebutted the notion that Vice President Cheney had amassed unusual power in his office. “There is this idea out in the land that Cheney is really secretly running things, or somebody else is running things,” Woodward explained. “Cheney is the first adviser in many ways, but the president makes the decisions. He’s the one who makes the calls.” (In “State of Denial,” we learn about Cheney’s unbound power.)
A month later, on Dec. 11, 2002, as Bush began ratcheting up the campaign for an invasion of Iraq, Woodward appeared again on “Larry King Live,” to lend his credibility to Bush’s motives. “He is very, being very practical about this,” said Woodward. In “Bush at War” Woodward did what the administration could not do for itself. The renowned journalist lent his reputation to the image of Bush as Karl Rove wished him to be portrayed — as a master of men. Bush’s political strategist and others in the administration had figured out Woodward’s method and timeworn plot structure and filled it up. They calculated that he would report without context and promote the carefully arranged access as the ultimate truth. The still glistening veneer of Watergate made the sheen Woodward put on Bush that much more believable. But in the run-up to the Iraq war, Woodward’s informative method had the effect of helping to cover up the disinformation campaign. Woodward’s objectivity was the most convincing mode for spin.
Given Woodward’s past close cooperation, the Bush administration is now suffering a profound sense of betrayal. In “State of Denial” Woodward has relied upon malcontents, which is what makes this book his most valuable and telling since “All the President’s Men,” also, one remembers, based on sources who were outside the charmed circle of power. The anecdotes that cut to the bone in “State of Denial” come from those shunted to the periphery.
For all the nuggets of gold he has unearthed, Woodward’s mining of sources has characteristically missed potentially rich veins. Once again, he is omniscient without discernment. The jagged pieces of information he has dug up are smoothed over by his authorial authority. He often doesn’t follow up on his best material because he is chained to his one-dimensional objectivity.
“State of Denial” begins in 2000, with George H.W. Bush fretful about George W. Bush’s utter ignorance of foreign policy, and the elder Bush’s securing Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, a longtime friend and ally of the former president’s, as tutor. “Bandar,” Woodward reports George W. Bush saying at an early encounter, “I guess you’re the best asshole who knows about the world. Explain to me one thing … Why should I care about North Korea?” Woodward quotes the former president speaking to Bandar in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 about the current one: “He’s having a bad time. Help him out.” However delicious these and the other Bandar stories, Woodward never ponders the House of Saud/House of Bush family ties or the appropriateness of the father entrusting his son’s education to a Saudi prince and its implications for U.S. policy.
Similarly, in describing the blackballing of State Department experts from the civil reconstruction team in post-invasion Iraq by Cheney and a “cabal” in his office, Woodward never defines who or what this “cabal” might be. Woodward also mentions that Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi had influential “patrons” within the administration, but doesn’t say who they were. The words “neoconservative” and “neoconservatism” do not appear in “State of Denial.”
The contradictions among his various books on Bush don’t concern Woodward. They might bother him if he demonstrated an interest in the motives of the individuals he writes about, and their politics, histories and ideas. But these are beyond his ken. Woodward’s “State of Denial,” in its implicit repudiation of his previous work, stands at the far end in the recent literature of political disillusionment from Francis Fukuyama’s “America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Legacy of Neoconservatism.” In it, one of the progenitors of neoconservatism agonizingly comes to terms with its unintended consequences. “I have concluded,” Fukuyama writes, “that neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something that I can no longer support.”
That sort of self-conscious reappraisal is alien to Woodward, who clings to the fallacy of objectivity. He continues his adamant claim that he is consistent, operating as usual with the same tools and same approach. Because he accumulates stories in the same way, he cannot see or admit that some of them make others false. All the stories, as he understands it, are factual, so how can they be at odds?
By his inability to acknowledge that he has changed, Woodward sells himself short. In “State of Denial,” chronicling the “losing side,” the opponents of the prevailing insiders, his vitality as a reporter has been restored. But Tony Snow is more cogent on Woodward than Woodward. The Bush administration, from the start, for good or ill, has had him dead to rights.
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.
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)