"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)
During the holiday interregnum between the election of the new Congress and its swearing in, the death of former President Gerald R. Ford at the age of 93 evoked nostalgia for his interim “time to heal” (the title of his memoir) after the resignation of President Nixon. Like all nostalgia, it was distorting and disabling. Surprisingly, the one shattering the false mood was none other than Ford himself, speaking from the grave. Beyond the River Styx he could hardly silence the broadcasters attempting to outdo one another in reaching for high notes of banality. But he left behind words cautioning against the abuse of history, especially by those who served as his aides, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who twisted the lessons of his presidency to provide the underpinnings of George W. Bush’s policies. Ford’s condemnation demonstrated the continued relevance of the contentious politics that enveloped his administration and revealed just how little healing has occurred among the divided Republican elites since Richard Nixon’s fall.
His last testament was a final act of political finesse. Obeying the unwritten protocol of former presidents not to criticize a sitting one (a sketchy rule never upheld by Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter), he vouchsafed his commentary to a reporter guaranteed to publish it for maximum exposure and thus, Ford must have known, damage. Having suffered a stroke in 2000, Ford must also have known that his remarks on Bush and the others would appear while Bush was still in office and therefore of more than historical interest.
“I don’t think I would have gone to war,” Ford told Bob Woodward in an interview conducted two and a half years ago. “Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction,” Ford said. “And now, I’ve never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do … I don’t think, if I had been president, on the basis of the facts as I saw them publicly, I don’t think I would have ordered the Iraq war.”
Ford also agreed with Colin Powell’s assessment of Cheney as having a “fever” about invading Iraq. “I think that’s probably true,” he said, adding that Cheney had become “more pugnacious.”
Ford’s judgments are best understood as reflections on his own presidency. He describes Bush with a disdain he reserved previously only for one other man he believed had contempt for facts — Ronald Reagan. If he was anything, Ford was consistent, and he was consistently hostile to Reagan’s right-wing politics, which he grasped had metastasized into Bush’s radicalism. Even worse, two of his formerly close staff members were chiefly responsible for the “justifying” of a disastrous policy, “a big mistake,” contrary to “the facts.”
Nixon chose Ford as his vice president after Spiro Agnew pleaded nolo contendere to bribery charges and resigned. Nixon still had faith in his own obstruction of justice. He never anticipated that he himself would be compelled to resign rather than face certain removal from office in the Watergate scandal. When he did, the pins of his political act collapsed onto Ford. Nixon’s style had been to play both ends of the Republican Party against the middle, which he could then claim to occupy. He convinced conservatives and moderates that he was really one of them even as they rightly suspected him of cynical manipulation. When he imploded, the Republican center that he had come to personify was incinerated too. Ford was left to stir the ashes.
As the first unelected vice president, he was the first person to accede to the presidency as the result of a Senate confirmation, not the people’s vote. Throughout his brief term he struggled for legitimacy. His pardon of Nixon a month after assuming office heightened his crisis. Saving the country from a drawn-out criminal trial of the disgraced Nixon, he thought he would be relieved of the burden of the past — “I had to get the monkey off my back,” he wrote in his memoir — but instead he sacrificed himself. His popularity plummeted, never to rise above 50 percent again. The absence of legitimacy impinged on his ability to fend off the Republican right.
Upon becoming president Ford had called for “recovery, not revenge.” But revenge was already in the air. Gov. Reagan of California refused to call on the new president when he traveled to Washington, a calculated snub. Ford’s selection of Nelson Rockefeller as vice president triggered Reagan’s decision to run against him for the Republican nomination. Within the Republican Party, Ford’s nomination of Rockefeller received far more disapproval than his pardon of Nixon. The governor of New York was the symbol of moderate Republicanism, a hate object for decades. Reagan’s motive, however, was ultimately personal pique — he was “disappointed that he had been passed over himself,” according to his biographer Lou Cannon. Reagan thought of himself as the rightful heir apparent and Ford as nothing but a “caretaker.”
Ford had a dismally low regard for Reagan, dismissing the threat of his potential challenge. “I hadn’t taken those warnings seriously because I didn’t take Reagan seriously.” Ford considered Reagan “simplistic,” dogmatic and lazy. Reagan, for his part, argued that Nixon’s 1972 mandate was not a Republican victory but an ideological one for junking the old Republicanism and that Ford was betraying it. “The tragedy of Watergate,” Reagan said, was that it “obscured the meaning of that ’72 election.”
Reagan accused Ford of fatally weakening national security. He opposed Ford’s pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union through Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that led to treaties reducing the production of nuclear weapons and Ford’s signing of the Helsinki Accords in August 1975, which held the Soviet Union for the first time to standards of human rights. Reagan’s critique appeared against the backdrop of the collapse of South Vietnam and the scene on April 30, 1975, of helicopters evacuating U.S. personnel from the roof of the U.S. Embassy.
Ford’s battles with the Democratic Congress made him seem impotent. He issued 65 vetoes of major pieces of legislation, including appropriations bills intended to ameliorate the harsh effects of a recession.
In April 1975, the Senate Operations Committee under the chairmanship of Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, released 14 reports on the abuse of intelligence. It chronicled “excessive executive power,” “excessive secrecy,” “avoidance of the rule of law,” “rogue” operations and even spying on domestic politics. “Whatever the theory,” the report concluded, “the fact was that intelligence activities were essentially exempted from the normal system of checks and balances. Such executive power, not founded in law or checked by Congress or the courts, contained the seeds of abuse and its growth was to be expected.”
Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld — moved from White House chief of staff to secretary of defense as his deputy, Dick Cheney, was promoted to the chief of staff job — created a Team B of hawks within the Pentagon who attacked the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate for supposedly underestimating the Soviet Union’s military strength. Rumsfeld began making speeches assailing détente, claiming that the Soviets were flagrantly violating treaties negotiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, another hate object of the right who was long associated with Vice President Rockefeller. The CIA officially responded by calling the Team B report “complete fiction.” And CIA Director George H.W. Bush said that Team B set “in motion a process that lends itself to manipulation for purposes other than estimative accuracy.” Nonetheless, Rumsfeld’s inflation of the Red menace, based on faulty data, turned up the flame under Ford. Rumsfeld had his own motive: He wanted to be named vice president, a nomination that in the end went to Sen. Bob Dole, considered acceptable to Reagan.
In anticipation of the contest with Reagan, in December 1975, Ford pressured Rockefeller to announce he did not want to run as his vice president. Ford later confessed that dumping Rockefeller was the “most cowardly thing I’ve ever done,” Barry Werth reports in his recent book on Ford’s presidency, “31 Days: The Crisis That Gave Us the Government We Have Today.” “I was angry at myself for showing cowardice in not saying to the ultraconservatives: it’s going to be Ford and Rockefeller, whatever the consequences.”
Rockefeller advised Ford: “I’m now going to say it frankly … Rumsfeld wants to be President of the United States. He has given George Bush [another potential vice-presidential choice] the deep six by putting him in the CIA, he has gotten me out … He was third on your list and now he has gotten rid of two of us … You are not going to be able to put him on the [ticket] because he is defense secretary, but he is not going to want anybody who can possibly be elected with you on that ticket … I have to say I have a serious question about his loyalty to you.”
Had Ford run with Rockefeller it’s possible he would have lost the GOP nomination to Reagan. Reagan would likely have been buried in a landslide — and perhaps the right wing along with him. If Ford had been the nominee, it’s very possible he would have won the election because with Rockefeller on the ticket he would probably have carried New York.
In the Republican primaries, after faltering initially, Reagan seized on Ford’s agreement to turn over the Panama Canal to Panamanian administration as a “giveaway.” “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re going to keep it!” He won the primary in North Carolina, revived his chances and marched into the convention just short of the delegate votes he needed. There he proposed a series of platform challenges to détente, including a denunciation of the Helsinki Accords as “taking from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day getting it.” The Ford camp at the convention, led by Cheney, accepted all of these planks.
When Ford barely gained the nomination (James A. Baker, a friend of George H.W. Bush’s, served as his delegate counter), Reagan gave the most grudging acknowledgment. At the convention, on the final night, only when Ford persistently pleaded with Reagan, who was sitting in a skybox, to address the convention did he do so. Reagan delivered a speech that ended with an unreferenced quotation from the hero past of the Republican right, Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “There is no substitute for victory.” It could not have been a more stinging ideological rebuke of Ford. Afterward, Reagan gingerly campaigned for the Republican ticket, declining Ford’s request to join him on the stump in California. After his narrow loss, Ford told interviewers that Reagan’s “divisive” candidacy and subsequent behavior had cost him the election. Thus the “time to heal” ended.
Ford was the last regular Republican to serve as president. Reagan became president campaigning against Jimmy Carter on almost exactly the same charges of weakness and appeasement that he had leveled against Ford, down to the Panama Canal Treaty, which Carter signed. Reagan’s running mate, George H.W. Bush, had already made compromises, as a congressman opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, to lend him the coloration of a Texas Republican. Swallowing Reagan’s program, including what Bush had earlier called “voodoo economics,” was essential to his rise. Yet his son traced the causes of his father’s defeat in 1992 to his remaining moderation. George W. Bush’s running mate agreed. That Cheney, Ford’s chief of staff and the elder Bush’s secretary of defense, bolstered and encouraged these impulses provided Bush with conclusive proof of their correctness.
Cheney and Rumsfeld, since their days in the Nixon White House, had observed the imperial presidency besieged. Under Ford, they saw it reach its low ebb, and they were determined to restore the presidency as they imagined it should be — unchecked by an intrusive Congress, shielded from the press, and unobstructed by staff professionals in the intelligence community who did not clearly understand the present dangers that required just such an executive.
After the 2000 election, Vice President-elect Cheney held a dinner at his house where he held forth that the new administration would finish off Saddam Hussein, a job that the elder Bush had left undone, opening him to charges of softness. Rumsfeld, appointed by the new president as secretary of defense at the suggestion of Cheney, named one of the key members of the Ford-era Team B, Paul Wolfowitz, as deputy secretary. At the first meeting of the National Security Council with Bush, Wolfowitz raised the question of invading Iraq.
Ford’s posthumous dissent on Iraq has carried no more weight with President Bush than those of Ford’s (and the elder Bush’s) national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker, or even the quiet repudiation of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, theoretician of the Reagan doctrine. Ford stands for the side of his father that Bush associates with defeat.
But as Bush prepares to announce his escalation of the Iraq war, he and Cheney made a final use of Ford, eulogizing him for his pardon of Nixon, which they turned into a metaphor for their own will in the face of crumbling support. “The criticism was fierce,” said Cheney. “But President Ford had larger concerns at heart.” Bush hailed him for his “firm resolve” and “character.” “In politics,” Cheney said, “it can take a generation or more for a matter to settle, for tempers to cool.” This is no time to heal. Let history sort it out.
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)