"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)
(updated below – updated again)
Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column this morning is a true tour de force in explaining the function of our Beltway media stars. Cohen’s column — which grieves over the grave and tragic injustice brought down upon Lewis “Scooter” Libby — should be immediately laminated and placed into the Smithsonian History Museum as an exhibit which, standing alone, will explain so much about what happened to our country over the last six years. It is really that good.
One could write media criticisms for the next several years and not come close to capturing the essence of our Beltway media the way Cohen did in this single paragraph:
With the sentencing of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Fitzgerald has apparently finished his work, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, to make a mountain out of a molehill. At the urging of the liberal press (especially the New York Times), he was appointed to look into a run-of-the-mill leak and wound up prosecuting not the leaker — Richard Armitage of the State Department — but Libby, convicted in the end of lying. This is not an entirely trivial matter since government officials should not lie to grand juries, but neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics. As with sex or real estate, it is often best to keep the lights off.
That really is the central belief of our Beltway press, captured so brilliantly by Cohen in this perfect nutshell. When it comes to the behavior of our highest and most powerful government officials, our Beltway media preaches, “it is often best to keep the lights off.” If that isn’t the perfect motto for our bold, intrepid, hard-nosed political press, then nothing is.
That is the motto that should be inscribed at the top of Fred Hiatt’s Editorial Page in pretty calligraphy. And let us acknowledge what a truly superb job they have been doing in keeping the lights off.
Eric Boehlert (h/t Attaturk) previously documented just a few of Cohen’s heroic light-blocking efforts over the years (“The case for war is a good one,” pronounced Cohen in February of 2003), and my personal favorite is here, where Cohen mocked Howard Dean as a “fool or a Frenchman” for daring irreverently to question the obviously conclusive case made by the Serious Colin Powell about Iraq’s massive WMD stockpiles. As is true for so many of our Beltway elite, the fact that war opponents turned out to be so right, and our serious Beltway geniuses so wrong, has increased the contempt for those who were right; hence, in defending the pro-war Libby, Cohen hurls one insult after the next at war opponents and blames the Libby injustice on “them.”
Beyond coining the perfect motto for our political press, Cohen — in that special paragraph quoted above — also manages to pack in multiple falsehoods in service of his Libby defense. He tells his readers, for instance, that a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the Plame leak “at the urging of the liberal press,” and later on in the column he pins the blame for Libby’s terrible plight on “Antiwar sanctimony.” So sayeth the individual who plays the role of “liberal columnist” at the Washington Post, whose script on the Libby case would seem notably zealous even if it were published in National Review.
The Libby prosecution clearly was the dirty work of the leftist anti-war movement in this country, just as Cohen describes. After all, the reason Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed to investigate this matter was because a left-wing government agency (known as the “Central Intelligence Agency”) filed a criminal referral with the Justice Department, as the MoveOn-sympathizer CIA officials were apparently unhappy about the public unmasking of one of their covert agents.
In response, Bush’s left-wing anti-war Attorney General, John Ashcroft, judged the matter serious enough to recuse himself, leading Bush’s left-wing anti-war Deputy Attorney General, James Comey, to conclude that a Special Prosecutor was needed. In turn, Comey appointed Fitzgerald, the left-wing anti-war Republican Prosecutor and Bush appointee, who secured a conviction of Libby, in response to which left-wing anti-war Bush appointee Judge Reggie Walton imposed Libby’s sentence.
In other words, it all happened exactly the way Cohen described it this morning (Plame investigation and Libby conviction occurred because of “the liberal press,” “an unpopular war,” “opponents of the Iraq war,” “a vestigial Stalinist-era yearning for abasement,” and “Antiwar sanctimony”). Perhaps the most revealing part of Cohen’s column is this gem, where he protests how unfair it is that Patrick Fitzgerald was so mean and threatening in his investigation, and made all of those poor journalists so scared (“Much heroic braying turned into cries for mercy”):
As any prosecutor knows — and Martha Stewart can attest — white-collar types tend to have a morbid fear of jail.
Indeed, it is so terribly unfair to investigate powerful government officials because, as “white-collar types,” they have a “morbid fear of jail” — in contrast, of course, to blue-collar types, and darker ones still, who really do not mind prison at all. Why would they? It’s their natural habitat, where they belong. That is what prison is for.
That has been the real point here all along. The real injustice is that prison is simply not the place for the most powerful and entrenched members of the Beltway royal court, no matter how many crimes they commit. There is a grave indignity to watching our brave Republican elite be dragged before such lowly venues as a criminal court and be threatened with prison, as though they are common criminals or something. How disruptive and disrespectful and demeaning it all is.
The most valuable lesson of Cohen’s column — almost certainly the same lesson of the forthcoming pro-Libby book by Time‘s Norman Pearlstine, a book hailed by Cohen as a “vigorously written account” of the “train wreck” of the Libby investigation — is that the overriding allegiance of our permanent Beltway ruling class is to the royal court which accords them their status and prestige. That overarching allegiance overrides, easily, any supposed partisan, ideological or other allegiances which, in their assigned roles, they are ostensibly defending.
Thus, neoconservative Lewis Libby and “liberal pundit” Richard Cohen are peers and colleagues and comrades in every way that matters, which is why Cohen (and Hiatt and Pearlstine and all their friends) have so vigorously protested the Libby injustice. High members of the royal court are, first and foremost, defenders of their bloated and insulated swamp. And particularly the most revered and highest-ranking among them should never be punished, let alone imprisoned (said with whispered disgust), for their “dark politics” — whether that comes in the form of illegal eavesdropping, illegal torture, or illegal obstruction of justice.
And what is to be avoided first and foremost is any light being shined on the underbelly of how the royal court functions. How dare Patrick Fitzgerald, urged on by International A.N.S.W.E.R. and the other rambunctious anti-war street protestors, stick his nose into their business. It is often best to keep the lights off.
If even our Beltway media — rather, especially them — argues that criminality by government officials should not be punished, and that light should not be shined on what they do, then pervasive government corruption and deceit are inevitable. That is just obvious. And that is why Cohen’s column so perfectly captures what has happened in our country and the truly indispensable role which most of our political press has played in all of it.
Our media stars have not merely stood idly by while our highest government officials engage in endless deceit and corruption. They actively defend it, enable it, justify it, and participate in it. Keeping the lights off is their principal function, one which — with rare and noble exceptions — they perform quite eagerly.
UPDATE: One other point worth making here, a point I make in A Tragic Legacy this way:
The relationship between official Washington and the permanent Beltway media class has become infinitely closer and more cooperative than ever before. Rather than acting as adversarial to one another, the most powerful political officials in Washington and the most influential media stars are part of the same system and nearly all are abundant beneficiaries of it. Many elite national journalists are incentivized to protect and defend powerful political leaders with whom they so frequently interact and on whom they depend for their access and their “scoops.”
They have come instinctively to believe that Washington officials are intrinsically good people. Journalists live in the same social and socioeconomic circles, and the most powerful Washington figures are thus their colleagues and friends, not their investigative targets.
Thus, many journalists have become implacably resistant to the idea that these political leaders are lying about profoundly important matters, let alone engaging in serious or illegal misconduct. Many journalists have come reflexively to believe what their closest government associates say and to refrain from searching for or trying to uncover serious wrongdoing, because they simply do not believe it is there or, if it is there, have no desire or incentive to expose it.
Or, as Richard Cohen put it: “It is often best to keep the lights off.” In exactly the same way, Tim Russert was forced to reveal his vital role in keeping the lights off for his friends and colleagues, Our High Government Officials, as described by Dan Froomkin: “According to Russert’s testimony yesterday at Libby’s trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record. . . . That’s not reporting, that’s enabling. That’s how you treat your friends when you’re having an innocent chat, not the people you’re supposed to be holding accountable.” That is the relationship between our star journalists and the high government officials they cover.
At the end of his column today, Cohen says: “Should Libby be pardoned? Maybe. Should his sentence be commuted? Definitely.” The scope of acceptable debate among our serious Beltway opinion-makers ranges from “Libby should be pardoned now” to “he should be pardoned later” to “he should have his sentence commuted to no jail time” — it is, in essence, a “debate” over the most politically palatable means for achieving the collectively shared goal of the Beltway elite — “liberal” and conservative alike — namely: keeping convicted felon Lewis Libby, one of their own, out of jail. That’s the instinct of our typical modern Beltway journalist.
UPDATE II: In describing Cohen’s defense of Libby, I wrote that Cohen so loyally advances the GOP pro-Libby line that it would “seem notably zealous even if it were published in National Review.” Writing on National Review‘s Corner this afternoon, Mona Charen gushes:
Richard Cohen on Libby
The Post’s Richard Cohen zeroes in on the hypocrisy of the press on the Libby matter (always a good topic). This is quite an impassioned argument for sparing Libby and coming from a lib should be praised.
This happens all the time: right-wing sites and “conservative” blogs praise the arguments made by our establishment “liberal pundits,” something which almost never happens outside of those right-wing circles. In a rational world, that would trigger a re-examination of the Accepted Wisdom of our “Liberal Media.”
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)