"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)
The Pony Express has reached us here in the Arkansas backwoods with the latest journals from the big cities. So the country correspondents have taken a break from hand-setting lines of type to read the Beltway boys and girls rave about our former governor, Mike Huckabee.
“Easy to like,” wrote Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. “Who Doesn’t Heart Huckabee?” said the headline over Gail Collins’ column in the New York Times. And those are restrained commentators. If you Google the names Ronald Reagan and Mike Huckabee in tandem, I understand you get better than 600,000 hits.
OK. I exaggerate. I have a phone and a computer (and it’s 208,000 hits). But you’d think from national press comments that our friendly state is unreachable by phone or Internet. Do national commentators do homework? Or is a smiling, shoe-shining parson all it takes to generate such fluff?
Come to Arkansas. You’ll have to look hard to find a long-term political analyst who’d subscribe fully to the national media narrative about the latest man from Hope — fresh face, funny, nice.
Mike Huckabee is fresh to you, maybe. Funny? If barnyard humor is your shtick of choice. Nice? Well, he did do some good things in his 10 years as governor, but … read on.
Before we begin, though, a word of warning to any reporters who might want to repeat, on air or in print, any of the facts recounted below. Huckabee does not take kindly to journalists who practice journalism.
Even editorialists and columnists at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s dominant (and Republican-friendly) daily paper, use words like “petty” and “thin-skinned” to describe Huckabee. Then again, he’s compared hard-hitting (and accurate) news reporters for the Democrat-Gazette to the press fabulists Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke. He called liberal columnist John Brummett of Stephens Media “constipated” when that early admirer commenced some gentle criticism. His administration paid $15,000 to settle a suit filed by Roby Brock, the host of a public TV news show whom Huckabee’s people tried to force off the air for his critical commentary.
Then there’s me. I’m the editor of an alternative weekly, but I began covering Huckabee when I was a columnist for the now-defunct daily Arkansas Gazette in 1991, and Mike and I have been on the outs pretty much ever since. He once called me and the Memphis Commercial Appeal bureau chief “junkyard journalists” for our reporting. He also compared me, in print, to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and, I’ve been told on good authority, has wished aloud for my early and violent demise.
It all began 16 years ago for Mike and me. Huckabee, in his political debut, was preparing to become the Bible-thumping, abortion-decrying Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, the Democratic incumbent. With a playbook straight out of James Dobson, he tried to portray Bumpers as a pornographer for his support of federal grants to the arts.
More important, Huckabee revealed an enduring weakness as glaring as that other Arkansas governor’s fondness for women. Huckabee seems to love loot and has a dismissive attitude toward ethics, campaign finance rules and propriety in general. Since that first, failed campaign, the ethical questions have multiplied.
In the 1992 contest with Bumpers, Huckabee used campaign funds to pay himself as his own media consultant. Other payments went to the family babysitter.
In his successful 1994 run for lieutenant governor, he set up a nonprofit curtain known as Action America so he could give speeches for money without having to disclose the names of his benefactors. He failed to report that campaign travel payments were for the use of his own personal plane.
After he became governor in 1996, he raked in tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, including gifts from people he later appointed to prestigious state commissions.
In the governor’s office, his grasp never exceeded his reach. Furniture he’d received to doll up his office was carted out with him when he left, after he’d crushed computer hard drives so nobody could ever get a peek behind the curtain of the Huckabee administration.
Until my paper, the Arkansas Times, blew the whistle, he converted a governor’s mansion operating account into a personal expense account, claiming public money for a doghouse, dry-cleaning bills, panty hose and meals at Taco Bell. He tried to claim $70,000 in furnishings provided by a wealthy cotton grower for the private part of the residence as his own, until he learned ethics rules prevented it. When a disgruntled former employee disclosed memos revealing all this, the Huckabee camp shut her up by repeatedly suggesting she might be vulnerable to prosecution for theft because she’d shared documents generated by the state’s highest official.
He ran the State Police airplane into the ground, many of the miles in pursuit of political ends. Inauguration funds were used to buy clothing for his wife. He once took control of the state Republican Party’s campaign account — then swore the account had been somebody else’s responsibility when it ran afoul of federal election laws. He repeated the pattern when he claimed in a newspaper story that his staff controlled the account to stage his second inauguration. When I filed a formal ethics complaint over what appeared to be an improper appropriation of donated money, he told a different story, disavowing responsibility for the money. He thus avoided another punishment from an Ethics Commission, which had sanctioned him on five other occasions. He dodged nine other complaints (though none, despite his counter-complaints, was held to be frivolous). In one case, he was saved by the swing vote of a woman who left the chairmanship of the Ethics Commission days later to take a state job. She listed the governor as a reference on the job application. Finally, unbelievably, Huckabee once sued to overturn the ban on gifts to him.
My newspaper chronicled all this and so much more. Since my paper wrote critically about him, I didn’t often experience the “nice” Mike Huckabee that so many national commentators have enjoyed. In fact, ultimately Huckabee ended press services, which are publicly financed, to my newspaper. The Arkansas Times received no news releases from the governor’s office, no notices of news conferences, no responses to routine questions. He was condemned for this by journalism organizations.
Truth is, we were happy to be thrown into the governor’s briar patch. The world is full of disaffected Huckabee campaign workers, former employees and garden-variety Republicans who love to pass on tips about a governor they’d found self-centered and untrustworthy. If you think he left a well of warm feelings in Arkansas, note that Hillary Clinton had raised more money in Arkansas at last report and that a recent University of Arkansas Poll showed her a 35 to 8 percent leader over Huckabee in the presidential preferences of Arkansas residents. Only one-third of 33 Republican legislators have said they will support him for president.
Thanks to such unhappy people, we’ve broken numerous stories about Huckabee, from the first early word of his destruction of state computer hard drives (more fully reported by the Democrat-Gazette); to the time and place of his announcement for president; to his sale and purchase of homes; to his infamous “wedding registry.” About the last: Three decades after the Huckabees’ wedding, his wife registered at department stores so their new home, post-governor’s mansion, could be stocked with gifts of linens, toasters and other suitable furnishings. In early 2007, our reporting also prompted the former first lady to decline dozens of place settings of governor’s mansion china and Irish crystal that had been purchased with tax-deductible contributions to the Governor’s Mansion Association, nominally set up to improve the mansion, not to buy going-away presents for former occupants. (Huckabee’s governorship ended on Jan. 9, 2007.)
Ironically, I have many good things to say about the governor. The Bush administration would have done well to emulate Mike Huckabee’s speedy and successful relief effort for Hurricane Katrina refugees. He raised taxes for schools, highways and children’s health. Inevitably, this expanded government. I say bravo on all counts, though the conservative Club for Growth has delighted in quoting my liberal newspaper when it attacks Huckabee’s fiscal record.
He was kind to immigrants and favored state help for college-going children of illegal immigrants. He once even briefly departed from Republican dogma to suggest to a newspaper in libertarian New Hampshire that, while he opposed gay marriage, he was open to civil unions. He’s since denied he ever intended such apostasy, but the comment is on tape. At the Arkansas Times, we welcomed the governor’s conversion to devoted school consolidator. When our state system of school finance was ruled unconstitutional, he initially decried the ruling as a usurpation of local control. But he flip-flopped — and we applauded the somersault — and led his Education Department to a significant reduction in the number of tiny, inefficient school districts and on the path to more demanding graduation standards.
But a paddling administered by a brute who sometimes smiles still hurts. Huckabee insists he’s not one of those harsh, punitive, “angry” conservatives, but again, there are witnesses who might say otherwise if anyone’s interested.
Ask the retarded Fort Smith teenager, raped by her stepfather, who sought Medicaid funding for an abortion as federal law required. Huckabee stood in the hospital door, at least figuratively, to prevent state funding. Ask the gay people belittled by his cracks about “Adam and Steve.” Ask the scientists who’ve seen evolution virtually disappear from the textbooks and classrooms of Arkansas with his administration’s acquiescence.
Social issues alone should give moderates pause. He championed a law in Arkansas making it harder to get a divorce, the so-called covenant marriage law that has been widely ignored except when he and his wife recommitted in a Valentine’s Day publicity stunt held in a 17,000-seat arena.
Huckabee’s administration worked hard and unapologetically to prevent gay people from being foster parents. He avidly supported the state amendment that bans gay marriage as well as civil unions and bans any equal treatment under the law — such as in health insurance coverage — for same-sex partners. He professed opposition to alcohol and gambling, but he allowed passage of legislation that made it easier for restaurants to obtain private-club mixed-drink permits in dry counties. Over the angry objection of the church lobby, he sped final action on a bill to allow video poker at the state’s racetracks, an act followed not long afterward by a $10,000 campaign contribution from the owner of the state’s biggest race track, at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.
All this is sometimes done with humor, but rarely the sort of gentle humor the national media has encountered. Huckabee prefers sarcastic putdowns and hyperbole. Because Arkansas Democrats tried to enfranchise more citizens with weekend voting in Arkansas, he called his home state a banana republic on the Don Imus show. He’s compared weight loss with a concentration camp. Abortion, even in the earliest microscopic stages, he’s called a holocaust. He referred in a Farm Bureau speech to “fruits and nuts” and “wacko environmentalists” in decrying environmentalists as a threat to agriculture. (Yes, this is the same man that gullible mainstream columnists praise for his ringing environmental proclamations.)
But the national press has more to examine than rhetoric when it comes to Huckabee. He is not the man of principle that credulous commentators describe. Though Huckabee doesn’t support embryonic stem cell research, he took a hefty honorarium and bulk book sales this year from a diabetes drug maker, Novo Nordisk, which performs embryonic stem cell research. He has lied when there’s been no other way around admitting embarrassing missteps, such as his advocacy of freedom for a convicted rapist.
There are also legitimate questions about his skills as a manager. He left Arkansas with a bill of more than $40 million for overcharges of the federal government’s Medicaid program. A State Police director left after a tiff over Huckabee’s demand that the agency improve his private lake property in the name of security. Troubles dogged both the state’s computer services agency and its workforce agency. Youth services have been an unending series of tragedies. The buck never stopped at Huck’s desk, you can be sure.
The governor’s office records — triumph and tragedy, sage advice and venom-filled screeds about members of the press and Legislature — would tell this tale. But, as I’ve mentioned, the computer hard drive destruction ensured that would never happen.
If I could resurrect one batch of files, it would be those reflecting the advice of his staff that he not pursue his desire to free convicted rapist Wayne DuMond. By “advice,” I mean I think some of them all but pleaded with Huckabee not to do it.
Though DuMond’s prior record included a conviction for assault and his alleged involvement in a slaying and one other rape, by the start of Huckabee’s governorship DuMond had become a national figure thanks to Republican efforts to depict him as a victim of the Bill Clinton machine. The rape victim was a distant relative of Clinton’s.
Huckabee, perhaps persuaded by DuMond’s supposed conversion to Christianity, announced his intention to commute DuMond’s sentence without talking to the victim. Outraged, she stepped forward to protest publicly. The backlash was swift and powerful. Huckabee backed away from commuting DuMond’s sentence, but in a private meeting lobbied the state Parole Board to release him. Huckabee said, in writing, that he supported DuMond’s release. DuMond moved to Missouri in 2000, where he molested and killed one woman and was suspected of doing the same to another, but died in prison before he could be charged in the second case.
To this day, Huckabee tries to minimize his responsibility for DuMond’s release. Huckabee’s 2007 book “From Hope to Higher Ground” also fudges the facts, implying that DuMond died before being convicted of either Missouri murder. In one recent interview, he even suggested that he had fought DuMond’s parole, a statement his own writings prove to be a lie.
Speaking of Huckabee’s writings: I’d recommend the Huckabee catalog to the national press. It’s a ready representation of the man — quip-filled, shallow, factually challenged and full of the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that has marked so much of his public life. In “Character Is the Issue,” published in 1997, he complained bitterly about how some congregants of the Baptist church he left in Texarkana to seek public office didn’t want to continue paying his health insurance. Funny, no employer of mine ever kept paying me after I quit work.
I digress. It’s easy to do. In 10 years as governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee left a rich and complicated history. It is not without points to praise. But there’s so much more, a record that the national media — so ready, since 1992, to plumb the tiniest cranny of Bill Clinton’s past — seems uneager to discover. It’s a measure of the loving kindness with which he’s been treated so far by the coastal punditry that Huckabee has not yet had one of his famous self-pitying public meltdowns about the unfairness of the media.
But then, you don’t have to believe me about any of this. After all, I live in Little Rock and, as Huckabee has often said, I’m just the editor of a trashy, throwaway liberal tabloid. Why not look instead to a conservative voice from the national media? At the American Spectator, once home to the anti-Clinton Arkansas Project, senior editor Quin Hillyer, a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial writer, wrote recently, “National media folks like David Brooks [of the New York Times], dealing in surface appearances only, rave about what a nice guy Huckabee is, and a moral exemplar to boot. If they only did a little homework, they would discover a guy with a thin skin, a nasty vindictive streak, and a long history of imbroglios about questionable ethics.”
At last, something the national media and the Arkansas media can agree on.
Max Brantley has been editor of the Arkansas Times, the state’s largest news weekly, since 1992. Before that, he worked almost 19 years as a reporter, city editor, assistant managing editor and political columnist for the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette.More Max Brantley.
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)