"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 core attitude of the political press — and the dominant theme of our political dialogue for the last two decades — was summarized perfectly by the media’s unrestrained id, Chris Matthews. While speaking with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean in September 2007, Matthews lamented that Democrats continuously nominate “weird” geeks and losers while the Republicans put forth strong, “charming” tough guys:
MATTHEWS: Why do Democrats keep running these weird presidential candidates, who always seem — ever since Jack Kennedy and maybe, well, Bill Clinton, they always lose the personality question. They always seem geekier, nerdier than the Republican guy. Why is that the case?
DEAN: How do you really feel about that, Chris?
MATTHEWS: Well, it’s true. It’s an objective assessment. Look at Dukakis in the tank. That’s an objective reality. I mean, Mondale.
DEAN: Let me tell you — let me tell you what we have to do.
MATTHEWS: Jesus, a good guy, but unacceptable on television.
The Republicans, they get the charm school. They got Reagan. They have got this guy George W. Bush. You know, they seem to run charming people.
DEAN: What Democrats have to do is talk about their vales. People vote on values. They don’t vote on position papers.
MATTHEWS: No, they vote on personalities.
Earlier in the year, in August, Matthews announced that the Democratic presidential field suffered from a major deficiency:
I don’t see a big, beefy alternative to Hillary Clinton — a big guy. You know what I mean? An … everyday big guy. I don’t see one out there. I see a lot of slight, skinny, second- and third-rate candidates.
The vast bulk of our political press has a single-minded, adolescent obsession with the petty personality traits of political candidates in lieu of any interest in their positions or abilities. Here was the “Washington Post”‘s Joel Achenbach’s analysis of the 1988 presidential election:
That’s one reason people like Bill Richardson: He looks like a good eater. They liked that about Bill Clinton, too …
Years ago I heard an anecdote about Mike Dukakis, and I’m sure I’ll mangle it, but here’s the gist as I dimly recall it: Coupla big union guys, beefy fellows, came to see Dukakis at his home in Brookline, thinking about endorsing him. Dukakis asked them if they wanted a beer. Sure, they said. So he gets out a beer and two glasses, and pours half the beer in one glass and half the beer in the other.
Lost the election right there.
Achenbach went on to explain that Mitt Romney picks the cheese off his pizza, which was a significant liability, since “I just can’t imagine the American people electing as president someone who does that to pizza.” As always, they justify their vapid gossip by patronizingly claiming that it’s what the little people are interested in — all grounded in their condescending fantasies about the political assessments of the salt-of-the-earth simpletons who comprise the voting masses — but this sort of childish, barren yapping is, in reality, representative of nothing other than how our empty Beltway media thinks.
That has been the dominant media theme for the last two decades in our political discourse, and particularly in our national elections. Leave policy and ideology to the side. Just ignore it. What matters is that Democrats and liberals are weak, effete, elitist, nerdy, military-hating, gender-confused losers, whose men are effeminate, whose women are emasculating dykes, and who merit sneering mockery and derision. Republican right-wing male leaders are salt-of-the-earth, wholesome, likable tough guys — courageous warriors and normal family men who merit personal admiration and affection.
The Republican Party pioneered by Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, and Karl Rove will redeploy these same personality-based themes in the 2008 election because it is all they know and, more important, because nothing has yet ended the efficacy of such deceitful strategies. A shallow and gossipy press continues to eat it up.
Indeed, the GOP has been able to pervert our political process this way only because of the indispensable aid of the establishment media, which reflexively views the political landscape through the lens of this GOP-generated mythology. The strain of petty personality-based gossip in which the GOP has come to specialize appeals to our media stars for a whole range of reasons. Catty attacks are cheap and easy to cover, and require few resources and even less critical thought to convey. Even the shallowest and most slothful reporters are able to dish about the Clintons’ marital problems or how Barack Obama looks in a bathing suit.
Herd behavior, peer pressure, and desperation for attention fuel this lowly process further. Reporters are invited on television by Tim Russert and Chris Matthews — and are promoted by Matt Drudge — if they are skilled in gossiping gleefully about the candidates, but not if they drone on about boring substantive policy matters or political corruption or lawbreaking scandals. Cheap gossip and vapid chatter thus become the primary currency of our coddled Beltway media stars.
And, perhaps most significantly of all, the pressures created by the GOP smear machine perfectly re-create the social dynamic of high school and college, where one can reap the rewards of being favored as the popular jock and cheerleader or relegated to the realm of the losers and nerds. It’s so much more fun and personally fulfilling to be liked and flattered by the triumphant War President — the “Commander-in-Chief” prancing around in “victory” on an aircraft carrier — while cackling at the weak, boring loser in the windsurfing tights, or the earnest nerd hilariously droning on about telecom amnesty and surveillance lawbreaking.
Perhaps more than anyone, Karl Rove exploited this sad social dynamic among reporters to keep them enthralled by his message machine. In a September 2007 column touting the genius of Rove, Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report unintentionally illustrated the GOP’s complete domination of the establishment media:
Karl Rove knew exactly what he was doing. In a round of interviews as he exited the White House, the man President Bush called the “architect” of his re-election was designing something else: a push for Hillary Clinton’s nomination. “I think she’s likely to be the nominee,” he told Rush Limbaugh. “And I think she’s fatally flawed.”
All observations that, coming from anyone else, might be considered routine punditry. But when Rove speaks, the political class pays attention — usually with good reason.
The rest of Borger’s column is devoted to hailing the brilliance of Rove’s plot to induce Democrats to nominate Clinton because of how vulnerable a candidate she is. Beltway media mavens like Borger have spent the last seven years awash in true reverence for Karl Rove. Rove’s function, like all political operatives, is to manipulate the media, conceal information from them, and induce them to say what is politically beneficial to his boss, the President. In a world where political journalism performs its most basic functions, media manipulators like Rove are the natural enemy of journalists.
But for our journalist class, Karl Rove is the North Star of what they do — he provides their instructions, their leaks, their scoops, their access. As the purveyor of Beltway political power, he is their most admired leader. “When Rove speaks, the political class pays attention — usually with good reason,” Borger proclaims. That’s because by taking their cues from Rove, sitting as he did for so long at the center of power (near the high school quarterback at the jocks’ table in the cafeteria), they are rewarded, patted on the head, given the treats they crave.
From the dean of the Washington press corps David Broder’s bold confession of Rove admiration (“Let me disclose my own bias in this matter. I like Karl Rove … The other reason for inviting Rove was his wealth of information on the forces shaping the biggest single change in American politics — the emergence of the Republican South … He generally tries to return calls in the same week — if not day — they are placed”) to Broder’s decree that various media outlets “owe Karl Rove an apology” for criticizing his role in the Valerie Plame case, it has long been apparent that most of our nation’s leading journalists believe that Rove is filled with wisdom and merits the greatest respect.
After the 2006 midterm elections, Eric Boehlert — in an article titled “The Karl Rove Crush” — examined how reporters throughout 2006 were overwhelmingly warning of disaster for the weak and hapless Democrats because that is what Rove was saying, and they thus repeated it, even though all evidence pointed to the opposite outcome. As but one example, the odious Mark Halperin — then of ABC News, now of Time — said: “If I were them [Democrats], I’d be scared to death about November’s elections.” It was the same Mark Halperin who told right-wing radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt the following:
Let me say one thing we say in the book about Karl Rove, who I respect and enjoy … I enjoy his company. If you look at the allegations of Karl Rove that have been propagated in Texas and in Washington by the media, the liberal media, and by Democrats, and you look at the allegations, there’s — except for the useful indiscretions to which Karl has admitted, there is no evidence for the allegations against him.
And the ability of the press to paint him as this evil guy, and say that accounts for his success, is fundamental and outrageous.
This is the dynamic that has shaped the media’s political coverage for years. Right-wing operatives feed the media shallow story lines, and they dutifully repeat it. Critically, the more this process works to manipulate media coverage, the more our media stars come to admire, and want to please and follow, these right-wing operatives. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen put it in his excellent 2007 essay on the relationship of Washington journalists to Rove’s GOP political machine:
Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness — that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political — is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain. What is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Everyone knows that the press admires an unprincipled winner. (Of a piece with its fixation on the horse race.) Josh Green, a reporter for the Atlantic Monthly who actually took the time to understand Rove’s career, totaled up his winnings in a 2004 article (“Karl Rove in a Corner”) that I highly recommend.
“As far as I can determine, in races he has run for statewide or national office or Congress, starting in 1986, Rove’s career record is a truly impressive 34–7.” This record, he notes, “would be impressive even if he used no extreme tactics. But he does use them.” Again and again, Green observes. Rove tries to destroy people with whispering campaigns. He makes stuff up. He transgresses and figures no one will stop him. He goes further than others in the game. These are things you would think journalists would recoil at, or at least observe with regularity.
Karl Rove is “savvy” in exactly the way Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes were savvy. He keeps the press in line — half intimidated and half reverent. The dangers of the media’s reverence for the President’s top political operatives are as numerous as they are obvious. The media virtually never takes seriously any administration lawbreaking and corruption scandals because the people at the center of those scandals are those whom they deeply admire. They do not want political operatives they admire to be investigated, let alone prosecuted. They do not subject White House claims to scrutiny because they hear those claims from operatives with whom they identify and for whom they have deep affection. And they adopt GOP-fed narratives and blindly recite them because they are convinced that those who feed them those claims are individuals who possess the greatest insight.
Borger’s high praise for Rove’s wisdom — and her admission that when he speaks, the “political class” (i.e., her and her media colleagues) listens — illustrates one of the principal reasons the White House has been so adept in keeping our political press meek and deferential. In their insular world, Rove has been the winner, Democrats have been the losers, and our Beltway journalists — followers and power-worshipers first and foremost — want to please those who possess power. That desire, of course, is the opposite instinct of what drives good political journalism. But the fact that this obsequious desire — whereby journalists seek the approval of our most powerful political operatives — defines much of our political press is a principal reason why we have so little real political journalism.
In American culture, there are few personality traits more popular and appealing than the swaggering tough guy and übermasculine warrior. That is the theme promoted time and again by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. This is the template for how the Republican Party endlessly depicts its leaders, even though virtually none of them has those attributes in reality. But with our broken and vapid press corps, fantasy easily trumps reality. And our media stars thus swoon when presented with the faux tough guys of the Republican Party, and cackle in derision at the Democratic weaklings and losers. That is the twisted story line and the corrupt methods that have dominated our political discourse and determined our elections for decades.
Excerpted from “Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics” (Copyright © 2008 by Glenn Greenwald), by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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)