"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)
In remarks he made on Memorial Day, Sen. Barack Obama reached back to some old family history. “I had an uncle who was one of the, um — who was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps,” Obama said. “The story in our family was that when he came home he just went up into the attic and he didn’t leave the house for six months.” (Video follows at the bottom of this post.) There was just one problem with this story: American troops didn’t liberate Auschwitz — the Soviet Union’s Red Army did.
The comments, and the mainstream media’s treatment of them, sent conservative bloggers into a tizzy. The right has been focusing a lot of attention recently on alleged gaffes by Obama, and complaining that the media doesn’t treat him the same way Republicans are treated in similar situations, and this added fuel to the fire. At the National Review’s Campaign Spot blog, Jim Geraghty wrote, “Dan Quayle gets defined by one foolish moment where his (sic) misspells ‘potato,’ and George W. Bush is forever mocked as a dunce for his (admittedly classic) ‘Too many OB-GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across this country.’
“If the MSM would either A) be more forgiving of Republican officials who they don’t like or B) be a little tougher on Democratic officials they do like, the world would be a better place.”
Other bloggers attacked Obama directly. At Michelle Malkin’s Web site, poster See-Dubya wrote, “Either Obama’s uncle served in the Red Army, or he’s spinning Clintonesque lies about Auschwitz to sell his government programs. Hey, it’s for a good cause … but it’s not enough for him. It has to be personal. It has to be all about him … I think the Obamessiah just out Tuzla’d Hillary. The man is … nefarious.” (Emphasis in the original.) At Red State, editor Erick Erickson said, “Look, we all know Obama has a problem with Jewish voters and veterans, but trying to use the Holocaust for political gain is sickening — especially when it is a bold faced lie … Obama’s uncle was either part of the Red Army or Obama is, again, lying for political advantage. Given what we know already about Obama, either option is plausible, but I’m going with this being another lie.”
But according to the Obama campaign, all this outrage may have been just a little premature. It admits that the Auschwitz part of the story wasn’t true, and that it was in fact Obama’s great uncle he was referring to, not his uncle, but according to Obama spokesman Bill Burton, there’s an innocent explanation. In a statement, Burton said, “Senator Obama’s family is proud of the service of his grandfather and uncles in World War II — especially the fact that his great uncle was a part of liberating one of the concentration camps at Buchenwald. Yesterday he mistakenly referred to Auschwitz instead of Buchenwald in telling of his personal experience of a soldier in his family who served heroically.”
Burton also provided a link to the Web site of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has a page dedicated to the division the Obama camp claims Obama’s great uncle belonged to, the 89th Infantry Division. That division is officially recognized as a liberating unit. In 1945, it liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
I will give the conservative bloggers one thing. They’re right that it was easy to check Obama’s original story, and that the reporters who mentioned it in their stories on the speech could have — and should have — checked Google to see who liberated Auschwitz. But then, by the same token, conservative bloggers could have — and should have — seen if there was another explanation before they launched their accusations against Obama.
Update: In comments, reader Max pointed out something I’d forgotten — on more than one occasion, former President Ronald Reagan claimed that towards the end of the war he served in a unit that filmed recently liberated death camps. In fact, Reagan had remained stateside with the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps. Ironically enough, one of the camps Reagan would have filmed if his recollections were accurate was Ohrdruf, the one the Obama camp now says Obama’s great uncle helped liberate.
Writing for the Washington Post in 1984, Lou Cannon reported on Reagan’s story, which he apparently told to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and legendary Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal; this was corroborated by members of Shamir’s cabinet as well as Rabbi Marvin Hier, who was with Wiesenthal to hear it. Reagan administration officials, though, denied that the president ever claimed to have served outside the U.S. and insinuated that perhaps both men misunderstood Reagan because of their less than perfect English. (In fact, Cannon says, both were fluent.)
In a biography of Reagan he wrote later, Cannon says that in 1981 Reagan told a similar, if different, version of the story. In this account, Reagan did not actually go to any camps but had seen a secret military film of some, which he saved in case later on people didn’t believe those kinds of atrocities had been committed. But, Cannon says, there was never any such secret film.
Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.More Alex Koppelman.
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)