"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)
I can’t say I was impressed when I met Sen. John Ensign at the C Street House, the secretive religious enclave on Capitol Hill thrust into the news by its links to three political sex scandals, those of Gov. Mark Sanford; former Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., who allegedly rendezvoused at the C Street House with his mistress, an executive in the industry for which he then became a lobbyist; and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. Although Sanford declared today that his scandal will actually turn out to be good for the people of South Carolina because he’s now more firmly in God’s control, the once-favored GOP presidential prospect will finish out his term and fade away. And Ensign’s residence at the C Street House during his own extramarital affair now threatens to end a career that he and other Republicans hoped would lead him to the White House.
When I met Ensign, he was just back from a run, sweaty and bouncing in place, boasting about the time he’d clocked and teasing a young woman from his office. She seemed annoyed that the senator wouldn’t get himself into a shower and back on the job. When I wrote about Sen. Ensign in my book about the evangelical political organization that runs the C Street House, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” I described him as a “conservative casino heir elected to the Senate from Nevada, a brightly tanned, hapless figure who uses his Family connections to graft holiness to his gambling-fortune name.”
Now, of course, I know I was wrong: John Ensign is a brightly tanned, hapless figure who used his Family connections to cover up the fruits of his flirtations, to make moral decisions for him, and to do his dirty work when his secret romance sputtered. Doug Hampton, the friend and former aide whom Ensign cuckolded, tells us that it was Family leader David Coe, along with Coe’s brother Tim and Family “brother” Sen. Tom Coburn, who delivered the pink slip when it was time to put Cynthia Hampton out of Ensign’s reach.
If sexual license was all the Family offered the C Street men, however, that would merely be seedy and self-serving. But Family men are more than hypocritical. They’re followers of a political religion that embraces elitism, disdains democracy, and pursues power for its members the better to “advance the Kingdom.” They say they’re working for Jesus, but their Christ is a power-hungry, inside-the-Beltway savior not many churchgoers would recognize. Sexual peccadilloes aside, the Family acts today like the most powerful lobby in America that isn’t registered as a lobby — and is thus immune from the scrutiny attending the other powerful organizations like Big Pharma and Big Insurance that exert pressure on public policy.
The Family likes to call itself a “Christian Mafia,” but it began 74 years ago as an anti-New Deal coalition of businessmen convinced that organized labor was under the sway of Satan. The Great Depression, they believed, was a punishment from God for what they viewed as FDR’s socialism. The Family’s goal was the “consecration” of America to God, first through the repeal of New Deal reforms, then through the aggressive expansion of American power during the Cold War. They called this a “Worldwide Spiritual Offensive,” but in Washington, it amounted to the nation’s first fundamentalist lobby. Early participants included Southern Sens. Strom Thurmond, Herman Talmadge and Absalom Willis Robertson — Pat Robertson’s father. Membership lists stored in the Family’s archive at the Billy Graham Center at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois show active participation at any given time over the years by dozens of congressmen.
Today’s roll call is just as impressive: Men under the Family’s religio-political counsel include, in addition to Ensign, Coburn and Pickering, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, both R-S.C.; James Inhofe, R-Okla., John Thune, R-S.D., and recent senators and high officials such as John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, Pete Domenici and Don Nickles. Over in the House there’s Joe Pitts, R-Penn., Frank Wolf, R-Va., Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and John R. Carter, R-Texas. Historically, the Family has been strongly Republican, but it includes Democrats, too. There’s Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, for instance, a vocal defender of putting the Ten Commandments in public places, and Sen. Mark Pryor, the pro-war Arkansas Democrat responsible for scuttling Obama’s labor agenda. Sen. Pryor explained to me the meaning of bipartisanship he’d learned through the Family: “Jesus didn’t come to take sides. He came to take over.” And by Jesus, the Family means the Family.
Family leaders consider their political network to be Christ’s avant garde, an elite that transcends not just conventional morality but also earthly laws regulating lobbying. In the Family’s early days, they debated registering as “a lobby for God’s Kingdom.” Instead, founder Abraham Vereide decided that the group could be more effective by working personally with politicians. “The more invisible you can make your organization,” Vereide’s successor, current leader Doug Coe preaches, “the more influence you can have.” That’s true — which is why we have laws requiring lobbyists to identify themselves as such.
But David Coe, Doug Coe’s son and heir apparent, calls himself simply a friend to men such as John Ensign, whom he guided through the coverup of his affair. I met the younger Coe when I lived for several weeks as a member of the Family. He’s a surprising source of counsel, spiritual or otherwise. Attempting to explain what it means to be chosen for leadership like King David was — or Mark Sanford, according to his own estimate — he asked a young man who’d put himself, body and soul, under the Family’s authority, “Let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think of you?” The man guessed that Coe would probably think that he was a monster. “No,” answered Coe, “I wouldn’t.” Why? Because, as a member of the Family, he’s among what Family leaders refer to as the “new chosen.” If you’re chosen, the normal rules don’t apply.
So it is for Ensign. Sen. Jim DeMint, one of Ensign’s C Street roommates, insists that the prayer groups that meet there — “invisible believing groups,” in the Family’s words, designed to facilitate private prayer between partners of equally high status — are all about accountability. That is, the kind that takes place behind closed doors. We now know that the Family was aware of Sen. Ensign’s affair long before Doug Hampton’s wounded pride forced it into the public. What’s more, if Hampton is to be believed, their concern with the payoffs made by Ensign and his parents to his mistress’s family was that they were too small; operating in a medical and spiritual capacity, Sen. Coburn counseled $1.2 million, according to Hampton. Coburn is no hypocrite — he’s a true believer in the faith of the Family, the idea that the chosen need to look out for one another. Christian right leader — and Watergate felon — Chuck Colson, converted through the efforts of the Family, has boasted of it as a “veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.”
What do they do? Rep. Zach Wamp, one of Ensign’s fellow C Streeters who’s been in the news for defending the Family’s secrecy, has teamed up with Family-linked Reps. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., and John R. Carter, R-Texas, on an obscure appropriations committee to help greenlight tens of millions in federal funds for new megachurch-style chapels on military bases around the country. Former Rep. Chip Pickering was not only sleeping on the sly with a representative of the telecom industry, he was living with one — former Oklahoma Republican Rep. Steve Largent, a C Streeter who in his post-Congress capacity as the head of a telecom association paid for travel by Pickering and John Ensign. Some might call that “crony capitalism”; Family members call it “biblical capitalism.”
A review of Ensign’s and Sen. Coburn’s travel records, undertaken with researcher Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, reveals an even more disturbing overlap of the pious and the political. On at least three occasions in recent years, Sen. Ensign traveled to Asia and the Middle East on what he described as official policy trips, paid for entirely by the International Foundation, one of the network of little-known nonprofits that make up the Family. Sen. Coburn, meanwhile, traveled to Beirut in 2005 on the Family’s dime, with the explicit mission of setting up Lebanese political prayer groups, just like the one that covered for Ensign. The following year, Coburn humbled himself in prayer at a special Family event in the British Virgin Islands, a Christian mission of earthly rewards also undertaken, at Family expense, by fellow C Streeter Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., who also sacrificed himself for God with a Family-paid trip to Aruba.
To be fair, most of the trips sponsored by the Family aren’t pleasure junkets. They’re missionary work. Only the Family missionaries aren’t representing the United States. They’re representing “Jesus plus nothing,” as Doug Coe puts it, the “totalitarianism of God,” in the words of an early Family leader, a vision that encompasses not just social issues but also the kind of free-market fundamentalism that is the real object of devotion for Ensign, Coburn, Pickering, Wamp and Sanford, along with Family insiders such as Sens. DeMint, Sam Brownback and Chuck Grassley. At the heart of the Family’s spiritual advice for its proxies in Congress is the conviction that the market’s invisible hand represents the guidance of God, and that God wants his “new chosen” to look out for one another.
When they arrive in other countries, on trips paid for by the Family, at the behest of the Family, they are still traveling under official government auspices, on official business, with the pomp and circumstance — and access — of their taxpayer-funded, elected positions. Here’s how a former National Security Council official who traveled with Family leader Doug Coe on a tour of Pacific nations described the Family effect in small nations where a visitor like John Ensign is a major event: “It reminded me of the story in World War II, where the British sent an OSS type into Borneo … And this guy parachuted out of the sky and they had never seen anything like this so they looked on him as — he had blonde hair and white skin and he was a white god who had come out of the sky to mobilize them. Obviously his side was going to win so they had no trouble aligning themselves.”
One needn’t be a Marxist to find fault with the Family’s mash-up of New Testament and unfettered capitalism — Adam Smith himself would have recognized that theology as a disingenuous form of self-interest by proxy. Such interests have led the Family into some strange alliances over the years. Seduced by the Indonesian dictator Suharto’s militant anti-communism, they described the murder of hundreds of thousands that brought him to power as a “spiritual revolution,” and sent delegations of congressmen and oil executives to pray to Jesus with the Muslim leader. In Africa, they anointed the Somali killer Siad Barre as God’s man and sent Sen. Grassley and a defense contractor as emissaries. Barre described himself as a “Koranic Marxist,” but he agreed to pray to Grassley’s American Christ in return for American military aid, which he then used to wreak a biblical terror on his nation. It has not yet recovered. More recently, the Family has paid for congressional Christian junkets to bastions of democracy such as Serbia, Sudan, Belarus, Albania, Macedonia and Musharraf’s Pakistan.
If the Family men who stood over John Ensign as he wrote a baldly insincere breakup letter to his mistress were naive about hearts that want what they want, they don’t claim ignorance about the strongmen with whom they build bonds of prayer and foreign aid. They admire them. Counseling Rep. Tiahrt, Doug Coe offered Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden as men whose commitment to their causes is to be emulated. Preaching on the meaning of Christ’s words, he says, “You know Jesus said ‘You got to put Him before mother-father-brother sister? Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they taught the kids. Mao even had the kids killing their own mother and father. But it wasn’t murder. It was for building the new nation. The new kingdom.”
Sen. Ensign, facing calls for an investigation of what may have been felony abuses of campaign funds in his attempt to cover up his affair, might not get there. Then again, the Family’s preview of a “new kingdom” — a private club of men protecting one another’s secrets — doesn’t sound so different from the old kingdom. That’s the awful secret behind the closed doors of the C Street House, the Family’s authoritarian rhetoric, and even the Family’s real mission: business as usual, fortified by faith in more power for the powerful and privilege itself a form of piety.
Jeff Sharlet, Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the bestselling author of "The Family." His most recent book is "Sweet Heaven When I Die."More Jeff Sharlet.
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)