"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)
On Saturday, I spent the afternoon with America’s new breed of angry conservative. Up to 75,000 protesters had gathered in Washington on Sept. 12, the day after the eighth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, sporting the now familiar tea-bagger accoutrements of “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirts, Revolutionary War outfits and Obama-the-Joker placards. The male-skewing, nearly all-white throng had come to denounce the president and what they believe is his communist-fascist agenda.
Even if the turnout wasn’t the 2 million that some conservatives tried, briefly, to claim, it was still enough to fill the streets near the Capitol. It was also ample testament to the strength of a certain strain of right-wing populist rage and the talking head who has harnessed it. The masses were summoned by Glenn Beck, Fox News host and organizer of the 912 Project, the civic initiative he pulled together six months ago to restore America to the sense of purpose and unity it had felt the day after the towers fell.
In reality, however, the so-called 912ers were summoned to D.C. by the man who changed Beck’s life, and that helps explain why the movement is not the nonpartisan lovefest that Beck first sold on air with his trademark tears. Beck has created a massive meet-up for the disaffected, paranoid Palin-ite “death panel” wing of the GOP, those ideologues most susceptible to conspiracy theories and prone to latch on to eccentric distortions of fact in the name of opposing “socialism.” In that, they are true disciples of the late W. Cleon Skousen, Beck’s favorite writer and the author of the bible of the 9/12 movement, “The 5,000 Year Leap.” A once-famous anti-communist “historian,” Skousen was too extreme even for the conservative activists of the Goldwater era, but Glenn Beck has now rescued him from the remainder pile of history, and introduced him to a receptive new audience.
Anyone who has followed Beck will recognize the book’s title. Beck has been furiously promoting “The 5,000 Year Leap” for the past year, a push that peaked in March when he launched the 912 Project. That month, a new edition of “The 5,000 Year Leap,” complete with a laudatory new foreword by none other than Glenn Beck, came out of nowhere to hit No. 1 on Amazon. It remained in the top 15 all summer, holding the No. 1 spot in the government category for months. The book tops Beck’s 912 Project “required reading” list, and is routinely sold at 912 Project meetings where guest speakers often use it as their primary source material. At one 912 meet-up I attended in Florida, copies were stacked high on a table against the back wall, available for the 912 nice price of $15. “Don’t bother trying to get it at the library,” one 912er told me. “The wait list is 40 deep.”
What has Beck been pushing on his legions? “Leap,” first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined. The book reads exactly like what it was until Glenn Beck dragged it out of Mormon obscurity: a textbook full of aggressively selective quotations intended for conservative religious schools like Utah’s George Wythe University, where it has been part of the core freshman curriculum for decades (and where Beck spoke at this year’s annual fundraiser).
But more interesting than the contents of “The 5,000 Year Leap,” and more revealing for what it says about 912ers and the Glenn Beck Nation, is the book’s author. W. Cleon Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it. At least, that was the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which maintained a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. Before he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen’s own Mormon church publicly distanced itself from the foundation that Skousen founded and that has published previous editions of “The 5,000 Year Leap.”
As Beck knows, to focus solely on “The 5,000 Year Leap” is to sell the author short. When he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen had authored more than a dozen books and pamphlets on the Red Menace, New World Order conspiracy, Christian child rearing, and Mormon end-times prophecy. It is a body of work that does much to explain Glenn Beck’s bizarre conspiratorial mash-up of recent months, which decries a new darkness at noon and finds strange symbols carefully coded in the retired lobby art of Rockefeller Center. It also suggests that the modern base of the Republican Party is headed to a very strange place.
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Willard Cleon Skousen was born in 1913 to American parents in a small Mormon frontier town in Alberta, Canada. When he was 10 his family moved to California, where he remained until he shipped off to England and Ireland for Mormon missionary work. In 1935, after graduating from a California junior college, the 23-year-old Skousen moved to Washington, where he worked briefly for a New Deal farm agency. He then began a 15-year career with the FBI, also earning a law degree from George Washington University in 1940. His posts at the FBI were largely administrative and clerical in nature, first in Washington and later in Kansas.
After retiring from the FBI in 1951, Skousen joined the faculty of Brigham Young University, the Latter-day Saints university in Utah. He then enjoyed a tumultuous four years as chief of police in Salt Lake City. During his tenure he gained a reputation for cutting crime and ruthlessly enforcing Mormon morals. But Skousen was too earnest by half. The city’s ultraconservative mayor, J. Bracken Lee, fired him in 1960 for excessive zeal in raiding private clubs where the Mormon elite enjoyed their cards. “Skousen conducted his office as Chief of Police in exactly the same manner in which the Communists operate their government,” Lee wrote to a friend explaining his firing of Skousen. “The man is a master of half-truths. In at least three instances I have proven him to be a liar. He is a very dangerous man [and] one of the greatest spenders of public funds of anyone who ever served in any capacity in Salt Lake City government.”
During his stint as police chief, Skousen began laying the groundwork for his future career as a professional anti-communist. He published a bestselling expose-slash-history called “The Naked Communist.” In the late ’50s, America’s far right began to bubble with organizations peddling stories about the true state of the Red Menace. Groups like the Church League of America and the John Birch Society organized to channel, feed and satisfy Cold War paranoia. Members of these groups were the original postwar “domestic right-wing extremist threat.” Then as now, they were very much on the government’s radar.
After his firing from the police force, Skousen became a star on the profitable far-right speakers circuit. He worked for both the Bircher-operated American Opinion Speakers Bureau and Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communism Crusade. The two groups competed in describing ever more terrifying threats posed by America’s enemies, foreign and domestic. As the scenarios became more and more outlandish, the feds grew concerned. In an internal memo, the FBI described Skousen’s friend and employer Fred Schwarz as “an opportunist,” the likes of which “are largely responsible for misinforming people and stirring them up emotionally … Schwartz [sic] and others like him can only do the country and the anticommunist work of the Bureau harm.”
How did Skousen become an expert on communism? He claimed, as his apologists still do, that his years with the FBI exposed him to inside information. He also boasted that he worked closely with J. Edgar Hoover. But both claims are open to question. Skousen’s work at the Bureau was largely administrative, according to Ernie Lazar, an independent researcher of the far right who has examined Skousen’s nearly 2,000-page FBI file. “Skousen never worked in [the domestic intelligence division] and he never had significant exposure to data concerning communist matters,” says Lazar.
Skousen also trumpeted the insight he says he gained researching “The Naked Communist.” But this research was as shaky as his résumé. Among the theories Skousen charged a healthy fee to discuss was the alleged treason of FDR advisor Harry Hopkins. According to Skousen, Hopkins gave the Soviets “50 suitcases” worth of info on the Manhattan Project, along with nearly half of the nation’s supply of enriched uranium. This he told thousands of audiences across the country, sometimes giving five speeches a day.
When Skousen’s books started popping up in the nation’s high-school classrooms, panicked school board officials wrote the FBI asking if Skousen was reliable. The Bureau’s answer was an exasperated and resounding “no.” One 1962 FBI memo notes, “During the past year or so, Skousen has affiliated himself with the extreme right-wing ‘professional communists’ who are promoting their own anticommunism for obvious financial purposes.” Skousen’s “The Naked Communist,” said the Bureau official, is “another example of why a sound, scholarly textbook on communism is urgently and badly needed.”
Two years on the circuit made Skousen a nationally known figure. Aligned with the Birchers and Schwarz, he also founded his own Utah-based far-right organization, the All-American Society. Here’s how Time magazine described the outfit in a December 1961 feature on what it called the “rightwing ultras”:
The All-American Society, founded in Salt Lake City, has as its guiding light one of the busiest speakers in the rightist movement: W. Cleon Skousen, a balding, bespectacled onetime FBI man who hit the anti-Communist circuit in earnest in 1960 after being fired from his job as Salt Lake City’s police chief (“He operated the police department like a Gestapo,” says Salt Lake City’s conservative Mayor J. Bracken Lee). Skousen freely quotes the Bible, constantly plugs his book, The Naked Communist, [and] presses for a full congressional investigation of the State Department.
By 1963, Skousen’s extremism was costing him. No conservative organization with any mainstream credibility wanted anything to do with him. Members of the ultraconservative American Security Council kicked him out because they felt he had “gone off the deep end.” One ASC member who shared this opinion was William C. Mott, the judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy. Mott found Skousen “money mad … totally unqualified and interested solely in furthering his own personal ends.”
When Skousen aligned himself with Robert Welch’s charge that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” the last of Skousen’s dwindling corporate clients dumped him. The National Association of Manufacturers released a statement condemning the Birchers and distancing itself from “any individual or party” that subscribed to their views. Skousen, author of a pamphlet titled “The Communist Attack on the John Birch Society,” was the nation’s most prominent Birch defender.
Skousen laid low for much of the ’60s. But he reemerged at the end of the decade peddling a new and improved conspiracy that merged left with right: the global capitalist mega-plot of the “dynastic rich.” Families like the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds, Skousen now believed, used left forces — from Ho Chi Minh to the American civil rights movement — to serve their own power.
In 1969, a 1,300-page book started appearing in faculty mailboxes at Brigham Young, where Skousen was back teaching part-time. The book, written by a Georgetown University historian named Carroll Quigley, was called “Tragedy and Hope.” Inside each copy, Skousen inserted handwritten notes urging his colleagues to read the book and embrace its truth. “Tragedy and Hope,” Skousen believed, exposed the details of what would come to be known as the New World Order (NWO). Quigley’s book so moved Skousen that in 1970 he self-published a breathless 144-page review essay called “The Naked Capitalist.” Nearly 40 years later, it remains a foundational document of America’s NWO conspiracy and survivalist scene (which includes Skousen’s nephew Joel).
In “The Naked Communist,” Skousen had argued that the communists wanted power for their own reasons. In “The Naked Capitalist,” Skousen argued that those reasons were really the reasons of the dynastic rich, who used front groups to do their dirty work and hide their tracks. The purpose of liberal internationalist groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, argued Skousen, was to push “U.S. foreign policy toward the establishment of a world-wide collectivist society.” Skousen claimed the Anglo-American banking establishment had a long history of such activity going back to the Bolshevik Revolution. He substantiated this claim by citing the work of a former Czarist army officer named Arsene de Goulevitch. Among Goulevitch’s own sources is Boris Brasol, a pro-Nazi Russian émigré who provided Henry Ford with the first English translation of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“The Naked Capitalist” does not seem like a text that would be part of the required reading list on any reputable college campus, but some BYU professors taught it out of allegiance to Skousen. Terrified, the editors of Dialogue: The Journal of Mormon Thought invited “Tragedy and Hope” author Carroll Quigley to comment on Skousen’s interpretation of his work. They also asked a highly respected BYU history professor named Louis C. Midgley to review Skousen’s latest pamphlet. Their judgment was not kind. In the Autumn/Winter 1971 issue of Dialogue, the two men accused Skousen of “inventing fantastic ideas and making inferences that go far beyond the bounds of honest commentary.” Skousen not only saw things that weren’t in Quigley’s book, they declared, he also missed what actually was there — namely, a critique of ultra-far-right conspiracists like Willard Cleon Skousen.
“Skousen’s personal position,” wrote a dismayed Quigley, “seems to me perilously close to the ‘exclusive uniformity’ which I see in Nazism and in the Radical Right in this country. In fact, his position has echoes of the original Nazi 25-point plan.”
Skousen was unbowed. In 1971, he founded the Freeman Institute, a research organization devoted to the study of the super-conspiracy directed by the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds. (The institute later changed its name to the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which has offices in Malta, Idaho, and continues to publish Skousen’s books, including Glenn Beck’s favorite work of history, “The 5,000 Year Leap.”)
By the end of the 1970s, the death of Skousen’s biggest allies within the Mormon church hierarchy cleared the way for an official disavowal of his work. In 1979, LDS church president Spencer W. Kimball issued an order to every Mormon clergyman in the U.S. stating “no announcements should be made in Church meetings of Freemen Institute lectures or events that are not under the sponsorship of the Church. [This] is to make certain that neither Church facilities nor Church meetings are used to advertise such events and to avoid any implication that the Church endorses what is said during such lectures.”
Skousen may have been too extreme for the Quorum of the Twelve in Salt Lake City, but he soon found rehabilitation on the intellectual margins of Reagan’s Washington. In 1980, Skousen was appointed to the newly founded Council for National Policy, a think tank that brought together leading religious conservatives and served as the unofficial brain trust of the new administration. At the Council, Skousen distinguished himself by becoming an early proponent of privatizing Social Security. He also formed relationships with other evangelical church leaders and aligned the LDS church with an increasingly religious GOP.
“Skousen worked to change Mormonism from a new and unique American-born faith into an evangelical form of fundamentalist Christianity,” says Rob Lauer, a leader of the Reform Mormonism movement. “By arguing that biblical principles were the basis of the U.S. government, he was among those most responsible for the LDS church becoming part of the religious right political establishment over the past 25 years.”
In 1981, Skousen published “The 5,000 Year Leap,” the book for which, thanks to Beck, he is now best known. But it wasn’t that Skousen book that made the biggest headline in the 1980s. Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, Skousen became the center of a minor controversy when state legislators in California approved the official use of another of his books, the 1982 history text “The Making of America.” Besides bursting with factual errors, Skousen’s book characterized African-American children as “pickaninnies” and described American slave owners as the “worst victims” of the slavery system. Quoting the historian Fred Albert Shannon, “The Making of America” explained that “[slave] gangs in transit were usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains.”
Skousen spent the 1990s in semi-retirement. He spoke occasionally around the country and welcomed visiting politicians to his Salt Lake City home on Berkeley Street. His death in January 2006 was little noticed outside Mormon circles. If LDS members debated his legacy, it was in mostly hushed tones. But by then, he was already poised for a posthumous revival.
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Glenn Beck’s first public reference to anything Skousen seems to have occurred in 2003. In his memoir-cum-manifesto, “The Real America,” was a chapter titled “The Enemy Within.” It consisted of a list titled “Communist Goals of 1963.” The list was originally published in Skousen’s 1958 book “The Naked Communist,” and was submitted to the Congressional Record by Florida Rep. Albert Herlong Jr., whom Beck identifies as the author. Beck asked readers of “The Real America” to ponder Skousen’s list, then “check off” those goals already achieved by America’s new enemies within. Replacing communists in Beck’s view: “liberals, special-interest groups, [and] the ACLU.”
It would be another few years before Beck really started boosting for Skousen’s books. Apparently, around about 2007, a friend of Beck’s sent him “The 5,000 Year Leap.” In the column linked here, Canadian newspaper columnist Nigel Hannaford says the friend was a Toronto lawyer. Paul Skousen, Skousen’s son, endorsed the outlines of the tale to Salon by e-mail, without giving dates: “As I understand it, Glenn Beck was given a copy of FYL by a friend in Canada. When Beck read it, suddenly the effusive and disembodied principles of freedom that he had been trying to dig up and put together all came together and he could make sense of them. He was so excited about the clarity it brought that he began mentioning it on his show.”
Whatever the circumstances, Beck really began touting Skousen in the latter half of 2007. The first brief mention of Skousen in the online archives of Beck’s radio show is Sept. 24, 2007. Less than two months later, Beck interviewed conservative pundit David Horowitz on his radio program. He asked him, “Have you ever read any Skousen? Have you read — do you remember ‘The Naked Communist’? I went back and reread that, it was printed in the 1950s. I reread that recently. You look at all the things the communists wanted to accomplish. It’s all been done.” Horowitz agreed.
The very next week, Bill Bennett appeared on Beck’s radio program and received the same question. “Are you familiar with Skousen?” asked Beck. When Bennett replied yes, Beck gushed. “He’s fantastic,” he said. “I went back and I read ‘The Naked Communist’ and at the end of that Skousen predicted [that] someday soon you won’t be able to find the truth in schools or in libraries or anywhere else because it won’t be in print anymore. So you must collect those books. It’s an idea I read from Cleon Skousen from his book in the 1950s, ‘The Naked Communist,’ and where he talked about someday the history of this country’s going to be lost because it’s going to be hijacked by intellectuals and communists and everything else. And I think we’re there.”
Beck continued to mention the book during 2008, but his Skousen obsession really kicked in as the 912 concept began to take shape. Even before Obama’s inauguration, Beck had a game plan for a movement with Skousen at the center. On his Dec. 18, 2008, radio show, one month before Obama took office, Beck introduced his audience to the idea of a “September twelfth person.”
“The first thing you could do,” he said, “is get ‘The 5,000 Year Leap.’ Over my book or anything else, get ‘The 5,000 Year Leap.’ You can probably find it in the book section of GlennBeck.com, but read that. It is the principle. Please, No. 1 thing: Inform yourself about who we are and what the other systems are all about. ‘The 5,000 Year Leap’ is the first part of that. Because it will help you understand American free enterprise … Make that dedication of becoming a Sept. 12 person and I will help you do it next year.”
By then, the Skousen family was ready to respond to the Beck-inspired demand. “We as a family,” Paul Skousen told Salon, “were preparing to publish another edition, so I contacted his office with the request that Glenn write a foreword. He was gracious and kind and did just that. That is the version we’re now publishing.
According to James Pratt of PowerThink Publishing, publishers of the new 30th anniversary edition of “Leap,” which has the Beck foreword, it was intended to replace the version that the Beck show was already touting via links on its Web site. Pratt claimed in an e-mail to Salon that the previous version was not authorized by the family. “It was presumed by Mr. Beck and staff that copyright authority was in effect with that edition, and as an author I must say, I had also assumed the same thing … I was more than a little surprised this was going on, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of copies.”
PowerThink secured the agreement of the Skousen family to create the current edition of “The 5,000 Year Leap,” which was first published on March 1, 2009. Pratt says that a federal lawsuit “is in process, to secure the copyright authority in an ‘authoritative’ way” to stop anyone but PowerThink from publishing the book.
In March, with the new book available, Beck invited Skousen’s nephew Mark onto his Fox show, where the two men discussed splitting up the United States. (Mark would later say that between commercials, Beck told him that a friend had sent him “Leap” and that the book “changed his life.”) A week later, Beck issued his famously maudlin announcement introducing the 912 Project. The teary-eyed performance was accompanied by a clarion call for all 912ers to buy ” Leap.” “I beg you to read this book filled with words of wisdom which I can only describe as divinely inspired,” wrote Beck in his introduction to a recent edition. The result has been a publishing earthquake: More than 250,000 copies have been sold in the first half of 2009. James Pratt, the book’s publisher, says Beck “has done more to bring the work of Dr. Skousen to light than any other individual in America today.”
“The 5,000 Year Leap” is not the only Skousen title to find new life on the 912 circuit. The president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, Dr. Earl Taylor Jr., is currently touring the country offering daylong seminars to 912 chapters based on Skousen’s “Making of America.” For $25, participants will receive a bagged lunch and stories about America’s religious Founders and their happy slaves. An ad for Taylor’s “Making of America” seminar, currently featured on the Web site of the Tampa 912 Project, claims that Skousen’s book is “considered a great masterpiece to Constitutional students [and is] the ‘granddaddy’ of all books on the United States Constitution.”
Like so much declaimed by W. Cleon Skousen and his 21st century acolyte Glenn Beck, this last statement is fantasy. But it is also a profitable and popular one. In coming to terms with a movement that has an ever more tenuous relationship with accepted fact, we relearn that perennial lesson grasped even by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Fantasies can have serious consequences.
Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.More Alexander Zaitchik.
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)