"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 need a break from the rhetorical outrage beat. I was going to write about the Newsmax columnist who all but advocated a military coup to bring down Obama, then I was pondering a post about Rep. Alan Grayson’s claim that the GOP health reform plan amounts to if you get sick, “die quickly.” But I’m tired of overheated rhetoric right now, (plus the indefatiguable Alex Koppelman got to both stories first!) so I took refuge in Taylor Branch’s new book, “The Clinton Tapes.” I had planned to review it, but it’s almost 700 pages, and I have a day job. If I took the time to read it and then write about the whole thing, it would be weeks before I’d get it done — and I think the book has insights that are supremely relevant to today.
So I thought I’d try to blog my review, over several days, and ask for your help, if you’re reading the book. Every few days I’ll write about what I am learning, and anyone who’s reading, or curious, can participate in comments. (We could do the same thing with “Going Rogue” next month, but it would probably take us about an hour.)
I have to start by saying Taylor Branch’s trilogy, “America in the King Years,” is my favorite work of history. He brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alive for me. And to see my favorite civil rights historian — so far, there are some up-and-comers that deserve a look, too! — grappling with the president who, until Obama, thought and did more about civil rights than any president before him, well, it’s a thrilling combination. The book opens with the pair believing they are fulfilling the movement they’d worked for as young men, convinced Clinton can do so much to advance King’s goals, though we know that eventually politics got in the way. Still, it’s important to remember that civil rights was the mission that animated Clinton’s, and Branch’s, passion for politics.
One hundred pages in, here’s what’s fascinating. First: Serendipitously, Branch started his private, taped talks with Clinton nine months into the Clinton presidency, in October, roughly where Obama is now, the better to focus you on the parallels and differences in their first year. I am not privy to the secrets of the Obama White House, but Branch brings the reader directly into the rooms where a red-eyed, exhausted Clinton sits talking late into the night about the challenges he faced in Mogadishu, Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq (remember how he bombed a weapons facility to retaliate for an attempt on President Bush’s life, so W. wouldn’t have to start a war!); the disappointment of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the thrill of the short-lived Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, signed just eight months into his presidency; his failure to get a stimulus bill passed (thanks to Democratic turncoats and Republican opponents); the early work on healthcare reform (and that 1,342 page bill) and the controversial NAFTA.
Reading it all, your head and heart hurt for Obama. We know our presidents have to juggle multiple crises, that’s the job, but the way Branch depicts the pace of it, and the toll it took on Clinton (who still found time to help Chelsea with her math homework), well, it made it real. I got tired just thinking about it. I am probably going to be a little easier on Obama in the weeks to come.
There are some wonderful windows on policy triumph and disappointment: He depicts a stormy but funny meeting of Democratic senators to tell Clinton why they’ll block any liberalization of policy on gays in the military. Robert Byrd leads off fulminating about the immorality of homosexuality, and Clinton tries to head him off by noting that adultery is immoral (ahem) but we don’t dismiss military folks for cheating on their spouses. Sam Nunn raised the unit cohesion argument (there was a lot of discussion of those close quarters, especially on Navy ships!). Clinton observes Sen. Ted Kennedy on the sidelines: “I couldn’t tell if Teddy was going to start giggling or jump out the window” as the talk turned to the bawdy, omnisexual practices of ancient Greek and Roman warriors.
But at the end of the day, Clinton said, he was surprised by the fact that he couldn’t tell which of the opponents truly believed it was bad to have gays in the military (or anywhere else); all they discussed was the politics of the proposal. That theme would recur. Clinton was the consummate horse-trader, no steely ideologue, but even he was surprised at the extent to which politics trumped policy, or even the silly idea of what’s right or what’s best for the country, in every single debate.
There are also eerie parallels with some of Obama’s battles this year. Clinton lost the stimulus battle that Obama (after compromising) won, doomed by zero Republican support and duplicitous Dems like Oklahoma’s Chuck Boren, who kept insisting he needed the bill to be bipartisan. (Hello, Max Baucus!) The utter hypocrisy of the GOP is well traced back to 1993, when they fought an anti-deficit bill that would have cut spending and raised some taxes. They’ve been the party of no for 16 years, even switching sides to say no, cynically, to completely opposite ideas: They were against shrinking the deficit when the Dems were for it; now they’re suddenly worried about deficit spending (after eight years of Bush budget-busting) when Dems are trying to spend money on the economy and healthcare, and not merely war and bailing out Wall Street and banks.
Branch is mystified by Clinton’s strange passivity with the press — he just accepted that they’re against him, and he put none of his considerable charm and charisma behind the task of courting them, unlike the young president he so admired, John Kennedy. The funniest scene in the first four chapters comes during an interview with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and political correspondent William Greider. Greider comes in with a photo of a destitute American (who’d apparenty been in Clinton’s “Faces of Hope” campaign materials), and began guilt-tripping Clinton. Branch paraphrases:
Here is one of the countless poor people who looked to you for leadership; you were their last hope! Now they feel utterly disillusioned and abandoned. Can you look into this face and name one thing that you have done to help? Or one principle you won’t compromise? One cause you will uphold? One belief you would die for ? [In fact, the R.S. interview transcript shows that Greider said the man told him: "Ask him what he’s willing to stand up for and die on."]
Clinton “kind of went off on him,” he told Greider.
He told Greider he had done things already that no other president would do. He had raised taxes on the rich and lowered them for the working poor. He introduced the AmeriCorps service program, which Rolling Stone campaigned for … He was taking on the gun lobby and the tobacco industry. He had proposed fair treatment for gay soldiers. He was fighting for national health care coverage, and more, but liberals paid very little attention to any of these things because they were bitchy and cynical about politics. They resented Clinton for respecting the votes of conservatives and opinions of moderates. They wanted him to behave like a dictator because they didn’t really care about results in the world … He said he had pointed at Greider to tell him the problem is you, Bill Greider. You are a faulty citizen. You don’t mobilize or persuade, because you only worry about being doctrinaire and proud. You are betraying your own principles with self-righteousness.”
Clinton took a breath. “I did everything but take a fart in his face.”
In fact, the president was much more eloquent on tape than in his memory (although he might have misremembered what he said directly to Greider, or else Greider cut it). You can read, and listen to, the actual exchange on the Rolling Stone site. It’s fun.
Here’s Clinton’s retort, verbatim, with some narration from R.S.:
The president, standing a foot away from Greider, turned and glared at him. Clinton’s face reddened, and his voice rose to a furious pitch as he delivered a scalding rebuke — an angry, emotional presidential encounter, the kind of which few have ever witnessed.
“But that is the press’s fault, too, damn it. I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years, with the possible exception of Reagan’s first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press, and I am sick and tired of it, and you can put that in the damn article.
“I have fought and fought and fought and fought. I get up here every day, and I work till late at night on everything from national service to family leave to the budget to the crime bill and all this stuff, and you guys take it and you say, ‘Fine, go on to something else, what else can I hit him about?’ So if you convince them I don’t have any conviction, that’s fine, but it’s a damn lie. It’s a lie.
“Look what I did. I said that the wealthy would have to pay their fair share, and look what we did to the tax system. I said that I’d give working families a break, and I did. People with modest incomes, look what’s going to happen. Did I get any credit for it, from you or anybody else? Do I care if I get credit? No.
“But I do care that that man has a false impression of me because of the way this administration has been covered. It is wrong. That’s my answer. It is wrong. I have fought my guts out for that guy, and if he doesn’t know it, it’s not all my fault. And you get no credit around here for fighting and bleeding. And that’s why the know-nothings and the do-nothings and the negative people and the right-wingers always win. Because of the way people like you put questions to people like me. Now, that’s the truth, Bill.”
[At this point the president started to walk away but changed his mind and came back, still mad as hell.]
“That’s why they always win. And they’re going to keep winning until somebody tells them the truth, that this administration is killing itself every day to help people like them and making some progress. And if you hold me to an impossible standard and never give us any credit when we’re moving forward, then that’s exactly what will happen, guys like that will think that. But it ain’t all my fault, because we have fought our guts out for ‘em. And the bad guys win because they have no objective other than to win. They shift the blame, they never take responsibility. And they play on the cynicism of the media.
“That’s not what I do. I come to work here every day, and I try to help that guy. And I’m sorry if I’m not very good at communicating, but I haven’t gotten a hell of a lot of help since I’ve been here.”
Let me make you read one part of that quote again, because you could be talking about the Obama administration’s dilemma in 2009:
“That’s why they always win. And they’re going to keep winning until somebody tells them the truth, that this administration is killing itself every day to help people like them and making some progress. And if you hold me to an impossible standard and never give us any credit when we’re moving forward, then that’s exactly what will happen, guys like that will think that. But it ain’t all my fault, because we have fought our guts out for ‘em. And the bad guys win because they have no objective other than to win. They shift the blame, they never take responsibility. And they play on the cynicism of the media.”
The bad guys win because they have no objective other than to win. Sixteen years later, it’s just as true. After opposing efforts to censure Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson, Republicans are trying to censure Rep. Adam Grayson (whose rant maybe went over the top,) even though Rachel Maddow assembled a string of video clips showing at least a half-dozen Republicans depicting Democratic healthcare plans as an effort to get Americans to die, drop dead, be killed, you name it, by any means necessary. A lot of my liberal Twitter friends were over the moon about Grayson’s string of bold remarks, and while part of me enjoyed turning the tables on the lying ideologues, part of me thinks Democrats win when they stick to facts and focus. And part of me is laughing at that naive part of me right now.
Wait, I said I was going AWOL on the rhetoric war. I tried. It’s going to be a fun book. Stay tuned. Tell me what you think.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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)