"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 district in which you live and which I represent in Congress is soon going to change its borders. Do not be alarmed.
As you may know, in our system the voters do not choose the government; the government chooses the voters. Every 10 years, following the federal census, the districts of members of the House of Representatives are modified to reflect changes in the population. As strange and unfair as it seems, the power of redrawing districts for the U.S. Congress is in the hands of the state legislatures.
The party that controls the state legislature engages in what is known as “partisan gerrymandering” — the drawing of district lines to maximize the chances that members of the controlling party will be elected to Congress. Thanks to the miracle of gerrymandering, the majority party can draw the lines so that members of the other party are a minority in most or all U.S. congressional districts in the state.
Thank God for partisan gerrymandering. I owe my many terms as your member of Congress to the fact that our beloved district is rigged. After the 2000 Census, members of my party in the state Legislature drew the borders of my district to avoid the neighborhoods of people likely to vote against me, with limbs going out to rope in likely voters. The district goes down the highway, veers away at a right angle, wriggles through a parking lot and down an alley, flares out to take in an apartment complex and then shrinks again to avoid a suburb. Some people think the district looks like a boa constrictor that swallowed a porcupine. Others think it looks like Bart Simpson squashed by a steamroller. I think it’s beautiful.
I’m writing you now, my dear constituents, because, after the 2010 Census, my friends in the state Legislature, if they retain the majority, have promised to redraw the lines of our beloved district to give me an even safer seat, if that can be imagined. Some of you will be assigned by the Legislature to other newly gerrymandered districts. Not that I’ll notice. Unless you’ve given me more than $10,000, I wouldn’t know you from Adam.
For those of you whom the Legislature will choose to cram into my new district, there’s good news — many of you never need to vote for me again, even if you support me. You see, the new district will be so heavily gerrymandered that it will be impossible for the other party ever to elect a candidate. As long as I get re-nominated by my party every two years, I’ll be reelected as long as I choose to run — no matter how low the turnout goes. I could die and be mummified like King Tut and the voters that my friends in the Legislature have assigned me will return me to Washington in a sarcophagus.
Not that I really represent you people, anyway. Visiting the little town I pretend to represent is just a chore I have to put up with every two years, before getting back to my real job: representing the industries that pay for my campaigns.
You see, the real two-party system we have in this country involves the voter party and the donor party, and take it from me, your alleged representative in Washington, the donor party is way more important.
If any of you bothered to read my campaign finance disclosure forms, you would notice that only 20 percent of the contributions to my campaigns come from the district where you live. Eighty percent of the money I raise comes from outside the district — about half of it from ZIP codes in the greater Washington, D.C., area. That’s where the lobbies are located for the various industrial interests I represent on the various House committees and subcommittees that affect them: the investment banks, the pharma industry, the insurance industry. And my personal favorite, the payday loan industry.
My buddies in Congress and I allow companies to charge 4,000 percent total annual interest to cash the checks of poor people who are too ignorant to know they’re getting fleeced.
As long as I keep them happy, my industry friends will pay for my campaigns. Of course, if I cross them, I’ll pay a heavy price. They’ll spend millions of dollars to defeat me. Oh, they won’t spend the money on the candidate of the other party in the general election. They know that my district is so gerrymandered that my party will always win. Instead, if they want to punish me for standing up to them, they’ll offer limitless money to somebody in my own party to challenge me in the party primary, knowing that if a rival knocks me out in the primary he or she is sure to be elected in the general. I know what they can do to me in the primary, and that’s why I do whatever the industry lobbyists want.
Like submitting the bills they write in my name. Are you shocked that lobbies write the legislation that I introduce? Well, wake up and smell the coffee. Do you really think that my staff and I actually write legislation? I’ll let you in on another little secret: I don’t even read the bills that I introduce. They’re really boring and technical. Besides, I don’t have the time to read any bills, even my own, between committee hearings where I can grandstand for TV and fundraisers for my next campaign.
I’m not sure exactly where my friends in the statehouse will put my new gerrymandered district. I’ve told the guys drawing the new lines to make sure that my house is in my district. It would be a real pain to have to buy another house to keep up the pretense that I’m just one of your regular-guy neighbors. The secretaries and repairmen and nurses and such among you have no idea how hard it is to pay for two houses: one of them a crappy colonial in the town I pretend to represent, and the other an expensive townhouse in Georgetown, which is hard for me to pay for, even with a rich lobbyist as a spouse.
My wife’s a lobbyist, you know. She works for one of the biggest lobbying firms in Washington. They pay her much more than I make as a member of Congress — partly for her work, but mainly because she’s my wife. (Just kidding, dear!)
I wish I didn’t have to keep a house in my congressional district at all. It’s such a joke. We hardly ever visit. Our home is in Washington. It’s where my children have grown up, and it’s where they attend Sidwell Friends. I’m afraid, my dear constituents, that my D.C.-bred kids don’t like you. They think you’re crude. And they think you talk funny.
I love my kids. They’re not that bright, to tell you the truth, but they’ll get into my old Ivy League school because of their pedigree. Thank God for legacy preferences. Otherwise, they’d get knocked out of the competition by smart, upwardly mobile middle-class and working-class kids with higher test scores.
And once they’re in college, we’ll set the kids up with some Washington internships, to give them a head start over less privileged but more talented kids when it comes to elite careers. You know, the unpaid or underpaid internships, the ones that most American college students can’t afford to apply for. That’s one of the perks of being part of the bipartisan American establishment — college admissions and internships are rigged in favor of your not-so-bright but rich and well-connected offspring. God bless America!
At a town hall meeting a few years ago, one of you asked me whether I would be coming home to the district when I retired. After I’ve spent most of my life in Washington, do you really expect me to move back to a town where the new art exhibit consists of photos of a fishing trip on the wall of Dairy Queen?
Sure, Lyndon Johnson retired to the ranch and Harry Truman retired to Independence, Mo. But Johnson and Truman were hicks. My role models are sophisticated politicians. Look at Bill Clinton. Did he retire to Arkansas? He lives in Manhattan! He wants to be around the beautiful people, not the hillbillies. And Bob Dole didn’t go back to Kansas, he has a condo in Miami. Gerry Ford spent his golden years in Palm Springs, not Michigan.
I’ll tell you a secret, my dear constituents: My final campaign for Congress will mark the last time I’ll ever set foot in our beloved district. As soon as I leave Congress, I’m planning to unload the house in your town. I hate to break it to you, but you live in flyover country and that’s exactly what I’m going to do to you.
I don’t plan to be in Congress forever. On the contrary, I consider my terms in Congress a mere apprenticeship leading to the job I really want as a lobbyist on K Street, where, as I mentioned, my wife already works. I’ve already built up a good résumé, doing favors for powerful lobbyists. A few more terms in the House, a few more choice committee seats where I can do big favors for the folks I’ll be regulating, and the best lobbying firms in Washington will be fighting to have me as a partner.
I can’t wait to move from Capitol Hill to K Street. The minute I leave public service, I can start raking in the megabucks from the industries I’ve been working for anyway all these years in Congress. Only I’ll be able to take the money directly and I won’t need to come up with phony-baloney public-interest reasons to do favors for my clients.
Best part of being a lobbyist? I won’t ever have to feign interest in you voters again. No more boring Q&A sessions at HoJo’s. No more checkered red flannel shirts and no more pancake flipping at the high school gym. Once I’ve left the Hill, the guard downstairs in our shiny green glass office building will keep you people away from my new corner office suite. And if you somehow should make it up the elevator, my secretary will tell you I’m out, and I’ll hide in my office until you finally give up and go do something touristy like gawking at the Washington Monument.
I can’t wait to decorate my new office in the lobbying firm. I can’t stand my congressional office, packed with all the stuff from my district: the kitschy painting of the local lake, the photo of the high school baseball team. That stuff is there to make you, my constituents, feel at home, if any of you visit Capitol Hill. (This assumes that you can find Washington on a map).
Still, I plan to keep some souvenirs in my new office from my career as your representative in the United States Congress. Photos of me shaking hands with presidents, foreign heads of state, celebrity billionaires, sports stars and movie stars. Those will impress my industry clients, I’m sure. As for the photos of me at the nursing home and the elementary school — I mean, really, you don’t expect me to put those on the wall when I’m a lobbyist? My clients would think I’m some kind of populist or socialist or subversive or something.
Nope, along with my celebrity photo endorsements I’m going to have an abstract painting on the wall. A big expensive one with gloopy colors draining all over the canvas. I don’t like modern art, but it sends a signal that you’re sophisticated and rich and global and all that.
Well, I can’t think of anything else to write, my dear constituents. Some of you will be in my new district after the post-Census gerrymander. Some of you won’t. Not that it makes any difference to me.
Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.More Michael Lind.
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)