"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)
Corruption and dishonesty are among the Washington vices which receive substantial attention, but cowardice is often overlooked, despite how pervasive it is. The news cycle of the last two days has been driven by an attack on organized labor from a “senior White House official” who was willing to express these views only while hiding behind the fetal wall of anonymity extended by Politico. Last night on The Ed Show, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard was asked about those comments and this is what he said:
I’m extremely disappointed that the individual would make that comment and not have the courage to let us know who said it. Anonymous comments shouldn’t be given the kind of attention they’ve been given. I’m both disappointed and angry — he’s entitled to his opinion, but I don’t think he or she is entitled to be anonymous if they want to articulate that.
That there is no remote journalistic justification for granting anonymity for these kinds of catty comments is self-evident, but that’s not worth discussing, since the Drudgeified Politico has long ago established that they operate without any ethical constraints of any kind when it comes to such matters. The only anonymity standard Politico has is this: we grant it automatically the minute someone in power wants it (though on some level, in a warped sort of way, that’s almost more admirable than what the NYT and Post do: pretend that they have strict anonymity standards while basically handing it out as promiscuously as Politico does). But what is striking is how often top White House officials — who are among the most politically powerful people in the country — are willing to inject views into the public discourse only if they can be assured that they will never be accountable for what they say. That is just unadulterated cowardice.
I suppose this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Washington is a culture of cowardice. It’s filled with people who systematically suppress (or never develop) genuine convictions for the sake of career advancement, who continuously advocate wars which only other people fight and against countries which cannot defend themselves, who are secrecy-obsessed and whose most significant acts take place in the dark in order to avoid consequences and accountability. Still, the long-standing propensity of White House officials to cower behind anonymity even to spit the most trivial insults — remember this and this and this and this? — stands out as particularly weak and pathetic. There are obviously times when anonymity is justified and necessary — when someone powerless is risking something substantial to reveal serious wrongdoing by those who wield power — but these cases are the opposite. Just ponder the character of the “senior White House official” who was so angry about what labor leaders did in Arkansas that s/he just had to call Ben Smith in order to stoke divisions between unions and their members by criticizing their actions, but then pleaded: ”don’t use my name when you publish my comments.” That’s what Washington is filled with, and it’s why Washington is what it is.
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The New York Times Editorial Page today tries to explain the significance of the Arkansas primary challenge to the White House.
UPDATE: Commenter Diana Powe:
Doubtless, part of the great appeal of being someone who works in the White House is the ability to personally revel in the reflected power of the American presidency. As such, when someone there has thoughts, it’s a small step for them to believe that those thoughts are important and substantive rather than petulant and cliquish. The fact that you have people who are eager to grant you a place to have these thoughts published while acceding to your desire to remain a “power behind the throne” can only be a supreme ego stroke.
This type of psychosis is definitely bred by political power (or proximity to it) and plays a significant role in all of this (see here for a particularly vivid example).
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)