"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 always smart Adam Serwer, writing for the American Prospect, called Friday “The Day The Controversy Over The New Black Panther Case Fell Apart.” He credited Politico’s interview with conservative Civil Rights Commission vice chair Abigail Thernstrom, who says her GOP commission colleagues and the right-wing media have tried to use the “small potatoes” story of alleged voter intimidation by the “New Black Panther Party” to “topple” the Obama administration, as well as other developments undermining the claims of former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams, the main right-winger hyping this case in the right-wing media, particularly Fox News and the Washington Times.
But right on time, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander chimes in to keep the specious story alive, chiding his paper for ignoring it while valiant journalists like Fox’s Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh fought to bring light to the darkness. The Post’s “silence,” Alexander complains, “prompted many readers to accuse The Post of a double standard. Royal S. Dellinger of Olney said that if the controversy had involved Bush administration Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, ‘Lord, there’d have been editorials and stories, and it would go on for months.’”
First, a note to Alexander: Royal S. Dellinger of Olney, a former Reagan administration labor official, was last seen online attacking federal mortgage insurers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and complaining about President Obama in Sarah Palin’s words: “We have a community organizer running the government, and I ask, “Does the response to the Gulf oil spill look organized?’” Though the letter was apparently written to the Wall St. Journal, I only found it posted online at Sigforum.com, a Web site for Sig Sauer gun enthusiasts (who don’t seem terribly enthused about Obama). Dellinger is apparently a regular righty letter to the editor writer, defending the Tea Party and opposing cap and trade legislation. Ironically, two years ago he was also quoted in former Post ombudswoman Deborah Howell’s column complaining that the Post had been too easy on Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (Why not just make Dellinger the Post ombudsman?)
Alexander also tells a somewhat right-wing version of the story, insisting the Bush administration filed a voter-intimidation lawsuit against the NBPP, its chairman and both men at the Philly polling place, but the Obama administration ultimately went after the Panther with the billy club, with a “narrow injunction” forbidding him from bringing a weapon within 100 feet of Philadelphia polling places.
Sadly for Alexander, he seems to have written before Abigail Thernstrom told Politico she backed that decision, and said, “This doesn’t have to do with the Black Panthers, this has to do with [her Republican colleagues'] fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration,” said Thernstrom. “My fellow conservatives on the commission had this wild notion they could bring Eric Holder down and really damage the president.”
Writing in the National Review, Thernstrom also noted the relative thinness of the case against the NBPP: “The legal standards that must be met to prove voter intimidation — the charge — are very high. In the 45 years since the act was passed, there have been a total of three successful prosecutions. The incident involved only two Panthers at a single majority-black precinct in Philadelphia. So far — after months of hearings, testimony and investigation — no one has produced actual evidence that any voters were too scared to cast their ballots. Too much overheated rhetoric filled with insinuations and unsubstantiated charges has been devoted to this case.”
Thernstrom even took a veiled shot at the Republican activist at the center of the storm, J. Christian Adams. In the Washington Times, Adams accused the Obama administration of “corruption” in reducing the charges against the NBPP, and shrieked: “The dismissal is part of a creeping lawlessness infusing our government institutions. Citizens would be shocked to learn about the open and pervasive hostility within the Justice Department to bringing civil rights cases against nonwhite defendants on behalf of white victims. Equal enforcement of justice is not a priority of this administration. Open contempt is voiced for these types of cases.” Thernstrom notes that Adams provides no evidence of his charges and suggests he and other conservatives should “get a grip.”
I agree with Alexander to a point: I wish the Post had used its considerable resources to do what Media Matters has done, and debunk the phony right-wing charges against the Obama Justice Department on this case. In fact, I wish I’d assigned someone at Salon to do the definitive piece on J. Christian Adams, a GOP hack hired by Bradley Schlozman, the notorious Bush Justice Department official at the center of the U.S. attorney firings scandal. Schlozman, you’ll recall, admitted using political criteria in department hiring, looking for “loyal Bushies” who were in his words “good Americans” – which meant, in practice, Republicans.
While Fox and others are hyping Adams as a whistleblower and voting rights activist, and Andrew Alexander is wringing his hands about a right-winger complaining about the Post’s coverage, here’s what Media Matters found:
• Adams is a long-time right-wing activist, who is known for filing an ethics complaint against Hugh Rodham that was subsequently dismissed, served as a Bush poll watcher in Florida 2004, and volunteered for a Republican group that [according to the legal Web site Main Justice] trains lawyers to fight “racially tinged battles over voting rights”;
• Adams was hired to the Justice Department in 2005 by Bradley Schlozman, who was found by the Department of Justice Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility to have improperly considered political affiliation when hiring career attorneys — the former head of the DOJ voting rights section reportedly said that Adams was “exhibit A of the type of people hired by Schlozman”;
• Adams has admitted that he does not have first-hand knowledge of the events, conversations, and decisions that he is citing to advance his accusations.
If he’s going to chide the Post, Alexander should be criticizing its failure to debunk the story, not to hype it. In fact, the ombudsman notes that the Post actually covered the NBPP developments in three stories in 2009, but only one this year, published last week, focused on the latest right-wing firestorm. And indeed, the Post embarrassed itself in that story, but not the way Alexander implies. It was first headlined with the breathless ” 2008 voter-intimidation case against New Black Panthers a political bombshell,” which was later changed to “2008 voter-intimidation case against New Black Panthers riles the right,” when someone realized there was no “political bombshell” in the trumped-up charges against Obama. (Alexander didn’t mention the headline rewrite in his screed today.) Sadly, features editor Kevin Merida gave Alexander a mea culpa, terming the controversy “significant,” and saying he wished The Post had covered it sooner. Ugh.
This reminds me of when the New York Times took itself to the woodshed for not covering the right-wing “scandal” that brought down former White House Green Jobs “czar” Van Jones. The fact is, from the New York Times to the Washington Post to Salon, it really is hard, with limited news room resources, to decide whether and how to cover the insane narrative of rumors, half-truths and lies being peddled by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, not to mention Fox News “reporters” like Megyn Kelly. By covering them (as Salon readers frequently remind us) we risk spreading lies and delusion beyond the right-wing smogosphere. But by ignoring the ones that gain political currency, we risk letting them acquire more influence than they deserve.
Let me state, for the record, that the New Black Panther Party is a despicable, deluded, crackpot fringe group, whose members’ insane anti-white rhetoric sometimes makes me wonder if they’re still on the payroll of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, that 60s-era project in which righty provocateurs infiltrated left-wing groups, including the Black Panthers, and egged on some of the worst violence (not that the old Panthers weren’t capable of violence and thuggishness all on their own, along with the breakfast programs their lefty admirers like to remember).
But the right wing needs the thuggish but miniscule and derided NBBP to matter, and to tie the crazy group to our black president, in order to advance their narrative of lies about Obama’s “racism,” tyranny and illegitimacy to be president. If they can convince enough people that Obama was elected thanks to intimidation by the NBPP, and “voter fraud” by the now-defunct ACORN, they won’t even need the crazy Birthers to prove he’s not legitimately president, even though he won with a bigger mandate than any first-term president since Lyndon Johnson (who of course had become president after the Kennedy assassination.)
It also serves a purpose for more mainstream conservative pundits, who never adequately denounce the Birthers, or Tea Party racists, or violent right-wing threats, instead resorting to false equivalance: “OK, well, we have Birthers and racists and guys who carry guns to presidential speeches, but the left has the New Black Panther Party!” How about this: If I denounce the New Black Panther Party, will Sarah Palin denounce racist Tea Party leader Mark Williams? Somehow I doubt it.
It’s the job of editors at big papers like the Post to expose those lies, and the movement behind them – not to flagellate themselves for not saying “How high?” when right-wing media watchdogs say “Jump!” Andrew Alexander botched his job today.
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)