"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)
Joe Lieberman this week announced his involuntary retirement from the Senate — compelled by humiliatingly high disapproval ratings in his own state and the 2006 ejection from his own party — and Beltway denizens are now rushing to heap praise on this Deeply Principled, Civil, and Decent Man of Conscience. The New York Times‘ spokesman for establishment wisdom and entitlement, David Brooks, today hails Lieberman as “A Most Valuable Democrat” and gushes over his “courageous independence of mind”; Brooks also quotes several leading Democrats venerating the four-term Connecticut Senator, including John Kerry (“a terrific senator” who is “defined himself by his conscience and beliefs”), Harry Reid (“an integral part of the Democratic caucus”) and Joe Biden (“Joe’s leadership and powerful intellect” are overwhelming but “it is his civility that will be missed the most”). Brooks also approvingly cites a post from The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein suggesting (not without qualification) that Lieberman is a “Democratic hero” because he voted for most of Obama’s domestic agenda over the last two years.
Conspicuously missing from any of these paeans is the issue most responsible for the contempt in which many liberals (and anti-war conservatives) hold Lieberman: his vigorous, ongoing support for the attack on Iraq. Why allow the small matter of a decade-long, brutal occupation that eradicated the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings to negatively affect the reputation of a Washington official? To bring any of that up is so very uncivil and past-obsessed. Like torture, illegal eavesdropping, CIA black sites, the systematic denial of due process in a worldwide prison regime, and the ongoing Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning acts of war entailing things like this (all of which Lieberman also supported), the Iraq War is written off — flushed down the memory hole — as nothing more than one of those garden-variety “policy differences” about which reasonable, decent people disagree.
Support for all those violent and illegal acts just isn’t something we hold against someone, and it’s certainly not going to preclude someone from being a “Democratic hero.” Indeed, even Lieberman’s false claim — repeated just yesterday — that we found evidence that Saddam was developing WMDs (while patronizingly calling Arianna Huffington “sweetheart” after she disagreed) won’t interfere at all in these admiration rituals, even (especially) in Beltway Democratic circles.
In one sense, this is unsurprising, since every one of the Lieberman-praising individuals in the first paragraph — like most Washington opinion-makers — also publicly supported the Iraq War, and thus are eager to uphold a framework in which public war advocacy — even unrepentant advocacy — is not even slightly reputation-damaging. It’s perfectly fine in D.C. circles to talk about the Iraq War as a “mistake,” but assigning responsibility for the human suffering and devastation it unleashed is simply not done. And, of course, the number one rule of Washington is that high-level political officials should not be held accountable, even reputationally, for anything they do (Look Forward, Good Citizens, Not Backwards).
But the blood on Joe Lieberman’s hands is accounted for by far more than support for the Iraq War. He’s long been one of Washington’s most indiscriminate, toxic and deceitful supporters of aggressive war generally. Even as the two wars he cheered on were spiraling out of control, he was repeatedly urging new American attacks against Iran, Syria and, most recently, Yemen. Lieberman — who, needless to say, never served in the military nor have any of his children — devoted his entire career to attempting to send other Americans’ children to fight war after war after war. In sum, as The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Will Bunch put it when examining the muddled history of Lieberman’s opposition to the war in Vietnam: ”the only war he ever opposed was the only war he might actually have had to fight in.” But, of course, being a relentless warmonger while cowardly hiding yourself and your family far away from the wars you cheer on is not remotely inconsistent with being a Man of Decency and Conscience, as David Brooks and his many Beltway admirers will be the first to tell you.
Then there’s Lieberman’s vaunted “civility.” He was not only one of the most vocal war supporters, but was responsible for some of the most toxic and McCarthyite efforts to stigmatize war opposition as illegitimate and even treasonous. In 2005, he infamously lectured Democratic war critics that “in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril,” and in 2007 used the language of treason to pose leading questions to Gen. David Petraeus to induce the General’s agreement that war opposition “would give the enemy some comfort.” Worse, Lieberman often bolstered these smears with outright lies, such as when he claimed on Meet the Press that we were “attacked on 9/11 by the same enemy we’re fighting in Iraq today.” Behold his grand civility.
And then there’s the leading role Lieberman played in lending Democratic support to the whole litany of Bush/Cheney assaults on basic liberties. He defended the “Bush interrogation program” and even waterboarding, and was one of only two Democrats to vote against banning it. He led the way — along with his close friends John McCain and Lindsey Graham — in enacting the Military Commissions Act, which explicitly denied all detainees the right to contest their detention in a court of law: a measure so repressive that the Supreme Court in Boumediene struck it down as unconstitutional, citing Alexander Hamilton’s warning that “the practice of arbitrary imprisonments, in all ages, is the favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny.” Once the Court re-established the habeas right which Lieberman and his comrades snuffed out, it turned out, as federal courts found, that there was no credible evidence to justify the detention of a huge percentage of remaining detainees at Guantanamo: innocent people who would have been imprisoned indefinitely to this day — without a shred of due process – if Lieberman had his way.
This “Democratic hero” has spent decades posing serious threats to basic liberties, including free speech. It was Lieberman who, just a few weeks ago, publicly threatened and bullied all companies to terminate their relationship with WikiLeaks despite its not even being charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime. That was just a repeat of his censoring behavior, two years earlier, when he successfully demanded that YouTube remove videos he disliked, causing The New York Times to editorialize: “it is profoundly disturbing that an influential senator would even consider telling a media company to shut down constitutionally protected speech.” And it was Lieberman who joined with Bill Bennett, Sam Brownback, Lynne Cheney, Tipper Gore and others in trying to regulate music they disliked.
Then there’s the bill introduced last year by Lieberman and McCain — the so-called “Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act” — which is probably the single most extremist, tyrannical and dangerous bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in the last several decades, far beyond the horrific, habeas-abolishing Military Commissions Act. It would literally empower the President to imprison anyone he wants in his sole discretion by simply decreeing them a Terrorist suspect — including American citizens arrested on U.S. soil. The bill requires that all such individuals be placed in military custody, and explicitly says that they “may be detained without criminal charges and without trial for the duration of hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” which everyone expects to last decades, at least. It’s basically a bill designed to formally authorize what the Bush administration did to American citizen Jose Padilla or what was done to Japanese-Americans during World War II — arrest them on U.S. soil and imprison them for years in military custody with no charges.
As for Lieberman’s Principled Integrity, just consider this article from The Hill yesterday, which describes how the Connecticut Senator has been so loyal to defense contractors that they are lamenting that he’ll be “hard to replace.” And then there’s the matter of his virulent servitude to the health insurance industry placed next to his wife’s “professional lifetime devoted to the corporate health sector.” And, needless to say, he was the receipient of millions of dollars from the industries he so loyally served.
This is all just the small illustrative tip of the iceberg that is Joe Lieberman’s hideous, destructive political career. It leaves out his alliance with the worst religious extremists in the country, such as Rev. John Hagee, his steadfast refusal as Homeland Security Chairman to investigate some of the Bush administration’s worst failures and abuses, and — of course — his overarching, unyielding, blind support for anything and everything Israel does, even trying to construct similar absolute allegiance to Israel as a litmus test for American politicians. In a 2008 report, Think Progress compiled all the ways that this Democratic Hero has not only failed to support progressive values, but led the way in waging war on them, and this amusing Gail Collins column from yesterday perfectly captured Lieberman’s rotted “character.”
That this same person, in light of this record, can be so widely hailed in Washington circles is significant indeed. Granted: some of the praise is just the pro forma self-regard in which Washington elites and especially Senators hold themselves; he’s one of Them, in good standing in the royal court culture, and is thus entitled to obligatory praise upon retiring. But the reality of Joe Lieberman is that he always fit perfectly into the Democratic Party. Virtually the entire Party establishment stood behind him in his 2006 re-election bid: not just during his primary fight, but even once Connecticut Democrats chose someone else (Ned Lamont) as their nominee, the support offered by establishment Democrats for Lamont ranged from stingy to non-existent.
That’s why it’s utterly unsurprising to watch Democrats — and even progressive pundits such as Klein — heap praise on Lieberman. It’s more than obligatory; they mean it. Very few of the views Lieberman holds are inconsistent with Democratic Party dogma. How, for instance, could Democrats possibly hold his Iraq War support against him when the vast majority of top Obama officials (Biden, Clinton, Gates, Emanuel, etc. etc.) supported the same war? Or how could they possibly suggest that his enabling of Bush’s torture, illegal eavesdropping and detention regimes are reputationally damaging when party leaders and the Party itself enabled the same policies? And, obviously, corrupt obeisance to industry and lobbyists, a war on civil liberties, and blind support for Israel are so pervasive in both parties that very few people could possibly hold any of that against him. The reason Lieberman’s long record of heinous acts isn’t invoked as criticism is because they’re little more than bipartisan Washington pieties, perhaps just a bit more flamboyantly expressed in his case.
Even more significant is how this Democratic praise for Lieberman reveals just how bipartisan the Washington consensus on most issues truly is. When Lieberman ran for re-election in 2006, his most vocal support came from places like The Weekly Standard, National Review, and Commentary Magazine; Sean Hannity, Bill Kristol and right-wing radio hosts cheered for his victory. But a mere four years later, he’s branded in The Washington Post as a “Democratic hero” and leading Democrats rush forward to praise him. As happens so often, the two sides who — in our political theater — are endlessly presented as being polar opposites, intractably hostile to one another, in fact find common ground with amazing frequency. The extremely bipartisan and quite genuine love for Joe Lieberman in Washington circles (notwithstanding the contempt of his own constituents) illustrates that as well as anything else.
It’s understandable if Democrats are happy that Lieberman voted for much of Obama’s domestic agenda over the last two years. Even that praise is highly questionable; after all, he voted for Obama’s health care bill only after stripping out the truly progressive parts, while his recent role in crusading for gay rights was explained perfectly by Salon‘s Alex Pareene: ”Of course he wants gay people in the military — he wants everyone in the military” (except himself and his own family). But at least appreciation for those positions is cogent for those who view the world through the prism of how much value someone is to Barack Obama.
But to whitewash this long, bloody, repressive, disgraceful record of Joe Lieberman from his legacy and suggest he may be a “Democratic hero” — all because he cast some pro-Obama votes over the last two years — is just intolerable. But it’s par for the Washington course. Blood-stained hands are far too common to be bothersome (it’s part of the D.C. uniform); servitude to lobbyists and corporations is the central Article of Faith, not a ground for embarrassment or disgrace; assaults on core liberties is how Strength and Seriousness are demonstrated; and “centrism” and ”principled independence” are the glorifying names given to status quo perpetuation and loyalty to the factions who run Washington. Lieberman isn’t widely admired across the Washington spectrum and in both parties despite his aberrational acts; he’s admired precisely because he’s the perfect face of what that culture is and what it values.
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Three updates relating to issues I’ve recently written about: (1) in a bit of good news: it appears that, in response to CAIR’s lawsuit brought on behalf of Gulet Mohamed, the Obama administration has capitulated and allowed the American teenager to return to his own country (as of this moment, he has deplaned at Dulles and is in customs, where he is being interrogated, yet again, by the FBI without counsel); (2) Salon‘s Justin Elliott describes how the Obama DOJ — the Most Transparent Administration Ever™ — has secretly adopted new guidelines on Miranda warnings but refuses to disclose them; and (3) a former Marine commander of the Quantico brig writes a letter to the current commander to object to the conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention; Manning’s lawyer details here how these conditions worsened this week and a complaint has been filed (a petition will be delivered to Quantico tomorrow which I encourage everyone to sign).
Lastly: my sincere thanks and appreciation to everyone who contributed to my blog fund-raiser last week. I am in the process of sending out thank you emails to each person who donated, but that may take me a bit of time, so in the meantime, please accept my genuine thanks; reader support is both very gratifying and helpful.
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)