"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)
In early 2007, I got a tip that led me to something pretty strange — well, somewhere between delusional or apocalyptic, really — that Rep. Michele Bachmann had said, on tape and beyond dispute about an important national security matter, in a podcast interview with a St. Cloud reporter.
Why talk about it now? Well, as the presidential field winnows down to just one Minnesotan, and Bachmann is routinely described as a top-tier contender for the nomination, inquiring minds who haven’t witnessed Bachmann’s gravity-defying act from as close-up for as long as we Minnesotans have need our help in understanding just what the heck is up with her.
I covered Bachmann extensively from the year of her first congressional race until she stopped returning my calls, perhaps because of the story I’m about to recount. But the tale offers a detailed case study of one of Bachmann’s signature traits. It’s her pattern of saying things she can’t back up and wiggling through the ensuing questions without ever acknowledging the falsehood or explaining how she came to say it in the first place.
Although some of them are very famous (like the “anti-American” allegation against candidate Obama in 2008), the one below has mostly been lost to the Bachmann legend, even though it’s more substantive than many of the others. The main point is just to watch the pattern unfold.
Bachmann and me, the early days
I had not covered the Legislature during Bachmann’s state Senate days, when she became famous in Minnesota mostly for her anti-gay-marriage stuff. But I was the Strib’s main guy on the 2006 campaign that sent her to Congress. I maintained good reporter-newsmaker relations with Bachmann and her campaign staff, could always get my questions answered and had good access to the candidate.
I was still playing the “objective” journalism game, although I had started blogging for the Strib and experiencing some of the liberation of the bloggerly voice. But, although I was suspected by righties of being a lefty, I actually took more grief from Bachmann-dislikers for not wielding my mighty pen and pixels to prevent her election over the hapless Dem nominee, Patty Wetterling. Anyway, the point is I had gotten to know Bachmann and her peeps and could usually get my questions answered, until …
The Iraq war was in full rage then, but the country had developed doubts. Bachmann, who was and is a hawk, was in the stay-until-victory camp during the ’06 campaign. (So far as I know, she still is.) And she won the race for Congress, more easily than the pundits had predicted.
She had been in office less than two months when she made a new and surprising claim, to wit:
“Iran is the trouble maker, trying to tip over apple carts all over Baghdad right now because they want America to pull out. And do you know why? It’s because they’ve already decided that they’re going to partition Iraq.
“And half of Iraq, the western, northern portion of Iraq, is going to be called the Iraq State of Islam, something like that. And I’m sorry, I don’t have the official name, but it’s meant to be the training ground for the terrorists. There’s already an agreement made.
“They are going to get half of Iraq and that is going to be a terrorist safe haven zone where they can go ahead and bring about more terrorist attacks in the Middle East region and then to come against the United States because we are their avowed enemy.”
Bachmann did not say, on the St. Cloud podcast, how she knew of this plan. The St. Cloud reporter, regrettably, did not ask her. In fact, the St. Cloud paper didn’t even write a story about it — just posted the audio file on its website.
The suggestion of an Iran-al-Qaida cabal made little sense to those who knew that Shiite Iran and Sunni al-Qaida are mortal enemies. And it seemed unlikely that knowledge of such a plot would first surface in a podcast interview between a freshman congresswoman and the St. Cloud Times. But now, with Bachmann a member of Congress, with access to briefings, such a statement had to be both reported and checked out.
I called the Bachmann office, asked for the backup for her statement and was asked to wait overnight, which I did. Late the next morning, I was getting itchy to post. (I was blogging by then, and this was going in my blog “The Big Question” and, presumably, in the following day’s paper.) I called to press Bachmann spokester Heidi Fredrickson for an answer. She promised that one would come that morning, but it didn’t. So, as I had told Fredrickson I would do, I posted the verbatim quote on the blog, along with a promise to add Bachmann’s additional explanation when it came later in the day. Then I went to lunch.
The explanation never came.
Instead, when I got back from lunch, I learned that the blog had set Strib traffic records (at least for a non-Vikings story). Hundreds of comments poured in from all over the country. Turns out, righty Web god Matt Drudge had — by some mechanism I’ve never understood — seen my piece and linked to it. This led to the Bachmann claim being read on the air by even bigger righty god Rush Limbaugh. (I no longer have the Limbaugh transcript, but as evidence of how unfamiliar the country was with Bachmann at the time, I recall Rushbo asking aloud: “Who is this woman? She must be a Democrat.”)
All of this made it seem more urgent that I reach my erstwhile friend Bachmann and get her explanation/clarification/backup. But as the day wore on it became clear that I would never get that call. I’m not sure that I ever got a call back from Bachmann again. I have had to learn to cover her, in my small way, without access to her. For this piece and the series that it kicks off, I emailed her campaign spokesman seeking access to the candidate, or even just a willingness of the press staff to take my questions, but have had no response, which follows a trail of similar persona non grata treatment. I repeat the offer here.
Part of Bachmann’s current appeal seems to be about her political bravery. She will say — with blistering clarity — the things the others are too cautious to say. And she sticks to them. And there is something to this idea. But in situations like this one — especially when the situation requires her to admit error — she can get very shy, evasive and cowardly.
The morning after
The morning after all that poop hit the fan, Bachmann issued a brief statement (no questions allowed) which began: “I’m sorry if my words have been misconstrued.”
She had not been misconstrued. She hadn’t been construed at all. Her original Iran-and-the-terrorists statement had been quoted verbatim, without comment, with space left for her to expand, explain or reply however she wanted. The “I’ve been misunderstood” complaint has become part of the pattern that follows after Bachmann discovers that one of her statements has blown up.
In the Iran-has-a-plan case study, after claiming to have been misconstrued, Bachmann’s no-questions-allowed new statement tried to clean up the mess by substituting a longer, vaguer and less provably delusional statement about the evil of Iran and the dangers that could emanate from the region. It was framed as a clarification of Bachmann’s earlier statement. But it really amounted to a non-retraction retraction of most of what she had said without acknowledging that she was retracting it and without explaining how she came to make such a clear statement that Iran had a partner and a plot to create a terrorism-allowed-zone in Iraq from which to attack America. The new statement simply made no reference to her formerly certain knowledge of what Iran was planning but said instead that “It is difficult to ascertain Iran’s intentions towards Iraq.”
That’s quite a change from “they’ve already decided that they’re going to partition Iraq,” and the second could hardly be taken as a clarification of the first.
To this day, Bachmann has never explained how she came to so confidently and matter-of-factly allege, as if it were a known fact, a very serious non-fact about a non-existent alliance and plot to attack America.
A few days later, Bachmann did (still without submitting herself to any questions on the subject) produce an op-ed piece (published in the Strib March 1 — three weeks after she made the original statement and one week after my post had gone viral). That third version did, at least, acknowledge — sort of — that she had said something in the St. Cloud interview that she could not back up.
It remains viewable on her congressional website. The piece included some shreds of evidence that, if you don’t scrutinize them, perhaps suggest that something somewhat similar to what she had alleged might be slightly possible, but not really. In fact, not even close.
I did write a piece for the paper and for the blog — pointing out that Bachmann had, while not really coming anywhere near clean and failing to prove the veracity of her original statement , at least acknowledged that she had said something she couldn’t back up. And I prepared to leave the matter there.
But not Rep. Bachmann.
Instead, she did what she has often done. While continuing to hide from an interview that would be tough, fair, civil and fact-based, she sought refuge in a venue where she knew she would receive friendly, barely-informed questions from interviewers who would ask no follow-ups and where she would be talking to an adoring audience.
Specifically, on March 8, a week after the op-ed fake-takeback, she went on Christian-themed radio station KKMS, a show called “Live with Jeff and Lee, “where she has always felt completely comfortable. Jeff or Lee asked her about the flap, which had just about blown over, and she allowed as how she appreciated the opportunity to talk about it and clear it up. OMG. Like she hadn’t spent two full weeks in the witness protection program to avoid any chance of being asked about it.
Then, with little interference from her interrogators, she proceeded to unleash — depending on how you might want to count them — between seven and 12 whopping falsehoods, including slanders against my professionalism, rubbish about how the story came to be published without her comment, fictions about her misbegotten brave attempts to set things straight, a revised King James version of what she had said or written in the various versions she had put out about the Iran plot, and one of the more self-pitying versions of how media bias works that I’ve heard.
If this post wasn’t already so long, it would be interesting to deconstruct the tissue-paper fabric of her misstatements which were, so far as I know, her final words on the topic of the Iran plan. For those so motivated, my post fisking her statement is still available on the Strib website. (Although, if you are so motivated, I should warn you that some kind of glitch has occurred in the archive that causes the gibberish string “Ã¢â‚¬â„¢” to replace all apostrophes. It’s possible to read around them.)
On the radio that day, Bachmann self-pityingly concluded:
“It’s an interesting thing. There’s a reason why a lot of politicians don’t say anything or are very unwilling to speak up. Especially if you’re a conservative, you’re just slapped up mercilessly in the press.
“That being said, I have to be extremely careful what I say and how I say it.”
No more interviews
Well, what to say to wrap up such a weird detour down memory lane.
I don’t believe I’ve ever been granted a one-on-one interview with Bachmann since that episode, although I may be wrong on that. Rushbo figured out which party she was in and fell in love with her. The plot to divide Iraq never surfaced. Bachmann now sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. And, most impressive, she is widely believed to be one of the three or four likeliest Republican nominees for president in 2012.
It’s a little scary to think that a relationship to factuality as tenuous as Bachmann’s is no impediment to such a rise.
Watching her this year, it strikes me she has become a tad bit more careful about what she says, but she still makes more factual flubs, unsubstantiated allegations and over-the-top word choices than any other important national political figure, although I won’t claim that that’s based on any scientific study.
At the big Republican debate the Thursday before the Ames straw poll, Bachmann said:
“I sit on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. I can’t reveal classified information, but I can say this: As president of the United States, I will do everything to make sure that Iran does not become a nuclear power.”
By the way, I hope to add a piece soon about some of the more extreme policy positions Bachmann took in 2006, many of which also have not been part of the current review. One of them was an unwillingness to rule out the use of U.S. nuclear weapons against Iran.
Plus ca change, plus c’est le même chose.
A few last sillinesses from the “plus ca change” department.
When my original post containing just the verbatim Bachmann quote was published, the very first comment, from one of the righty trolls who pseudonymously inhabited my old Strib blog, asked why the Strib didn’t use a more flattering mugshot of Bachmann.
The second commenter wondered why her Iran comments were news two weeks after she had originally made them to the St. Cloud paper.
Local righty radio talker Jason Lewis took to the air to defend Bachmann by impugning my integrity. My recollection is that Lewis alleged that my attention had originally been called to the St. Cloud podcast by one of the Minnesotans who contributes to the DumpBachmann blog. This is true. And certainly the DumpBachmannites are not fair and balanced in their attitude toward the congresswoman (as Jason Lewis is).
But so what? She’s a congresswoman. She said what she said. She never backed it up nor retracted it. But to Jason, it was a scandal of biased journalism.
Lewis described me as “on bended knee” to the “lesbians” who want to dump Bachmann.
I know Jason a little. So, after I heard about the show, I asked that if he is ever going to publicly attack me by name again, he should offer me a chance to come on the show and defend myself. He said that he was under no obligation to do so (quite an expert on fairness and objectivity, he), but that since he liked me, if a similar occasion ever arose again, he would try to remember to call me.
And finally, this week, speaking in her old hometown of Waterloo, Iowa on the day after her big Saturday win in the Ames Straw Poll, Bachmann promised “to be bold, new, different” and on national security, she vowed to “take off my politically correct glasses and look exactly at the threats that the United States is facing today.”
Eric Black is a former reporter for the Star Tribune and Twin Cities blogger. He writes about politics and government of Minnesota and the United States, the historical background of topics and other issues. Click here to view Eric’s previous postings at former blog, Eric Black Ink. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.
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)