"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)
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer may have recently decided against moving the state’s Republican primary to January, but that didn’t stop her own campaign to bring Arizona back to the center of the hotly charged national debate on immigration and border security.
Kicking off her book tour with a sneak preview in Alabama last Friday, in homage to that state’s controversial crackdown on immigrant schoolchildren and workers, Brewer set out the two main themes of her impassioned new book, “Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media, and Cynical Politics to Secure America’s Borders.” She said, ”We are under siege. And we have been totally disrespected by the federal government.”
Brewer makes it clear from the first line that it is not really “we,” as in the collective Arizona populace, but she who has been unfairly treated by the “liberal” media and President Obama, in particular, in the aftermath of Arizona’s defiant legislative act. She so identities herself with the state that she writes at one point, “Kind of like me. Kind of like Arizona.” The substantial portion of the state that is not like Brewer is what torments her.
In the witching hours before she signed the controversial immigration bill in the spring of 2010, with protesters outside her office and a nation divided over immigration policy, Brewer sets the scene as a drama of her own victimization: ”The best comparison I could think of was: This must be what it’s like to be waterboarded.”
Brewer’s “Scorpions” weaves a complex tale of her persecution and backroom White House drama, settles personal scores from earlier reported gaffes, and floats some enduring appeals to probability throughout the thinly stretched 223 pages.
The book also lays down the Republican Party’s message on immigration in 2012. In a full throttle attack on President Obama’s “backdoor amnesty” policy, Brewer hopes to issue a wake-up call to the nation and frame immigration politics as the linchpin in a larger Democrat and union plot to “pander” to the growing Latino electorate in the upcoming 2012 elections, especially in key Western states. Based on the GOP presidential debates so far, no Republican contender dares to disagree with her.
“President Obama’s administration had done nothing — nothing — to work with us to secure the border,” she exclaims.
Notwithstanding Brewer’s reliance on constitutional scholar Sarah Palin for her understanding of the 10th Amendment, “Scorpions” fails to make the case for Arizona’s states’ right claim over federal immigration issues.
Instead, Brewer thrives on evoking Arizona’s right-wing leadership under fire, a theme shared by other memoirs coming out of the embattled state. In his 2008 ghost-written “Joe’s Law: America’s Toughest Sheriff Takes On Illegal Immigration, Drugs, and Everything Else That Threatens America,” Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio begins with a tale of a borderland plot to assassinate him. (Arpaio later admitted under oath that he had not read all of his own autobiography.)
In “Scorpions for Breakfast,” reportedly written with the help of ghostwriter Jessica Gavora (who also penned Palin’s memoir), Brewer wants readers to know she lives on the Arizona front lines: “I was involved in a war with deeper and more entrenched set of political interests than I had realized.”
Brewer argues that the Obama administration has intentionally allowed an immigration crisis to spiral out of control on the U.S.-Mexico border. When President Felipe Calderon from Mexico addressed a joint session of Congress and criticized Arizona for SB 1070, Brewer could not believe that a foreign leader was actually allowed to criticize the United States of America.
“I had to wonder where our country was going under Obama,” she writes. “It started to dawn on me that this president and his liberal allies in Congress don’t really understand what America is all about and what our fundamental principles are.” Feeling as if Arizona has been victimized in a campaign of recrimination and blame, Brewer writes again, “It was then that I knew that we were in a war.”
Throughout the book, in fact, the Arizona governor constantly reminds readers that her state “didn’t cause this crisis,” but acted only when the federal government refused to do its job. “And what did we get for our effort?” she asks. “We were demonized and called racists. We were sued and treated like subjects instead of citizens … We were slapped down like wayward children.”
Brewer’s war is not limited to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, where an “invasion” of “drug dealers, human smugglers, generic criminals, and the sheer volume of people pouring over our unsecured border” has given her state no other option but to “lead when their representatives in Washington failed to do so.” Her “war” is with President Obama. And for the governor of Arizona, it gets personal.
Attempting to speak with the president during his commencement address at Arizona State University in Tempe, only weeks after signing SB 1070, Brewer claims Obama “blew me off.” Finally, at a long-awaited meeting at the Oval Office, Brewer writes, “He proceeded to lecture me about everything he was doing to promote ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ which was code for encouraging more illegal immigration by letting those already in the country illegally jump the line.”
Brewer’s account of Obama’s remark ignores the fact that the Obama administration has deported record numbers of immigrants — more than his Republican predecessor — and ramped up Border Patrol and border security funds to unprecedented levels. Instead, Brewer had an epiphany: “He’s treating me like the cop he had over for a beer after he had badmouthed the Cambridge police, I thought.”
In truth, Brewer’s political future was in doubt before that tragic event. On March 23, 2010, she received the bad news that she lagged far behind Republican state Treasurer Dean Martin in the latest Rasmussen Reports poll, as well as her potential Democratic opponent. More important, the poll noted that 85 percent of Arizona voters were concerned about drug-related violence in Mexico “spilling over into the United State.” Four days later, beloved rancher Robert Krentz was murdered on his borderland property in southern Arizona. Within a month, the heightened media attention and outrage over the murder would undeniably help state Sen. Russell Pearce shuttle his long-sought SB 1070 bill through the Legislature. When Brewer signed the bill, her poll ratings soared and swept her back into office.
The extraordinary impact of Krentz’s unsolved murder, of course, continues to this day; Brewer dedicates a chapter to it and mentions Krentz’s name more than 30 times throughout the book, while referring only once to Pearce, the Tea Party leader and author of SB 1070, who boasted on election night: ”I think, out of fairness, the governor would have to admit that if it wasn’t for 1070, she wouldn’t be elected.”
As she casually admits near the beginning of “Scorpions,” the waves of undocumented immigrants arriving in the state has plummeted in recent years, due to recession. Brewer omits altogether the fact that crime rates in Arizona are also at their lowest since her arrival in 1970. A week after she signed the bill into law, the Arizona Republic reported that Robert Krentz was “the only American murdered by a suspected illegal immigrant in at least a decade” in the worst smuggling route on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Brewer’s attempts to explain the social costs of immigration account for some of the book’s most curious and unfounded arguments. Take this leap, without a shred of evidence, on the link between undocumented laborers and welfare:
“But the unfortunate fact is that most illegal aliens are also unskilled and uneducated. Unskilled workers have higher unemployment rates and lower earnings. Many rely on government programs to help support them and their families. Either that or they rely on government jobs — if they can get them. In either case, they are more dependent on government than either legal immigrants or the native-born.”
An extensive study by the Center for American Progress last spring found that “undocumented immigrants don’t simply ‘fill’ jobs; they create jobs. Through the work they perform, the money they spend, and the taxes they pay, undocumented immigrants sustain the jobs of many other workers in the U.S. economy, immigrants and native-born alike.” Were undocumented immigrants to “suddenly vanish” from SB 1070’s “attrition through enforcement,” the study estimated that Arizona’s economy would shrink by $48.8 billion.
On a similar argument over the criminality of immigrants — Brewer made headlines last year when she claimed the majority of undocumented migrants were drug mules — Brewer uses the same logical fallacy:
“… the Border Patrol estimates that it apprehends only one in four illegal border crosses … And for every illegal immigrant who’s a criminal and who gets arrested crossing the border — a gang member, a drug dealer, even a child molester — three are missed and find their way into neighborhoods in other states all across America.”
That’s Brewer’s interpretation of the math, unsupported by law enforcement officials. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports and police agencies, crime rates along the Arizona border have been “flat” for the past decade. “This is a media-created event,” one sheriff told the Arizona Republic a week after Brewer signed SB 1070. “I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the border has never been more secure.”
Where she came from
There are some illuminating insights on Brewer’s life in the memoir. In what she describes as her “lightbulb moment,” Brewer traces her political career back as a “young wife and mother” at a school board meeting in Glendale, Ariz., in the early 1980s, when she asks her husband about the people in the front of the room. (The Brewers, contrary to the book jacket, were California transplants in the 1970s, not “lifelong Arizona residents.”)
“And he said, ‘Well, they’re the school board,’ So I said, ‘How did they get there?’ He answered, ‘They were elected by the people in the school district.’ And I said, ‘Well, I could do at least as good a job as they are, if not better.”
Skipping any school board race, Brewer decided to make the leap straight to the state Legislature. Brewer writes that she hand-addressed her campaign announcements from “my beach house in Rocky Point, Mexico.” In the state Legislature, Brewer picks up the nickname “Janbo” for her effort to halt a “monument to Vietnam war protests.” She is proudest of campaign to require labels for “obscene” lyrics on record albums. As secretary of state, Brewer advanced to her position as governor when former Gov. Janet Napolitano was appointed in 2009 to head the Department of Homeland Security,.
Despite all of the name-calling and the humiliating fallout to SB 1070, “Scorpions” does succeed in showing how Brewer has remained resilient and even more convinced that a post-SB 1070 Arizona “won’t be intimidated, and we won’t back down.” As Brewer notes, “As I write, I have almost 500,000 friends on Facebook, and every day I take time to read the comments people leave on my wall.”
So bring on the scorpions.
Jeff Biggers's next book, "State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream" (Nation Books) is due out in September.More Jeff Biggers.
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)