"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 dirty little secret about political punditry, that is not actually a secret to anyone who watches and reads it, is that it’s all lies. It requires very little knowledge or skill, and there are no consequences for being wrong. For a major newspaper to fire one of its columnists for getting something wrong would bring down the whole pundit industry, as that logic would necessitate the firing of them all. Every election pundit is wrong about everything, nearly all the time, and there’s usually a direct correlation between a pundit’s frequency of wrongness and his or her status — see the Washington Post’s stable of columnists for a prime example. The entire punditocracy is a sham, but thank you for reading anyway.
Which is why compiling this list of the worst, or most memorably bad, pundit predictions from this Republican primary cycle has been the toughest assignment of my career. How is one to cull a list of the dozen or two most egregious episodes of bad punditry from every political article, blog post or tweet from the past two years?
I’m part of this scam, of course. Take this stupid paragraph, for example, from June 2011:
We’ve long thought that if [Michele Bachmann] did run, her campaign wouldn’t be the joke that so many pundits treat it as. Notoriously silly people can move up the ladder quite quickly in American politics. She’ll probably win the Iowa caucuses unless (a) Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumps in soon and runs a competent campaign or (b) Mitt Romney decides to drop $40 million or so into the state, which isn’t that important for him. And given her unique ability to raise lots of cash from the true-believer wingnut base — something 2008′s Iowa caucuses winner, Mike Huckabee, didn’t have — who’s to say she can’t maintain that early momentum and post a primary win in South Carolina?
She really could win the nomination, you guys!
Bachmann would drop out the day after her sixth-place finish in Iowa. Oops! Oh well, on to the next post.
Of course, I had plenty of company in the “Bachmann Has a Good Shot of Winning the Nomination” camp: Jonathan Chait, Chris Matthews and Michael Tomasky, to name a few. In the end, we were as crazy as Michele Bachmann to imagine such a thing as remotely possible.
Why does this happen? Dozens or hundreds of political writers looking for a mindless topic on which to start the day — Michele Bachmann being the go-to option about 99 percent of the time — spend three minutes formulating something resembling a line of logic, and arrive at the same, wrong prediction. This happened every second of every day during Republican nominating season. So here are some of our picks for the most memorable, egregious, lazy and tiresome predictions and analyses from the last 15 months or so of nonsensical political commentary and hackery and lies. We’re sure that all of these pundits will learn something after seeing their mistakes and emerge with wiser, more thorough coverage in future elections. Just kidding; that would be the worst prediction in the history of predictions.
Donald Trump Is Totally Serious About Running for President!
In the early stages of each presidential election cycle since the 1980s, Donald Trump has pretended to consider running for president as a means of getting publicity for his latest ghostwritten book, television show or doomed casino venture. In this latest iteration, he began loudly voicing his fake intentions in the week or two surrounding the season premiere of his NBC show “Celebrity Apprentice.” He kept the act going for several months until, just as the season finale of “Celebrity Apprentice” was set to air, he announced that he would not run. This, along with the fact that he never voiced anything even approaching a coherent political stance on any issue and clearly had no interest in doing so, should have been reason enough for professional pundits never to seriously entertain the prospect of a Donald Trump candidacy.
But as soon as Trump topped a handful of meaningless, hypothetical national polls after only a few weeks of screeching unrestrained racism on cable news, some just couldn’t resist. Mike Huckabee, the former presidential candidate who set aside his own presidential ambitions this cycle in order to spend more time being a crappy political pundit, told Barbara Walters, “I believe that if [Trump] gets in the race he is going to be formidable because everybody knows ‘The Donald’ and money will be no object for him … and I think he’s going to get in it.” Oh dear: a fanboy. “I seriously believe he’s going to jump in.” Guys: seriously.
Dick Morris, whose proudly cynical, yellow-toothed, sleazy aura could pass as charming political television if he ever brought any non-wrong analyses to complement it, also thought Trump was going to run, had “a good shot at the nomination,” and “could beat Obama.” But for Morris, whose book previewing the 2008 election was titled “Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race,” this wasn’t so bad.
The most memorable instance of Actually Taking Donald Trump Seriously, though, was that of Charles Krauthammer, the longtime Washington Post columnist whom many conservatives consider their wisest, most sober soldier in the field. Krauthammer had been appropriately skeptical about Trump’s murmurs at first. But then Donald Trump called him on the telephone. How about that? And so the dean of conservative pundits was successfully manipulated:
“I was prepared for a gale of abuse, because I’ve been really tough on him, and he would have been within his rights to do it,” Krauthammer told Fox News host Sean Hannity Thursday night.
“He handled that rather well,” Krauthammer added. “I give him the credit for graciousness and restraint. But it convinced me that he’s running, that it’s not just a feint.”
Donald Trump’s Jupiter-size ego is generally assumed to be unrivaled, but the ego of a tenured Beltway pundit such as Krauthammer could certainly hold its ground for a few rounds between the ropes. Oh, well if he’s calling me, omniscient political kingmaker Charles Krauthammer, seeking my approval on the telephone, then he must be quite serious about running for president. They make it so easy.
Top-Tier Tim Pawlenty Is a Very Serious Candidate Who Will Go Far
“I think we know with reasonable certainty that standing up there on the West front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2013, will be one of three people,” intoned George Will, another longtime, defiantly not-retired Washington Post columnist, in May 2011. Here were the Three People, delivered with assured, flimsy gravitas: “Obama, [former Minnesota Gov. Tim] Pawlenty and [Indiana Gov. Mitch] Daniels. I think that’s it.” Well, Mitch Daniels didn’t run. And the victor may yet be President Obama, so this prediction still isn’t technically wrong. But Tim Pawlenty? Only a few of you readers will remember that name, but indeed, the Great Political Promise of Tim Pawlenty was once a whole “thing.”
It must have been that he looked good on paper. In a field of prospective candidates short on qualifications and long on baggage, Pawlenty’s résumé stood out nicely as that of the One True Candidate. He was a two-term governor of a purple state and, before that, majority leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives. His Midwestern roots set him up nicely for the Iowa caucuses, as did his devout evangelical Christianity. He promised endless imperial warfare to delight the hawks, and endless tax cuts to woo the supply-siders. He came from a working class background and played a sport, hockey. He had a nice family, no divorces, wasn’t horribly fat and ugly, etc., etc., etc.
For the first six months of 2011, “top-tier candidate” was the handicappers’ most common descriptor for Tim Pawlenty. “Pawlenty is arguably the only top-tier potential Republican candidate participating in the debate,” CBS News — to pick one outlet from the thousands who used this exact same line — wrote ahead of the first debate in May 2011. Poor Top-Tier Tim, see, had to share the stage that night with lesser, go-nowhere candidates like Rick Santorum.
Pawlenty’s only problem was that he wasn’t a human being. He was stiff, unfunny, cheesy, boring, constantly pandering, forced and altogether limp, unable to match even plastic bean-counting replicant Mitt Romney in dynamism and flair. He dropped out in August after blowing all of his campaign’s (not very much) money on a useless straw poll in Iowa that he lost anyway, since he could never surpass 4 percent in pretty much any poll.
Political Scientists Also Get Things Wrong, But With Science!
Just as the nascent field of presidential candidates began campaigning, an elite clique of super-political super-commentators possessing such magical powers as half-completed social science graduate degrees arose, bravely, to counter the savage nonsense put forth by the uneducated online hordes of blabbering, cretin bloggers. The Political Science Blogging Wave had arrived, at long last, to rid political punditry of its passions and install a Valhalla of numbing statistical analysis! Academic bloggers using their quantitative skills to bring trivial political speculative games into precise mathematical focus was a development so unnecessary, so anal-retentive, so distant and uninteresting to voters and so hostile to creativity and the formulation of new ideas, that the liberal blogosphere instantly adopted it as the hot new fad.
This attempted scientization of political blogging may yet achieve its goal of removing all fun from political conversation. But it will never, ever stop even the most data-saturated commentators from making comically bad predictions. Here, in my favorite example, is top political science blogwaver Jonathan Bernstein writing for the Washington Post’s liberal blog, the Plum Line, on July 21, 2011:
It’s time to buy Tim Pawlenty stock. Intrade now has him below a 6 percent chance of winning the nomination and numerous pundits have written his campaign obituary. That’s just silly. Pawlenty remains what he’s always been: a candidate, perhaps the only one in the field, who can appeal to every faction within the Republican Party and draw an attempted veto of none of them. He remains a very viable candidate in a field without many of them and with no strong frontrunner.
Pawlenty dropped out of the race about 10 days after Bernstein’s post, which, again, because of science, informed readers, “It’s time to buy Pawlenty stock.” Don’t dump your shares in Lehman Brothers, either!
Bernstein had an explanation ready for his error:
To step back a bit more … much of what I’m trying to do here is to match what’s happening right now with what political scientists know about how the world of U.S. politics works. So three things can go wrong: I can misunderstand what’s happening now; I can misinterpret what political scientists know; or we (that is, political scientists) can get things wrong, which in turn can be because something hasn’t been studied enough yet, or has been studied poorly, or because reality changed and the old studies no longer apply.
The studies could be wrong, or there aren’t enough studies, or there are wrong studies. Only when we get more good studies — studies upon studies begetting more studies– then we will finally be able to determine, say, that Tim Pawlenty is a crappy presidential candidate.
(See, also: fellow political science professor/blogger Brendan Nyhan, in a post about how little early polls, which were were mostly dominated by Mitt Romney, matter, and why he’d “bet on Tim Pawlenty despite his low poll numbers.” You don’t want to go to Vegas with these guys.)
A Brief Interlude From Bill Kristol
Bill Kristol, the publisher of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, is the most notoriously wrong-all-the-time political commentator in America. The vocal advocate behind such hits as “the Iraq war will go swimmingly” and “Sarah Palin would be a great vice presidential candidate” typically spent most of this campaign season incorrectly speculating, or “reporting,” on which candidates would join the race. In a way, this made Kristol useful. We knew, for example, that a Rudy Giuliani for President 2012 campaign — however unlikely that ever was — would definitely never materialize after Bill Kristol wrote this on June 8, 2011: “I’m told by two reliable sources that Rudy Giuliani intends to run for the GOP nomination for president in 2012. He may throw his hat in the ring soon.”
Sarah Palin’s Eternal State of Thought
For years and years, until the late-game announcement (past most state primary ballot deadlines) when she said she wouldn’t be running, Sarah Palin offered the same line to giddy reporters who’d ask her whether she’d run: “I’m still thinking about it.” Every now and then she’d sprinkle in a surprise bus tour or Iowa State Fair visit or cryptic Web ad, successfully maintaining her headline presence in the speculative press. Anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills treated her chances skeptically, considering her status as the least popular politician in the country whom even majorities of Republicans didn’t want to run.
But it was entertaining to watch the Dish’s Andrew Sullivan, whose Palin paranoia had come to define his blog from 2008 onward, suffer a near-stroke with each Palin tease. Here, from May 2011, is Sullivan lambasting others who’d written off Palin in a post titled “So You Thought She Wasn’t Running?”
Actually, all of Washington said so. Palin has been airbrushed out of the GOP race by the entire scene – from Politico to National Review. And yet, for some unfathomable reason, she has secretly put together an hour long “Triumph Of The Will” “Evita” “Undefeated” documentary that will attempt to do what Josh Green tried: to reframe her as a visionary reformer. (“Undefeated” is another odd lie, of course. She lost the last general election overwhelmingly and would almost certainly have lost re-election in Alaska if she hadn’t quit. But we’re in postmodern Republican land here, so logic is not of the utmost concern.) More to the point, it’s going to air in Iowa next month.
Why would someone who has decided not to run do that? Or am I airing bizarre conspiracy theories again – as opposed to the dignified restraint so many in Washington have shown?
If “dignified restraint” means “learning not to freak out over every manipulative Palin stunt,” then this was one isolated development for which “Washington” could be proud.
The “Romney Death Watch” That Never Reached Its Conclusion
Jonathan Chait, the former New Republic writer who jumped to New York magazine last year, is the other perennial heavyweight in any list of bad political pundit predictions. He and Bill Kristol make for a swell left-right pairing, as Chait, too, serves the same useful function of confirming truth by predicting its direct opposite.
Chait is a lively writer who’s capable of writing zippy, smart analyses on a broad range of issues. But sometimes a pundit just has to go out of his way to make irrationally assured predictions. So once Chait began his series of blog posts, “Romney Death Watch,” we knew that Romney would in fact live forever.
It’s a bold move, at the start of an election cycle, to declare that the only candidate with money, discipline, an actual organization, thin but real potential to attract swing voters, and first place in the line of GOP succession cannot win the party nomination — even with all of previous policy problems or awkward fit with the current party mood. But that’s why they pay Jonathan Chait the big bucks. From a dialogue between Chait and his more skeptical colleague Jonathan Cohn on June 1, 2011:
I share your reasons for sympathizing with Romney, which are also reasons that disqualify him from winning the Republican presidential nomination. He’s a technocrat who is open to which ends he employs to solve public policy problems, in a party decidedly closed about the appropriate methods to solve problems. (He’s also a Mormon in a party that has not a small number of implacable Mormon-haters.)
But if not Romney, then who else? The famous Top Tier Candidate, of course, as Chait wrote in May 2011:
In my view, the three main contenders for the nomination are, in order, 1) Tim Pawlenty, 2) A party establishment-friendly Republican not currently running, such as Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan, and 3) Bachmann. Everybody else, including Sick Man Of The GOP Field Mitt Romney, falls into the longshot bin.
Republican Primary Voters May, in Any Way Whatsoever, Be Attracted to Jon Huntsman’s Call for Civility
Many, many, many Beltway pundits opined about how voters would tire of the nastiness, bickering, rage and general insanity of the last few years and rush to support Jon Huntsman, whose campaign emphasized civility. This was a classic example of pundits confusing what they wanted to happen with what voters would actually do. “Mr. Huntsman’s call, in his announcement speech, for more civility, was both appropriate and shrewd,” elite Wall Street Journal anti-oracle Peggy Noonan wrote at the time. Appropriate? Sure. Shrewd? Unless there’s some forgotten archaic definition of “shrewd” that means “somewhere between useless and condescending.”
And here, for another example, was Republican media strategist Mark McKinnon, who became deeply worried about our uncivil discourse shortly after picking up the fat check he earned running George W. Bush’s vicious, nauseating ad campaign in 2004:
Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for George W. Bush and co-founder of the group “No Labels,” which advocates bipartisan cooperation, thinks the [Huntsman] approach could work. He said that voters are “aching” for civility.
“They want candidates who are strong leaders and have strong opinions, but they want disagreements to be respectful, not personal,” Mr.McKinnon said.
How could McKinnon say that with a straight face? The same way, we suppose, that he wrote columns titled “Sanford for President” and “Sanford Should Resign” on back-to-back days in 2009.
There Is Nothing You Can Do to Stop Rick Perry
You remember the hyperbole. Rick Perry. Governor for 11 Years. Of a large state. Winner of 10 straight elections. Loves Jesus like no other. A virtuoso in the field of retail politics. Kills coyotes with his many guns. A true Southerner. Fucking hates abortion. Will destroy anyone in his way. Indeed, another great Résumé Candidate. And within 10 minutes of Perry’s late entry into the race, the pundit consensus was essentially that all primaries and caucuses should be canceled, Mitt Romney should jump off a cliff, and Rick Perry should be handed the nomination before he leaves the grounds of the Iowa State Fair.
Richard Adams of the Guardian: “Rick Perry will enter the Republican presidential contest and he will win the party’s nomination … Perry will win the Republican nomination, barring a ‘live boy or dead girl’ scenario.” Former presidential candidate and publisher Steve Forbes: “I think at the end of the day Perry will win the nomination, and I think he’ll win the election.” John Judis of the New Republic: “And unless he says some really untoward things, or unless revelations appear that discredit him, I think the nomination is his to lose.” Judis’ hedging there — that’s the mark of a pro.
Unless Rick Perry is bad at winning nominations, he will win the nomination, unless, again, he is bad at winning such things, as it were. It almost makes you admire Jonathan Chait’s complete recklessness as an alternative.
Rick Perry turned out to be very bad at winning nominations, mostly because of his inability to speak the English language or understand any function of the federal government. These flaws were on full, painful display in the many debates, but Judis made his prediction after watching only one debate: “The main thing in debates is not so much what you say, but how you say it. It’s a matter of attitude. Perry appeared tough, confident, able to deflect criticism, and to fire back when fired upon.” To Judis’ credit, this was one of the few early Perry pieces that didn’t explicitly use the word “gunslinger,” settling for mere gun imagery at the first opportunity instead. Such restraint deserves an award.
The One Person Who Knew That Newt Gingrich Would Be the Nominee
“I’m going to be the nominee. It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.” — Newt Gingrich on Newt Gingrich’s chances to win the nomination, Dec. 1, 2011, a week or two before his national poll numbers nosedived 30 percentage points overnight. Gingrich is rumored to still be running, but no cameras can confirm.
– – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – –
And after all the predictions, all the armchair scenario-devising, a full 100 million debates, and something called “Herman Cain,” here’s how primary season went: Mitt Romney won the nomination with some hiccups along the way, but nothing that the occasional $10 million negative ad dump against either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich couldn’t fix. It was the simplest, most predictable version of what would happen.
If you want to stay informed about political news, then ignore all political news.
Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.More Jim Newell.
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)