"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)
Months before it hit shelves, Mark Leibovich’s new book “This Town” had establishment Washington trembling and salivating. Who would ‘Win the book?’ as Washington argot might have it. Politico, the media outlet most emblematic of the new capital, appeared nervous. Well before its reporters got ahold of the book, they attempted a psychological analysis: “It seems clear that Leibovich is trying to work through his own conflicted feelings about ridiculing a culture he is very much part of.” After publication, they speculated that Leibovich’s reporting would ruin parties in the capital.
“This Town’” landed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, confirming that Washington players — aides, lobbyists, soon to be lobbyists (aka senators and representatives), journalists and wise men — have become objects of fascination, characters in their own soap opera. And Leibovich, a big-time reporter for the New York Times, gets invited into almost every room. In a series of profiles, readers tour the power nodes of This Town, from Air Force One, where a socialite finagles a ride, to cozy Georgetown galas to TV studio green rooms where ideological opponents get chummy.
Before the book landed, the population of “This Town” wanted to know two things: “How mean is he?” and “Am I in it?” In less than two weeks, but many, many news cycles later, the book has been called both “gentle satire” and nasty. The Financial Times encapsulates it: “As pitiless and, frankly, cruel as Leibovich can be, he also pulls his punches.”
The night after his book party this week, Leibovich spoke to Salon about the many things wrong in Washington, a few reasons to be optimistic and why so many power brokers are immune to shame. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How was your party?
I think it was good. It was one of those things where it was a blur. I don’t remember that much about it; it was just people wanting me to talk to them and sign books and stuff. I probably drank too much. But it was fun! People seemed to like it.
Well, good. Maybe it’ll be the first chapter of the sequel…
In someone’s next book. Or my — actually it won’t be my next book.
Like everybody else I thought the book’s a great read. But beyond that, what’s the main point you’re trying to make about This Town?
First of all, it’s not a prescription book. It’s not a book where I can lay out ten points at the end and say, “What we can do to make our capital city work better.” Like any journalist, I just wanted to hold a mirror to a culture, and help educate and ideally entertain people about what it has become here.
If you sort of look at the uber-theme, maybe you’d see that self-service has replaced public service as the defining ethic of This Town. Beyond that, I think it’s a look at the modern capital. Just “show not tell,” and people can draw their own conclusions.
Oh, what a great book. I’m actually not all the way through it, but I really liked the Jeff Connaughton parts [Ed. - Connaughton was an idealist who came to Washington and became a political aide and eventually a lobbyist.] I’m really fascinated by that guy. And I love George Packer.
In the book, he tells the story of a North Carolina man named Dean Price who has negative feelings towards Washington, and at times they turn conspiratorial. Is there anything you can tell us from what you’ve seen in that would hearten people like him, or any normal Americans, about how Washington works?
I would say that the only thing heartening about it is, ultimately, people in Washington might not react to shame, but I think they do react to self-interest. If you look at issues like immigration, gay marriage, gun regulation — these are all things that probably wouldn’t be a source of much discussion at all in D.C., if they weren’t sources of self-perpetuation. The voters are now making themselves heard on these issues.
People have asked me “How do you stay?” and “How do you stand it if you’re so cynical?” The book reads cynical, I guess, but I think it comes from a place of idealism. Maybe the core of the American spirit is the hope to do better. Maybe the hope erodes over time, but it’s a powerful force. People get elected on it, and I think it has to be realized at some point. I know a lot of really good and smart and committed people over here, and maybe they’ll prevail over time. Maybe the model that I set up in the book is not sustainable. I don’t know if super wealth is gonna sustain itself, I don’t know if the government will sustain itself if it keeps up the gridlock. But I guess people find their own sources of hope.
Why do people in This Town seem so immune to shame?
Because ultimately there’s not much of a price for it. Shame is an impulse that strikes at the heart of it is self-awareness, right? And self-awareness is not in any great supply here. This is not a psychologically savvy city at all. This is a place where people can very easily lose sight of who they are and become defined by their status, their jobs, what their press says about them or whatever.
There’s a great line in the book from Richard Holbrooke. He was very proud to be a New Yorker and he used to say – he used to come home from Washington every Friday night, and the first thing he would do is take the state department ID photo off his neck. He said “Washington is the only town where people feel big by wearing pictures of themselves around their necks.” I thought that was pretty funny.
You don’t have to be that psychologically savvy – in the case of former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, say – to understand the contradiction in supporting labor issues during your political career and then lobbying against labor once you leave office.
Right. I guess it depends on where your moral code starts. Politicians, in many cases – their moral code will be dictated by what can get them reelected, what they can get away with. When you’re out of office, I guess you’re freed from those checks and balances.
A lot of what you talk about is how Washington is now a place that people go to get rich, even elected officials. Outside of the booming local economy, do you see any advantages to this?
There’s more danger than advantage. I guess the advantage, theoretically, would be that the bottom rungs of the local economic ladder would benefit, although that hasn’t necessarily proven to be true at all, if you look at poverty rates and demographic trends in Washington.
But no, I think the bulk of what we’re talking about is not a benefit at all. We’re talking about decadence; we’re talking about the disconnect between the people here and the people that they’re supposed to be serving. And I think there’s also just a gradual loss of sight of what public service is, because again, people seem far more focused on cashing in than when the spoils weren’t so readily available.
The amount of money involved sort of makes the cliché about Washington being Hollywood for ugly people more true than it’s ever been before.
Yeah, I suppose. It’s important to point out, though, that Hollywood – showbiz – is not really for real. This is a city that has real life. What happens here has implications for people, policy is set, laws are made. There’s a lot of overlap between here and Hollywood. There’s a lot of ego, a lot of money, a lot of vanity. But I think this city is supposed to be for keeps. Hollywood is entertainment and fantasy and there’s definitely a place for that in life, but there’s supposedly a higher purpose.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the time I’ve spent in Washington is that in the past the relative lack of money lent it a certain egalitarian ethos. Interns, and certain senior people could socialize – or if not socialize, they could at least see each other. Do you see that deteriorating?
There’s definitely a moneyed class here. I’ve lived here 16 years. I don’t remember there being such a distinct moneyed class before. But there’s always going to be an egalitarian feel, I mean certainly at the bottom rungs in the congressional office and people in the workplace. It’s a pretty small town, and it’s a company town, so there is going to be that sense of community if not incestuousness. But you lose the egalitarian feel and a sense of common mission when the culture becomes as bifurcated as it’s become.
You’ve been in Washington for 16 years. What are some of the landmark events that have given rise to the culture you’re talking about? I guess one of them would be the beginning of Politico. Are there any other things that jump out?
If you look at the late ’90s, and the Monica stuff. I still to this day can’t believe that there was the Monica thing and then there was the recount and then there was 9/11, and this was all within a few years. These, each in their own way, were huge and bizarre and absolutely astonishing pieces of news. And I think they occasioned the greater focus in government. The government was expanding very much in concert with that, especially after 9/11 and the first Bush term. So, a lot of the wealth grew up in that period, especially in the early part of the last decade.
The Obama arrival was obviously big. There’s always going to be more attention paid to the administration, 1) when he’s charismatic; 2) when he’s a Democrat. And the Obama campaign was a huge story, and the Obama victory was a huge story. It was historic on many levels.
I think the Internet’s also been really transformative. Starting around ’08, it really took hold of the political conversation to a degree that’s shifted the velocity and the attention span. It intensifies everything and not always for the better.
We could probably all think of examples of how the Internet has changed the political culture, but are there any that stick out for you?
The news cycle. The fact that there’s no real time to talk about things. The fact that you’re reacting five times a day. In the book there are examples of how Mike Allen can get a hold of something, and then it will go on Morning Joe, and then Mike Allen will talk about what was talked about on Morning Joe, and then some blogger will pick it up, and then Huffington Post will then link to what that blogger said, and then they’ll talk about it again on Morning Joe based on the discussion.
I think one of the telling things is the arrival of the word “cycle,” which is not a term people used two decades ago. I think it’s a perfectly representative word of a world that is always spinning in circles. It’s always moving and that energy creates a lot of careers and a lot of fame.
In the book you talk a lot about the culture of failing upward. Does the cycle enable that?
I think so. There’s always a landing place. I gave the example of Mark Penn, who completely screwed up the Clinton campaign in 2008, and was really quite disliked in that circle and got his old job back and got a big job at Microsoft. There was no fall from grace for him.
And then you have someone like Steve Schmidt, who was blamed for convincing John McCain to pick Sarah Palin, and then spends a lot of time trashing her and sort of building a career on being a source for a lot of the dirty laundry that was aired on that campaign. And then he was treated almost heroically in “Game Change,” and has a TV studio at his home in Tahoe, so he doesn’t have to leave his home for a talking head gig.
Even the Kurt Bardella chapter [an aide to Rep. Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., who was fired] shows this. He had no punishment at all. He lost his job for a few months. He was sort of able to build his brand as a contributor to Politico and other places. He was asked to go on TV as a talking head. It’s just this neutral sheen of notoriety [that’s of value], rather than doing good or doing bad.
When the book came out, many, many cycles ago—
– yeah, years ago now —
There was a lot of talk about how the book is more gentle than it could be. On the phone, you sound a little bit harsher.
Maybe. I certainly have heard the critique that I pull punches and people theorize that I pull punches because I need to work here. And I’ve also heard people say I was overly cruel. It’s probably fair that, there was again, probably some kind of check on me because I’m not leaving or I have no plans to leave.
But yeah, I don’t like a lot that goes on here. I mean it’s a very hard to work here as a journalist and not be cynical because you’re talked to in a certain way, and you’re talked to in a way that is not the way human beings talk to each other. You’re talked to in the language of spin, or obfuscation, or excessive obsequiousness, or just some kind of excessive sales-i-ness. And it’s not how normal human beings interact.
You just see it over and over and over again, and you see people going back on their words. It’s not the kind of culture that lends itself to day-to-day idealism. I’ve always tried to walk a line between being incisive and acerbic, but not mean. Sometimes I’m going to tip over the line a little bit, but that’s usually a line I try not to cross.
Have you thought at all about how the book would have been different if you had planned to leave?
Not really. When you write a slash-and-burn book I think it reads like a slash-and-burn book, which can be sort of juicy. But ultimately, I think being an insider was in some ways a handicap for all the obvious reasons, but I also think that it enables me to understand a language and to know a shorthand into who these people are and what they’re trying to do that I don’t think an outsider would have. But yeah, this is the perspective I write from, and I write from it because I really have no choice.
You find shamelessness and people with any number of other unattractive qualities on both sides of the aisle. And you seem to really relish pointing out how ideological opponents enjoy each other’s company in green rooms. But the book is fairly nonpartisan. What kinds of differences do you see between Democrat- and Republican-leaning operators?
I don’t have an exact census in front of me, but there certainly seems to be more Democrats here. I mean it’s a much more Democratic city. This is a small sample size, but I think I’ve found that Republicans more are sort of “in on the joke” to use a term that Jack Quinn, the Democrat [lobbyist] used. But that’s sort of a bipartisan term. It’s like, ‘Well you know how the game is played, we know why we’re here.”
And, Republicans seem to take themselves less seriously; they seem more willing to not cloak their work in a higher-minded title. They’re probably much more willing to call themselves lobbyists. I mean they tend to be better, I’ve found, at embracing who they are and not having any expectations that people are going to see them as pillars of sanctimony. But I think that people are people. And people are complex, and that’s true here as it is everywhere.
Maybe Republicans are just, in their constitution, more comfortable making money. I’m not sure.
They can be better to interview.
Sometimes. I mean, not always, I mean believe me, I don’t know if either side has a monopoly on authenticity or sincerity or anything like that. Those tend to be pretty evenly displayed across the board.
The sort of partisan rancor that everybody talks about seemed pretty absent from your book, except when people are going out of town to do paid, staged debates –
Yeah, except that nothing’s getting done. If an immigration bill passed tomorrow, that’s going to be tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees and consulting fees and cable shouting matches that aren’t going to be realized. And I think one of the messages in the book is that the dysfunction that we see is very, very good for business here. This town functions and thrives, not only on disagreement, but on gridlock, and on combat and not on working problems out, but on fighting battles. If you can keep the battles going for a long time, you’re going to keep a lot of people in business.
It’s a good thing you didn’t try a prescriptive book, because it sounds like a pretty hard problem to solve.
Yeah, I’m just not smart enough and I wouldn’t want to try.
Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.More Alex Halperin.
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)