"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)
Oh dear me. Fox News superstar George Will is very offended. He’s calling for the smelling salts over that rude young man Barack Obama’s “adolescent” rhetoric. (Obama used the word “stinkburger,” a word so vile that poor George practically collapsed onto his fainting couch.)
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had recently released his budget, so Obama expressed his disapproval by calling it, for the benefit of his academic audience, a “meanwich” and a “stinkburger.”
Try to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan talking like that. It is unimaginable that those grown-ups would resort to japes that fourth-graders would not consider sufficiently clever for use on a playground.
Heavens to betsy! What will that childish miscreant do next? Tell a U.S. senator to go f**k himself? Oh no, sorry, that was Vice President Dick Cheney, whose return to the halls of power was widely celebrated among the denizens of the Beltway as a sign that the “grown-ups were back in town.” (And said “grown-up” was still snorting and high-fiving to his buddies about it years later.)
But if he wants a perfect example of puerile banter, it’s going to be hard to beat this one from the top “grown-up” of his day, George W. Bush, who ended a meeting with the G-8 on climate change by punching his fist in the air, grinning widely and saying:
”Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter!”
In fairness, George Will did not explicitly name Bush as a good example of proper presidential demeanor. Even he didn’t go that far. Neither did he name George Bush the First who was a very mature man by the time he was in the White House and yet still managed to sound puerile:
“Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they? – during a tour of Auschwitz in 1987
Now that is commentary I might expect from a fourth-grader.
Neither did Will name Richard Nixon, but that’s because his rhetoric often sounded very much like a petulant 16-year-old. Take this most memorable lines from his infamous 1962 speech:
You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference and it will be one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you…I hope that what I have said today will at least make television, radio, the press, first recognize the great responsibility they have to report all the news and, second, recognize that they have a right and a responsibility, if they’re against a candidate, give him the shaft, but also recognize if they give him the shaft, put one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then.
And then he flounced off to his room to have a good old-fashioned cry. (And to think that pouty fellow staged the greatest comeback in American political history to become president six years later.)
George Will has been around for a long time now. And search as I might for examples of his pearl clutching over the jejune elocution of those leaders I just mentioned, I’ve failed to come up with any. Perhaps this is something he has only recently noticed.
But then George Will’s larger point is that this proves that Obama’s reputation for brilliant oratory is overblown by comparison to other presidents known for their eloquence such as Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan. I cannot find any examples of Roosevelt using adolescent colloquialisms of the 1930s although it’s certainly possible that he cut loose with a “bet your sweet patootie” from time to time. But I’m quite sure that if Will had been pontificating during that era he’d find this sort of talk to be boorish and juvenile and beneath the dignity of the office:
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.
And that was a prepared speech. One can only imagine some of the things he said off the cuff.
JFK was a terrific wit and his barbs were razor sharp. But even he could get off a quip that would make teenage boys giggle from time to time:
“I appreciate your welcome. As the cow said to the Maine farmer, ‘Thank you for a warm hand on a cold morning.’”
That’s right. The man who said “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” could also tell a juvenile little teat joke. (I hope George Will doesn’t see that one or he might just faint dead away!)
And then there is St. Ronald of Reagan who evidently never lowered himself to use the common vernacular or otherwise degrade the dignity of his office. He certainly could never be accused of being juvenile. Right?
Presidents aren’t priests or demigods whose power derives from an enigmatic mystique. It’s perfectly natural for them to speak differently in soaring prepared speeches than they do when ad-libbing to the public. They’re politicians who need to relate to normal human beings. Which explains why George Will wouldn’t understand it.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.More Heather Digby Parton.
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)