I first became aware of Jim Hightower more than 20 years ago, during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. The Democrats were nominating Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis to run for president against Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, and at the time Dukakis looked like he had a pretty good chance at the White House. This was before a series of events did him in, including the notorious Willie Horton ad that attacked Dukakis for a Massachusetts weekend furlough prison program that allowed a convicted murderer back on the street, where he robbed and raped.
And it was before Dukakis bobbled a harsh debate question about what he would do if his own wife Kitty was raped and murdered. And it was before he was photographed atop an Abrams tank wearing a helmet that made him look like he was starring in Snoopy III: This Time It’s Personal.
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All of that misery lay ahead. The Democrats were still in giddy spirits during the convention and had a high old time poking fun at Bush, Sr. That was when the late Ann Richards, then the Texas state treasurer, famously lamented, “Poor George! He can’t help it – he was born with a silver foot in his mouth!”
But it was the convention speech by Hightower that I especially remember. He was the Texas agriculture commissioner in those days – an important job in the Lone Star State – and described Bush as a “toothache of a man,” a cruel but remarkable metaphor. And he said that Bush behaved like someone who was “born on third base and thought he hit a triple… He is threatening to lead this country from tweedle-dum to tweedle-dumber.”
Maybe Hightower didn’t originate those lines (as Milton Berle used to say, “When you steal from me, you steal twice”), but he delivered them with a gusto akin to genuine authorship and over the years has come up with enough original material of his own to absolve him – mostly – from the sin of occasional joke-filching.
Now others steal from him. It was Jim, I believe, who came up with the notion that all elected officials be required to wear brightly colored, NASCAR-like jumpsuits with the corporate logos of their biggest campaign contributors, an idea I’ve heard appropriated by several others without proper attribution. And I think it was Jim who first said of George W. Bush, “If ignorance ever reaches $40 a barrel, I want the drilling rights to his head.” (On hearing that another politician was learning Spanish, Hightower is supposed to have remarked, “Oh good. Now he’ll be bi-ignorant.”)
These days, Jim Hightower broadcasts daily radio commentaries and edits “The Hightower Lowdown,” an invaluable monthly newsletter. With the passing of both Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, he has became the funniest person in Texas politics – intentionally, that is. But it is his steadfast advocacy of progressive politics, his unyielding embrace of the old time gospel of populism, that made him an especially appropriate guest on the final edition of the PBS series, Bill Moyers Journal.
“Here’s what populism is not,” he told my colleague Bill Moyers. “It is not just an incoherent outburst of anger. And certainly it is not anger that is funded and organized by corporate front groups, as the initial tea party effort [was], and as most of it is still today – though there is legitimate anger within it, in terms of the people who are there. But what populism is at its essence is just a determined focus on helping people be able to get out of the iron grip of the corporate power that is overwhelming our economy, our environment, energy, the media, government.
“…One big difference between real populism and… the tea party thing is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of corporations. So you can’t say, ‘Let’s get rid of government.’ You need to be saying, ‘Let’s take over government.'” As Hightower’s fond of saying, the water won’t clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek. “I see the central issue in politics to be the rise of corporate power,” he reiterated. “Overwhelming, overweening corporate power that is running roughshod over the workaday people of the country. They think they’re the top dogs, and we’re a bunch of fire hydrants, you know?”
Of President Obama he said, “It’s odd to me that we’ve got a president who ran from the outside and won, and now is trying to govern from the inside. You can’t do progressive government from the inside. You have to rally those outsiders and make them a force… Our heavyweight is the people themselves. They’ve got the fat cats, but we’ve got the alley cats…”
This weekend, Jim is being honored at Texas State University-San Marcos with an exhibition celebrating his life’s work as a populist journalist, historian and advocate. They’re calling the event “Swim Against the Current” because, as Moyers says, “That’s what he does.” In fact, “Swim Against the Current” also is the title of Hightower’s most recent book, subtitled, “Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.” He comes from a long history of flow resisters, a critical, American political tradition. “I go all the way back to Thomas Paine,” he said. “I mean, that was kind of the ultimate rebellion, when the media tool was a pamphlet.” The men who wrote the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence “didn’t create democracy. [They] made democracy possible.
“What created democracy was Thomas Paine and Shays Rebellion, the suffragists and the abolitionists and on down through the populists and the labor movement, including the Wobblies. Tough, in your face people… Mother Jones, Woody Guthrie… Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez. And now it’s down to us.
“These are agitators. They extended democracy decade after decade. You know, sometimes we get in the midst of these fights. We think we’re making no progress. But… you look back, we’ve made a lot of progress… The agitator after all is the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out. So, we need a lot more agitation…. “We can battle back against the powers. But it’s not just going to a rally and shouting. It’s organizing and it’s thinking. And reaching out to others. And building a real people’s movement.”
With this week’s edition, Bill Moyers Journal goes off the air. But we’ll be continuing the conversation via our Web site at PBS.org/moyers. These weekly columns will be continuing for the foreseeable as well. It has been a delight and honor collaborating with Bill – and the entire production team – so intensely over the last two years. I am always improved in their presence and thank them all, especially Bill and executive editor Judith Davidson Moyers, executive producers Judy Doctoroff and Sally Roy and Diane Domondon and Jesse Adams, the two of whom every week have made sure these scratchings make it out alive, with alacrity and accuracy.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which concludes Friday night on PBS. Watch online or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.