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Jim Hightower.

There's a new voice blaring out populist gospel on syndicated radio from coast to coast. It belong former Agriculture Commissioner of Texas, chairman of the Financial Democracy Campaign, founder of the New Populist Forum, the fifty-year-old funniest man in all the American Left. As Molly Ivins say Rogers and Mother Jones had a baby, hightower would be that rambunctious child: mad as hell, with a

For five minutes daily, on forty-six radio stations, Hightower gives out little morsels of political consciousness, story-telling, and Left commentary. And all with a twang as wild and edgy as a cholla cactus.

During the long dark night of the Reagan-Bush period, Hightower was one of the few elected officials who was able to show the country what a real live populist looked like. Born in north Texas, Hightower lived in Washington, D.C., for the first half of the 1970s; there he ran the Agribusiness Accountability Project and then Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris's primary campaign for the Presidency in 1976.

Returning to Texas, Hightower edited The Texas Observer for three years and then made his first bid for public office. He narrowly lost a Democratic primary race for the Texas Railroad Commission in 1980. Two years later, he won his race for Agriculture Commissioner--a major office in this farm state. In office, he allied himself with the people on the bottom: farm workers, small farmers, food producers without markets, farmers without land. By 1992, Hightower had made enough big enemies to face well-financed opposition for his job. In the year that Ann Richards won the governorship, Jim Hightower, on the same ticket, lost his bid for re-election.

We met on a recent evening in my New York apartment. Hightower--looking a bit like a movie cowboy with hat and boots--sat in my living room, talking about the media and fruit. Yes, fruit. Looking at my coffee table, he protested a hospitable plate of California oranges I'd set out for him. "I bet you've never had Texas oranges," he objected. "Texas oranges are so sugary, food processors use them to sweeten up the stuff from other states."

Clearly, part of his job as Ag Commissioner had been to make business for Texas farmers. Q: Did you campaign for Bill Clinton? Jim Hightower: A little. But I wasn't asked to. I felt good about what I did because I think there's real pain in the country, and beating Bush was so important just to stop that pain. Q: Has it stopped? With Clinton ensconced in the White House, where does a populist with a political agenda go now? Hightower: Well, for the meanwhile, I'm going on the radio. But politically, all of us, we progressives, have some breathing space. Every battle doesn't have to be a negative fight now. We can at least put forward our very best ideas. It's important not to hide under a rock and say, "We're not welcome." Progressives should now stand tallest and put forward our boldest proposals so that we, at least, broaden the debate.

We should provide a real measuring stick. As you know, Franklin Roosevelt was not a New Dealer in 1932. He became one because of Eleanor Roosevelt, the CIO, Huey Long, and the intractability of the Depression. Well, we've got a few of those elements working for us now. Listen, Bill Clinton ran a campaign, not a crusade. He's a classic social liberal and economic conservative, not a populist.

I mean a lot of people who voted for change are asking themselves big questions already. If this is an Administration of change, then why is the Wall Street firm of Bentsen, Altman, Rivlin, Rubin, and Panetta in charge of the economy? Why did the first nominee for Attorney General come out of the insurance industry, with an apparent history of bashing consumer interests? Why do we have a Secretary of Commerce who represented Baby Doc? There should have been a lot more Democrats criticizing that appointment. I mean, there have to be a lot of Democratic voters out there who said, "Baby Doc? He represented Baby Doc?"

I went to the Democratic convention last summer in New York. The official printed program read, "The Democratic National Convention sponsored by American Express." I thought, "Gee, I thought this was sponsored by the people who elected delegates to the convention."

You can say, "Well, you have to play the game." But if you do, you're going to be disenchanting, maybe disgusting, to the vast majority of American voters. Why do we have an Administration whose boldest proposal for working people is that they get retrained? Retrained for what? Q: Do you think progressive folks are putting too much hope into Clinton? Hightower: Yes. Definitely. Progressives going inside the Administration are needed there. But I think our responsibility at a progressive moment is to be outsiders pushing this Administration to be better than it otherwise would be. And using this Administration for our own goals, rather than vice versa. We've already let them use us to get elected.

Listen, I believe in a long view of building a progressive movement. You can't have a mass movement without the masses--and that's a longer process than the four-year electoral cycle allows.

I believe that we are, at least in terms of national politics, in a prepolitical phase of a progressive movement. We're in a building process and we need to connect our various disparate elements together. We need to remember where the Right was after the Goldwater debacle of 1964. Remember: It was the end of the Republican Party. And the conservatives flung themselves into the countryside, recruiting right-wing nutballs. They glommed onto Richard Viguerie's ability to raise funds from small-donor contributions. They tapped into the Christian Right, the NRA, the anti-choice movement. They found the Lee Atwaters and trained a whole cadre of them throughout the country. And they put Ronnie Reagan on the radio and ran him three times before he got to the Presidency. They spent sixteen years building to 1980--and then the press said it was "a harbinger" of a new conservative movement. It was actually the culmination of sixteen years of building. And I think we're in the middle of the same kind of sixteen years ourselves.

Except that we haven't had a strategy for connecting the elements of our movement. Q: Why not? Hightower: It's my sense that progressive thinkers have had this national focus--the Washington focus--and it's a big mistake. It means that every four years, we're left standing around scratching our butts and saying, "Aw, I dunno--who's the best of the lot?" instead of planning now so that by the year 2000 we have someone to run whom we can be wildly enthusiastic about and who would have some potential to win. Q: Do you know Bill Clinton? Hightower: Sure, and that's why I came to this election with low expectations. I knew him primarily during the 1980s when I was Texas Ag Commissioner and he was governor of a neighboring state. And I found that he was unable to take risks with his political capital to achieve progressive goals.

Let me put it this way: I think when Clinton said, "I didn't inhale," it was a moment of candor. He is a calculating political figure, who wants a little bit of this but is always going to have an out. I think we'll get whiffs of progressivism, but we will not get high. Q: Looking back at the election, do you think Clinton is the political genius he's hailed to be? Hightower: He was smart. He clearly saw think that some of the others missed. He ran against George Bush after it had become apparent that Bush was a man who was born on third but thought he'd hit a triple. And he had the genius of figuring out how to have Ross Perot in the race. Q: In 1990, the Texas pundits were all predicting that you were going to make a leap for the Senate against Phil Gramm. You didn't run, though. Any regrets? Hightower: No, I didn't want to be in the Senate. And, if I ran, I was at least at some risk of having that happen to me. I'm not a backroom kind of legislator. I'm not a compromise kind of political leader. Although I could have been a C-Span Senator, which has its usefulness. But I also know enough to know what the job entails.

My interest has always been in fostering a genuine progressive political movement in this country. You can no longer do that--as you might have in the 1940s and 1950s--from a Senate seat. You're in Washington all year long, early to late. Whatever free time you do have has to be spent raising money and going back to your district. With a state as big as Texas, I really had no potential to do what I think is my life's work, which is to help build a progressive consciousness in this country. Q: Fred Harris, whom you worked for in the 1970s, managed to do that from Oklahoma. Hightower: No, he couldn't. He couldn't generate a national political movement.

And it's part of the failure of populist candidates for President in recent years--Tom Harkin comes to mind--that they have come to the task all of a sudden from Washington. And they have had a Washington framework, because that's where they've spent their lives. They don't know people in the countryside because they haven't been in touch with them.

And I'll give Clinton that. He spent a lot of years and a lot of effort out there. Q: He played the old Nixon 1968 strategy: Go to a million local political functions, eat 10,000 bad chicken luncheons, and then run. Hightower: Clinton's strategy goes back pretty far. I mean, I've never seen a man with so many college roommates. This guy collected three-by-five cards in kindergarten. Q: Do you think people on the Left were contemptuous of the kind of politicking that Clinton was willing to do? Hightower: I don't know. We've largely been unwilling to do it. With exceptions: That was one of Jesse Jackson's strengths. That is a Ralph Nader strength. Q: My Texas sources tell me that the loss of your own office of Ag Commissioner in 1992 was unexpected. Hightower: Well, I certainly would not have said the day of the election that I was going to lose. But the fact was: I was pounded in Dallas and Houston by hundreds of thousands of dollars in television ads that were as effective as they were evil. One of them started with a flag burner setting a flag on fire and then my picture came on the screen. You get it? The only thing that wasn't in there was having me shake hands with Noriega or someone like that. Q: I've heard that overconfidence led to your loss. Hightower: There was the fact that my own supporters couldn't believe I had a chance of losing and that meant I couldn't raise money to counter my opponent's ads. I had no TV money.

Also, Ann Richards was running for governor that year and my potential contributors were putting their money there, because they thought I didn't have a problem. Q: And after the loss, like our brother and sister autoworkers, you needed some job retraining? Hightower: That's part of the genesis of my new radio program. After losing Ag Commissioner, people like Danny Goldberg [a record producer] and the late Phil Stern [a philanthropist-activist] and Norman Lear said, "We need you nationally now. Come national." Danny Goldberg came up with the notion, "Why don't you go on the radio?" I thought, "Why not? I'm available."

It's not easy to put together a radio show. It's been interesting. This is not the kind of show that Exxon and GE are going to rush to sponsor. That meant that we had to have someone who did get the politics of it and who was simpatico. So we got Ben and Jerry's, Working Assets, AFL-CIO, Stoneyfield Yogurt. Q: When you were a kid, did you listen to another radio man from Texas, John Henry Faulk? Hightower: I didn't know who he was. I didn't get him. I listened to Garner Ted Armstrong, who was a right-wing guy, a minister type. He was "the evil of the Government." It was real Texas, and a style. Q: Is your style like Garrison Keillor's? Hightower: There are elements of what he does that I'd like to approach. Q: He's real apolitical, though. Hightower: If you're looking for Garrison Keillor with a twang and a real overt political viewpoint, that's me. But the real model is a real conservative. Not Rush Limbaugh--who is a screed of hatred and venom. But Paul Harvey, who is very conservative but is a storyteller. And he is able to tell a lot with inflection. Q: Let's face it, you are one of the few men on the American Left who's having a good time. Where does your humor come from? Hightower: There's a self-deprecating sense of humor in this part of the world--just like in the Bronx. And that helped form my politics and my storytelling. In Texas, you just don't take yourself too seriously, because you might not be there tomorrow. Texas is a place settled by debtors coming out of Mississippi and Alabama. It was a no man's territory, a place to which outlaws fled. It's always had that element and it was very populist from the beginning. The original constitution of the Republic of Texas outlawed banks. You had to go to the legislature to start a corporation.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom about Texas today, it had strong populist roots. There was a populist spirit that was pervasive. You got it in church. My parents and people in business in town grumbled a lot about how they were treated by the banks and by the utilities.

There was a real-life populism. Q: So you're saying that the image the rest of the country has of Texas as a place full of right-wing cowboys is wrong? Hightower: Yeah, that's a media image. Our perception of Texas is generally a post-World War II fascination with Big Oil--an LBJ, John Connally, Big Oil, Dallas image--which is rooted in reality but no more so than to say that Wall Street is New York City.

The vast majority of Texans are no closer to oil than to the gas pump; 99.9 per cent of Texans didn't participate in the savings-and-loan debacle--except as victims. We have the largest number of poor people of any state in the country, and the largest number of small farmers. We have all of the problems that are wrecking the economy all across the country. Q: Back to your fun times as Texas Agriculture Commissioner. When you were in office, the woman you live with, Susan DeMarco, was attacked because she had an unpaid job working with you. It was a bit like the current slams on Hillary Clinton. Hightower: Oh yes. Our great vulnerability in the eyes of my enemies was my unmarried relationship with Susan DeMarco. She's the economic mind who came up with marketing programs and ended up making hundreds of millions of dollars for workaday folks in Texas. Well, she was brought in as Assistant Commissioner for Marketing and Development. She did a gizzillion things that were roundly applauded. Yet the press decided it was a point of scandal that she was there, even though she wasn't paid. Q: Did the two of you feel some sympathy for Hillary, when all these slams about her not being a cookie-baker started? Hightower: Oh, I think anyone who has a mate sort of partnership and who has suffered small-minded attacks felt empathy. Q: Do political malefactors just routinely attack relationships that have some equality to them? Hightower: Yes. Because you're defying what some people want to think is a community norm and your relationship makes them nervous. If you can get away with it, then it might happen to them.

And the real vulnerability is in them. There's an interest by the establishment in maintaining a classic form of relationship that keeps people dependent on the economic status quo. We were doing things differently. Q: A second political problem you had was taking on the pesticide industry. It was a battle you more or less lost. Hightower: When we came into office, I kind of got aside and had a very deliberate discussion about who it was we were there to help--in addition to "everyone," which every politician would say. And we were able to tick off seven or eight constituencies, including farm workers. Obviously, one of their major problems is pesticide poisoning on a daily basis. The Department of Agriculture is the regulator of pesticide use in the state of Texas. That had usually been left in the hands of the Farm Bureau and the chemical lobby.

So, as the regulator, we started regulating. And we promulgated the toughest pesticide regulations in the country to protect farm workers and farmers. And you would have thought that I had personally gone out and set fields on fire, the way the chemical lobby and the Farm Bureau reacted.

It was our belief at the time that they were the minority on this. We were able to rally not only urban consumer and worker support on this but also farmer support.

However, there was a Republican governor, Bill Clements. Our agency was up for Sunset Review, which is a Texas thing where you have to pass a bill reconstituting the Commission. That gave the special interests a sword to use. They said, "We'll move the pesticide authority from the Department of Agriculture to the Water Commission." In essence they said, "Either you move the pesticide authority out of Hightower's hands or we'll kill the Department of Agriculture's existence."

Myself, I was willing to play a pretty strong game on that, because I didn't think they'd do that. This was not a case of just a lot of odds against you; there were a lot of evens, too. I had a lot of fair-weather friends who did not want us to make a here. We fought that by going very public on it--not just by inside lobbying.

The day of the House hearing on this, we had Barbara Jordan and Willie Nelson as our lead-off witnesses. So finally, by the time it got to a vote, they had no one who would even make a motion to kill the authority. Q: What did you learn from that? Hightower: Stand for what you believe in. Be willing to lose. But make your most aggressive fight and always base that fight on outside grass-roots support, not trusting inside lobbying efforts. Q: I sense from you a feeling of being through with electoral politics. Hightower: I've been in the political game for years, only ten of which were spent in the elected world of partisan politics. So now I have an opportunity to pursue those same political goals in a forum that is more important and more fun for me than what I've been engaged in for the last ten years. But I want to take that real-life experience that I've had and use it as fodder for this radio show and writing and public speaking. Q: As a humorist, have you started missing Dan Quayle? Hightower: Oh yeah. This was a guy who proved that if beauty only goes skin deep, then ignorance cuts clear to the bone! He was absolutely wonderful. But we still have Newt Gingrich. Q: Why does Texas seem to breed guys--and gals--like you and Molly Ivins? Hightower: We have a tradition that makes us a state of mavericks, malcontents, and a state with a tradition that Louisiana also has of storytelling in our politics, and a sense of politics as gleeful sport. Q: More fun than the rodeo? Hightower: Very similar. Except that you don't battle with four-legged animals.
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Title Annotation:populist
Author:Dreifus, Claudia
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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