Hightower Power

Radio gadfly and author Jim Hightower discusses his talk show, the fate of the populist movement and the perils of the middle of the road

The title of Jim Hightower's book pretty much says it all about the former Texas politician turned populist talk-show host: There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos (HarperPerennial, 308 pages, $13).

The first thing you notice is its humor -- pure folk whimsy of the Will Rogers variety. But then the hook in the phrase starts to sting. Aren't we looking for the political middle of the road? Why's that so bad?

Hightower's book is studded with gems of the same sort. There are insults with enough guffaws to cushion the blow. (Hightower says that sending Slate editor Michael Kinsley into battle as a liberal on CNN's Crossfire was "like sending Tweety Bird into a cockfight.") There are clever enunciations of working-class bravado. (Hightower notes, "As powerful as the corporation seems, remember this: No building is too tall for even the smallest dog to lift its leg on.")

Are they always brilliant? No. But Hightower manages to connect in a way that much of the left at the end of this century can only dream of connecting.

Hightower's homespun gibes were tested on the campaign trail during his successful run for Texas agricultural commissioner in 1982 and then finally got an airing when he was a talk-show host with a weekend political gabfest on the ABC radio network. His notoriety went up in 1995 when he was one of the first media personalities to pull Mickey Mouse's tail after Disney bought up ABC in August of that year. As he tells it in There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road, Hightower opened up his first show after the sale by announcing that "I work for a rodent." ABC promptly jettisoned his show.

In addition to a syndicated radio show broadcast daily from Threadgill's Restaurant in Austin, Texas, called Chat & Chew (it's currently without a St. Louis affiliate but can be heard every day online from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at www.jimhightower.com), Hightower also puts out a newsletter -- The Hightower Lowdown -- that rivals his conservative counterpart Rush Limbaugh's Limbaugh Letter. (You can order it at the Web site or by sending $10 to P.O. Box 20596, New York, NY 10011-0011.)

The RFT spoke to Hightower by phone on Monday before a St. Louis visit this week where he will talk to the Gamaliel Foundation's national convention and do a live broadcast of his show from Clayton Studios on Friday, Dec. 4.

RFT: In the last decade, talk radio has become an overwhelmingly conservative medium or, at the very least, a moralistic one if you factor in shows like Dr. Laura Schlessinger's. Why is that, and why have you survived that wave?

Hightower: Talk radio -- both liberal and conservative, I believe -- focuses on the moralistic issues, because it is a diversion from the real issues that are facing the workaday family of this country. Those are economic issues, which tend to take you to corporate power, which takes you back to the ownership of the media. So, station owners don't mind a good liberal-conservative mudfight over abortion or sex or any of those personal-responsibility type of issues, because it diverts the listeners' attention away from the real scandal. Most stations are even willing to have a liberal on the air if that liberal stays focused on the social issues and not on the economic issues. And my show, nationally, has been the exception to that. We prove every day that it is those genuine kitchen-table issues -- good jobs at good wages, health care for all -- that people really care about most.

Another strand in the "Media" section of your book is the media's "fear" of populism and even "so-called" populism. You argue convincingly that people like Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot aren't real populists but that they are used by voters with those sentiments. My question is how do you define what true populism is at the turn of the century? On your show today, you talked about NAFTA in terms that many would identify as Buchananesque. How do you define who's really walking the walk?

First of all, I happen to think Pat Buchanan ended up genuine about his concern about globalization and its effect on working families in this country. The fact that he made a conversion on that one issue should be acknowledged. But, on the other hand, that doesn't make him the man to be president. He's got a lot of other hickeys on him.

I guess I would say that it's not even important as to who's being honest. The public really sorts that out for themselves. They really are able to tell if you're just being hokey about your populism. Everybody from Jimmy Carter forward who's run for president has tried to have some kind of populist overtone. But it's all image. Jimmy Carter's was that he carried his own garment bag on the campaign trail. George Bush ate pork rinds.

That's the hard road to populism.
His gesture to the common man. They all tried to have some image of being of the people, but all you have to do is follow the money, which we do every day on our radio program, and as I did in the book. Who are their backers? And, therefore, who do they really listen to?

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