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

Dec 2, 1998 at 4:00 am
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?

Can we talk for a moment about the rhetoric of populism? In your book, you're proud to brandish terms like "civic rebellion" and "class war." In light of the "middle of the road" that your book's title cites, does populism need to modify that rhetoric or merely wait for the wind to change enough to let it fly again?

I think (the wind) is there right now. It didn't go anywhere. And the fact that the Democratic Party is collapsing in state after state is not the result of Republican strength but the result of Democratic abandonment of populist principles, rhetoric and constituencies.

Just to give you an example: All the buzz in national political circles is about George Bush, the governor here in Texas -- "Little George," as we call him here -- having achieved such a stunning sweep of the electorate here in our state. But we had only a 26 percent turnout. That means that he's really the choice of about 15 percent of the people of this state. The real damning statistic is that the Democrats were so weak in their appeal to the people that they couldn't get 15 percent of the people to vote for them. The constituency that is not voting is that populist constituency that's looking for somebody who's going to slap the establishment right upside the head and say, "I'm for the working stiff and the family farmer and the environment." When that happens, and in some degree it did in Minnesota in this last election, you see an entirely different turnout and an entirely different result. Jesse Ventura produced a 60 percent turnout in Minnesota, where the rest of the country was doing 36 percent.

Not that you're doling out endorsements yet for the year 2000, but are there genuine voices that you see out there that reflect this stance?

Paul Wellstone, for sure, who's the senator from Minnesota and likely to be a candidate. He certainly comes from genuine populist roots and has been true to them in his two terms as U.S. senator. In Southern Illinois, there's Rep. Lane Evans, who's been another true voice. There's Rep. Marcy Kaptur in Toledo, Ohio. You've got Rep. Bernie Sanders in Vermont, and Sen. Byron Dorgan in North Dakota. There is a sincere populist minority within the U.S. Congress. It's not going to be more than 10 percent. Nonetheless, there are living, breathing examples.

I want to take you back to your book's title. Most politicians, and certainly the media, head for the middle of the road. Do you think that political honesty really does put people on opposite sides of a divide? The rhetoric behind the middle-of-the-road stance -- "consensus," "cooperation," "working together" -- is so strong, but it's something that your formulation implies is not quite "right."

Not only is it not "right," because it is dishonest, but, yes, they're "working together." They're working together to steal the country from the people on behalf of their campaign-contributor list.

Also, it doesn't work. It fails to create a politics that involves "we, the people." Again, you've got two-thirds of the American people not voting in a major national election. Even in presidential elections, we're getting less than half of the people. So, we have this massive act of civil disobedience taking place, because (the electorate) knows that the platitudes that "we're working together" and "seeking consensus," and -- What's the phrase that (President Bill) Clinton uses? "The vital center," I think he called it -- they all know that that doesn't include them. They know it because of the policies that result from the politics of the middle.

We talked about low turnout, but Democrats claim this year's election was a victory for them -- even with those margins -- in the same way that the GOP claimed that 1994 and the "Contract with America" was a victory. If Clinton escapes with a censure, does he have any power or agenda left?

His presidency is over. He will be able to move on the agenda that the Republicans have already agreed to, which is primarily the corporate agenda. There may be some kind of a patients' rights bill that gets passed, but it will be a patients' rights bill that will be a pale imitation of the real thing. There may be a slight increase in the minimum wage but certainly not enough to raise the full-time worker out of poverty. It'll be classic Clinton: talking big but delivering little.

My last question is about something I think you know a little about: Texas. I wonder why the perception of Texas in the rest of the country is that it's so conservative, and yet it keeps producing rock-ribbed populists like yourself and Ann Richards and Molly Ivins and -- if you stretch it a bit -- LBJ? What's wrong with our perceptions of Texas, if you can correct them in a few minutes?

Well, for one, we have managed to elect John Connally and deliver votes for Richard Nixon and Bob Dole. We delivered majorities for Nixon and Dole, and we've managed to elect goofuses like Phil Gramm to high office. So you can look at the surface, and say, "That's a very conservative state." But if you're actually in the state and go to the chat 'n' chew cafes, or get out on the campaign trails or into the bowling alleys and saloons, and actually talk with people, then you find that this is a state made up of establishmentarians and mavericks and "mad-as-hellers" who mostly get run over by the power establishment.

If you look at the numbers, you'll find that we're a state that ranks right at the bottom in terms of good wages, in terms of health care for all, in terms of income distribution and environmental protection. And you'll find that we rank right at the top in terms of children without prenatal care. It's a matter of image over reality. As I say in my book, that's what I found when I went out and campaigned. I was being told the same thing back then: "No, you can't say things like that. This is way too conservative a state." But when you actually went out and put a campaign together, it turns out that a lot of those "conservatives" are "mad as hell" populists who were waiting for someone to say something that made sense.