Hightower's Lofty Perspective

The Texas hell-raiser comes to town to promote his book and speak out against "Shrub"

Like it or not, a certain "Texas" worldview is now perched atop America's political food chain. Armed with a cultivated twang and calculated misspeak, George W. Bush has gotten our country into a military pickle and placed civil rights in a serious pinch. But at the same time--along with Karl Rove and Tom DeLay--he's also given a state capable of producing such progeny a terrible rep.

Enter Jim Hightower. For more than a decade, he's proudly proven that not all Texans are mouth-breathers, and he's created a career out of skewering a man he loves to call "Shrub." But he does so with a disarming sense of humor that catches detractors with their britches down, and lowers the barriers between regular folks on both sides of the ideological fence.

Hightower spreads the word through his numerous books, including There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos, and If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates.

Tucsonans will get a taste Hightower's homespun humor and sharp-edged wisdom next week, when the Texas populist and hell-raiser rolls into town for a fund-raiser hosted by the Pima County Democratic Party. He'll also give a speech and sign copies of his latest ornery tome, Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush.

For critics of the current administration, Hightower's arrival is sure to be a hoot. Indeed, few are in a better position to target the policies of a president he also calls "King George the W." Not surprisingly, Let's Stop Beating is chockfull of juicy tidbits such as "Six Perfectly Good Reasons to Elect George Bush," which present anything but. He takes on the administration's policies on the economy, global warming and health care, just to name a few. And every chapter has a deliciously wry Bush cartoon, quiz or puzzle. There's even a blank "clip and send" page that encourages readers to plumb "What George W. Means to Me."

This is just the latest pointed but hilarious achievement by a fellow who began his career as an assistant to legendary Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough. In the early 1970s, Hightower was also responsible for starting up the Agribusiness Accountability Project, and later, directed the unsuccessful presidential campaign of populist Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma. Hightower served as editor for The Texas Observer before moving on to two terms as the powerful agriculture commissioner of Texas.

Interestingly enough, he lost in his third bid as commissioner--a defeat widely attributed to dirty tricks by the then-budding political strategist Karl Rove. Hightower moved on to radio, where he fired up a popular national political talk show from the Chat and Chew Café in Austin. While The Chat and Chew show is no more, his commentaries can be heard regularly on radio stations around the country, including Tucson's KXCI.

Humorous or not, these days Hightower's barbs have grown decidedly sharper. The reason, he says, is simple: "The administration is running this country into a ditch. Both Bush and Cheney are corporate creatures. That is their mindset, their world view--from pharmaceutical companies down to the boardroom."

And that, he says, is no way to run a country. "Corporations are secretive organizations. And that is bad model for government." Already, Hightower adds, Americans are seeing the outfall in everything from the Enron scandal to omnipotent HMO's.

At the same time, he admits that Democrats are guilty of playing the same corporate game. Still, "the Democrats are not as bad as the Republicans," he says. "At least they know there's another way to do business. Sure, their first interest in Congress is to their corporate (benefactors)." But after they feed at the big business trough, the Democrats do try to do damage control with policies that do help working folks, Hightower says.

Regardless, he believes that any real change in the political status quo "must come from the grassroots," or what he calls "the populist ideal."

It's an ideal under brutal assault. "The Bush administration is out to shift our populist ethic, and supplant it with a corporate mindset," he says.

While that process has been underway for years--including during the Clinton years--Hightower says that the Bush administration is truly "moving in for the kill." The result "is the devastation of the middle class, through moving our jobs overseas, and attacking wage and hour laws."

But Republicans aren't stopping at an economic assault, he says. "They 're also stoking cultural issues such as prayer in schools."

Nor is the North American Free Trade Agreement any sort of boon for the working folks. Hightower calls it corporate-driven, "giving corporations a vast new business reach in the Americas, and favoring the corporate and government elite over the interests of working people and consumers."

Serious stuff? You bet. But you can also bet on Hightower's dazzling ability to meld gentle humor with hard truths. "Humor with a bit of self-deprecation opens people's minds," he says. "It loosens them up if they can share a good laugh."

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