New Party party features Texas firebrand
Lefty radio-man Hightower live and unpluggedBack in 1988, the Bush presidential campaign cribbed a catchy slogan from his home state's anti-litter campaign: "Don't Mess With Texas." It carried enough menace to appeal to George's manly side, plus it looked good on a T-shirt.
Jim Hightower brings this husky phrase to mind, though he probably wouldn't be thrilled with being linked to the Bush-Quayle crowd-not that he's not a big fan of the New Democrats either.
In newspaper columns and on his Hightower Radio show, Hightower has been known to rip into bigwigs and fat cats of both America's political parties with gleeful abandon. Following stints as journalist, political organizer and elected official, he's long since parted company with the factions that control the Democratic Party, winning fans among the way-left-of-center and just-plain-ticked.
A tireless, prickly writer and left-wing orator, Hightower makes brisket out of capitalist sacred cows. His Texas drawl is one of the rowdiest noises coming from the progressive movement, and despite his home state's conservative rep, he says he's at home there.
"I'm part of the tradition that settled Texas," he says. "It's that maverick, populist spirit. The state was settled by debtors. Its first constitution outlawed banks. You could literally not form a bank in Texas.
"So now, though people are justifiably wary of big government, they're equally wary of the power of big corporations, and these days the corporations are what are pushing into their lives. That spirit is alive and well, and I feel like I'm a part of it."
Hightower's coming to Missoula this weekend to promote his book There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos and to speak at a New Party banquet honoring progressive Missoulians. For the liberal set, the soiree in the Florence Building's Governors Room should be a prime shoulder-rubbing opportunity and a chance to raise some dough.
A national group with a strong local following, the New Party represents either the Garden City's best hope for a kinder, gentler future or a sinister Red cabal-depending on your view. Following the lead of other chapters, the local organization will hand out awards to a few individuals and organizations who have, in the Party's estimation, done the right thing.
Meanwhile, a representative acknowledges that the group, by charging $25 per plate, hopes to refresh coffers exhausted by the '97 election season. "It's a way for us to get back on our feet," says activist Madeline Besse. "We can get a pocketbook again and concentrate on campaign finance reform and some other efforts we have underway."
While the evening pays tribute to various unionists, educators and merchants and features alt-country by Old Man Tucker afterwards, Hightower remains the star. In an age when grade-A rabblerousers are hard to find, it appears the New Party deserves an award itself.
Coming out of a working-class background, Hightower has made a career as a professional progressive, focussing chiefly on consumer and labor issues. He was introduced to the national stage as an unusually obstreperous Texas Agriculture Commissioner, a position he says he helped reinvent to assist small farmers.
Since leaving that gig in 1991, he's taken to the airwaves and filled reams of paper with his distinctive voice. "The New Democrats, Bill Clinton and that crowd, have no use for me whatsoever," says Hightower, whose columns frequently reserve as much scorn for the president as they do for Newt Gingrich.
"The workaday people and activists on the progressive side of things generally seem to agree with me on the direction the party needs to take.
"The party has been hijacked by money people. I just spoke at the Michigan Democratic Party's Jefferson/Jackson Day dinner. There you had 2000 rompin', stompin' Democrats, and I told 'em, the Democrats need to become the party of the Sears Roebuck workboot crowd again, not the Gucci-Puccis of the world. It seemed to go over well."
Hightower's take on politics and economics appears grounded in a genuine respect for hard work, and he's uncompromising in the demand that such effort be rewarded. Hightower's prescription for the woes of the modern workers, as told to the Independent, will sound familiar to students of American labor history: organize, organize, organize.
"You can talk all you want about kooky leadership being behind these right-wing militia groups and so forth," he says. "But the fact is, you don't have the kind of membership you see in some these groups without there being many, many disaffected people. It's incumbent on the progressive movement to take the part of these people that have been kicked down and knocked out. And that, increasingly, means a majority of the people."
Having enjoyed his stint as ag commissioner, Hightower says he has no plans to run for office again. "I'd rather run my mouth," he says, adding that he's found his wit and wisdom are put to better use as a critic of the political system rather than a participant in it.
Indeed, Hightower's known for his wit, and he's the master of the deflating jab. He says rhetoric and agitation are the only weapons that have ever made for positive change in America, and that humor plays a big role in his struggle.
"It is frustrating sometimes," he says. "Like someone said to me once, not only are the odds against us, some of the evens are too. But in every place in America there are people fighting to make things better, and there's a lot to laugh about in terms of the absurdity of the bastards.
"My credo is, you can fight the gods and still have fun."
Jim Hightower, professional progressive, radio commentator and author, speaks at the first annual New Party Awards Banquet on Saturday, March 28. Call 549-8995 for more information.