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Michael Winship: The Lowdown from Hightower

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

"The Lowdown from Hightower"
By Michael Winship

I first became aware of Jim Hightower more than 20 years ago, during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. The Democrats were nominating Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis to run for president against Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, and at the time Dukakis looked like he had a pretty good chance at the White House.

This was before a series of events did him in, including the notorious Willie Horton ad that attacked Dukakis for a Massachusetts weekend furlough prison program that allowed a convicted murderer back on the street, where he robbed and raped.

And it was before Dukakis bobbled a harsh debate question about what he would do if his own wife Kitty was raped and murdered. And it was before he was photographed atop an Abrams tank wearing a helmet that made him look like he was starring in "Snoopy III: This Time It's Personal."

All of that misery lay ahead. The Democrats were still in giddy spirits during the convention and had a high old time poking fun at Bush, Sr. That was when the late Ann Richards, then the Texas state treasurer, famously lamented, "Poor George! He can't help it - he was born with a silver foot in his mouth!"

But it was the convention speech by Hightower that I especially remember. He was the Texas agriculture commissioner in those days - an important job in the Lone Star State - and described Bush as a "toothache of a man," a cruel but remarkable metaphor. And he said that Bush behaved like someone who was "born on third base and thought he hit a triple... He is threatening to lead this country from tweedle-dum to tweedle-dumber."

Maybe Hightower didn't originate those lines (as Milton Berle used to say, "When you steal from me, you steal twice"), but he delivered them with a gusto akin to genuine authorship and over the years has come up with enough original material of his own to absolve him - mostly - from the sin of occasional joke-filching.

Now others steal from him. It was Jim, I believe, who came up with the notion that all elected officials be required to wear brightly colored, NASCAR-like jumpsuits with the corporate logos of their biggest campaign contributors, an idea I've heard appropriated by several others without proper attribution. And I think it was Jim who first said of George W. Bush, "If ignorance ever reaches $40 a barrel, I want the drilling rights to his head." (On hearing that another politician was learning Spanish, Hightower is supposed to have remarked, "Oh good. Now he'll be bi-ignorant.")

These days, Jim Hightower broadcasts daily radio commentaries and edits "The Hightower Lowdown," an invaluable monthly newsletter. With the passing of both Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, he has became the funniest person in Texas politics - intentionally, that is. But it is his steadfast advocacy of progressive politics, his unyielding embrace of the old time gospel of populism, that made him an especially appropriate guest on the final edition of the PBS series, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

"Here's what populism is not," he told my colleague Bill Moyers. "It is not just an incoherent outburst of anger. And certainly it is not anger that is funded and organized by corporate front groups, as the initial tea party effort [was], and as most of it is still today -- though there is legitimate anger within it, in terms of the people who are there. But what populism is at its essence is just a determined focus on helping people be able to get out of the iron grip of the corporate power that is overwhelming our economy, our environment, energy, the media, government.

"...One big difference between real populism and... the tea party thing is that real populists understand that government has become a subsidiary of corporations. So you can't say, 'Let's get rid of government.' You need to be saying, 'Let's take over government.'"

As Hightower's fond of saying, the water won't clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek. "I see the central issue in politics to be the rise of corporate power," he reiterated. "Overwhelming, overweening corporate power that is running roughshod over the workaday people of the country. They think they're the top dogs, and we're a bunch of fire hydrants, you know?"

Of President Obama he said, "It's odd to me that we've got a president who ran from the outside and won, and now is trying to govern from the inside. You can't do progressive government from the inside. You have to rally those outsiders and make them a force... Our heavyweight is the people themselves. They've got the fat cats, but we've got the alley cats..."

This weekend, Jim is being honored at Texas State University-San Marcos with an exhibition celebrating his life's work as a populist journalist, historian and advocate. They're calling the event "Swim Against the Current" because, as Moyers says, "That's what he does."

In fact, "Swim Against the Current" also is the title of Hightower's most recent book, subtitled, "Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow." He comes from a long history of flow resisters, a critical, American political tradition. "I go all the way back to Thomas Paine," he said. "I mean, that was kind of the ultimate rebellion, when the media tool was a pamphlet." The men who wrote the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence "didn't create democracy. [They] made democracy possible.

"What created democracy was Thomas Paine and Shays Rebellion, the suffragists and the abolitionists and on down through the populists and the labor movement, including the Wobblies. Tough, in your face people... Mother Jones, Woody Guthrie... Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez. And now it's down to us.

"These are agitators. They extended democracy decade after decade. You know, sometimes we get in the midst of these fights. We think we're making no progress. But... you look back, we've made a lot of progress... The agitator after all is the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out. So, we need a lot more agitation....

"We can battle back against the powers. But it's not just going to a rally and shouting. It's organizing and it's thinking. And reaching out to others. And building a real people's movement."


With this week's edition, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL goes off the air. But we'll be continuing the conversation via our Web site at These weekly columns will be continuing for the foreseeable as well. It has been a delight and honor collaborating with Bill - and the entire production team - so intensely over the last two years. I am always improved in their presence and thank them all, especially Bill and executive editor Judith Davidson Moyers, executive producers Judy Doctoroff and Sally Roy and Diane Domondon and Jesse Adams, the two of whom every week have made sure these scratchings make it out alive, with alacrity and accuracy.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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Remember Sumatra Persimmon!

Mr. Moyers, I was so sad to hear that you were leaving the Journal. I know you deserve to retire but you will be greatly missed. You are a true journalist in every sense of the word. Today, In my opinion, we simply don't have "true" journalist. I have always respected your honesty in presenting all sides in your political discussions. You are well respected by me and the journalistic community. Thanks for all you have done throughout the years to inform the American people.

Thank you for such an insightful season. Its not as if the information hasn't been presented, now its a matter of fertilizing the seed of change to fruition. Government dependence is not sustainable.

A fittingly spectacular last broadcast. Mr. Moyers, I (and all thinking Americans) will miss you more than I (we) could ever express. Thanks for always being a clear thoughtful voice in the wilderness that is modern America. Enjoy yourself. You deserve it. Try not to read the newspaper too much.

I'll just keep my comment short. Now that Bill Moyers is off the air, the conservatives have struck their perfect balance in the media and on PBS: Conservative Viewpoints: All,
Liberal Viewpoints: Zero

Even though Mr. Moyer's departure is voluntary, it still breaks my heart to see the honest, intelligent,liberal viewpoint silenced.

Thanks! The rest is up to us.

Dear Mr. Moyers,
Thank you so much for enlightening me on so many issues. There was no screaming; only clear, balanced discussions that I wouldn't have found anywhere else.I'm so sorry you're leaving now, when we need an honest,intelligent voice on the issues that are so dominating our nation now. Very best wishes to you.

Dear Mr Moyers: just a simple thank you. You have enlighted my thinking and lifted my spirits. Best of luck.

Bill, thank you for all your great work. I certainly hope in your quest against plutocracy and oligarchy you lend your wisdom and leadership to the Coffee Party, who I think share your views and could benefit from your involvement.

Hi Bill,

I am very sad to see your "Journal" end. Thank you for all you have done to keep us informed on issues that others don't cover. You certainly deserve some time to enjoy retirement and I wish you and your wife the very best life has to offer.

The thing that is bugging me is that "NOW on PBS" is ending at the same time. I only hope that the replacement for "Bill Moyers Journal" will somehow match the content, if not the quality of my two "must see" shows on Friday evening.

Thanks again,
Ben Barnett

I feel so disheartened,abandoned and alone. I know it's being selfish, but I can't help it. I guess I'll have to read this stuff from now on, but I sure liked watching and listening to it and will miss it. PBS is turning into another mindless corporate channel trying to compete with ignorant reality shows. What a pity. Thank you for enriching my life all these years.

Iowa gave us Obama.

Texas gave us Bushes.

In the future, when you hear your words

coming out of a politician's mouth

or a media dahling's plastic head

are you going to believe that they're

your "leader"?

I almost spit the water out when I heard whassup next in "journalism:

"What You Need To Know".

Brought to you by the "Perception Is Reality"

Citizen's United...

oh me oh my, can it get any better than that :-)

I saw this on Friday night and have watched it again today.

Jim Hightower and Bill Moyers are common sense people who are bring forward to this discussion their personal love of freedom and the basics of being involved.

So many great metaphors used in this discussion. I love the one that people are the "ally cats" and together are stronger than the "big cats".

Together people must get involved and take back their freedoms and financial futures through taking action. Making the 3 left turns as Jim says.

You can click on my site to see and learn one of the ways that this can be done.

I'm really heartbroken. . I'm not going to praise the excellence, insight, creativity, or bravery of the Journal everyone already knows that, the people that don't won't be conscience of much anyway. Instead I want to thank you for the peace and spirtuality you've evoked every week, the atomsphere you have inspired to tell the truth has been medicinal. So much of television is barely informational not really interesting and definetly doesn't connect one with a deeper part of themselves. I'm so grateful to you you done all this and more. Now that I really have no other reason to watch PBS in the future may God bless you as I have been the years during your broadcast.

I so appreciated Moyers conversation with Barry Lopez...I feel like walking barefoot in freshly plowed EARTH and digging my toes. in...Moyers is not replaceable..and I was heartbroken when I discovered that Monsanto is one of the funders of "the News Hour" Now that Moyers is gone I won't watch PBS ANYMORE...

Easily, one of the most powerful, and memorable moments of television I've seen in more than half a century on this planet.

Someday, the planet will be lucky enough to evolve to a place where Bill Moyers is to TV what Henry Ford was to the automobile.

The interviews with Jim Hightower, and Barry Lopez were a treat, and it was an even bigger treat to hear Mr. Moyers declare openly, a haut voix, for bias for when we deny bias, we deny imagination, and it is only by acknowledging and embracing our own voice that we may transcend it.

I join a generation of Americans who have learned more from Mr. Moyers, and PBS's "Journal" than we even know, and look forward to continuing to learning more by way of essays, and insights into that which makes us vulnerable, thus distinctly human.

Thank you, Bill Moyers, for forty years, and more---thank you for being a great American visionary.

"Anyone who steals from me steals twice."

I am thrilled, Mr. Winship, that you will be keeping up the weekly essays - a great deal of something is better than nothing at all!

I posted on the Shakespearean quality of Mr. Moyers' final broadcast and I meant it - he understood that we desperately need our Falstaffs, yet the breadth of "The Tempest" was there as well, in the long and beautiful conversation with Mr. Lopez.

In the spirit of that conversation, I can only repeat what I gleaned from it: "...look at every part of a word and make sure you are showing respect for it in the place you have given it in a sentence."

I know you already do; the advice is for myself and for others who hope to join you here.

Tracie, it is interesting that you point out that capitalism can be twisted and corrupted by the right wing. Surely it is American to point out that corrupting capitalism and free enterprise is not American. M.

Michael Winship has supplied a hefty portion of Bill Moyers' brain these past Journal years, kind of like Karl Rove except caring and smart. We often forget that any media personality is the sum of her/his staff. Ted Sorenson wrote "Profiles Encouraged" (sic) but JFK endorsed after careful reading.

What I mean to suggest is that the whole concept of copyright or independent invention is a fraud at its roots, and that most wisdom is community property. What Winship says about Hightower is true of all our best scribes: They cook mighty good with common old ingredients.

Moyers, as a collective body of work, exemplifies the fact that anyone can contribute (not just money). The problem comes in crediting and replying to the donors. Still the WNET/Moyers gang and funders provided this forum in an effort to widen the door. (I hope it continues as promised.)The Internet is mostly ads now.
Facebook is selling souls. I've never had any negative contacts through linking to Talkback, though I do deplore those ignorant spammers, whether they sell shoes or their own artwork and services. (Reminds me of the First Baptist Church I grew up in- list them contacts, contacts, contacts)

Thanks, thanks, thanks, you names in the fast-rolling credits behind the Michael Bacon jingle. I wish I could kiss all your industrious hands.(Grady always had a crush on DD.) Lets' hope by some miracle Winship lands the cushy sinecure his genius merits, for that would amount to distributive justice.

I appreciate Mr. Hightower's zeal in keeping people alert and informed. He's a man with a clue of the bigger issues affecting everyday life. His take on corporatism is dead on: they do have too much power.
They have too much power because we give it to them in the false belief that we are supporting capitalism. After all, a line was drawn years ago, with Republicans casting themselves as capitalists (good) and anyone against them therefore must be bad (aka Democrats, socialists, etc.) Capitalism was twisted and corrupted by Republicans eager to advance their interests while condemning critics as anti-capitalists (as they surely must have been!)
The previous administration led to the exposure of this great fraud by many who've now jumped to the Libertarian party and or joined the tea party. Republicans have been working hard reminding people that they are still the true capitalist crusaders and the Democrats are still those lousy hippie socialists. I get the chain mails and it's fascinating to find the propaganda within them.
So, to wrap it up, as long as Americans believe the lie that Republicans are capitalists, nothing will change. At the end of the day, when all else is taken away, they can at least claim that they are not one of those welfare loving, socialist Democrats! And, that's all they need.

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