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The Last Populist

Like his hero Little Richard, Jim Hightower knew how to scream and piss off the establishment. As a tour of his archives led by the man himself reveals, his is the story of a Texas-style progressive movement that peaked before the young Texans of today can even remember.

Jim Hightower viewing his archives at the Wittliff Collections.

On the seventh floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University in San Marcos, in a quiet, unassuming room with a long study table, visitors find a unique exhibit — even by the standards of the storied Wittliff Collection. Ostensibly cataloguing the life of a single individual, it captures the history of a force in Texas politics that once was composed of many people. But that was then.

“Swim Against The Current: Highlights From the Jim Hightower Archive” runs through the end of July 2010 with a day of panels, musical performances and food on May 1. “It’s fairly rare for us to have an exhibit dedicated to one particular individual,” says Steve Davis, assistant curator in charge of the Wittliff’s Southwestern Writers Collection, “but in this case it seems very appropriate.”

The Texas Tribune recently joined Hightower at Texas State to talk about the exhibit with the guy who knows it best.

Beginning in Denison in 1943, the story of Hightower is that of a Texas-style progressive populist movement that peaked before the young Texans of today can even remember. Hightower first heard the word “populism” in a history textbook while attending the University of North Texas. “For the first time, I knew what I was,” he says. The day he graduated, he packed up and drove to Washington, D.C., where, under the wing of Texas’ U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough and populist presidential candidate Fred Harris, he learned: “Be true to yourself. Try to say what it is you believe in. Even those who disagree with you will appreciate the fact that you’re standing for something.” 

He returned to Texas to take over as editor of the left-leaning Texas Observer. He converted that position into a successful stint in politics, serving as agriculture commissioner from 1983 to 1991 and rising to prominence along with Texas’ other leading progressive voices, such as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards. Today, he’s one of the — maybe the only — remaining member of that school. But though he remains the leading voice of populism in Texas, he says he can’t even get an invitation to speak at the Democratic State Convention.

The Democratic Party, he says, has changed from its (and his) political heyday, now confined to the shelves of history along with Hightower’s old campaign materials. “The powers that be within it made a political calculation that we Democrats could raise corporate money and compete with the Republicans, because they were fast becoming the power in Texas,” he says. “The problem is, when you start taking those corporate checks, on the back is written the corporate agenda. So our party began speaking in different languages.”

In the 16 years since Democrats won a statewide office, Hightower says, consumers, environmentalists and workers quit hearing themselves in the party’s message. “It’s all vague gibberish that’s sort of Republican-light, really. So it’s not that Texas turned conservative or even Republican — it’s that Texans quit voting.”

On a personal level, Hightower says, “I wouldn’t say that the party abandoned me, they just went on to other people.” Recently, he has been sensing a hopeful change. He’s begun receiving invitations to speak to more county parties and regional groups in the state. He lists state Reps. Lon Burnam, Eddie Rodriguez and Elliott Naishtat as “bright stars” in his movement and has high hopes for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White and Linda Chavez-Thompson, a former labor organizer now running for lieutenant governor.

Meanwhile, Hightower has spent the last several years focusing his efforts outward and upward, transforming himself into a national figure through a series of bestselling books, a weekly newsletter and a two-minute radio program aired each weekday on 175 stations throughout the country.

National politics has not been any more kind to Hightower’s worldview in the last two decades than Texas. “I started out as a punk challenging Lyndon Johnson,” he says. “I spent my youth trying to get Lyndon Johnson out of office because of the Vietnam War, without realizing he would be the most progressive president of my lifetime.”

Hightower — who barnstormed with the likes of Steve Fromholz and Willie Nelson and has always occupied the nexis of Texas’ culture and politics — had more than just political differences with President Bill Clinton. “I knew Bill Clinton was going to be a problem when he said Elvis was his musical hero,” Hightower says. “By the time Bill Clinton was listening to Elvis, he had the Jordannaires behind him, and the strings, and he was a major corporate production, really. My man was Little Richard. He knew how to scream and piss off the establishment.” Hightower’s notoriety only grew under President George W. Bush, a fellow Texan, if nothing else.

Hightower worries that there’s less and less room for his style of screaming and pissing off the establishment in today’s media landscape. “Public television and radio have become so corporate that it’s almost impossible for someone of my viewpoint to get any airtime at all on either one,” Hightower says. “And that’s a shame, because if you can’t get it on public television or radio, you’re certainly not going to get it on Clear Channel or that sort of thing.”

When it comes to television, he says, “Bill Moyers is the last that we have [who] really takes a populist view. And now we’re losing Moyers.” The Texas-raised PBS host will take his Bill Moyers Journal off the air at the end of the month. His last episode will feature a discussion of populism. Hightower will be his guest.

It will not be the kind of discussion often heard in the national political media, where the word “populist” still gets tossed around — erroneously, Hightower says. “Sarah Palin is not a populist,” he says. “Defending oil companies and backing insurance giants is not a populist theme, quite the opposite. Newt Gingrich, who’s a corporate lobbyist, is not a populist. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are just blowhards in defense of corporate order; there’s nothing populist at all about them. In fact, they are anti-populist. We have to let that word have actual meaning again.”

Hightower hopes the exhibit at the Wittliff might be a means to that end. “The reason I’m so thrilled with it is not to say, 'Here’s Jim Hightower!' Who the hell cares?” he says. “Here is a voice in a period and an expression of politics that is strongly Texas and pro-little people. We want to say to the media as well as the young people that there is a thing called populism and it actually began in our state. And it has real meaning. It’s not a lifestyle.  It’s not just being angry and screaming. It’s connected to ordinary people being able to take on the moneyed interests and win.”

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