Let’s Fight the Bastards: Believing in the common good
Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street."
HIGHTOWER: Bingo. And now it’s not just Wall Street, but the Japanese and the
European conglomerates as well, the new global economy.
Are we looking here, then, at an El Niño kind of climate change?
We’re looking at the same old greed that has been repackaged. It’s
Reaganomics. It’s trickle-down economics.
Clinton’s policy is nothing, you take all the varnish off of it and that’s
what it is. In essence, he says, Let’s turn loose our global conglomerates to go
around the world and take our good jobs with them and extend those jobs to impoverished
people and exploit those impoverished people, working through the elites in those
countries and the governmental thugs and rulers in a number of the repressive countries.
What would you say to Philip Knight, one of the richest men in America, a
multi-billionaire, the CEO of Nike, when he says, We’re giving jobs to poor rural
girls in Indonesia who would have no economic opportunity whatsoever.
Isn’t he a generous human being? That is so noble of Philip Knight to sit there in
his palace in Beaverton, Oregon and look across the world to a place he’s never been,
by the way. He doesn’t go to his own factories, and he doesn’t meet these girls
that he’s giving so much opportunity to. You remember the scene in the Michael Moore
movie, The Big One, where he was talking to Philip Knight and said, What is this,
Mr. Knight? There you are over there, exploiting these 13-year-old girls, and Knight
interrupted and said, They’re not 13-year-olds. They’re 14. Oh, thank you for
correcting me on that.
You’re a critic of corporate capitalism and monopolies, yet Rupert Murdoch
publishes your book, now in its fifth printing. That seems to be a paradox.
It seems to be, and you can look at it like that. I view Rupert Murdoch as a man who
would moon the Queen of England if there was a dollar bill in it for him. So he’s
interested in selling books. Through his empire he’s willing to publish Howard Zinn
and Michael Moore and Jim Hightower. I’m out to find the biggest audience that I can
find, with the most extensive reach that I can get. HarperCollins made the bid for it. I
don’t think that those of us who are progressives should hinder ourselves by trying
to reach the smallest audience that we possibly can. I think we should go out.
I also think that we have some responsibilities to speak out. So, for example, on my
book tour I’m going almost exclusively to independent bookstores that are being
squeezed by Barnes and Noble, Borders, and other large chains. In Denver I was at the
Tattered Cover bookstore and here in Boulder with Left Hand Books. I’ve been doing
that around the country. We do have to put the walk to the talk in ways that matter.
Something that was very striking in your biography was that you were the starting
linebacker on your high school football team.
They’re still laughing about it there in Dennison. By the way, this was serious
Texas high school football. We played Highland Park and Dallas and the big teams that were
winning state championships. Our team was so bad that I played—I weighed 111 pounds
as the starting outside linebacker. My coach was so embarrassed that he listed me at 150
pounds in the program.
What was your family background?
I grew up in an area with tenant farmers, small-town merchants, railroad workers,
ordinary folks. Both my mother and father came off tenant farms. My mother came off a
subsistence farm. They literally made everything. They made their own soap. Her first trip
to Dennison was on a buckboard pulled by mules. She still lives in Dennison. If it
doesn’t plug in the wall, and it’s not a convenience item, she doesn’t want
to have anything to do with it. She’s not interested in going back to anything like
that. They became small business people. My mother and father ran the Main Street
newsstand. He was a magazine wholesaler for that area.
You’ve spoken of your father’s political philosophy, as it were, and its
influence on you.
The last section of my book is called "Daddy’s philosophy." It talks
about the departure from the strong American value of the common good that is ingrained in
every American just as surely as we also have ingrained in us the belief in rugged
individualism. We still believe in the common good and community responsibility. My father
was a great believer in that. He didn’t preach about it. He just practiced it without
even realizing what it was.
He helped start Little League baseball in our town back in the mid-1950s. There’s
nothing esoteric about that. What you do when you start a Little League is to get a vacant
lot somewhere and use those boys to get all the rocks off of it and then you sod the field
and put a fence around it and put up a little money so the teams can have uniforms. You
coach the teams. You umpire it. You run the scoreboard. You run the snowcone stand. You
run the PA system.
He did that when I played baseball, but then I left and he stayed at it. It wasn’t
just about me. It was about the community. He believed the same thing about the public
library when they built it. He believed he should be taxed, that Dennison needed a public
library. I don’t recall him ever going into that building, much less checking out a
book. But he believed in the philosophy that we should be taxed equally nationally to pay
for health care for all people. He thought our health care system based on money was an
outrage. He believed in that concept of the common good, and he expressed it to me in
philosophical terms, though he didn’t know he had a philosophy. He said, Everybody
does better when everybody does better. That’s what passes for a political philosophy
in places like Dennison. I think it’s about as good a political philosophy as we
could have as a country. If we had a political movement that was grounded in that
philosophy, it would be a tremendous success.
What kind of change have you seen in the Democratic Party in the last few decades?
Its been most dramatic over the last ten years, and under Bill Clinton and what’s
called the Democratic Leadership Council—the Nouveau Demos. The Democratic Party has
been classically, from the start, a bit more for working people. We can go back to
Jefferson and Jackson, the founders of the Democratic Party, forward through Franklin
Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, rightfully reviled for the Vietnam War, but on
economic and civil rights issues a good working people’s president. I never thought
back in the 1960s, when I was fighting to get Johnson out of office because of Vietnam,
that he would be the most progressive president of my lifetime, but he has proven to be
that, certainly more so than Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
The change began in the mid-1970s. I can even name the person. It was Tony Cuehlo,
member of Congress in California, who became chair of the House Democratic campaign
committee, which meant he was in charge of helping to raise money for Congressional races
for the Democrats. Tony Cuehlo decided that since those Republicans are getting all the
money from the corporations, then those corporations have to give us money, too. He began
the steady downhill slide of the Democratic Party into the lap of the same corporate
interests that rule the Republican Party. So my party took off those old Sears Roebuck
work boots and strapped on the same Guccis and Puccis that the Republicans strut around
There are two contradictory impulses here. One is that you have to work inside the
Democratic Party and try to reform it. The other is, They’ve gone down the road of
the Republicans and there’s not much of a difference. We’ve got to start with
something brand new. Do you advocate either of those positions?
Both of them. Some people say we need a third party. I wish we had a second one. There
are those who are going to fight as insurgents within the Democratic Party. I fight there
myself. But I am a member of the New Party. I’m a member of the Labor Party. I
support the Greens. I support the Alliance for Democracy. I support any progressive
political organizing movement that is out there. At this stage, that’s where we all
need to be. Go where you’re most comfortable. We’re not at a stage of our
political progressive organizing sophistication to be able to say, Everybody should be
I think the one thing we’ve got to fight is a tendency for somebody who is in the
Labor Party to say, You’re still in the Democratic Party, so I can’t work with
you, or somebody who’s a Democratic insurgent to say, I’m not going to work with
the New Party people. We all need to be working together and respect each other where we
are, because we’re all trying to get to the same place. Let’s organize and form
coalitions around issues and candidates where we can at the local and state level. Once we
sort all this out, we can come up with a name.
You’re not comfortable with the terms "left" and "right."
It’s just unreal. In my view, the real political spectrum is not right to left.
It’s top to bottom. To me, right to left is theory. In fact, that’s used to
divide us. Top to bottom is reality. That’s where people live. It’s experience.
Dow Jones is on everyone’s lips and repeated on every single news broadcast.
You’ve created a character known as Doug Jones. Who is this guy Doug?
What’s the price of Spam? What about the long-term durables down at Big Ed’s
Used Car Lot? That’s the economic indicator that Doug needs to know. Doug is the
eight out of ten people who are more concerned about the price of socks than the price of
stocks in terms of their own economic situation.
Before we talk about your current radio incarnation, I’d like you to talk about
your previous one. It was syndicated by ABC. What happened to it?
Things were going swimmingly with ABC. I had a weekend three-hour broadcast on Saturday
and Sunday. We were gaining stations. ABC executives had been down to Austin to say they
were pleased with the progress and they were committed to the long-term growth of the
program. At that stage we were further along than Rush Limbaugh had been in his career.
But on August 1, 1995, in a single week, Disney bought ABC. Then the Senate passed the
Telecommunications Act. So I went on the air that Saturday and blasted both of them, the
merger being an example of the conglomeratization of the media that’s going to hurt
our democratic dialogue, and the Telecommunications Act being a giveaway, a form of
corporate welfare that’s going to encourage more conglomerates. Then I said that I
now worked for a rodent. Mickey Mouse didn’t have a real sense of humor about that.
There was a sudden chilling, let me put it like that, of my relationship with ABC. Within
six weeks I was off the air.
When did you get "Chat & Chew" going?
Within less than a year’s time I was back on the air, this time with a much more
enterprising, freelance, fun, funky kind of an organization that reflects my spirit.
It’s called the United Broadcasting Network. The "Click ‘n Clack"
public radio show, the two brothers Car Talk show, one-third of their broadcast is them
laughing. We come pretty close to that on our show, too. We have a lot of fun broadcasting
from the "Chat & Chew" in downtown Austin on the top floor of
Threadgill’s world headquarters, which is a restaurant in Austin that’s actually
a one-story building. We’re on the air from coast to coast, Maine to Maui. Part of
the ownership of the United Broadcasting Network is the United Auto Workers. I have some
ownership that shares my viewpoints so I don’t sit there every day wondering, Is the
plug going to be pulled? In addition to their regular sponsorship, they are a Home
Shopping Channel of radio, of Made in the USA products. You can call an 800 number and get
their catalog and order everything from tools to toys that are made in the USA, 70 percent
of them union-made. That gives me a sponsorship base.
My momma taught me long ago that two wrongs don’t make a right, but I soon figured
out that three left turns do. That’s what UBN represents. We can’t just wring
our hands about the media becoming more conglomerated and they’re not letting us on.
We’ve got to find our way around that conglomeratization and that includes community
radio work, and it includes all kinds of alternative media, ranging from newsletters to
In your radio format you incorporate music. Why?
I wanted a show that made me comfortable and I wanted a show that I think is the future
of talk radio, not just some Limbaugh type going on a tirade every day, although I do my
share of tirades. But my notion of talk radio is that in addition to people wanting
information and perspective, they also want to hang out. They want to be with the people
who are sitting around talking. I remembered my mother listening to the Arthur Godfrey
show when I was a little kid. She just had it on. She listened. It was music and talk and
interviews. I thought that was a pretty good format. I also remembered my father at the
Main Street newsstand, where every morning at nine or ten o’clock the locals would
come in to drink Coca-Cola or coffee together and they would spend ten or fifteen minutes
shooting the breeze and solving all the world’s problems, joshing each other. It was
a wonderful sense of humor that they had there. So we set about to recreate this mood. We
have a big round table with a checkered tablecloth on it. We drink coffee and eat pie and
sit there at Threadgill’s restaurant. It’s a live broadcast.
And there are call-ins.
We take call-ins, and the idea is you can join us here at the round table by calling
this number. So it’s not like you’re calling a radio host so you’ve got to
really be ready, but you’re joining a table of people. My producer Susan DeMarco is
there. Chris Garlock also shares the conversation. We have live music every day instead of
having recorded music to do the ins and outs. Floyd Domino is a Grammy award-winning piano
player. So his piano becomes a character, too. He comes up with little tunes that reflect
what some caller has said.
You say that talk radio is about the last place where the vox populi matters.
I think the success of talk radio is that you can talk. You can say your piece. You can
share ideas. You can share crazy ideas if you want to. Politics doesn’t let you talk
any more. They don’t care about people. You’re a prop. Politicians have these
staged public forums. The media don’t care about people. You’ve got Ted Koppel
having town meetings where there’s no town and no meeting. One place people feel they
can talk unfettered and have any idea they want to is talk radio. My show is much more
gentle to those callers than most talk radio shows are because I don’t hate my
callers. If they disagree with me, I’ll tease them and we’ll mess around with
each other somewhat. I take a lot of calls. You can be against me, but I try to find some
common ground with you. But I don’t think necessarily that you’re an idiot if
you don’t agree with me.
You’ve said Rush Limbaugh, the biggest name in talk radio, is losing steam.
What’s the evidence for that?
He’s actually losing stations. I’ve gotten on some that used to carry him.
But I think what happened to Limbaugh is that he became a Johnny One Note: "It’s
the liberals in Congress and in the White House that are causing all the world’s
problems and if we could just get rid of them, and that’s the problem, folks.
You’ve got to understand, be clear on this. I’m telling you the truth.
You’ve got to get rid of all of them." Again and again and again. Then the other
thing that happened is that he has become the chief mouthpiece for Newt Gingrich and the
right-wing Republican Party.
Who enjoys very high ratings. How high are they now?
They’re beneath what Richard Nixon’s were when he resigned from the
presidency. That’ll just give you some clue. The American people are not Newt
Gingrich people. Some are, and some of his dittoheads are, but the vast majority of his
audience is not. He’s become too identified with that and too one-sided. As I say,
the real spectrum is not right to left, it’s top to bottom. He’s not
representing the bottom any more. He’s not representing that 80 percent that’s
getting knocked down. Quite the contrary. On issues like NAFTA and the fast-track
authorization for more international trade scams, he sides with Wall Street. You never
hear Limbaugh taking on the Wall Street barons who are running over the middle class in
One of your chapters is "Liberal Media, My Ass." What do you mean by that?
Isn’t it a staple of the political culture, that the media are liberal?
That’s the accepted conventional wisdom. I start that section of the book with,
"Let us now praise the liberal media." It is literally a reading of Rush
Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Joe Klein, Ariana Huffington, a whole list. It covers about a
page of names who are in fact right wing. But the real issue in the media is not that
it’s either right wing or left wing, but that its bias is towards the top. Reporting
used to be a working stiff’s job. You wore rumpled clothes and you put in your days
on the beat and you drank at a place called Shorty’s and then you went home to a
tenement somewhere. Now you’re drinking at the headliner’s club with the very
people you’re covering. Then you go home to the same gated and guarded compounds that
the elites live in that you’re supposed to be covering.
What are your views on NPR and PBS?
The public is being taken out of those institutions. They have become a sad imitator of
the corporate media. Now they have their enhanced underwriting announcements that are
essentially ads. They’re more and more dependent on corporate money. They are not
covering the kind of issues that you and I talk about on the radio and that ordinary folks
want talked about.
Do you think the U.S. should have a publicly funded public radio and TV system like
Canada and Japan?
Yes. Maybe it ought to have two or three. Maybe that would enhance it some. Or have a
system so that more community stations could get a piece of that money so that you could
become competitive at the local level, so they don’t become giant bureaucracies that
are all nationalized.
Let’s say that you’re "minister of broadcasting." What would the
communication needs of a democratic society be?
As many voices as possible, and as much democratization. I would certainly do away with
the notion that is now allowed under the Telecommunications Act that one or two
conglomerates can own virtually every radio station in the country. But I would also get
very active in supporting radio on the Internet and the advancement of the technology
which is coming along. I’m not a tech person, but as I understand it, it’s
moving by leaps and bounds to where the digital quality of the sound on the Internet is
going to be very, very good and we may soon be able to have car radios that are Internet
radios and computers that bring the radio signal in so it becomes more accessible to more
people and more ubiquitous. It doesn’t have to be a computer sitting in your office.
You recently spoke at the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union in Denver. For years,
labor has been taking some pretty big hits, time and time again. In the summer of 1997 we
saw a turnaround, with massive public support for the UPS strikers.
That was the first sign to the establishment that something is going on here. When the
Teamsters struck UPS, the UPS management assumed that the public would oppose the unions
and favor them. But the great majority of the American people sided with the workers. That
resulted in UPS rushing back to the negotiating table and saying, Okay, we cave in. They
basically caved in to all the requests. That was a fight over temporary employees. The
media tried to say it’s because the American public has a fond impression of this
union, because they wear those little brown uniforms and drive those little brown trucks.
Of course, most of us know somebody or have somebody in our family or ourselves who are
in temporary job situations and are mad as hell about it and feeling very insecure about
it and willing to fight back against that. Here was the first union finally standing up
and saying not, "I want a wage increase for the people who are doing well in my
union," but, "I want a wage increase for the temporary workers." If you do
temporary work you ought to get the same rate of pay and the same benefits as somebody
who’s doing it full time, if that is what the company says that they have to have in
order to make it go, then fine. I’m for a 35-hour, maybe even a 30-hour work week. I
think we’re overworked as a society, giving us too little time to be with our
families and be in the community and realize our fuller potentials. I wouldn’t be
against all work being part time. But it ought to be at a rate that allows us to raise a
family and have a middle-class way of life.
The Labor Party is advocating a ten-dollar-per-hour wage.
That to me is fair. You’re talking about a barely middle-class way of life,
$20,000 gross pay.
One of the things you write about is sports teams and the kinds of demands that the
owners make on communities, like Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL football
team. They left Cleveland and moved to Baltimore. In Denver there’s a situation with
the Super Bowl champion Broncos, owned by Pat Bowlen. He’s demanding a new stadium
while feeding at the public trough.
It’s a wonderful example of corporate welfare, and by the way, the people are
revolting against this.
Yes, but they "do so much for the community." They give you identity. You
root for your team. You feel part of something larger.
Then the community ought to own the team, or at least share in the ownership of the
team. The Green Bay Packers, who have quite a successful professional football club over
the decades, are totally owned by the people of Green Bay. When I say the people, I mean
bartenders and cab drivers in Green Bay own stock in the Green Bay Packers. They take
great pride in it, even if they don’t go to the games. They get one of those sudden
snowstorms and people show up with their shovels and brooms in the wee hours to clear the
stadium in time for the game. The players live in the town and participate in the
community. They’re regular folks, so there’s none of that kind of
standoffishness. You might be sitting next to them in a bar or go into a cafeteria with
them or be with their kids. It’s so successful that the National Football League
owners passed a resolution a few years ago ruling that no longer can any team become an
NFL football team unless it is privately owned. No public ownership team can be allowed
Do you think that sports are a good wedge to talk about economic and class issues?
Sports are an integral part of our society. It’s not a life-and-death matter, but
when a society has more people watching the Super Bowl than voting for president of the
U.S., then sports become a metaphor for what’s happening in the larger society.
Sports has become a totally corporate process and an elitist process. It’s not that
the existing stadiums are not perfectly functional for playing the game. It is that these
owners want luxury suites that they can sell for $100,000, $200,000 a year to corporate
executives so that they can entertain their clients without those clients having to mix
with the riffraff in the stands. So we’re seeing the segregation of the stands.
It’s one of the last places in our society where classes did mix, in the stands at
pro football games.
There’s an interesting case in Texas involving TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey and
what seems to be a major infringement of First Amendment free speech rights.
A little bit of silliness passed through our Texas legislature, which is notorious for
silliness. I have to confide to you, this is not the stupidest thing they’ve ever
done. But they passed a piece of legislation that in essence is called a food
disparagement law, making it illegal to badmouth beef or to pooh-pooh poultry or to cast
aspersion on asparagus. Sure enough, under that law, Oprah Winfrey has been brought to
trial in Amarillo because she had a guest on, a fellow I know, Howard Lyman, who’s a
terrific guy. They were talking about the fact that the industrialized beef industry now
is feeding protein pellets, which are ground-up cow parts, to cows. Cows are vegetarians,
herbivores. This is causing rather nasty things to happen, including mad cow disease in
England. This turns out to be widely considered the cause of mad cow disease in England.
We actually have a related disease in this country called the Downer Syndrome. Our beef
industry, with their puppets at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pretend this
doesn’t exist because they don’t want the public examining these industrial
practices. So they brought suit against Oprah Winfrey for daring to say it. Oprah said,
when she heard about this feeding cows to cows, I just ate my last hamburger, or something
like that. These guys claim that the next day the cattle market fell over into the ditch
and lost $160 million. It was complete hogwash, but nonetheless that trial went on. She
won, by the way.
There are disparagement laws in 12 other states. It’s not just Texas.
And other states are considering them. Colorado has one. Again, the media are not
serving us well. I can understand it, because it’s a beautiful caricature. This
picture of cattlepeople, with their big boots and buckles and bellies, a gun in one hand
and a lawsuit in the other, storming the courthouse demanding the hide of the queen of
daytime television for, by God, badmouthing our beef. But it’s not cattlepeople who
are engaged in these practices or who have brought this suit. It’s the cattle
feeders, the giant feedlot operations. It’s Cactus Feeders, the chief protagonist
against Oprah Winfrey, the plaintiff. That’s a Nevada corporation, a
You were elected to two four-year terms as Texas Agriculture Commissioner. Any thoughts
about running again for elective office?
I’ve found a way now to run my mouth, rather than running for office and to have,
I believe, greater political impact than I could in any single office. But I also believe
that at this point in the development of a serious progressive movement in the country
that we need messengers. I’m lucky enough to be one of those messengers with some
serious microphones, radio, the book, starting a political newsletter called the Hightower
Lowdown. I’m about to start a political column as well, then the speeches that I
do, and then being on the Internet. So we need messengers.
When you were first elected as Agriculture Commissioner in 1983, you heard the term
from a corn farmer that became the title of your book.
There’s a phenomenon in Texas politics that may exist elsewhere, too. When you get
elected, particularly as an anti-establishment candidate like me, a hell-raiser,
there’s the "getting-well party" in which the people who opposed you now
find they’ve got to deal with you. So this particularly smarmy lobbyist came around
to me and said, "All right, Hightower, now you’re in office. we’ll get
along just fine if you move over to the middle of the road."
Later on, this corn farmer was in my office in the Panhandle. I was laughing about this
story with him. He said, "Oh, hell, Hightower, there’s nothing in the middle of
the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos, so get on over here with your friends and
let’s fight the bastards."
So not only did I take that to heart, but I made it the title of my book because
that’s the kind of politics I think the American people want. Tell us who you’re
for and who you’re against, and let’s go at them.
People can write to Hightower at PO Box 13516, Austin, TX 78711; jimhightower.com;
chatchew@ concentric.net. For a catalogue of Alternative Radio cassettes/transcripts: AR,
PO 551, Boulder, CO 80306; 800-444-1977.