Buzzflash Interviews Jim Hightower

August 21, 2003

Jim Hightower talks about his new book, "Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and it's Time to Take it Back"

BUZZFLASH: Before I start talking about your new book, "Thieves in High Places," let me ask you: Based on your experience in Texas, what foretold the future of our nation based on what happened in Texas when George W. Bush was governor?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, we sat here for five years and watched this guy completely "corporatize" our state government with the full agenda of privatization and special tax breaks for his wealthy contributors and former business partners with insider deals, secrecy and opposition to protest. George W. Bush is in Washington what he was in Austin -- and has been throughout his life -- and that is an absolute corporate wet dream. Any fantasy that a CEO has, can come true by putting a donation either in Bush’s personal pocket or in his campaign pockets.

BUZZFLASH: Aside from the issue of whether Bush is smart or dumb, or this or that, he does seem to rely on mentors in the White House -- Cheney and Karl Rove. Who was running the show in Texas?

HIGHTOWER: Well, Karl Rove was the political guru. Karen Hughes was the source of order within his administration. And then he had some former legislators that he brought into the governor’s office. And they did the sort of dealings that a governor has to do.

But you mentioned something that I think is important, and I write about it in the book, which is it’s stupid just to keep calling Bush stupid. Yes, he doesn’t have the brain muscle for much heavy lifting, but that’s not his role. It never has been in his life, and he knows that. He knows his role and he plays it beautifully, which is to be the front man for corporate interests. That’s what he was in his so-called oil business career when he was involved in three different oil companies. And, in all of them, he was essentially a bankable name and an affable fellow who could draw the financiers and let others do the heavy work of the business. He was the same thing at the Texas Rangers. They called him a general partner -- the managing partner -- but he didn’t manage anything.

He was essentially the guy who went to the games, and sat there with his hand-tooled red, white and blue Texas Ranger cowboy boots, and shot the shit with ballplayers, and did media interviews and that sort of thing. And now it’s the same thing as President. Cheney is, in essence, the CEO, and the heavy operatives are Ashcroft, Rumsfeld and that gang. And Bush is the affable face on this administration. Think about it: If Cheney were President, they couldn’t be getting all this agenda rammed through, because Cheney’s got a smile like a landlord who’s just evicted another widow. He doesn’t have the personality for it. And that’s what Bush has, and that’s the value that he is to this truly corporate enterprise that has usurped the White House.

BUZZFLASH: We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a moment when we get into your book. We asked your good friend Molly Ivins this when we interviewed her about a month ago, about the relationship between Rove and Bush, and Rove being Bush’s Machiavelli -- where does one begin and the other one end? Molly Ivins said that’s very hard to say. And you were actually a victim of Rove’s political underhanded scheming when you were Texas agriculture commissioner running for re-election. How pervasive is Rove’s influence, based on your experience? Could there be a George Bush without a Karl Rove?

HIGHTOWER: No, probably not. I think they’re very complimentary. If Bush is the perfect client for Rove, then Rove is the perfect operative for Bush, so there’s a synergy there that is essential. But my experience with Rove was pre-Bush. Saying Rove is Machiavellian doesn’t say it all. This guy is unprincipled and vicious. He doesn’t want to win a political contest, he wants to destroy the opposition. He and Tom DeLay have a whole lot in common in this attitude. Rove was a protégé of Lee Atwater out of South Carolina -- the Reagan operative. And he took Atwater’s take-no-prisoner approach to new lows. In my case, he basically worked with a rogue FBI agent to manufacture a political case against me -- or tried to make it against me, and it ended up he couldn’t -- during an election year. And then Rove regularly leaked information out to the press, which dutifully reported "FBI investigating Hightower’s agency."

BUZZFLASH: Including the day you announced you were running for reelection.


BUZZFLASH: So they even timed the leaks.

HIGHTOWER: Rick Perry, back then (currently Texas Governor), was his client, so to speak, and Perry had been recruited. He was sort of a nothing Texas legislator who had been brought in -- again as an affable fellow without any brain muscle. Perry was essentially sent to wander around out in West Texas during the campaign so he would be out of the way, while Rove worked this FBI agent and raised money from the chemical industry and other corporate interests that opposed me. Rove had George Bush go on television against me. Then Rove ran a series of television ads that established a new low in negative advertising.

For example, they showed a long-haired guy setting a flag on fire, and throwing it on the ground. And then my picture came up out of the fire, and said "Hightower supports flag burning," which, of course, I don’t. But it doesn’t matter, you know. I had to go around answering: "Why do you support flag burning?" Rove had another ad of me campaigning with Jesse Jackson, who I supported in 1988 in the Presidential campaign. And Rove ran this ad that essentially was a smear on Jackson and then tying me to him. The ad so angered the Black Caucus in the State Legislature that they convened their own press conferences in Houston and Dallas to assail it. But again it was too late. All this was happening in the last three weeks of the election. So, I mean, that’s just who the guy is.

BUZZFLASH: Rove worked with, as you say, a rogue FBI agent who also was involved, according to Jim Moore and Wayne Slater’s book, "Bush’s Brain," in an early episode when Rove claimed that his office had been bugged, to make him look sympathetic and the object of dirty tricks. But the consensus was he had had it bugged himself -- it was highly possible it was his own dirty trick.

HIGHTOWER: This FBI agent went after other Democrats as well. He was also at Ruby Ridge and was involved in that FBI fiasco, and, as I understand it, got bounced from the agency over that.

BUZZFLASH: Your book is called "Thieves in High Places." The cover photo has you wearing a sign in front of the Texas Legislature, but we can assume, based on reading it, that you’re talking not only about Texas, but mostly about the White House.

HIGHTOWER: Yes. And by the way, the cover has me in red underwear. Let us not forget that.

BUZZFLASH: Oh, I couldn’t tell from that. I could just see the red shirt.

HIGHTOWER: It’s red long johns. It’s a blatant appeal to the sex market. So yes, the "Thieves in High Places" are not only what I call BushCo -- the corporate powerhouse that now rules our government -- but also the Wobblycrats, as I refer to them, and the Kleptocrats -- the corporate powers that essentially have usurped our people’s democracy. And the subtitle of this book is as essential as the title, which is "They’ve Stolen Our Country and It’s Time to Take It Back."

BUZZFLASH: In your epilogue, you end with a speech from someone running for office. You lay out a case -- and your writing is extremely persuasive -- as to how this country has been sold down the river to wealthy corporations. What do you have to say to someone like the Democratic Leadership Council, which may be at the heart of the Wobblycrats, as you call them, who say "Jim Hightower is not realistic; this is not where the center of the country is; you can’t win on a platform like this because America is essentially a moderate country and we have to move toward the center, otherwise, the Democrats can never win an election"? What do you have to say to the Democratic Leadership Council argument?

HIGHTOWER: Well, they’re wrong -- demonstrably so. That was the approach of the Gore campaign. That was the approach of the DLC and Terry McAuliffe and Tom Daschle and the other strategic geniuses that coordinated the 2002 Congressional campaign for the Democrats. Their strategy was a corporate-friendly, Republican-lite agenda hoping they could siphon a few wishy-washy soccer moms from Bush’s slim plurality, and therefore allow Democrats to eke out a victory. That hasn’t been working since Bill Clinton left. And you’ll recall that Bill Clinton won because he ran on essentially a populist program in 1992.

BUZZFLASH: It’s the economy, stupid.

HIGHTOWER: And then reelected because he had the good fortune to be the incumbent and run against Bob Dole. But the DLC’s notion of the center is defined by the Republican right wing. Now that the right wing has moved so far right there’s no room for the work-a-day majority of this country to find themselves in our political system.

As I pointed out in the Wobblycrat section, let’s take a look at the 2002 election. Bush actually didn’t win in 2000, but after the 2002 Congressional elections, he claimed a mandate based on the fact that they had this sweeping victory and control of both houses of the Congress, when in fact, they won very narrow majorities in both of those houses. But more importantly, only one-third of the people voted in those house elections. So Bush’s so-called mandate is 17 percent of the eligible voters of America -- not exactly a political juggernaut. This is essentially the Republican base. That’s the same percentage that the Republicans got in the Reagan off-year election in ’82. It is their core. They’re not going to get more than that because their program is horse hockey.

The American people do not agree with the Republican agenda on the environment, on tax giveaways to the wealthy, on endless war, on Ashcroft’s Constitutional nuttiness, right on down the line. The pathetic thing is that the Democrats could only get 15 percent of the eligible voters based on the DLC’s middle-of-the road to the right, and mainly "corporatist strategy."

So I say -- and I know this is just wackiness -- what if Democrats were to actually appeal to Democrats, and to do so on a basis of self interest, like we’re going to be on your side, not padding for a miserly minimum wage increase that leaves you in poverty if you work full time, but a living wage? We’re going to battle not for half prescription drug benefits for certain low-income seniors, but we’re going to fight for universal healthcare for everybody, based on a single payer system. And not tax giveaways to the rich, but we’re going to make the Bill Gates and Michael Dells pay their share of the payroll taxes so we can reduce that burden -- which is the main tax burden -- on the work-a-day majority in the country.

Folks could then say, "Wait a minute -- now you’re talking to me." That’s 67 percent of the American people, based on last year’s Congressional election, who now feel politically homeless. And let’s say you got 10 percent of them to vote. You only have to get 10 percent of them. That’s 12 million people and Democrats would then begin to win every single election.

BUZZFLASH: Well, what do you do when it seems the Republicans are experts at splitting the middle-class vote to a certain degree by essentially running a cultural populism? They claim they’re opposed to class warfare. And as soon as the Democrats start talking economics, they shout class warfare. But they set up class cultural populism by claiming Democrats are ultra-leftists trying to promote homosexual marriages and things like this. They force the debate off of economic issues. That was a key thing that got Clinton way off step in the beginning of his administration, and we’ve talked to people who were there. That he promoted gays in the military, and never quite recovered from the attack -- the cultural populism attack -- from the Republicans. And they’re very skilled at that.

HIGHTOWER: Yes, they are.

BUZZFLASH: How do the Democrats get the economic message out and not get caught up in that cultural populism attack?

HIGHTOWER: Well, one, they have to be overtly economic populists. And that’s the damage that the DLC has done to the Democratic Party. The DLC has the party positioned as a corporatist party in favor of NAFTA, and against the increases for a living wage level. They won’t talk about healthcare for everybody, and they’re avoiding the lunch-bucket issues that that populist majority out there believes in, and so they’re stuck.

So the DLC has us positioned as a corporatist party on economics and a socially liberal party, which is the exact opposite of what most people are. And so what the Democrats have to do is to come out forthright, four-square, unabashedly, for a populist economic program, and push it into law as their agenda. And then you can argue with people over the social issues. But you don’t start with the social issues as the DLC has us doing.

BUZZFLASH: Now why do you think that the Democrats -- whom you call the Wobblycrats -- don’t, for the most part, make an issue of the concept of the cash-and-carry government that Bush merely moved from Austin to Washington, D.C.? I think in his Texas swing last week, I read he raised $24 million just in two or three days in your home state. We’ve seen these contracts for "rebuilding Iraq" being handed out without bids to the likes of Halliburton and WorldCom, which just went through a scandal. And yet there doesn’t seem to be any sense of outrage that, in essence, we’ve got a government that’s for sale.

HIGHTOWER: Well, I think there is outrage, but there’s no place for that outrage to go right now because the Democrats will not make an issue of this corporate giveaway and corporate domination of our politics because Democrats are taking money from the exact same corporate interests that the Republicans do. I believe it was 78 percent of the members of Congress took money from Enron. That’s why there was no warpath -- or no war whoops, really -- in last year’s Congressional election by the Democrats about the corporate system being Enron-ized.

The reason the Democrats don’t go after at least a higher minimum wage, if not an actual living wage, including Bill Clinton once he got into office, is because the Wall Street engineers surrounded Clinton and said tut-tut. And so Clinton backed off. Had he pushed some of the other ideas that he had campaigned on, including universal healthcare, in a non-insurance company way, then he would have overcome the gays in the military issue, et cetera. But the Democrats are taking so much money, and count so much on that corporate money, that they are then unable to push an agenda that the corporate interests would not find offensive. So the result is the work-a-day majority, which supports the populist agenda, never sees that flag flying. So there’s no where for it to go.

BUZZFLASH: You have a chapter in "Thieves in High Places," chapter six, titled "Even the Smallest Dog Can Lift Its Leg on the Tallest Building." What do you mean by that colorful Texas expression?

HIGHTOWER: Well, basically people do count. And that’s the thing I’m happiest about in this book is that the preponderance of it is about people fighting back -- agitating, organizing and, more often than not, winning battles at a grass-roots level. They're taking on mighty beasts like Wal-Mart.

Little known in terms of the establishment media, but in hundreds of cases, communities are defeating Wal-Mart on a pretty regular basis, and the Wal-Mart-like organizations, such as Home Depot and Borders and Barnes and Noble, and fighting and winning battles for living wages. People are working for public financing of elections -- four states have already passed such laws. More than 200 campuses have fought against sweatshops and more than 50 of them have already succeeded in eliminating sweatshop goods from their campuses. There are great successes that are taking place out in the countryside by these so-called little dogs that dare to go over and lift their legs on the tall buildings.

BUZZFLASH: In a chapter called "Don’t Be An Idiot," the subtitle is: "The opposite of courage is not cowardice. It’s conformity." Can you explain that a little bit more?

HIGHTOWER: I will. Even a dead fish can go with the flow. As we have just seen, and still are experiencing, the Bush White House, the media establishment, particularly the Fox-ites, and the Wobblycrats, as well as corporate interests, basically have been telling people since September 11th to hush up. Don’t rock the patriotic boat. Set all your other agendas aside. Be quiet.

Well, holy Thomas Paine! America wasn’t built by people who cower in quietude. If you don’t speak out when it matters, when would it matter that you would ever speak out? And this certainly is one of those times. It’s not a matter of being a coward. It’s a matter of just going along, which is a very un-American sentiment. We are a nation that was based on and developed by rebels -- boisterous, brawling people who do not surrender our liberties that easily. And the good news of that is while the power establishment and Bush said go shopping, don’t use drugs, and go to Disney World, Americans asked deeper questions.

Go to Disney World -- that was Bush’s advice to the people who wanted to know, well, what can we do? The good news is that the American people have not been either cowards or conformists in the face of this really massive pressure by the power establishment to shut off any kind of protest and dissent, which, after all, are the essence of democracy -- much more so than voting is the ability to dissent and to do so very aggressively. And as we saw in a peace movement that developed spontaneously in this country -- marches against the Iraq war without any national leadership, and for the most part, without any established state and local leadership. We saw a movement that spread like wildfire across this country and throughout the world. And, indeed, it was, for the first time in my experience, a serious peace effort, genuinely internationally connected.

BUZZFLASH: You put together the Rolling Thunder "Chautauqua" tour as a chance to energize people with an exchange of ideas and a place for people to network. Many BuzzFlash readers continue to find themselves extremely frustrated. They don’t know what to do to begin to change things. They feel that they’re in a living nightmare, and they’re almost paralyzed. You end your book with a list of some organizations where people can make connections and become active. What do you suggest to the person who’s so horrified by what’s happening with the Bush administration and how radical and ideological and extreme its agenda is? What can they do?

HIGHTOWER: Well, first of all, gut it up. Don’t whine. Organize. Get connected. Democracy needs us now more than ever before. We’re in another of those "when in the course of human events" moments that Jefferson wrote about. And we have, periodically in our history, including 1776, been in exactly this position -- when the powers that be have overreached and left the majority of the people feeling powerless. Yet people fought back. In 1776, they fought back. The abolitionists, the suffragists, the populists and the Wobblies taking on the Robber Barons, on into the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

In my book, I cite just a few of these people and movements, and point out that they had it far rougher than we do today. Yeah, you risk getting your name on Ashcroft’s bad boy list, but your chances of dying are not as great today as it was, for example, for black people in the rural South in the 40s and 50s who dared to agitate for fundamental change. So, first of all, we’ve got to have some guts and a sense of our democratic history, and the realization that hard times and dangerous times require the very best of us, and require us to step forward.

BUZZFLASH: You’ve mentioned references to the Revolutionary period, to the American patriots. How do you feel when people in the Bush administration, while they may not mention your name in particular, but consider people of your outlook -- the BuzzFlash outlook -- unpatriotic and that only the right wing and the Republican Party are empowered to call themselves patriots?

HIGHTOWER: Well, that is part of what has them in trouble, because the American people don’t believe that and resent any partisan grab for the flag. Woodrow Wilson once said, "Never bother killing a man who’s busy committing suicide." So I think the more the Republicans and the Fox Network take that position -- that anybody who dares to dissent against King George the W is, by definition, a treasonous piece of scum in our society -- it becomes clearer that quite the opposite is the truth. Those who stand up for the values of the country, the values that might be embodied in that flag, are the ones who are the true patriots, and the ones that our country is most in need of today.

BUZZFLASH: Now let me ask a final question, which isn’t covered in your book. Some Democrats, along with some Republicans, are proposing legislation that would make it a felony to download songs from the Internet. And it seems a bit extreme that if you download a couple songs, in theory, you could be a felon, and yet Ken Lay from your state of Texas, who’s also a good friend of George W. Bush, has been untouched by the Enron scandal. Outside of some scapegoats for Enron and WorldCom, the real thieves of America, in terms of billions of dollars of ripping off companies and shareholders and employees, are out and about in the world having a good time. What does that say about thieves in high places?

HIGHTOWER: Exactly. Ken Lay is still in that penthouse suite in Houston, Texas, enjoying the good life and some of the tens of millions of dollars that he hauled away.

BUZZFLASH: He’s not living off of his wife’s antique shop or resale shop?

HIGHTOWER: No more than Michael Dell is living off his wife’s dress business. Hypocrisy is not a vice in the Bush World and corporate world. And irony -- or a sense of irony -- does not seem to be a gene that they inherited. And so they have no trouble posing the most audacious contradictions, which is that some teenager could literally be hauled off to jail by Time-Warner or Disney for downloading a couple of songs, while the thieves in high places make daily and massive rip-offs from working people of billions and billions of dollars.

HIGHTOWER: This weekend, the Bush Republicans have gone screaming to Wisconsin television stations because Democrats were going to run some ads questioning the lies, or the deceits at least, and misleading statements made by Bush in his Iraq war portion of the State of the Union speech. And the Republicans were making this assault on the TV station to prevent this airing of this viewpoint on the basis that the ads might be misleading. So again, irony.

BUZZFLASH: And threatening the station.

HIGHTOWER: Exactly. And then of course, not mentioning the giveaways to the big networks through Michael Powell and the FCC.

BUZZFLASH: I can’t resist one final question. You’ve sort of, in the proverbial expression, seen it all. And you’ve been through probably the most hard-edged, sharp-elbow political environment: Texas. You’ve had the full wrath of moral bankruptcy of Rove’s political tactics tossed at you personally. You’ve seen Bush ascend to power in Texas and execute 150 people -- or 200, I can’t recall. You’ve seen him in power now. You saw him deny that he really knew Ken Lay well. What keeps you going? I mean a lot of people at this point would just say I’m just going to go off to a ranch somewhere and settle down. This is just too much.

HIGHTOWER: If I were just sitting where I am and watching what’s going on in Washington, or just getting information out of The New York Times and the major television networks, then I would go off in the woods by myself. But I’m lucky in that I get to travel the country. I’ve been, over the last several years, just about every place that’s got a zip code. And in all of those places, I find somebody or some group of somebodies that are lighting little prairie fires of rebellion against this political and economic exclusion by the powers that be and the thieves in high places.

And so I am able to come to you through this book, or through my radio work and speeches, as that rarest of species -- a progressive optimist in this age of Bush World. Again, because I see what’s happening at the grassroots level, and I tell many of those stories in this book, and I see that the American egalitarian and libertarian spirit, and love of little-d democracy, is alive and well, it ultimately is not going to be stifled.

And in fact, the Bushites and the Kleptocrats have overreached so much that they are fueling their own demise, I believe. I know from my travels and experience that the potential is there at the grassroots level. The question is whether we have a leadership that is -- and I include myself in that -- that are smart enough to connect all of that energy and activism up and give it a national focus, and give it a channel through which it can take power back from those thieves in high places.

BUZZFLASH: Well, Jim, thanks once again. We’re glad to have you on BuzzFlash for the second time.

HIGHTOWER: And I love your guys’ work, so keep going.