by Mike Corrigan

Jim Hightower is mad as hell. Fortunately for those within earshot of this rabble-rousing Texan, he's also funny as hell. Furthermore, he's on our side. Hightower is a populist firebrand with the smarts and courage to whip up the apathetic and the disenfranchised in this country with all the force of a west Texas twister. He has the potential to open the eyes of the sleeper, particularly of those in this country who have watched their prospects and prosperity steadily erode at the hands of the policy makers, the wealthy corporate and political elite who call the shots in D.C. Instead of a government that represents all of the people, we increasingly find ourselves living in an oligarchy -- a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

Hightower's crusade to take back America resonates with a growing number of folks out there. Find out Wednesday evening how you -- as a thinking, politically savvy voter -- can turn this all around. Hightower will be delivering a dynamic and eye-opening speaking engagement at the Masonic Temple that is sure to defrost more than a few hearts and minds. All ticket proceeds from the show will go to benefit Spokane's Lands Council, a local environmental group that works to protect the woods, waters and wildlife of the Inland Northwest.

The mustachioed Hightower has a noticeable twinkle in his eye. He sports denim work shirts, jeans and wire-rimmed glasses. In addition to his ever-present white Stetson, he wears several other hats as well. He's a columnist, radio commentator, author and public speaker. From 1983-91, he held public office in Texas, serving two terms as the state's agriculture commissioner. Yet underneath this unassuming appearance and friendly demeanor boils the heart of a full-time agitator. Hightower fights on behalf of the people and groups too often shut out of the political system: small farmers, small business-owners, environmentalists, consumers and working stiffs.

"The corporate kleptocrats with their puppets in Washington, both Republican and Democratic varieties, have usurped our democracy," he explains. "And by democracy, I mean more than just the ability to vote. We can still vote. But they have removed the people's power to control the decisions that affect our lives -- that's what democracy really is. Today, those fundamental decisions -- over what's in your evening news feed on the public airwaves to what's in the food you put on your family's table, [over] everything from whether a Wal-Mart bowls its way into your town to which side of town the toxic waste dump's going to be located, [over] everything from who's got a job at what pay to who gets to go to Congress -- these are decisions that have been removed from our neighborhoods and taken up into the executive suites."

In his new book, Thieves In High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back, Hightower gives readers the lowdown on what he sees as the real political spectrum in this country, which he says runs not right to left but top to bottom.

"The number-one problem in our system right now is money," he says, "the corrupt power of big money. It has created a political cesspool that effectively shuts out the voice of the people. When you have both political parties taking money from corporate interests -- a tiny minority of our people -- on the back of those checks is the corporate agenda. The result is the public interest and the needs of the vast majority of people are not even being addressed, much less being dealt with."

The solution, he claims, is simple: "We've got to get this corrupting power of big money out of our process. The only effective way I know of to do that is public financing of our elections. I'm talking about no private money in the election process. What this does is not only get the corrupt money out, but it allows an ordinary person to run for office again. That way a school teacher or a farmer or a hardware store owner would have access to the same pool of money that would make them competitive with the incumbent. People understand that money buys power. If you get the private money out, you get a public result."

Hightower has been railing against corporate corruption for years, reporting on and essentially predicting the corporate scandals (Enron, etc.) that would rock U.S. financial markets and steal all the headlines pre-9/11. He could see it coming. The question is, why didn't anyone else?

"It's not a matter of a few bad apples," he laments, "the whole system has become rotten because they have legalized the theft. That's the great irony. Much of what [Enron chief] Ken Lay did, for example, was actually legal. There's a guy who crashed his corporation, tied his own employees to the plummeting stock while he's personally taking $100 million out of the company, destroying the nest egg of thousands of small investors and retirees. And he's sitting there in his Lazyboy up there in the penthouse in Houston, counting his $100 million. He's not going to go to jail because what he did was to get Congress -- including those that were screaming for Enron's head -- to take his campaign money and rig the rules to allow Enron to do exactly what it did."

All of the financial scandals that once dominated the headlines were brushed under the rug on September 11, 2001. The terrorist threat, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- these became (and remain) the focus. Yet the economic fallout from the collapse of trust in financial markets continues to plague our economy. Has Hightower found it more difficult to get this message to stick out there in post 9/11 America?

"Actually, it's been a much more receptive audience, in part because Americans are a rebellious bunch of mavericks and mutts," he quips. "And when they get told by the establishment to be quiet and march in lockstep with the president, they tend to do the opposite. People don't want to be quiet, they want to talk -- they want to address these big issues. And so my audiences, in particular, as it became clearer and clearer the Bush agenda was just right-wing ideology and corporate favoritism, have been responding enthusiastically. My book is on all the bestseller lists, so is Molly Ivins' and Michael Moore's. I'm getting two-to-three times the audiences I was getting just a couple of years ago. People are really ready to do something."

Raising hell is fun. Too often, however, hopelessness rules the day.

But you'll never get Jim Hightower to buy into that. Not for a second. "In my book, I tell some of the stories that the media does not cover," he says, "about the tremendous progressive successes we're having just about every place that has a zip code. People battling Wal-Mart, fighting for a living wage, taking on the toxic polluters, supporting their public library system, standing up against the USA Patriot Act. Not only are people out there fighting, but more often than not they're actually winning."

He's been there and has seen it happen: Americans on a local and regional level working together and achieving positive change. The hope now is, that maybe one day soon, it will trickle up.

"Yep. Exactly," says Hightower. "And it's important that we share our success stories with each other because as people see success they know, 'Well, if they can do it, we can do it, too.'"

Publication date: 11/27/03

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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