What’s Left?

Jim Hightower’s inability to find a radio audience says something about him, talk shows in general, and the state of Texas liberalism.

POLITICS ISN’T ABOUT LEFT VERSUS RIGHT. It’s about top versus bottom.”

“Sure, Wall Street’s whizzing. It’s whizzing on you and me.”

“NAFTA, do we hafta?”

“Saddam Hussein: Is he insane or just jerking our chain?”

Five days a week, these and other twangy quips roll effortlessly off the tongue of Jim Hightower, nationally syndicated talk show host. Hat off, headphones on, sitting in front of a mike at Threadgill’s World Headquarters in Austin, the former Texas agriculture commissioner rails against big government and big business, standing up to the powers that be on behalf of what he calls “the powers that oughta be.” In our soundbite-obsessed society, it should be the perfect recipe for good radio—not to mention a good career after politics. “I’m in the tradition of the pamphleteer,” he told me recently. “It’s not enough to be agitated. You have to agitate.”

But after sixteen months on the air, The Jim Hightower Chat and Chew Show is struggling to be heard. Although right-wing king Rush Limbaugh is carried by more than 600 stations, and the AM airwaves are overrun with the equally conservative likes of G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, and Michael Reagan, Hightower’s show is carried by only 107 stations. Worse yet, in Texas, where Hightower is better known than anywhere else in the country, you can barely find him on your dial. Unless you’re within range of AM stations in Austin, Monahans, El Paso, Lubbock, and Odessa or FM stations in Seymour and Freer or are logged on to the Internet ( www.jimhightower.com; www.audionet.com), you can’t get the show. Even if you’re sitting across from him at Threadgill’s, you have to request a pair of headphones if you want to listen.

It’s a surprising turn of events for a man who just eleven years ago was one of the top vote-getters among all statewide candidates, outpolling Governor Mark White, Attorney General Jim Mattox, and comptroller John Sharp. A political analyst and activist and a onetime editor of the Texas Observer, Hightower rode into office in 1982 as an advocate of the family farmer, promoting organics and slamming agribusiness, and as a champion of wageworkers, tackling issues from free trade to the environment. He was smart and quick on his feet, his critics had to admit, and he was funny: It was Hightower, for instance, who lampooned George Bush’s patrician upbringing at the 1988 Democratic National Convention by saying that he was “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Yet while in office, Hightower was accused of misusing federal funds for political purposes, prompting Governor Bill Clements to call for his impeachment, and his office became the subject of an FBI investigation that resulted in the conviction of three of his aides on charges of conspiracy and bribery (Hightower himself was never indicted). In 1990 Hightower was defeated by Republican Rick Perry in a squeaker of an election, but he remained in the public eye. After three years of speechifying around the country, he began syndicating daily two-minute commentaries to radio stations around the country; today they’re carried by more than 150 stations with a potential audience of 8 million and reprinted in several publications, including the Progressive Populist. He has been celebrated as a liberal icon in Mother Jones and other magazines. And last October HarperCollins published his first book, There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos, which gamely defends populism at a time when few others will.

Still, Hightower hasn’t made a splash as a talk show host. Why? First of all, Democrats—Hightower’s core constituency—are in trouble. All the great Texas Dems of recent years—Bentsen, Richards, Cisneros—are out of office and out of politics (unless you count Richards’ work as a lobbyist). Given their scant success in electing statewide candidates lately, Democratic voters in Texas may as well be out of politics too. As for the current Democratic flag carriers: When the Democrat running for governor, Garry Mauro, can’t win the endorsement of the Democratic lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, you know that Texas Democrats, particularly progressive Democrats, are in a bad way. Of course, progressive Democrats are in trouble all over. Bill Clinton is a centrist, as are most Congressional Dems. Except for the Ralph Naders of the world—who are busy fighting Microsoft, not the Republicans—it’s hard to imagine an audience for Hightower’s firebrand populism.

Talk radio has changed too. Since Limbaugh found his voice in the early nineties, the format has been the domain of conservatives, appealing mostly to white men whose high disposable incomes attract advertisers. Hightower, by contrast, means to speak to a multicultural audience that includes the working poor—a demographic that appeals to programmers about as much as small-towners who tune in to “Want Ads of the Air.” Lately, though, politics of all stripes have been elbowed out by another type of talk: quickie advice and esteem-building of the sort offered by psychotherapist Laura Schlessinger, whose daily show tops the ratings in many markets. If Hightower can’t compete with Limbaugh, he’s no match for Dr. Laura.

Then there’s Hightower himself. He hasn’t changed—and that’s the problem. His yapping terrier drawl (think Ross Perot, but less grating) isn’t exactly radio friendly, certainly not compared with the booming baritone Limbaugh honed in 30 years on the air. And Hightower’s professional Texan act may finally be wearing thin. It’s one thing for Kinky Friedman and Larry L. King to play characters, but another for thoughtful people like Hightower and Molly Ivins to wrap their political views in yeehaws and hot-damns—especially in the new New Texas, whose diverse citizenry now includes country club Republicans, Central American immigrants, and well-to-do California exiles who don’t know corn pone from crawdaddy.

This combination of realities dogged Hightower the first time he tried his hand at talk radio. Back in 1994, he launched a three-hour show that aired over the ABC Radio Network on Saturdays and Sundays. The early media buzz pegged him as the left’s answer to

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