“The Kleptocrats Have Taken Over” – Author, Columnist and National Radio Commentator Jim Hightower on Taking Back the Country Through Democratic Struggle

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Jim Hightower argues that the U.S. is ruled by “thieves of justice and liberty,” and it is time for the people to take back their nation. He joins us in our firehouse studio and we play a speech he gave last night at St. Peters church in New York City. [includes transcript]

“The kleptocrats have taken over.” That is how Jim Hightower starts the introduction to latest book, Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and It’s Time to Take it Back. In it, he argues that the U.S. is ruled by “thieves of justice and liberty,” and it is time for the people to take back their nation.

Hightower, who describes himself as America’s #1 populist, writes:

“To jettison our nation’s ideals for nothing more than the further enrichment of elites is no mere shift in policy — it’s a moral failure, a betrayal of what the American experiment represents. A fellow came up to me recently and politely introduced himself. After only a moment of chitchat, he clutched my arm and his eyes urgently sought mine, as though he might find confirmation there of what he instinctively thought to be happening. Leaning into me, almost in a whisper he said: “They’re changing America, aren’t they?”

Hightower says and dedicates much of his book to offering a national vision to take back the country through democratic struggle, organization and agitation.

He is a national radio commentator, columnist and author of several books on democracy and the government.

He spoke yesterday at St. Peters church at an even hosted by True Majority. In his speech he said, “They are changing America in a way that we won’t recognize and in a way that we do not support and have not been consulted on–they are changing our America of egalitarianism into their America of elitism and empire.”

  • Jim Hightower, speaking at St. Peters church on August 18th, 2003 at an event hosted by True Majority.
  • * Jim Hightower*, national radio commentator, columnist and author of several books on democracy and the government. His latest book is Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and It’s Time to Take it Back

AMY GOODMAN:Coming up later in the program we’ll hear more about the Reuters journalist who was gunned down by U.S. troops outside the Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq. U.S. troops said that they had engaged him.

But now, “the kleptocrats have taken over.” That’s how Jim Hightower starts the introduction to his latest book, Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and It’s Time To Take It Back.

Jim Hightower is one of the country’s leading populist, former agriculture commissioner in Texas, national radio commentator, columnist, author of a number of books on democracy, government and greed.

Last night he addressed hundreds in New York at an event sponsored by the True Majority.

This is some of what he had to say.

JIM HIGHTOWER:I’m taken off a thirty day—thirty city rather, eight week book tour, barn storming tour of America here tonight but really more than that because this is the kind of event that I want to do with my book, not just sign a few books and get a review in the local paper but rather to try to use this book to develop the activism out there and to give people some hope and inspiration and to help raise money for our society, to help rally, to help organize as we go along.

Of course my book, I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet but it features me in red underwear on the cover. This is a subliminal appeal to the sex market in our country. And it’s rather appropriate because it has me wearing—by the way I stood in front of the Texas state capitol for two-and-a-half hours in March while this guy shot pictures of me. A lobbyist came by said, “Hightower, I’m not even going to ask.” There I was in red long johns for two and a half hours.

But it’s kind of appropriate, I mention a little story in the book about a Japanese minister of the economy who a couple of years ago was discovered by police to have four-hundred items of women’s underwear in his home in his apartment. But he assured the public that there was nothing askance here, nothing to worry about because he said “I picked up all lingerie on the streets by pure chance.”

It’s better than some of the stories Bush and Carl rove have been telling, I think.

We do still have our underwear in America, but we’ve been stripped of a more delicate and more precious garment and that’s our democracy. Piece by piece are people’s power to control our environmental, political, economic destinies, being filched by a confederacy of corporate kleptocrats, the Enron-ers and World Com-ers, the downsizers and globalizers, the speculators and spoilers, the big shots and the bastards, the Bushites who are running roughshod over the people of this country and now of the world. Their kleptocracy is now fronted by an over privileged snotty and bratty son of a bush.

And indeed we gather here tonight in open defiance of King George the W. and his autocratic, plutocratic, and anti-democratic regime.

Lilly Tomlin has said that she fears that the manhood invented news act might be thinking of inventing something else. That is one of my fears as well, but it doesn’t rank all that high on my scare-o-meter. I fear that they might find that cancer is caused by beer, for example. That would be a hell of a devil’s dilemma for me. Or maybe they’re right, maybe the “Hokey-Pokey” is what it’s all about. What do we do then?

But the thing that scares me the most is one word, Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft Rumsfeld-and-gang.

In two short years these people have looted our public treasury to dole out hundreds of billions of dollars to their wealthiest backers. They have defoliated our environmental protections. They have launched a class war on the middle class as well as the poor. Taken have taken a sledgehammer to our civil rights and our liberties. They’ve sought to castrate labor unions. They’ve turned a $5 trillion surplus into a $4 trillion deficit. They’ve attempted to privatize everything from Social Security to the post office and they have also thrown us into a maniacal, messianic, testosterone driven World War to make the world safe for Halliburton.

Imagine what they’d be doing if they actually won the election.

But if it’s scary you want, you might look down a level below Bush, Cheney and company, because they’re not the worst of the lot. There’s howling Paul Wolfowitz for example. John Dr. Strangelove Poindexter and his little toys that he’s been giving us out of the Pentagon. And then there are hatchet men in Congress, people like Tom—the exterminator — DeLay. I don’t know if you know Tom DeLay very much, but you need to get to know this fellow. You know Newt Gingrich. DeLay is Newt on Viagra. Think about that image for a while.

But it’s also not just the individuals among the Bushites but their ethic of privilege and plutocracy. An example of that is the airline bail out after September 11th. $15 billion of our money provided to the airlines. Well, they were pretty hard hit. Maybe they needed the money.

But two amendments were attached to that legislation that we didn’t hear about. One said that the C.E.O.'s of the airlines would make no sacrifice. They did not have to give up a penny of their salaries and special compensation and they're stock options and et cetera.

The other amendment was even more insidious. It said that not a penny of the $15 billion would go to any of the 140,000 workers who were fired by those C.E.O.’s after September 11th.

And when it was suggested on the floor of the Congress that—wait a minute—we ought to at least include a little unemployment compensation for those 140,000 workers, Dick Armey, then the majority leader of the House of Representatives, got up on his hind legs and stumbled toward the microphone and he said, “That would not, I believe, be commensurate with the American spirit.” Revealing the whole attitude of privilege and plutocracy. I look at a guy like Armey and I think, “100,000 sperm and you were the fastest?”

Let’s be blunt. These people are nuts.

Unfortunately they’re in power and they’re also dangerous. Voltaire said, “It’s dangerous to be right on matters in which the established authorities are wrong.” These people are wrong not merely on policies and budgets but on philosophy because they’re abandoning the core values of America, the notions that we hold within our guts and that hold us together. Economic fairness, people believe in that. Social justice, that’s in our hearts not always acted on but it’s there. Equal opportunity for all people, that’s a part of what America is. That’s being set aside. I saw a bumper sticker in my in town of Austin, Texas on an old pick up that said, “Where are we going and what am I doing in this hand basket.”

People have a sense that something has gone terribly wrong and what is wrong is this: It’s not just a matter of the tax give away there and the regulatory manipulation over here, they’re abandoning the essential notion of the common good; the idea that we’re all in this together. That’s what holds our society together. We are a very diverse population of people. We are a brawling people, as well. We are a people, as Bill says, who knows how to use guns. We are a people that they are stomping on.

A guy came up to me at an event not long ago, not a political event; I was just wandering around at an art show, actually. I was in this art show looking around he came up to me and recognized me and we had a little chit-chat briefly and then he grasped my arm with his hand and he looked at me directly in the eye as though he was seeking confirmation of something that he feared and he said to me, “They’re changing America, aren’t they?”

And that’s right. They’re changing America in a way that we won’t recognize and in a way that we do not support and have not been consulted on. They’re changing our America of egalitarianism into their America of elititism and empire. The empire impulse in this administration is more powerful than anything I would guess since the Spanish Civil War.

I think of—well I saw yesterday on the plane coming up here a comic strip in the funny pages, I’m a veteran reader of the funny pages, some of the very best material is from there. There was a cartoon character who said he was “very concerned for George W. as a George W. supporter,” he said, “I’ve been doing some calculations. There are 165 nations in the world and he’s only invaded two of them so far!”

And the character said, “Even if he went to second term that’s still only sixty-five months in office so he’s going to need to bomb three nations a month from here on out just to keep up.”

Concerned that maybe George had to get going, now that would be funny except, well, you know Bush himself said after September 11th when they were developing their war on terrorism, that they had 60 countries on their list of evil-doers.

So many countries, so little time.

Empire tends to bloat one’s ego. Bush said to the National Security Council last year, “I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being president. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

Why wasn’t that on the evening news?

Wouldn’t you like to buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth? There’s a market.

AMY GOODMAN:Jim Hightower, author of Thieves In High Places. We’ll come back to him here in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: We return to Jim Hightower, author of Thieves In High Places: They Have Stolen Our Country and it’s Time To Take It Back.

JIM HIGHTOWER:Empire of course is also expensive. $4 trillion for the Pentagon in the next ten years based on their current annual budget. True Majority does such great work along with business leaders and others for sensible priorities in our country. As $4 trillion just to have the war machine idling, it doesn’t pay for putting it in gear. Wars are extra. We’re doing $4 billion a month in Iraq and a billion a month in Afghanistan, right now. $4 trillion. How much is a trillion? I mean these numbers get so insane.

Got a little thing in the book here that I parsed it out in terms of seconds. Think of seconds. Western civilization has not been around for a trillion seconds. In fact a trillion seconds is 31,688 years. One trillion seconds ago, no humans walked on this earth. Yet we’re allocated $4 trillion to pay for the super duper empire of King George the W.

Lee’s here, he’ll appreciate this story, he probably knows it, about Richie Ashburn, hall of famer out of the Philadelphia Phillies. Ashburn was a hell of a hitter and one ball game in Philadelphia he had a screaming foul ball, line drive smack in the face of a woman, broke her nose. The game had to be stopped awhile. They loaded her on the stretcher. Then as they were hauling her out, the game resumed, the pitcher wound up, hurled in there, and Ashburn hit another screaming foul ball and it hit the woman on the leg as she was being hauled out of the stadium.

That’s the way I feel sometimes, that hapless lady bombarded by the Pentagon budget that just keeps pounding us and pounding us and pounding us.

Well, they’re pushing a new ethic of empire and elitism. I got a section in this book called “Never Have So Few Done So Much For So Few.”

George W. Bush had a fundraiser here in New York City during the 2000 election. This was his attempt to make a little joke. He was looking out over a sea of tuxedos and designer gowns, thousand-dollar-a-plate event, and he said, “This is an impressive crowd. The have and have mores. Some call you the elite. I call you my base.” Another one that didn’t make the television sets. As Amy Goodman is telling us again and again and again: the propaganda machine.

Well, he’s true blue to that base. We know about it in terms of tax giveaways to the wealthiest. We know about in terms of the military budget. We hear about these things but also, it’s taking place in terms of the regulatory wrenching to rig the rules on behalf of corporate interests over the rest of us. Eight words you never want to hear, “The White House today issued revised rules for….” Doesn’t matter for what you know it’s going to be just something awful. And they have used executive power to completely redo the regulatory, really undo, unregulate corporations in this country. It’s so overwhelming sometimes you can’t get a hold of it.

You know they say that in sex, using a feather is erotic but using the whole chicken, that’s kinky. I think some of you have done that. Well, they’re using the whole chicken. I pulled out to help readers get a hold of this. Well you could say that it’s a certain number of regulatory reforms, or this or that, but those numbers don’t mean anything. So what I did was to take two years worth of March of 2001 to March of 2003, two years worth of Bush regulatory changes on environmental issues alone. And here they are. I did them in tiny print so they would not just ruin everybody, just going on and on and on, page after page after page after page of fine print in this little book to get a sense of the awesome power that they are using.

Now, some or our side says, “Well, Bush is stupid.”

Well, all right. He doesn’t have the brain muscle for any heavy lifting. We know that. That misses the point because that’s not who Bush even thinks he is. Bush is the affable front man for the thievery. That’s his role. That’s been his role his entire life.

In his oil days he didn’t run the company. He was the rainmaker. He brought the investors. He had the family name and the affable quality that allowed him to raise the money. With the Texas rangers, he was named the general manager, but he didn’t manage anything. Though it was under his tenure that they traded Sammy Sosa to the Chicago cubs. But he was the guy out front slapping the visiting players on the butt and being a hail fellow well met and doing the TV interviews, all that showing off his hand-tooled red, white and blue Texas ranger boots that he had and just being the front guy. Same thing as the governor of Texas. And now that’s what he is as president. That’s his role. Because he can hide the thievery behind that of affability he’s been able to just up to until recently.

Think if Dick Cheney was president. That wouldn’t work. Cheney has a smile like a landlord who just evicted another widow. So that’s Bush’s role.

George said not long ago, “You can fool some of the people all of the time. Those are the ones you should concentrate on.”

Now you’re going to get an experience of this coming up. They’re masters of propaganda, mass distraction, wag the dog, old fashioned unvarnished, unabashed lying as well. And here they come to New York City next year, right? In September. They’re going to use 9-11, the World Trade Center, New York City, like they used that aircraft carrier that Bush flew into in his “top gun” outfit.

Did you see they made a doll of that? A little action figure. There’s a George W. Bush action figure you can pay $39.99 and you, too, can own a one-foot tall action figure of plastic—made in China — George W. dressed up in that little top gun outfit. I thought it was kind of appropriate, actually, that they portray him for what he is, a toy soldier. That sort of works. And I certainly look forward to the bobble head doll. We’d all buy one of those.

Well, enough of that. That’s the bad news.

Here is some good news. The people of America are revolting in the very best sense of that term.

I’m lucky in that I get to travel a lot and into the grassroots area. That real America that Bill was talking about and that Amy broadcasts day in and day out, our voice of democracy, Amy Goodman. So I don’t have to get my perception of what America is from the nightly news or the New York Times. And as I go around just about every place that’s got a zip code has somebody or some group of somebody that is organizing, agitating, and addling these thieves in high places. And more often than not they’re winning. They’re lighting little prairie fires of rebellion all across our land. It doesn’t make the establishment news. But this is the exciting story of the true America.

Wal-Mart wars. Wal-Mart is a beast of a corporation, “The Beast of Bentonville” it’s known as, now the world’s largest corporation. It surpassed Exxon and General Motors couple of years ago. It is the most powerful depressing force on wages in this country and in the world. Their associates, as they call their employees, make an average of $15,000 a year. That’s if they work full time. Wal-Mart describes full time as 28 hours a week. They don’t get healthcare. They have no retirement benefits. They discriminate against women. 78% of their employees are women but only a handful are managers. The glass ceiling, once you hit it, you got to Windex it. You know what I’m talking about. And they barge into our communities without so much as a howdy-do much less a pretty please. They come in cutting deals behind closed doors with the local officials and with the developers and then suddenly it’s announced you’re going to have a super center here in your town. Well the neighborhoods going to suddenly be barraged. A super center is four football fields under one roof. Plus the parking lot. Twenty-four hours of those nice amenities of the Day-Glo lights that they have out at night. They squeeze out the independent businesses in local communities using their monopolistic pricing power to force businesses. Of the jobs that they create they destroy three good jobs in the town.

So people are catching on to this, Republicans as well as Democrats and Greens and people of none of the above. Folks are getting on to this. Who elected Wal-Mart to come remake our town? Well, nobody. The town doesn’t belong to Wal-Mart. We’re the sovereigns. We’re the people. We get to decide this. Again an untold media story is that in town after town after town across this country, people are defeating Wal-Mart. I was in Arizona last year. In the last three years ten Wal-Marts were defeated in the state of Arizona.

Eliminating sweatshop products from our campuses and from our towns and from our states. People are doing that. Students Against Sweat Shops. Ben and Jerry have done a great job with a company called Sweat X Team X out in California, a fabulous model for us. I write about that in this book as well. These stories are all in the book because I want people to know that you are not alone. You can do something. People are doing something. And all of these people say, “Yes, have people call us, or send us the e-mails and we will work with them.” Well, works of the people have to forge this rebellion themselves as we’ve always had to throughout the country. Living wage campaigns, public financing of elections. Four states have that now and North Carolina just passed it earlier this year for their judicial elections. New Mexico passed it about in June I think for their public utility elections. This change taking place, fundamental change taking place, privacy battles. This is our hope, this is our strength, this is our basis for taking our country back from those thieves in high places.

And I’ve got even a little bit better news for you if you’re able to believe it.

Here is my political prediction. W. is a one-term president.

I know that the cognoscenti say, “Hightower, you are dumber than a dust bunny. You are clueless. Bush is popular. He’s a war president. He’s bulletproof.”

Well, no, he’s not. His policies are absolutely loopy. And his political base is small and shrinking.

The cognoscenti say, “Well what are you talking about, Hightower? He won a mandate in 2002 in those congressional elections.”

No, he didn’t.

“Yes, he got a slim majority in both houses of the Congress.”

But he did not win the will of the people because what they don’t tell us is that only 33% of the American people voted in those congressional elections. Bush is actually the choice of 17% of the eligible voters in America. That’s his mandate. Not exactly a political juggernaut. That’s all the votes he’s going to get. That’s the peak. 2000 was his peak and remember he didn’t win then. But those are the votes and that’s the most he can expect.

Not only does the emperor have no clothes but he’s buck-naked and butt ugly and people are beginning to see it now. This time some of his own party is appalled by him. Daddy—I quoted some former republican presidents leading up to Bush in this book and I quoted his daddy George—daddy George said, “I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut about it.” There’s the difference.

I was in Maine a couple of weeks ago. Up there I met a lot of republicans who don’t like what he’s done on environmental issues, don’t like what he’s done to gays and lesbians, what he’s done to women, what he’s done to labor unions.

So there are forces within his own party that he’s not going to have this next time.

But especially significant is the fact that the pollsters don’t measure. That’s the upchuck factor, the intensity of opposition that he has generated among those constituencies that he’s been stiffing.

So I come to you tonight as that rarest of birds, a progressive optimist in this age of bushwa. Bushwa is a word you might want to look up in the dictionary. It means rubbishy nonsense. It actually is a word. And the optimism I feel is genuine for it comes from the grassroots where true America lives. I think our joy is challenge. It is to unite with these people, to rally them and organize with them and wallow in their rebellious fun living spirit of our democracy. We’re in another of those, “When in the course of human events…” moments that Jefferson wrote about a couple of hundred years ago. And we can’t just sit wearing buttons. My friend Fred Harris said, “You can’t have a mass movement without the masses.” Pretty simple. The masses are ahead of us. It’s not easy to get them organized, kind of like loading frogs in a wheelbarrow to get our side together. But it’s the only way that we have, only way that we have to build a genuine politics and genuinely take power so we can realize our ideals of fairness, justice and opportunity for all.

And I’ll say one thing more to you and that is, this is all so fun. This should be a joyous experience for us. This is a wonderful time to be progressive and to be alive. Fighting for democracy. In fact it’s just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on and there are some parts of the country that that might be all right. And nothing is more fun than winning. So I’m here to say to you, don’t wring your hands about Bush. Join hands and let’s beat him, then, let’s keep joining hands to build a progressive movement that is worthy of America. It’s sitting out there in the countryside right now. We have a historic opportunity; the question is whether we will grab it, whether we will pick it up off the ground.

There’s a moving company in my town of Austin—I I’ll leave you with this thought—this moving company has an advertising slogan that I’ve stolen and used over the years. They actually have it in the Yellow Pages. They say, “If we can get it loose we can move it.” That’s what we’re talking about. Get it loose at the grassroots level and the people will move it for themselves.

Thank you so much. Proud to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN:Jim Hightower, author of Thieves in High Places: They Have Stolen Our Country and it’s Time To Take It Back. We’ll be back with him live in our studio in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN:Here on Democracy Now! I am Amy Goodman, joined by Jim Hightower. His latest book Thieves in High Places: They Have Stolen Our Country and it’s Time To Take It Back. Welcome, Jim.

JIM HIGHTOWER:Thank you so much, Amy, great to be with you on this wonderful Democracy Now! program that helps to take America back by spreading this voice all across the country. Everywhere I go folks are tuned in.

AMY GOODMAN:Well, Jim—speaking of the media—in our headlines as you were coming in this morning hearing that the F.C.C. chair Michael Powell has now admitted, “Congress should write the rules. There is a sentiment being expressed by the American public, a concern about the media, a concern about big media.” It looks like his two top aides are resigning and there’s been questions about whether he is, too.

JIM HIGHTOWER:It is a clear example of the guy who got taken to the woodshed by we the people. This is a tremendous victory. Unfortunately it is a negative victory. It doesn’t mean we’ve taken our public airwaves back, but it is very significant and it was done by the people and through community radio, largely, and Internet opposition, but folks through community radio. You know the establishment media, which was pushing this Powell program, the establishment media was not covering this.

It came from…

AMY GOODMAN: They were busy filing with the F.C.C. supporting the deregulation.

JIM HIGHTOWER:Absolutely. To have that 400 to 20 vote in the House of Representatives was one of our better days in a long time.

Amy Goodman: Then we have the Bush Administration demanding the World Trade Organization force the European Union to lift its ban on new genetically modified food.

JIM HIGHTOWER:Well, Lilly Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you get it’s almost impossible to keep up.” This is a clear example. We are saying to Europeans, “No, you cannot decide what is in your food. Only corporations can decide that.”

AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like Cancun is going to be very interesting at the level of protest that is going to be there.

JIM HIGHTOWER:Yes, at the Seattle level, I think. They’re going to have a lot of uninvited guests who once again are in the streets because we’re not inside. And inside they’re doing such absurd things as dictating what people have in their food. You know, the interesting part about that appeal to the W.T.O. is that it’s going to raise people’s consciousness in this country—say, wait a minute, what is in our food. You’re telling us that there’s this altered organism in our food, which again the media has not been reporting on, the establishment side. So it’s going to raise two things, I think. The fact that corporations are doing that and secondly, who the hell is the W.T.O. to make these decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, what is happening in your state? I see that Tom DeLay says the state legislature in Texas has to redistrict and is now going after the democrats who left for Oklahoma, not wanting to vote on this.

JIM HIGHTOWER:Tom DeLay got up and had another big old bowl of “Fruit Loops”, I think, swallowed a few too many of them and decided that he didn’t have enough to do in Washington so he would begin to interfere with the state legislature’s responsibility to redistrict, which state legislatures did in 2001. Now in Texas, the 2001 legislature redistricting plan was blocked by the republicans, not by the democrats but by the republicans. Then they threw it to a bipartisan panel of judges and the judges did the redistricting that now DeLay says has got to be redone. And why does he say that? Because we’re not electing enough republicans. Therefore we have to rig the system so it automatically produces more republicans. He’s talking about six different congressional districts that have republican majority but democrats are elected there. Well, go beat the democrats. If you can’t beat 'em, that's not the voter’s fault. That’s your fault. You’re not putting forth good enough candidates. He wants to re-rig the system even tighter, drawing these folks out of suburban areas so that rural areas in the state would have no control over their own members of Congress. They would be represented by somebody 250 miles away in a Dallas suburb.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, you are traveling through many states of this country right now on a whirlwind tour. You’re rolling thunder.

JIM HIGHTOWER:We’re barn storming all over. I’m off right now on a thirty-something city tour that is talking about this message of thieves in high places and more importantly of how we can take the country back. I’m bringing a message of hope because the media establishment would suggest to us, “Oh, well, it’s a conservative country. You people don’t have a chance. So, don’t even fight back.” Hog wash and horse hockey. People are fighting back and winning terrific victories all over this great country. So, I’m going out and celebrating with these people and also to help raise some money and do rallies and all of that.

So we can indeed take America back. We can do it.

AMY GOODMAN:Jim Hightower, thank you for being with us. Former Agriculture Commissioner of Texas who now has written a number of books, his latest, Thieves in High Places: They Have Stolen Our Country and it’s Time To Take It Back. You can find out more about him at Jimhightower.com and his newsletter The Hightower Lowdown.

Thank you.

JIM HIGHTOWER:Thank you, Amy.

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