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Texas Populist Jim Hightower Makes Progressive 'Hall of Fame,' as Nation Magazine Gathering Grapples with Conflicted Feelings about President Obama

A year after the President's inauguration, much of the giddiness surrounding Obama has dissipated.

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Schakowsky did concede that she liked The Nation's piece, " The Afghan Speech Obama Should Give" better than the one the president actually gave on Afghanistan. Yet, Schakowsky also gave a classic mixed message: she showed the crowd an oppressive-looking burka with a tiny slit for eyes, saying that "Everyone [in Afghanistan] will wear one if the Taliban returns to power." However, there is ample evidence that the corrupt warlords and the Karzai administration also oppress women, by, for example, supporting legislation that makes women the property of men. Isn't there be a better alternative than these two repressive extremes?

Bring on Hightower

There was no ambivalence about Jim Hightower. After a gracious introduction by Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, who quoted another famous Texan, Willie Nelson ("If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane"), Hightower charmed with his practiced mix of yarns and populist homilies. He was clearly impressed with the $100,000 portion of the prize, and suggested he'd be open to even more, offering a Mark Twain witticism: "He was against millionaires, but wasn't sure what he would do if offered the position." Hightower, though, pledged half the prize dough to his longtime partner, writing collaborator and co-conspirator, Susan DeMarco.

The message from Hightower, and one we've been hearing all along, is that President Obama is only going to be as good as we make him. Or as Hightower put it, "We can't sit back in the La-Z-Boy and crack twelve-ouncers with our elbows; we've got to be noisy, and work together." Hightower was striving to convey some message of positive thinking and personal responsibility that would move the people in the room to action. He quoted Oscar Wilde: "Be yourself, everyone else is taken," and told a long story about a hardware store in Austin that still believes in good service -- "in workin' with ya." The store's motto is: "Together, we can do it ourselves." Finally, perhaps out of exasperation, Hightower added, "Those who say it can't be done, shouldn't get in the way of those doing it." Hightower also saluted his faithful Hightower Lowdown team: collaborator Phillip Frazer, organizing stalwart Laura Ehrlich and tech guru Deanna Zandt.

The event was organized by the veteran progressive impresario Hamilton Fish, long-time head of the Nation Institute. Fish is legendary for his ability to lasso wealthy donors and get them to this dinner, which also features a sprinkling of celebs and literary lions. This time around, former tennis great John McEnroe and prolific filmmaker Oliver Stone were in the crowd. Pulitzer Prize winner Nancy McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Movement was there, along with Walter Mosley, E.L. Doctorow and Tony Kushner.

Dozens of donors who fuel progressive groups and support progressive political candidates were in attendance, including Joshua Mailman, Annie Hess, Deborah Sagner, Conrad Martin, Donna Stanton, Don Shaffer, Cora Weiss, Cynthia Ryan -- who was a co chair of the event -- and many more.

And lest we leave out the hardworking organizers, thinkers and advocates, the large crowd included Danny Cantor, head of Working Families Party; Bob Fertik of Democrats.com; Maya Wiley of the Center for Social Inclusion; Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight; and on and on. The tasty, healthy menu was created by Chez Panisse proprietor Alice Waters, and the spread of great food came from the best of local farms and producers in the Tri-State Region, with some delicious prosciutto all the way from Iowa. And while we are at it, Fish couldn't have done the event without the hard work of his crack staff, Taya Kitman, and Ruth Baldwin.

 
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