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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.

The annual Nation Institute dinner in New York City on Monday, where the $100,000 Puffin Prize for Creative Citizenship was awarded, turned into a revealing Rorschach test of how progressives feel about President Obama nearly a year after the inauguration that made many of them downright giddy. Needless to say, the giddiness has dissipated.

Obama's escalation of the war effort in Afghanistan was a prime preoccupation of many of the attendees; a mix of leaders, advocates and wealthy donors who support the great investigative work of the Nation Institute and many other progressive causes.

The generous Puffin Prize donated by Perry Rosenstein -- a symbolic invite to a progressive "Hall of Fame" -- went to the veteran Texas populist writer and agitator Jim Hightower, a longtime favorite of AlterNet readers, and a man known for his acerbic humor and the 10-gallon hat perched atop his small frame.

The dinner was also a telling demonstration of what a difference a year can make. In 2008, the Puffin was awarded to human-rights activist and green-jobs advocate Van Jones. At the dinner, New York State Governor David Paterson was in fine form, cracking jokes about people asking him to name them to the Senate seat relinquished by Hillary Clinton. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine earnestly urged attendees to stick with their values and work hard for practical change.

Fast-forward one year: Corzine has been sidelined, defeated by an aggressive, corpulent conservative New Jersey prosecutor. Paterson sits in a political purgatory of irrelevance, while New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo readies his political machine to take over the governorship. And Van Jones -- well, we all know what happened to him: the rabid right, led by Glenn Beck, pulverized Jones with misinformation from his past, while the Obama administration looked on passively, until the green-jobs expert had little choice but to resign; hardly a sign of momentum.

Jones, as last year's Puffin winner, showed up to graciously congratulate Hightower and show the adoring crowd that he was alive and well, though seemingly still smarting from his short moment in the Beltway meat grinder. He also acknowledged that some in the audience were feeling "sad and blue." But true to form, Jones, after joking about the rapid turn of events in D.C., turned the other cheek, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.: "Never let a man pull you so low that you hate him." While Jones did not not mention the president, he said that more than ever he still believes in the "Politics of Hope."

The Other Jones

The evening was nevertheless surprisingly entertaining, thanks in part to the marvelously talented Sarah Jones, who starred in the popular Broadway solo show "Bridge and Tunnel," and recently performed at the White House as part of Michelle Obama's celebration of Women's History Month. Emcee for the night, Jones brought along a handful of her characters, whom she impersonated with devastating humor and charm. Jones showed herself to be a true progressive, with savvy lines and satire that could only come with a clear working knowledge of the intricacies and foibles of the progressive landscape, especially The Nation variety.

One controversial moment -- at least, the moment that got people thinking -- was the keynote presentation by Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a devoted friend of Barack Obama's and a key operative in the Nancy Pelosi-led Democratic Congress. Schakowsky, ever the feisty progressive personality, rattled off a litany of Obama's accomplishments and gave him credit for saving the country from a depression.

While the audience listened politely, it's clear most of Obama's positive actions took place at the beginning of his term. Now, the enormous payoffs to the banks, the jobless "recovery" that has left so many families devastated, the compromises on health care reform, and most pointedly, the escalation in Afghanistan, have left many supporters angry and confused. Clearly, the Obama logic on Afghanistan failed to convince this audience that escalating the war was a good way to spend $100 billion. (Not to mention the fact that when you combine troop increases in Afghanistan with the troops in Iraq and the huge numbers of mercenaries in both countries, Obama has more people fighting wars for us than Bush ever did.)

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