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

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.)

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.

Past Puffin Prize winners include progressive stalwarts like Amy Goodman, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Barbara Ehrenreich, Dolores Huerta and others.


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