Peter Pringle's America: A raspberry for tomato molesters

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The Independent Online
AN EAST Texas drawl came over the car radio. 'Look out, here comes one of those hi-tech companies tamperin' with a tomato's genetic make-up so it can manufacture a bionic one that won't rot. This sucker will shine in a supermarket bin not for six days, but six weeks. How do they create this mutation? By implanting the genes of a flounder into a tomato. A fish]'

After the advertisements, the bright, friendly voice returned. 'Gene-altered veggies are, well, hot potatoes these days. Certain drug and chemical companies are investing billions in them. Bingo] By putting the odd gene in a common veggie, corporations can patent the offshoot, control production and make a killin'. Like they done with our prescription drugs . . . We are their guinea pigs. Put a label on that tomato and we'll decide which to buy. . . . Tell your grocer not to order this genetic gamble; if he stocks it, don't buy it. This is Jim Hightower invitin' you to tell these tomato molesters, 'Keep yer hands off our genes'.'

Jim Hightower, like his fellow Texan Ross Perot, is a grassroots populist. But unlike Perot, he is that rarest of Texans, a progressive. For a decade he was Commissioner of Agriculture in Texas until he was bounced out of office by a big- city Republican. Then he chose one of the hot careers of American culture in the late 20th century: radio commentary.

For long the unchallenged medium of evangelists, screaming patriots and mind-numbing politicos, US radio now has its very own leftist commentaries in the form of Hightower's twice-daily spots. He was already famous for his one-liners against the Reagan-Bush era: George Bush was a 'toothache of a man' and 'Reagan's idea of a good farm programme was Hee Haw'. Then Hightower won over conservative Texas voters by sticking up for 'real people' - 'You don't have to be in Who's Who to know what's what.'

In the tradition of Will Rogers, Hightower's message is wrapped in funny stories about congresssional backscratchers, corporate rip-offs and weird science. In the month since he began broadcasting, the dry-witted Texan has focused on drug companies, about which Americans are always ready to be outraged. In the last decade the companies have put up the prices of commonly used drugs by 1,000 per cent. He says a polio vaccine in the UK costs dollars 1.80, in Belgium it costs 77 cents and in the US dollars 10. 'These guys must sweat greed,' says Hightower. 'They are making enough profit to air-condition hell.'

Another target is the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), a Bush-era pact not yet passed by the Congress that would allow free trade between the US, Mexico and Canada. Hightower complains that the pact 'officially encourages US companies to move their industries and our jobs to Mexico'. The deal is so ugly, he says, 'it'd rot a cantaloupe at 100 paces . . . Stay tuned and I'll tell you why this road has taken us from Tweedly-Dum to Tweedly-Dumber.'

For a Texan with such a name, the 50-year-old Hightower is disarmingly modest in stature; he is under 6ft even in his boots and cowboy hat. But he issues grand alarums from his small Austin office. The US, he warns, is not just losing companies through Nafta but has lost whole industries to South America and South-east Asia.

There is only one company left that is making televisions in the US, one motorcycle firm, one maker of American flags. No tennis rackets, basketballs or baseballs are made in the US. America invented the video cassette player and the fax machine, but no US company makes them. 'Nafta, do we hafta?' asks Hightower.

His earthy one-liners are in contrast to the rantings of the nation's dominant radio talk- show star, Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh has a bestseller, The Way Things Ought To Be, and has been rattling liberal cages on air to millions of fans.

He attacks homosexuals, 'feminazis' and environmental 'wackos', making a fortune out of the mud-in-your-eye commentaries of the kind popularised by Pat Buchanan, the former White House speechwriter and presidential candidate.

So far only 100,000 people listen to John Hightower, mostly on southern radio stations. But the potential is huge for anybody who can make people laugh and think at the same time. America has 170 million radio listeners, mostly in the big cities - where Limbaugh scores so highly and where Hightower will have to be aired if he is to continue to attract financial backers (currently unions and a natural ice-cream maker). He won't get the big corporations, of course; but if he is right about the Perot phenomenon - that it wasn't Perot but populism that attracted US voters - Hightower, too, could become a household name.

His problem is that he seeks radical change in a society that is moving more and more to the centre - the middle of the road where, says Hightower scornfully, you find 'only yellow lines and dead armadillos'.