Beating 'round the Bush

Jim Hightower is a populist commentator whose zingers -- flung both to the left and the right -- hit with pinpoint accuracy.

As a progressive, he faults not just party-line politicians but a political process that lets corporate execs, lobbyists and wealthy individuals decide who the contenders are by bankrolling them, resulting in choices that range merely from social conservative to fiscal conservative.

As a Texan, however, he also keeps a close watch on Gov. George W. Bush, the presidential frontrunner for the Republican Party, whose Florida delegates meet this weekend in Orlando, presumably to climb aboard the Bush juggernaut.

A former Texas agriculture commissioner, Hightower maintains his base in Austin, from which he dispatches his commentaries (including those that formerly appeared in Orlando Weekly). With Florida Gov. Jeb Bush preparing to join brother George before the party faithful, it seemed a good time to catch up with what Hightower's been saying:

Who's that behind George W?

For more than a decade, George W. Bush -- the sitting Texas governor, son of the ex-president and possibly the Republican nominee for president in 2000 -- has not made a move without consulting The Man ... and I don't mean his father.

Down here in Texas we call him Shrub, as in little bush, and a shrub needs watering to grow, right? So, in steps a man by the name of -- we kid you not -- Richard Rainwater. The national media has yet to probe into Bush's business dealings, but if and when they do, they'll find this man Rainwater. He's a billionaire speculator and money manager who ranks among the wealthiest 100 Americans. It's well known that Rainwater has been a major financial backer of Bush's political career, but it's a little-known fact that he's also largely responsible for Bush's personal wealth. He's put Bush into various profitable deals, from oil and gas to real estate, but the big one was the Texas Rangers baseball franchise.

In 1989, Bush was one of 70 investors, including Rainwater, to buy the Rangers. Even though Bush's $600,000 investment was a minor part of the deal, he was named managing partner, which paid him $200,000 a year. When he became governor in '95, he put all of his financial holdings in a blind trust -- all except for his holdings in the baseball deal, that is. In '98, the partnership sold the team, and the "lucky" governor pocketed $15 million -- a 2,400 percent profit!

Bush is nothing if not loyal to Rainwater, who has done very nicely while his pal has been governor. Among the favors Rainwater has enjoyed:

• State buildings sold to Rainwater's company at bargain-basement rates;

• State college and public-school funds invested in Rainwater's company;

• A Bush-sponsored tax cut that failed, but would have cut millions in annual taxes for Rainwater; and,

• A stadium-financing bill backed by Bush that gave a $10 million bonus payment to a Rainwater company.

Shrub has become a national media darling and GOP front-runner, campaigning on a carefully crafted slogan of "compassionate conservatism" -- or is it "conservative compassionatism" ? The real story is that George W. is really just another practitioner of Crony Capitalism.

Bush's Stupid Farm Policy

This just in ... George W. Bush has actually taken a position on an issue: The farm crises.

Farmer George, standing among some hay bales, announced in Iowa that the answer to low grain prices and the plummeting income of American farmers is: "Exports!" Farmers across the country let out a big, collective groan. They know from nearly 30 years of bad experience that an export-based ag policy is a disaster for farmers.

This failed policy goes back to Nixon's infamous ag secretary Earl Butz, who told farmers to expand grain production for sale on the world market. Fine, except every country -- from Brazil to Bangladesh -- was producing grain for export, so there quickly was a glut, depressing prices and bankrupting tens of thousands of good American farmers.

The ones who benefitted were Cargill, ADM and a handful of other giant middlemen who control the world grain market. A glut of grain meant they could buy it dirt cheap from farmers, yet sell it at ever-higher prices to cereal companies, and others -- producing fat profits for middlemen who just happen to be major campaign contributors. The federal government also subsidizes grain exports, doing so in the name of helping farmers. But Cargill, ADM and the rest are the exporters, not farmers, so the subsidies go to executives in suits, not farmers in overalls.

To compound the stupidity of his export proposal, George W. also said he would push to get China into the World Trade Organization, as though this would help farmers. Being in the WTO would allow China to overturn our farming laws -- everything from a school district that puts a priority on;buying food from local farmers to national laws that restrict the amount of pesticide residues on imported food.

Maybe this is why his handlers don't want George issuing proposals -- as the saying goes, if you don't think too good, don't think too much.

Three-year-olds for Bush

Those who still cling to the Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy that there's nothing really wrong with America's big-money system for financing our elections need to meet Alexandra and Hannah Wallin. These twin sisters from Utah each gave $1,000 to George W. Bush's presidential campaign last March.

So what's wrong with that, you ask -- why make a fuss about $2,000 from two ladies from Utah? Because, at the time these ladies made their contributions, they were 3 years old. In an op-ed piece in USA Today, David Mastio reports that Alexandra and Hannah are granddaughters of Utah multimillionaire John Price. He's a big-time Bush fat cat who has given and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush.

On March 24, Price wrote a $1,000 check to George W. So did his wife. So did two of his children. So did his children's spouses. So did five of his grandchildren. All on the same day -- a "spontaneous" outburst of familial support for George W! Well, Alexandra and Hannah didn't exactly write their checks, since they were only 3. Of course, Price was orchestrating all of this, using his own grandchildren as conduits to get around the legal limits of how much a person can give. On the federal filing, where contributors have to list their occupation, Alexandra and Hannah are listed as "students." So far, George W. Bush has received $164,000 from "students."

Bush's campaign claims that it returned the $5,000 contributed in the name of Prices five grandchildren after a "routine" review of these student donors. But Price tells a different story -- he says that when reporters started calling him about these kiddie kontributors, he called the Bush lawyers, and only then did they suddenly get scruples and send back the checks.

It's part of the slime of today's politics that politicians literally take money from children.

Reprinted with permission from "The Hightower Lowdown." For a one-year subscription (12 issues), send $15 plus name and mailing address to P.O. Box 20596, New York, NY 10011. Hightower's new book, "If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates," is due early next year.

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