Jim Hightower

Take that Turkmenistan

We’re Americans, so we like to be No. 1, right? Not only do we like to be—we expect to be.

And since we are, by gollies, the Land of the Free, it’s a given that in all things liberty-ish we are Numero Uno in the world, right? After all, we’re America, we’re the richest, we’re the best, we’re the freest, we’re… number 53? Yes. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has just released its 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, ranking nations on their records of government censorship, threats, intimidation, jailings, and physical reprisals against journalists. Our good ol’ U.S. of A. did not make the Top 10, Top 25, or even the Top 50.

Holy Founding Fathers! The U.S. is tied with Botswana, Croatia, and Tonga for 53rd! You might expect those goodie-two-shoes countries like Finland and Iceland to rank above us, but Estonia, Slovenia, Namibia, El Salvador, Serbia, the Dominican Republic? I suppose we have to be proud that we rank ahead of Turkmenistan, where the government tortured a journalist to death last year.

The trend here is not good—in last year’s index, America ranked 44th in press freedoms, and in 2002 our country was 17th. As reasons for America’s slide, Reporters Without Borders cites our government’s imprisonment of several journalists and the Bushites’ imperious efforts to intimidate reporters who criticize them. Cheney has yet to shoot a reporter, but, hey, they’ve still got two years left.

For a nation that enshrines “freedom of the press” in the very first provision of our Bill of Rights, chanting “We’re number 53” is humiliating. By the way, check out Iraq, where Bush has poured precious American blood and treasure into his “Operation Enduring Freedom.” It ranks 154th in press freedom–15th from the bottom.

The Drug-Price Pudding

One of the key kitchen-table issues raised successfully by many newly elected, populist-minded Democrats this year was the rip-off prices charged by the drug giants. Yet only days after the Democratic sweep of Congress, the Bushites threw themselves directly in front of the clear will of the people.

Despite a cloud of rhetoric from Bush himself about a new spirit of “bipartisanship” the White House says it will stand squarely with the drug giants against the people’s obvious need. Bush & Co. will oppose the common-sense proposal that Medicare negotiate lower prescription prices for seniors—as Canada, Europe, Japan, and other sensible nations already do.

The Sunday after the election, Bush’s Bonehead White House counsel, Don Bartlett, actually tried to claim that drug prices in America are already cheap enough! He told Fox News that prices have “come down” and that “the marketplace is working.” Maybe in Alice’s Wonderland the market “is working,” but here in the U.S.A. the monopolistic drug giants are gouging us. Bush’s 2005 Medicare bill lets them charge us taxpayers 20 percent more than the exorbitant prices they were already charging.

Yet Bartlett smugly told Fox: “The proof is in the pudding. It’s been working.” How’s this for pudding: Under Bush’s lobbyist-written giveaway, Pfizer Inc.’s U.S. revenue has soared four times higher than their revenues abroad, where governments negotiate fairer prices. So our people are paying more, and drug makers are reaping windfall profits. Pfizer’s profits, for example, more than doubled this year over last. Taxpayers could save up to $19 billion a year if our government negotiated directly with the gougers to lower their prices. That’s a pretty tasty pudding.

Grubby Politics

We know what average Americans think of politicians, but what do politicians think of us, the hoi polloi? One clue is that numerous politicos are a little touchy about being touched by the masses. It turns out that many who make a living glad-handing really aren’t even pleased about shaking our hands. Germs, you know.

At an October fundraiser in Topeka, the Republican faithful lined up to shake hands with the headliner, Dick Cheney. Before getting to the veep, however, they had to get past a lady standing adjacent to Cheney with a big bottle of Purell, a hand sanitizer that promises to kill “99.99 percent of most common germs.” When the meet-and-greet was over, Cheney ducked backstage and rubbed a generous dollop of the antiseptic into his own hands, cleansing himself of the human contact he had endured.

The vice president is not alone in this act of political prissiness. “Good stuff,” raved George W. as he touted the purifying qualities of Purell. Bill Clinton also is a user, as is Sen. Barack Obama. And Sen. John McCain says, “I use it all the time. I carry it with me in my briefcase.”

Not everyone believes in the shake-and-scrub routine. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico bluntly says: “It’s condescending to the voters.”

Richardson, who once shook a record 13,392 hands at the state fair without using a drop of Purell, adds that “the great part about politics is that you’re touching humanity.”

I’m with Bill on this. During my own politicking period, my right hand often reeked of various colognes, barbecue sauce, and spilt beer—but to use a sanitizer seems to me a bit like ballplayers using performance-enhancing steroids. If you’re afraid of people’s germs, find a new game.

Jim Hightower is a speaker and author. To order his books or schedule him for a speech, visit www.jimhightower.com. To subscribe to his newsletter, the Hightower Lowdown, call toll-free 1-866-271-4900.

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Published at 12:00 am CST