Jim Hightower

Telling Stories

Are George W. Bush and Al Gore running for president . . . or school board? Hardly a day goes by without a media shot of one or the other of these grown men sitting in some fourth-grade classroom with their broad bottoms squished into a tiny chair, reading a story to the tykes. Apparently, these photo opportunities are supposed to make us believe that George and Al love children and are deeply committed to quality education.

George W. has been particularly prone to pose as a sort of national school marm, insisting that he’s the man to fix your local education system. He brags endlessly about his educational reforms in Texas, citing a recent Rand Corporation study that hailed gains in the state’s test scores. Three problems with Bush’s braggadocio: First, the reforms he’s citing were not his. Ross Perot, with the backing of former Texas governors Mark White and Ann Richards, was the initiator of the changes that George now claims as his own. Second, the Rand study covers achievements from 1990-1996; Bush didn’t even get to the governorship until 1995.

Third, Bush and his fellow Republicans actually oppose the governmental policies that led to the improved educational performance in Texas public schools! The Rand study noted that the three major reasons that students did better were: (1) having fewer students in each class in the early grades so each student got more attention; (2) making sure that children had access to preschool classes; and, (3) providing better working conditions and classroom tools for teachers. Since all three of these steps require an influx of new government funding, George and the GOP are against them. Indeed, as Governor, Bush opposed extending kindergarten classes to all Texas children, because he wanted to use that money to give tax breaks to his wealthy campaign contributors.

Maybe the next time George poses for the cameras in a classroom, a fourth grader could tell him it’s not right to tell lies.

WORTHY PUT DOWNS

Media pundits are clucking their tongues over the negative tone of this year’s presidential candidates, noting the rhetorical dust-ups between George W. Bush, John McCain, and Al Gore. But, hey, these guys are wimps in the political name-calling game!

Yes, Bush and Gore are nasty, but they tend to be whiners rather than vipers, and neither one is the least bit creative. If you want someone to snap your political garters, try this verbal retort that Sam Houston gave when his opponent dared criticize him in an 1842 Texas campaign: “You prate about the faults of other men, while the blot of foul unmitigated treason rests upon you, you political wrangler and canting hypocrite whom the waters of Jordan could never cleanse from your political and moral leprosy.” Now there’s a real Texan – not the pale shadow of one offered by George W. “Shrub” Bush!

Or, try the genteel put down that Abraham Lincoln gave to an opponent: “He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.” Don’t you wish we had even one candidate who had such a way with words? Let’s spin back to old England, when Disraeli and Gladstone were bitter political enemies. Asked to distinguish between a misfortune and a calamity, Disraeli said: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if someone pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity.”

Without claiming to be in the same league with these guys, I’ve enjoyed my own fun chances to lash opponents rhetorically. When a Republican governor of Texas let it be known that he was studying Spanish so he could communicate with Mexican-American voters, I said, “Oh good, now he’ll be bi-ignorant.”

To improve the quality of insult, a group has compiled a mix-and-match set of choice words from Shakespeare, the master of insult. Among the possibilities are “a swag-bellied malt-worm,” and “a mewling clay-brained maggot-pie.” Now I’d look forward to that kind of debate.

C.E.OUTTA HERE

What goes up, must come down, right?

Well, not if you’re the high-flying CEO of a major corporation. Defying the laws of nature – and of common sense – your pay package just keeps soaring, even when the fortunes of the company you head are sinking like the Titantic.

Check out Bank One, the Chicago-based megabank that, under CEO John McCoy, went on a merger spree in the nineties, spreading far and wide and becoming the nation’s fourth largest banking empire. But bigger does not mean better, and McCoy’s bank suffered debt overload and profit problems. So who paid the price for McCoy’s mistakes? Bank One has recently announced that 5,100 employees will get pink slips.

McCoy is gone, too, but instead of a pink slip, he got a green slip. His board of directors patted him on the butt with a severance package of $10.3 million, plus a pension of $3 million a year for the rest of his life.

Then there’s Geoffrey Bible, chief poobah at Philip Morris. Ninety-nine was a bad year for the smoke, beer, and food giant, and its stock price plummeted by more than half. So, did Bible take a hicky, along with other shareholders? No, no, Pollyanna. Even though his pay is largely attached to the stock price, his board of directors doctored the deal so he would come out ahead – a 17 percent salary increase, a 26 percent hike in bonus, a “special incentive award, and a gift of stock worth $6.5 million.

But the sneakiest CEO might be Edward Muller, head of Edison Mission Energy. The Wall Street Journal reports that he recently resigned without explanation, after the stock of his company fell into the doldrums. But lo and behold, Muller got a $35 million bonanza from a “phantom stock” that was available only to top executives.

It might be lonely at the top…but it’s lucrative, no matter what kind of job you do.

Jim Hightower’s radio talk show broadcasts nationwide daily from Austin. His new book is If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates. Find him at www.jimhightower.com, or write [email protected]

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