Singer Michelle Shocked strapped on her guitar and took the stage for the performance that would finish the first stop on the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. Looking out at the faces of several thousand cheering Texans, the woman who has penned hits such as “Anchorage” broke into a huge grin and told the crowd, “We just didn’t know what we were going to find when we showed up this morning. We didn’t know if you all were going to show up. But I think it’s been an unqualified success.”
Shocked got no argument from the crowd, or from organizers of what may well be the most unlikely scheme to stir the nation’s populist sentiment since someone suggested pulling together a protest outside the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.
Texas populist Jim Hightower’s plan to “put the party back into politics” with a rollicking national tour of speechifying, entertaining, organizing and coalition-building along the lines of the 19th-century Chautauqua gatherings had always been greeted with a measure of skepticism. Hightower’s friends and allies mumbled that the Lollapalooza of the Left idea might be a hair too ambitious. Would it really be possible, at a time when conservative President George W. Bush is supposed to be enjoying 80 percent approval ratings, to pack a fairgrounds east of Austin for a day of Bush-bashing, corporation-crunching, plutocrat-poking politics with a punch? Hightower admitted that he worried about whether he would prove right one of the best lines of Oklahoma populist Fred Harris: “You can’t have a mass movement without the masses.”
But the organizers need not have worried. The masses were ready for this movement.
“This is just what a lot of us have been waiting for — the call to action,” said Cate Read, an airline industry analyst who watched from her Houston office as employees from the nearby Enron building carried their belongings out of the collapsed corporation’s headquarters. “People are ready to start making some noise about what’s been going on in this country. The media makes it sound like everyone’s for everything George W. Bush does and that is just not the case — not even in Texas.”
By the time filmmaker and author Michael Moore arrived at mid-day, to the foot-stomping, fist-pumping and cheers of close to 7,000 rebels against the consensus, this corner of Texas was definitely not Bush country.