When veteran Aussie publisher and part-time local Phillip Frazer was planning to launch a newsletter about American politics 14 years ago, he vowed to cut through the smoke and mirrors that always clouds the view of how Washington works – or doesn’t.
‘I wasn’t going to identify politicians by where they supposedly come from – you know, “Joe Biden, senator from Delaware” – because Joe Biden didn’t represent Delaware, he represented the credit card industry,’ he says. ‘And Senator John McCain might get elected in Arizona but he works for the telecommunications companies.’
Frazer was going to call this newsletter The Digger, after the political newspaper he had founded in Australia in 1972, but he needed a partner to make it work – someone who knew even more about American politics than he did, and Frazer had spent 23 years in New York and Washington working on magazines and organisations that pushed radical political causes, so he knew plenty.
Meanwhile, a Texas politician named Jim Hightower was looking for someone to help him start a newsletter that would ‘kick ass’, and a friend of his named Ben Franklin (no kidding) recommended he and Frazer should work together.
‘First phone chat we had I explained my thing about calling McCain the senator for telecommunications,’ Frazer recalls, ‘and Hightower says, “OK, I just did a radio commentary calling for all politicians to wear their sponsors’ logos on their suits like racecar drivers do!” We’ve sent out our joint newsletter every month since then to 100,000 paying subscribers across the USA.’
The newsletter is The Hightower Lowdown, primarily written by the former Texas commissioner for agriculture, and under Frazer’s management it has turned a modest profit all these years and is still growing. It’s original cartoonist, Matt Wuerker, just won a Pulitzer Prize for the cartoons he does for Politico, a Washington-based website.
‘He deserves all kinds of prizes,’ says Frazer, ‘but the reality is that Jim Hightower will never get that recognition from the American establishment because he’s… well, anti-establishment. We identify the corporations that have bought the American political system – lock, stock and barrel, and corporate America doesn’t like that.’
Being on the outside sniping at those on the inside was nothing new to Phillip Frazer. As a second year medical student at Monash Uni in Melbourne in the mid-1960s, he launched Australia’s first pop music newspaper, calling it GoSet, ‘because we were aiming to sell it to the teenage market that had just invented itself’.
GoSet came out every week for eight years and outsold Time magazine across Australia. ‘It succeeded because we, the staff and management, were all teenagers ourselves,’ he recalls. ‘We were outside the editorial box – we hired Molly Meldrum not because he wrote like a scribe but because his energy and enthusiasm – that insane stream of consciousness babble made sense to his tens of thousands of fellow groupies. The fact that he was gay was just a fact to us, nothing to get excited about. And more than half our writers, artists, editors and photographers were women, or girls, since I was still a boy really.’
After GoSet was bought out by its creditors, Frazer launched the Australian edition of Rolling Stone and the counter-cultural broadsheet The Digger, both in 1972.
‘By 1976 Malcolm Fraser had deposed the Whitlam government and The Digger was facing too many bad lawsuits, so I decided to go to America and see what that beast looks like, from inside its belly. I worked with hundreds of great people there who were fighting the system, and then came Hightower and the Lowdown. Along the way I built apartments in the rubble of Manhattan and two years ago, decided it was time to come back here to paradise, which is a few acres of rainforest in Coorabell with my partner Kate Veitch – but I still spend half the year in the States. You can’t tell America what’s wrong unless you walk its streets, eat the food, gossip with the neighbours…
‘And now we’ve convinced Hightower to come across the Pacific and see for himself that there is a country perhaps just a tiny bit more beautiful than America, and maybe the waters here are a tad less muddy? He likes to quote his Aunt Beulah who had a hardscrabble farm in Texas – “Jim, the water’ll never clear up till you get the hogs out of the creek”.’
Jim Hightower will be at Byron Bay Community Centre at 7pm on Wednesday 16 May for 90 minutes of conversation onstage with Kerry O’Brien. Book your seats now and hang on to them – it is bound to be a fun ride.