BERKELEY, Calif. - He’s just published a touching memoir about his childhood, dedicated to his parents and siblings. Meanwhile a new documentary strives to remind us of the good his consumer advocacy has done for the world.
But suggest that his image is undergoing a makeover and Ralph Nader will look you straight in the eye and deny it.
“I don’t need rehabilitation,” he said.
His voice is deep and gruff. If Nader were being cast as voice talent for a movie involving talking forest creatures, he’d play the bear - the serious one, not the fun one raiding picnic baskets.
When Nader ran for president in 2000 on the Green Party ticket, he used that gruff voice to tell Americans the Democrats and Republicans were all the same. He pulled some votes from George Bush and more from Al Gore. With Bush headed for the White House, liberals accused Nader of being a deliberate, egotistical spoiler, and anyone with a Nader 2000 bumper sticker could count on getting dirty looks from other drivers.
But that was then. Now Nader is in the midst of a double-pronged media blitz that seems awfully reminiscent of another recent political resurrection.
If “An Inconvenient Truth” made Americans re-evaluate Al Gore, “An Unreasonable Man,” Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan’s documentary, may well do the same for Ralph Nader. It goes back to his roots, to his powerful work as the unelected mouthpiece of the American consumer in the 1960s and `70s, and reminds us of the era when he was a hero. Throw in the new book, “The Seventeen Traditions,” a slim volume that recounts the lessons his parents instilled in their children, and even Nader has to admit such synergy suggests a rehabilitation campaign.
“Yes, but I had nothing to do with the film,” Nader said. “I just gave them a seven-hour interview.”
The film is persuasive enough so that even those liberals who are still hopping mad at Nader may have to rethink their positions, if only to avoid seeming as unhinged as Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, both of whom rail at Nader like jilted lovers in the film. (“An Unreasonable Man” qualified for this year’s Oscars, but didn’t make the final nominees, and Nader blames the angry liberals in the Academy.)
It’s the book he’s more eager to talk about. In it he recounts his upbringing in Winsted, Conn., in a household where listening and learning was put at a premium by his parents, immigrants from Lebanon who ran a small business in town and cherished any and all opportunities for civic involvement.
He said first press run of 23,000 copies for “The Seventeen Traditions” sold out within a couple of weeks and HarperCollins has gone back to press. Not bad for a book about family values.
“This is first and foremost a love story for my mom and dad,” he said. “My mother passed away 13 months ago, and I resolved to do this in her honor.”
His mother was 17 days shy of her 100th birthday when she died. You might think it would have been hurtful to her, to know that her son was being verbally tarred and feathered after the 2000 election, but he shrugs that off. She never gave him any survival advice during those tough times.
“It was already built in,” he said. “She got into me early. If she did have anything to say about it, it would have been feeling sorry for the Todd Gitlins of the world.”
Nor was he hurt, he says, even when former supporters such as director Michael Moore and actress Susan Sarandon turned on him in 2004 and urged Americans not to waste their votes on him.
“It is a phenomenon to be observed,” Nader said, neutrally. “It would hurt if it had any persuasive basis, because I know they agree with me on the issues. They just had a different breaking point.”
He’s long past his own breaking point, having given up on the Democratic party after 20 years of settling for “the least worst” candidates the party put forward. (He expects that to be Hillary Clinton in 2008, and no, he hasn’t ruled out running himself.) But he admits that his goal to reform the two-party system in 2000 went nowhere.
“It had no impact,” he said. “That’s the problem. It had no reformist impact.”
Which invites the question, what good did it do?
“It’s like, there’s a boulder in the way and you push it and it doesn’t move and you push it again a week later and it doesn’t move,” he said. “So do you go away or do you try to get two other people to push it with you? We didn’t break through. This is a very, very stubborn, decaying system.”
The boulder may not move in his lifetime, but that’s OK with Nader.
“You’ve got to just keep pushing it,” he said. “Those who pioneer these social justice movements have to be willing to lose and lose and lose until their successors prevail. In not wanting to lose, you will never win.”