Goodbye for Later, Don't Forget Ralph Nader
“Man is the only animal that knows nothing, and can learn nothing without being taught.”
Pliny the Elder
In 1976, long before the umpire reached his nadir as Democratic spoiler, it was the bottom of the eighth inning, and Billy Carter’s team was winning. Billy’s brother Jimmy had been hanging around Ralph Nader quite a bit lately, picking his brain for new ideas on how he might go about his next job, the presidency of the United States, particularly those aspects of that job which concerned safety in a dangerous world. It was at precisely this moment, in the bottom of the eighth inning of a softball game that saw Ralph Nader as umpire (in suit and tie amid the sweltering heat), when a soda machine in front of Billy Carter’s gas station off in the distance began to spark. The sparks eventually found their way to a three-thousand-gallon fuel tank This is how explosions happen and presidential allegiances form.
A careful reading of Justin Martin’s swift, comprehensive biography Nader allows one to see this as a defining moment of final innocence-a last day in the sunshine before Ralph Nader became increasingly frustrated at his lack of power within the executive branch, and went on to adopt crusades increasingly eccentric and confused in their conception and execution. Jimmy Carter eventually couldn’t give Nader the attention he demanded, and two subsequent Republican presidents refused. By the time Clinton arrived, Nader was a has-been: shrill and boorish and-in the common perception, anyway-certifiably loopy. Well, if he couldn’t get through to the president, damn it, then he would get through to Al Gore. When Nader’s assistant received a letter from the Gore camp, this is what it said: “The vice president has no time to meet with Mr. Nader.”
If deep implications don’t convince you of how a Crusader becomes a Spoiler, then maybe Gary Sellers, who had long talks with his old boss in the fall of 1999, will: “He had a personal animus toward Gore?. It was clear that Ralph’s feelings were hurt. This was the kind of thing you’d expect from an adolescent. It was embarrassing. He was furious and he was going to teach Gore a lesson.”
The public career of Ralph Nader began, perfectly timed, in 1965, when Senator Abraham Ribicoff was out looking to stir up some trouble with a liberal cause worth fighting for. Someone suggested auto safety, before recommending that he talk to this young lawyer who was a breathing encyclopedia on the subject-and not only was he an encyclopedia on the subject, but he had already begun preparing, essentially, to write one. The book, Unsafe At Any Speed, provided such a damningly critical look at the practices of General Motors (as well as nearly every other auto manufacturer) that GM was inspired to spend $6,700 investigating its author’s past and present in order to return the favor: holding him under surveillance, questioning friends and family, even, at one point (although it was never officially proven in court), attempting to entrap him in the solicitation of prostitution. The $425,000 this cost GM was nothing next to the resulting public humiliation.
Even unlikelier still, the book became a national bestseller. Ralph Nader was now, officially, a public figure. The resumes began pouring in-idealistic youngsters out to make a difference. Nader’s Raiders: he hired them young and WASP-ish and Ivy-educated. And rich. There was a reason for that: At the rates Ralph Nader was paying, it was best if one did not need to earn a living.
They took on everything from meat-package inspectors to radiation control to poultry safety to natural-gas pipelines. Many would go on to achieve a kind of fame and notoriety in their own right (most poetically James Fallows, who became a crusading whistle-blower within his own establishment by publishing Breaking the News, a book that uncovered dangerously slothful practices within the Washington press corps). Before long, Webster’s took notice (con - sum - er - ism), and so did Mad, which presumed to know the contents of Ralph Nader’s wallet.
The first major step toward eternal wrong-headedness occurred in the early seventies, just prior to Carter, when Nader and his Raiders undertook a project that was as admirable in its ambition as it was absurd. They began to write profiles of all 484 Congressman up for re-election in 1972, to be sold individually at booksellers as a way of informing voters on who not to vote for. Predictably (to any sane being, anyway), a lot of these incumbents were not altogether generous with their time. The profiles that resulted were inconsistent, slapdash affairs featuring shabby writing and shabbier research. Worse, the project suffered from poor distribution. A failure in every sense.
Twenty-seven years of slights and frustrations later, Ralph Nader became a candidate for president, and even though this had been bantered about for decades as a brilliant idea-among the press and politicians and concerned citizens in general-it was not the natural extension of Nader’s crusades that it seemed. As one old pro of Nader’s acquaintance has noted, “Most of us were advocates for awhile, and then went into the legislative branch or state governments or whatever. Ralph stayed out. He never had to face up to those issues. Therefore, he could engage in a kind of italicized public discourse that made for great sound bites. But it often greatly oversimplified the real issues.”
And not only that, but how was this man to appeal to a mass electorate? This man who had spent years concealing his affinity for the Marx Brothers and Tammy Wynette for fear that it would make him appear somewhat silly; who was not known to engage in a single act of sexual intercourse in his entire life; whose major technological indulgence was a black & white television (a television which, by the way, he never had time to watch, because he worked for all but four hours of the day-even crusaders need to sleep sometime); who went on The Tonight Show to plug his candidacy only to have Jay Leno ask him what he did for fun, only to answer: “I eat strawberries.”
Oh well. In his younger days, Nader had conducted a thorough investigation of Schopenhauer, and found pessimism to be fatally unsafe-indeed, had found it to be the number-one cause of breakdowns in the human psyche-and so pessimism was not something that Ralph Nader would travel in. He encouraged liberal citizens to vote their conscience-a vote for Gore, after all, was still a vote for Gore. It’s like in business: “No political system can regenerate without outside competition. Agendas throughout history have been pushed by third parties. Yet somehow the two political parties have expected to reform themselves without external jolts.”
And that’s how Ralph Nader justified the abandonment of his liberal principles at a time when liberals needed him most. He wasn’t always this selfish. Justin Martin writes about how “Nader certainly did not want to run for president in 1972 on a third-party ticket. He feared that if he drew enough votes, he might pull support away from the Democratic candidate. Thus might he unwillingly help throw the election to Nixon.” All that had changed by the time Nader found himself a sore loser and his ideals no better represented for it, a humorless man affecting humor for the press: “By the way, I do think that Al Gore cost me the election, especially in Florida.” What would Schopenhauer have thought?
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