Do You Want to Ralph?

Green Candidate Nader is the Antipolitician—and Possibly Al Gore's Worst Nightmare

In his mind, Ralph Nader is already there. In front of the TV camera. Reciting his platform—the one that threatens to topple Al Gore's lifelong presidential ambition. Except for the white school bus blocking the street in northwest Washington, D.C., outside his campaign headquarters. Gray-haired ladies disembark, slowly, hauling bags of groceries. Nader, Green Party candidate, scourge of corporate America, is late for a live interview at CNN. He needs to get his message out: that there is an antidote to America's two-party system; that there is a man with distinct ideas and a candidacy unbeholden to big money; that a vote for Nader is not about protest, it's about progress. For now, though, he's vexed that the bus driver has so discourteously blocked the road. "Why didn't he pull over?" he says. "What was he thinking?"

Wearing his tried-and-true uniform—black shoes, blue suit, army surplus socks—Nader, 66, his dark hair ringed with gray, is an old-fashioned gentleman, the son of Lebanese immigrants who raised him to be polite and civic-minded to the max. "When my father sailed past the Statue of Liberty, he took it seriously," Nader says. "He was very strong on 'We came here because of the freedom and we're going to use it.' " So, after Princeton and Harvard Law, Nader became a crusader for consumer rights, founding Public Citizen, a research group that watchdogs Congress, pharmaceutical companies, the auto industry, and the like. He lives in a simple studio in Dupont Circle, writes on an Underwood manual typewriter, doesn't own a car or possess a credit card, and has never been married. He lives, he says, on $25,000 a year (although he has accumulated at least $3.8 million from various sources, he gives away more than 80 percent of his after-tax income to public-service groups). He is, many say, a relic, an ascetic, a monkish, single-minded gadfly.

But these days, Nader is also "retro-cool." His scathing critique of commercial influence over "everything we hold dear, including our workplaces, environment, genes, and our privacy" resonates, particularly with a fresh-faced, vibrant, and rising anticorporate movement that refuses to value profits over people. Quoting Cicero, as he is wont to do—"Freedom is the participation in power"—he has a vision of society that looks like a cross between the Greek polis and a Capra-esque Main Street, U.S.A. But as America winds its way through another cultural cycle, elder statesman Ralph Nader is suddenly, well, in.

Nader began gathering evidence of corporate abuse in the mid '60s. His landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed prompted an investigation of the auto industry and led to the passage of vehicle safety laws. With his team of investigative lawyers, Nader's Raiders, he exposed hidden dangers in baby food, insecticides, children's pajamas, seat belts, and nuclear power; his crusades have helped bring about the Freedom of Information Act and the Clean Air Act; in 1997 he began looking into an antitrust suit against Microsoft. Such campaigns have made Nader the consummate Washington insider/outsider, the man who says, "Half of Washington has worked for me, the other half I've sued."

Compared to Nader, the Green Party in the U.S. is in its infancy. It was founded in 1984, following the success of the West German Greens' pro-environment and antinuclear platform, but it didn't hold its first national congress until 1989. More than a decade later, it's still not a household name. By choosing Nader as their candidate, the Greens hope they have finally found a way to nudge electoral politics their way. But it's not a perfect fit. Nader remains an Independent, rather than a member of the Greens; his fight against corporate globalization is not at the top of the Green list of priorities, although it is becoming so. Nevertheless, they agree that issues like universal health care, corporate environmental responsibility, and campaign finance reform are long overdue.

With Nader hovering between 6 and 8 percent in the national polls (and up to 9 percent in California), Al Gore and his team are a-frettin'. Gore doesn't want Nader included in the presidential debates, which begin October 3 (remember how Perot jumped in the polls after he was included?). The wooden man who claims to have a green heart may be undone not by a strong Republican bid but by a scold who says Gore can't truly have an environmentally friendly heart if he supports NAFTA and the WTO. The margin between Bush and Gore in polls is only 2 percent, so the "spoiler" issue weighs heavily on the minds of undecided voters and disenchanted Democrats. The Greens aim to get 5 percent of the vote, a likely possibility, which would qualify them for the ballot in 2004 and federal matching funds of about $12 million. But, given the spread, that same margin could make Gore lose. Nader isn't concerned. "Why are people asking whether I'm siphoning votes from Al Gore, rather than whether Al Gore is siphoning votes from Ralph Nader?"

At campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C., Nader is sequestered upstairs doing a phone interview with Newsweek. His war room sits in a turn-of-the-century town house. Cast-iron stairs lead to a door bearing a humble poster, "Nader/LaDuke 2000." Inside, there's no receptionist. Whoever's passing grabs the phone, answers the door. Taped to the wall is a United States map with pushpins scoring the states where Nader has gotten on ballots—more than 30 states thus far, including New York.

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