The Two Faces of Ralph

Can I talk about style?

Mixed metaphors are bad. And in one sentence in Crashing the Party, Ralph Nader's new chronicle of his 2000 presidential campaign, we get three for the price of one. "Dr. Pavlov soon becomes the patron saint of the political horse race," Nader writes in describing the two major parties' political conventions. If that nonsensical sentence weren't typical of the writing on display in this book, I wouldn't complain. Unfortunately, the bad writing starts in the very first paragraph, in which Nader states his intention to address the "legitimate needs of workers and peasants," as if he were declaiming to the Third International party conference.

Later, recalling a Madison fundraiser, he summons the ghost of Lost in Space's Robby the Robot: "I spied some nutritious food on a large table and managed to consume a portion."

Ralph Nader: Really, is there anyone else with the moral authority to take his place?
photo: Beverly Orr
Ralph Nader: Really, is there anyone else with the moral authority to take his place?

One of the things that happens in Crashing the Party is that you get to watch Nader struggling with this dilemma: He wants to run a campaign that honors his subtitle, How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President; he also wants to gain the widest possible hearing for his ideas, to do the maximum possible damage to the awful depredations of corporate money, to be warm and welcoming, to tell a story. At that he all but admits his unsuccess. "At the start of the campaign," he writes, "I replied to a reporter's question and said I would not be kissing babies. Nor did I seek out photo ops with retired coal miners suffering from black lung disease who now receive critical compensation due in part to our legislative advocacy over thirty years ago . . . Or of people saved by auto safety devices now required on cars."

He concludes: "In retrospect, not doing this was a mistake."

This Ralph Nader, vulnerable and sensitive, knows that there is nothing untoward or evil about ordinary people tuning out political rhetoric, especially long and involved political rhetoric. Making a living, keeping a family together, the everyday things most people necessarily care about most: These can be hard enough on their own. Politics is one of the things people do with their surplus energy. Voters don't owe a candidate their attention; the candidate must inspire it. He senses that mixed metaphors and robotic tropes on the campaign trail and a reluctance to touch and be touched by the electorate were a symptom of a larger problem.

But then he recapitulates the problem in his book. And that matters.

Ralph Nader did worse than any of his supporters expected in the 2000 election, and this despite the fact that, as this book notes, many of his positions are shared by a majority of Americans (90 percent, for example, agree that genetically modified foods should be labeled). Of course his woeful obscurity in 2000 owes more to the mainstream habit of closing out mavericks than anything he could do on his own. But if you believe, as I do, that the more successful someone like Ralph Nader is, the better off the United States will be, you should take the problem of style even more seriously than Ralph Nader is able to here.

For the other Ralph Nader on display in this book is "Robby the Robot" Ralph. The issues he raises here, as much as he did in his mammoth "super rallies" across the country, are jackhammers: for instance the way the financial lobby, in the '70s, was able to repeal usury laws in most states, allowing legalized loan sharks to spring up on every inner-city street corner (while a city like Camden, New Jersey, does not enjoy a single supermarket within city limits); the way the oil industry brought on its own "crisis" by voluntarily shutting down 100 oil refineries over the past 15 years. But the jackhammers are muffled by his displays of political masochism, which pain me. "I have always found it more difficult to speak to a supportive or applauding audience than to one critical of my positions." "I have a visceral aversion to addressing very large audiences as if they were a crowd." It's fine that he feels this way, and you appreciate the honesty. But let's get down to it: These simply are attitudes you have to get over if you want to put yourself forward as the leader of a potential mass movement. This book is a wasted opportunity for Ralph Nader to begin thinking like a political winner.

Prophets, too, can write bestsellers, and these bestsellers can help churn real political power in their wake. It's happened before. In one extraordinary two-year stretch, in 1962 and 1963, the nonfiction bestseller lists included such eloquent manifestos as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and Michael Harrington's The Other America. None of these leaders feared a crowd; a crowd, they understood, was what made it possible for them to be leaders. Ralph Nader, in Crashing the Party, should have, but did not, aim at just this kind of bestseller. And if he's not ready to do that, he should groom a successor.

Dare I say it? If Ralph Nader takes another shot in '04—and really, is there anyone else with the moral authority to take his place?—the man should take elocution lessons, discipline his message; he should follow a course of instruction in political seduction. On the evidence put forth here, he almost seems ready to take the step.

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