Ralph Nader, Suicide Bomber

How the Great Crusader used the Green Party to get his revenge

On Friday, October 13, 2000, at Madison Square Garden, the largest of Ralph Nader's "super rallies" kicked his campaign into high gear. It was a great event in many ways. Fifteen thousand ticket buyers cheered songs, jokes, skits, and pep talks delivering timeless radical truths about wealth and power in America. Nader's speech was actually the low point, circulating randomly through riffs about corporate power, health insurance, the environment, and what Ralph Nader had accomplished.

But Nader also served up disturbing untruths. Most notable was his insistence that Al Gore and George W. Bush were "Tweedledee and Tweedledum"—they look and act the same, so it doesn't matter which you get. I went home angry. But it took me a while to understand that my progressive hero had turned suicide bomber—that Ralph Nader had strapped political dynamite onto himself and walked into one of the closest elections in American history hoping to blow it up.

The next day I was invited to a fundraising party in Greenwich Village. There I approached Michael Moore and described how the campaign could use the Web to provide the latest data on battleground states like Florida, where Nader supporters should hold their noses and vote for Gore. When Moore realized what I was suggesting, he puffed up like one of those fish that expand when threatened, leaned into me, poked his finger into my face, and yelled: "You can't say that! You can't say that! You can't say that!"

Later I was introduced to Nader's closest adviser, his handsome, piercingly intelligent 30-year-old nephew, Tarek Milleron. Although Milleron argued that environmentalists and other activists would find fundraising easier under Bush, he acknowledged that a Bush presidency would be worse for poor and working-class people, for blacks, for most Americans. As Moore had, he claimed that Nader's campaign would encourage Web-based vote-swapping between progressives in safe and contested states. But when I suggested that Nader could gain substantial influence in a Democratic administration by focusing his campaign on the 40 safe states and encouraging his supporters elsewhere to vote Gore, Milleron leaned coolly toward me with extra steel in his voice and body. He did not disagree. He simply said, "We're not going to do that."

"Why not?" I said.

With just a flicker of smile, he answered, "Because we want to punish the Democrats, we want to hurt them, wound them."

There was a long silence and the conversation was over.

Milleron's words are so remarkable they bear repeating: Ralph Nader ran so he could hurt, wound, and punish the Democrats. His primary goal was not raising issues, much less building the Green Party. He actively wanted Gore to lose. Where did this passion to punish come from?

In his admiring, balanced 2002 biography, Ralph Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, Justin Martin explains that early in his career, "Nader felt he could achieve anything" in Washington. He testified regularly before Congress and was seriously proposed as a Democratic candidate for Senate and even, under McGovern, vice president. He was so allied with the Democrats that in 1972 he rejected a New Party presidential run because, he explained, that might "help throw the election to Nixon." Nader had access to the Carter White House, where many of his former staffers worked, although his notorious nastiness and self-regard prevented him from fully capitalizing on it.

After 1980, however, he was completely shut out by the right wing—and just as galling, the Democrats tried to ride out the conservative onslaught, challenging it only selectively and knuckling under on electability issues such as crime and energy policy. By 1992, Nader campaigned briefly in a Democratic primary, but during the Clinton years, says Martin, Nader was "a pariah even among the most liberal members" of Congress and was altogether shunned by the White House. By 1996, he'd had it with Democratic gutlessness. Running on the Green ticket against a Clinton who supported NAFTA and "welfare reform," he told Mother Jones, "I think his best nickname is George Ronald Clinton." Nevertheless, Nader did little campaigning. In 2000, after a slow start, he threw himself into the process. Clearly, this election was going to be extraordinarily close, and in a September 2000 interview, Nader discussed playing spoiler:

Rolling Stone: "In 1996, you told the New York Times, 'If I really wanted to beat Clinton, I would get out, raise $3 or $4 million, and maybe provide the margin for his defeat. That's not the purpose of this candidacy.' Since you're planning to raise $5 million and run hard this year, does that mean you would not have a problem providing the margin of defeat for Gore?"

Nader: "I would not—not at all."

Martin reports that during the 2000 campaign, "no matter how hard he tried to be evenhanded in doling out criticism of Bush and Gore, Nader did show a bias"—against Gore. "It was clear to many," writes Martin, "that he truly despised Gore, while he was merely dismissive of Bush." Martin was especially struck by a Portland speech where Nader said that Gore was "more reprehensible" than Bush because Gore "knows so much and refuses to act on his knowledge."

Gary Sellers has a simpler way of putting it. Although Nader was the best man at Sellers's wedding, the two are no longer close. After extensive discussions with his old boss in late 1999, Sellers created Nader's Raiders for Gore in 2000. He believes Nader hated Gore, he told me, because "Gore wouldn't return his phone calls."

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