News & Politics

Do You Want to Ralph?


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.

In one cubicle, the field director meets with reps from Virginia; in another,the press secretary trolls through the day’s media hits. Nader’s campaign staff—35 people and growing—includes twentysomething alumni of Seattle and D.C. organizing efforts, a filmmaker, a punk rocker. His campaign manager, Theresa Amato, 36, comes from Public Citizen. New to the team is Bill Hillsman, media adviser to Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s campaign. One idea Hillsman likes for a Naderite slogan: “Bush and Gore make me want to Ralph.”

Unlike Gore and Bush, Nader had no dilemma choosing his veep, Winona LaDuke, a 40-year-old Harvard grad economist and American Indian activist and writer, who doesn’t mind breast-feeding on the campaign floor. Nader/LaDuke appeared on 21 state ballots for the Green Party in the 1996 presidential election—and won about 1 percent of the vote, roughly 700,000 votes, on a $5000 budget. But they didn’t run much of a campaign then. This time, they’re serious. Their campaign is not just a gesture of protest—it’s about transforming the two-party system, entering the belly to change the beast.

For a campaign that’s raised only $1.1 million—though it has hopes for $5 million more—the thousands of volunteers are as critical as the celebrities who help raise the cash. A Paul Newman house party brought in nearly $40,000; Phil Donahue, Susan Sarandon, and Warren Beatty make up some of Nader’s Hollywood connection.

Nader embarked on a grueling 50-state tour prior to the Green convention in June, and now will likely limit his travel to the West Coast, New England, and spot visits to the Midwest. This past month he was in Baltimore, where he spoke at the NAACP convention, and Ohio, where he met with steelworkers. Much of the focus for now is on getting the media attention that could propel him into the presidential debates. (Under current rules, he needs 15 percent in the polls to qualify. And if Nader is allowed to debate, so will Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan—who would doubtless nab votes from Bush, perhaps canceling Nader’s impact on Gore.)

With a flurry Nader comes down the stairs, and we hustle into the car that CNN has sent for him.

Nader’s first concern, after being late, is the ear piece. “Did you wash that?” he asks anxiously. It’s not a question to be taken lightly: Nader believes the spread of infectious diseases is a greater security threat than military invasion. His concern assuaged, Nader settles into the isolation of the remote-satellite room, where his image will be beamed to Atlanta for CNN’s TalkBack Live, and from there into the living room of the everyman, for whom he says he speaks.

Almost five months into the campaign, there are some choice issues he’d like to convey, he tells the Voice, not least among them that he intends to raise funds sans PACs and soft contributions. He’ll rail against corporate welfare (“What are we doing giving Microsoft a $20 billion tax break?”) and offer a plan to use the national surplus to alleviate child poverty and initiate a public works project that would reinvigorate mass transit, health clinics, and schools. How might he accomplish this? Through massive citizen mobilization, he says.

Onscreen, Nader lifts his head when given the signal that the commercial break is over. A viewer question comes in: “Are you a Marxist?” Nader replies: “No. I think big corporations are destroying capitalism. Ask a lot of small businesses around the country how they’re pressed and exploited and deprived by their big-business predators.”

Another caller asks how health care can be made fair. Nader cites statistics: 47 million Americans without coverage, 10 cents out of every health care dollar disappearing through billing fraud. But “health care in my dictionary is not just how to finance and pay for it,” Nader says. “It’s, what kind of health care? Does it emphasize prevention? Does it emphasize workplace safety and environmental cleanup and consumer safety?”

Beneath Nader’s image on the TV, e-mailed comments stream across the screen: “At least Nader pulls his own strings. There’s no real difference between Gore and Bush.” “I hope all you liberals vote for him so we can have Bush.” “Buchanan is the only patriot running.” “Finally a true champion who won’t desert us.” Other screens in the control room flash soap opera make-out scenes, Russian guns firing on Chechnya, an Italian soccer game.

It seems appropriate that the world unfolds in all its glorious mess as Nader rests quietly in the satellite room during a commercial break—a still figure prepared to pounce. Sitting alone, he is the picture of contemplation and agitation. His eyes, one slightly hangdog, the other piercing, seem to capture a constant tug-of-war between being solitary in the world and enacting change for the good of all. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly says, “Do I have to stare at myself on this monitor? Can you turn it off? It’s the most disconcerting thing to look at yourself.”

And indeed, he does appear uninterested in himself, almost disembodied, a man made of ideas, focused on repeating his mantras about corporate greed and the need for consumer/voter choice. The apparent lack of a me-me-me mentality may be one of the most radical things about him compared to Bush and Gore. But despite the apparent discomfort, he commands attention when he walks into a room, and his people-centered solutions, delivered with an armory of stats and anecdotes, draw in those who have a chance to hear him speak.

A CNN poll taken at the end of the show tallies 86 percent of viewers saying they’d vote for a third-party candidate. Even the control-room director, who had initially scoffed, is converted. It’s no wonder Nader and the Greens want in on the debates.

Traditionally, third parties have bared their teeth, scrapped hard for change, then gone away. The late 19th century’s Populist Party was perhaps the most influential, turning the heads of both Teddy Roosevelt Republicans and Wilson Democrats. FDR may have been jarred just enough by Robert La Follette’s progressives and Norman Thomas’s socialists to jump-start the New Deal. Even Ross Perot, as a Reform Party candidate, forced a balanced-budget agenda onto both Republicans and Democrats.

Will it be the fate of the Greens, then, to ratchet up electoral interest, land an item or two on the national agenda, and then fade? Not if Nader has his druthers. “This is a building process,” he says, adding that “third parties have spearheaded the antislavery movement, the labor movement, and the women’s right-to-vote movement.”

What Nader and the Greens hope to build is a vital progressive movement. While there are currently 78 Greens in elected office, at least 117 are running for office this year in various state and local elections. Their future depends, in part, on their ability to maintain momentum and money.

Nader’s not worried about a Democratic loss of the White House. “If half the voters stayed home in 1996, that tells you something,” he says. “The two parties aren’t doing their job.” But wouldn’t a Bush victory bring about the nomination of pro-life judges to the Supreme Court? No, Nader says, it’s not that simple. For one thing, a Gore victory doesn’t ensure liberal appointments as long as Republicans control Congress. For another, fabled justices like Blackmun and Brennan were appointed by Republican presidents.

When asked to address the “spoiler” issue, Nader answers again as advocate and rhetorician: “There are so many people who are alienated and repulsed by the state of politics that we have to give them more choice. . . . But the main thing we have to do is look them in the eye and say: ‘Do you as an American want to be more powerful as a voter, as a consumer, as a worker, as a taxpayer? Do you think you hold the reins of government the way Thomas Jefferson and James Madison thought we should?’ “

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 25, 2000

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