It’s been raining all day, as remnants of the fourth hurricane to hit Florida this year sweep through the South. Some see the storms as an act of divine retribution, as if God, still irritable at the way votes were miscounted in the 2000 presidential election, had decided to hold Florida’s head underwater to make a point. I don’t find the suffering of Floridians who lost homes and loved ones amusing (though I wouldn’t have minded if God had just invited Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Katherine Harris out for a little swim). In any event, with hurricane season not over yet, and the election only a month away, it’s hard to know what lies ahead: a Bush landslide; a Kerry landslide; the election called off because Attorney General John Ashcroft has a headache. What I’m really worried about, however, is that Ralph Nader may win just enough votes this November to tip the election to George W. Bush. If that happens, I hope a merciful God forgives Nader, because it will be hard for me to forgive him.
For nearly forty years Ralph Nader was one of my heroes. His book Unsafe at Any Speed, which lambasted the auto industry for covering up safety hazards, was published in the midsixties, just around the time I graduated from college and went to work as a newspaper reporter. I was drawn to daily journalism because I believed that good investigative reporting — writing that was honest, critical, and unapologetically passionate — was a way to hold the powerful accountable and to bring a little more justice into the world. Naturally, I was impressed with the impact Nader’s book had on the nation’s consciousness. I found it wonderfully ironic, too, that the thirty-one-year-old attorney became even more famous when General Motors made a clumsy attempt to blackmail him after the book came out. Nader sued the giant automaker and won; then, like an aikido master using his opponent’s own momentum to hurl him against a wall, Nader took the $425,000 settlement and started a consumer-advocacy group in Washington, D.C., to protect ordinary citizens from corporate abuse.
Nader was an inspiration to me, proof that it was possible to stand up to the powers that be and win. He went on to create more than forty other public-interest groups and to train thousands of idealistic young lawyers, researchers, and activists — the famous “Nader’s Raiders” — to fight for safer cars, safer workplaces, safer food, safer nursing homes, and numerous other reforms. We have Nader to thank for the seatbelts and airbags that are standard equipment in our cars, and for the free ticket we get when bumped from an overbooked flight. Nader also helped to pass the Freedom of Information Act and played a key role in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. There’s no telling how many of us owe our very lives to him.
I found Nader’s personal life especially compelling. The son of Lebanese American parents who talked politics at the dinner table and tried to inculcate a strong sense of citizenship in their children, Nader was a brilliant and dedicated student who graduated magna cum laude from Princeton and attended Harvard Law School. By the time he arrived in Washington to write and practice law in the early sixties, the idealism his parents had sparked in him was ablaze. Nader’s monk-like asceticism and fervent commitment to the causes he champions are rarely seen outside of religious orders (or inside them, for that matter). For most of his life, he’s lived alone in an inexpensive Washington rooming house. He gives away 80 percent of his after-tax income. He’s never owned a car. His wardrobe — dark suits, thin ties, black shoes — has hardly changed from year to year, or decade to decade. (During a staff meeting once, to emphasize a point about frugality, he pulled up his pant leg and pointed to his socks. “See these socks?” he said. “I’ve had these for twenty years! Army surplus. They’re cheap, and they last forever.”) His love life has always been a mystery: private and emotionally reserved, he’s never been married or even been seen dating. He once told an interviewer that, at a certain point in his life, he decided to have a career instead of a family, because it wouldn’t have been fair — to a wife and children, or to his work — to have both. Asked whether, with his eighty-hour workweeks, he missed not having more of a personal life, he explained that his work was his personal life. “If you love your work,” Nader said, “you don’t divide life into impersonal work and personal enjoyment.”
After I started The Sun in 1974, I used to quote those words to friends who worried that my immoderately long hours would wear me down. Working hard comes with the territory, I explained, and there was no place I’d rather be. I never tried to emulate all of Nader’s habits — better to walk barefoot on hot coals for the love of a woman, it seemed to me, than to pad around alone in cheap socks — but there was no one in public life who inspired me more. And sometimes, late at night, when exhaustion or discouragement got the best of me, I’d think of Nader’s devotion, and my flame burned a little brighter, and I carried on.
I was excited when Nader ran for president in 1996, portraying his candidacy as an alternative to the two major parties. Because he ran a lackluster campaign, he reminded me of Plato’s ideal leader: a disinterested “philosopher-king” whose first and foremost qualification was that he didn’t really want the job. I’d been disillusioned by Bill Clinton’s first term in office, particularly his support of ill-conceived and punitive welfare “reform.” So I aimed a kick at the president’s shins and cast a vote for my hero.
In 2000 Nader ran again because, he said, the electorate deserved better than the lesser of two evils. I agreed, but with Al Gore and George W. Bush in an extremely tight race, I no longer felt so cocky. The lesser of two evils seemed obvious: I was rarely inspired by Gore, despite his best efforts, while Bush, effortlessly and repeatedly, inspired nothing in me but revulsion and fear. But if I voted for Nader instead of Gore, and Bush won by an extremely narrow margin — one vote, for argument’s sake — what would I say to my stern inner judge: that I voted my conscience? Your conscience? he’d scoff. Who gives a rat’s ass about your conscience? You knew what the consequences of voting for Nader might be, and you did it anyway. So I voted for Gore.
After the 2000 election, Nader didn’t have anything to say about the vote-counting improprieties in Florida or the conviction among many voters that Bush had stolen the election. Angry Democrats accused Nader of contributing to the Bush victory by choosing to focus his campaign on the swing states during the weeks just prior to the election. In Florida alone, where Gore (supposedly) lost by several hundred votes, Nader racked up 97,000. Still, Nader kept peevishly insisting that he didn’t take votes from Gore; Gore took votes from him.
This seemed absurd to me, but I decided to give Nader the benefit of the doubt, chalking up his comments to exhaustion after a long campaign. However, Nader didn’t change his tune even after studies showed that if he hadn’t run, roughly half of his nearly 3 million supporters would have voted for Gore and only 25 percent for Bush, with the rest sitting out the election. This year, not only does Nader continue to ignore these numbers, but a few months ago he told “the liberal establishment” to “relax and rejoice” over his candidacy, as he’ll draw more Republican than Democratic voters. When I read this, I wondered whether Nader was delusional or, like most politicians, simply ignoring whatever he chooses. Either conclusion was discouraging.
One prominent progressive after another urged Nader to stay out of the race this year, but Nader insists on his right to run with all the aggrieved innocence of a neighbor who reminds you, when you ask him to turn down his music, that we live in a free country. He’s sorry about your sick kid who can’t fall asleep. It’s too bad your puppy trembles when the bass shakes the walls. Did he mention it’s a free country? Besides, this isn’t just any music; he’s marching to the beat of a different drummer.
I don’t get it. Does Nader honestly believe there’s no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans? Does he really think we need another civics lesson from him this year more than a different president? Well, I’ve got a pop quiz for him. John Kerry and George W. Bush agree when it comes to: (a) rescinding massive tax cuts for the wealthy (b) slowing global warming (c) raising the minimum wage (d) protecting Social Security (e) guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose (f) defending affirmative action (g) none of the above. For extra credit: Republicans who want to see President George W. Bush reelected have put up money to get Ralph Nader’s name on state ballots, knowing this will siphon votes away from Democratic candidate John Kerry. We all know that politics makes strange bedfellows, but when Ralph Nader gets in bed with right-wing zealots who oppose everything he’s ever stood for, democracy gets screwed. True or false?
Nader must realize that his candidacy may help reelect the most reactionary U.S. administration in recent memory. So why does he persist? Some people say that it’s because he craves attention; that though he may be too puritanical to ever set foot on a cruise ship or spend a night in a five-star hotel, when it comes to ego-tripping his bags are always packed and he travels first-class. What better way to meet all those enthusiastic admirers day after day than to run for president? It’s like being a rock star without schlepping all the heavy equipment.
But Nader has already been on the cover of Rolling Stone. I don’t think it’s ego that’s driving him. After all, he’s well aware of how many bridges he’s burned this year; how many old friends and supporters feel betrayed by him. Maybe, over the years, he learned not to care whether people adore or revile him. In fact, when asked recently if he’s concerned about the effect of the campaign on his legacy, he responded, “Who cares about my legacy? My legacy is established. They’re not going to tear seatbelts out of cars.” Then he added: “I look to the future. That’s the important thing.”
And when he looks ahead, what does he see? Jacob Weisberg, writing in the Guardian, offered an incisive analysis of why Nader ran in 2000. It might also explain why he’s running again: “It’s not just that Nader is willing to take a chance of being personally responsible for electing Bush. It’s that he’s actively trying to elect Bush because he thinks that social conditions in America need to get worse before they get better. . . . To Nader, it is liberal meliorists, not right-wing conservatives, who are the true enemies of his effort to build a ‘genuine’ progressive movement. He does have a preference between Democrats and Republicans, and it’s for the party that he thinks will inflict maximum damage on the environment, civil rights, labor rights, and so on. By assisting his class enemy, Nader thinks he can help pull the wool from the eyes of a sheeplike public.”
This strategy reminds me of a joke my father used to tell about a man who was feeling miserable and went to see his doctor. His doctor told him he had a cold and prescribed some pills, but they didn’t help. On his next visit the doctor gave him a shot. That didn’t do any good, either. Finally, the doctor told the man to go home and take a hot bath, throw open all the windows, and stand in the draft. “But if I do that, I’ll get pneumonia,” the patient protested.” “I know,” said his doctor. “I can cure pneumonia.”
Like the doctor in the joke, Nader seems indifferent to the suffering such a strategy might cause. Maybe I’m not enough of a visionary, but I’d like to ameliorate some suffering now instead of punishing the electorate for not being more enlightened. Things have already gotten a lot worse under a president who criminalizes dissent, wages preemptive war, rationalizes torture — and still has the afternoon free to eviscerate a few environmental regulations and trim some fat off programs for the poor. It’s revealing that Nader enjoys so little support from those living in poverty as well as among African Americans and Latinos and Asian Americans. Minorities and the poor have generally fared better under Democratic than Republican administrations and can’t afford to throw away their vote on a symbolic protest. Though it’s easy for armchair revolutionaries with food on the table to dismiss incremental change as inconsequential, when you’re laid off and living in the margins even marginal change can be meaningful.
Despite all the money he’s given away, Nader’s personal wealth is estimated to be about four million dollars. I don’t think this makes him a hypocrite; it just means he isn’t broke and looking for a job. Nor does he have a family to support or a son or daughter serving in Iraq. And if wealth can insulate someone from certain kinds of suffering, so can not having a family. If things get worse before they get better, it won’t be his children or grandchildren who suffer.
Several journalists whose work I respect have suggested there might be a more personal reason Nader is in the race. According to them, Nader felt like an outcast in Washington in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and then George Bush the elder were in office. He hoped things would change when Bill Clinton entered the White House, but it didn’t work out that way. Clinton and Gore not only failed to seek Nader’s advice, but apparently didn’t even return his phone calls. In a 1996 interview, Nader said that Clinton was “the ultimate Democrat/Republican president” and should be called “George Ronald Clinton” because he was no different from his predecessors. Feeling deeply betrayed, not only because he felt slighted personally but because he believed the Clinton-Gore Democrats were ignoring many of the issues he’d championed, Nader wanted revenge — and what better way than to help defeat Gore in 2000? Or so the theory goes. Given Nader’s reputation (deserved or not) for lashing out at people he thinks have crossed him, the theory may not be so far-fetched. As one person who was on the receiving end of Nader’s anger tactfully put it, “Ralph, in practice, has been harder on his friends than on his enemies.” Other former employees have been less diplomatic.
There’s much about Nader that’s hard for me to fathom. If he’s as vindictive as some people allege, it wouldn’t be the first time that someone I admire turns out to be a complex human being with some less-than-admirable qualities. Spiritual seekers are reminded to focus on the teaching, not the teacher — since the teacher invariably turns out to be a less-than-perfect vehicle for the perfect teaching. Similarly, the validity of Nader’s ideas, his trenchant analysis of how indebted both parties are to the corporate behemoth, doesn’t depend on how well-mannered he is. Still, there’s something about his contempt for the Democratic leadership that’s unsettling, as he now seems to regard even the most liberal Democrats as beyond redemption. It astonished me to learn that, before the death of Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Nader was encouraging the Green Party to try to unseat him. Wellstone’s philosophy was probably closer to Nader’s than was anyone else’s in the Senate.
According to a recent newspaper story, Nader once again plans to campaign aggressively in swing states during the last weeks of the race, just as he did four years ago. Accompanying the story was a photograph of the candidate: still a handsome man at seventy, though beginning to show his age. I searched his face for some clue to how someone can live such an exemplary life, the gold standard for civic virtue, only to risk it all — not by running off with the company’s retirement account or his neighbor’s wife, but by ignoring the advice of virtually all his former allies and committing himself to this quixotic, ill-timed, and potentially destructive presidential campaign.
As I write this, some of my friends seem glumly resigned to a Bush victory, while others are writing checks and registering voters and chanting the magic spells they once used to try to attract a sweetheart or make a fortune in the stock market. Other people I know — thoughtful, kindhearted, articulate people — are going to vote for Nader because they can’t stomach Kerry’s nuanced positions: half in, half out, like a vegetarian who eats a little fish and chicken and, sure, sometimes a little beef, but only if the animal died of natural causes. Kerry was a war hero, and then he was an antiwar hero, but he’s not their hero. Well, Kerry isn’t my hero either. But I don’t need another hero right now — just someone who’ll prevent Bush from doing any more damage.
Ralph Nader was once my hero, and his intelligence and accomplishments still merit my respect. Maybe great men make great mistakes. Maybe there should be a twelve-step program for men who love their country too much. Sadly, Nader reminds me these days of a guy who shows up uninvited at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding and ruins the moment for everyone. As he loudly insists he has the bride’s best interests at heart, she cringes: Ralph, the intense one. All these years, he’s kept a picture of her, certain that one day she’d come to her senses. And now, she’s about to marry someone who isn’t right for her. Only Ralph understands what she really needs.
It intrigued me to learn recently that Ralph Nader’s hero since childhood has been Yankee great Lou Gehrig, a baseball legend who played in 2,130 consecutive games and was a symbol not only of stamina but of modesty and self-control. Even Lou Gehrig, however, knew when it was time to quit. After fourteen years as the Yankee’s first baseman, Gehrig began to lose his strength, but his doctors couldn’t figure out why. (He was eventually diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — now called Lou Gehrig’s disease.) In the eighth game of the 1939 season, feeling weak and sluggish, he barely made it back to first base for a throw. It would be better for the club, he told his manager, if someone else played first base the next day. His streak was over, he said. He could see it in his teammates’ eyes.
If only Nader could see the look in his teammates’ eyes. If only he could realize there are better ways to help his fellow citizens; better ways to remind us that corporate lobbies are too powerful and that both political parties have turned into corrupt fundraising machines. Surely the man who founded the consumer-advocacy movement is still capable of accomplishing great and lasting things — much greater than losing a presidential race every four years. For example, consider the impact he could have by leading a campaign to allow more room for minor parties by changing the nation’s electoral system. Instant runoff voting, used in most European countries, allows voters to rank candidates; it would end the third-party “spoiler” effect and free us to vote for our favorite candidates without worrying about helping to elect our least favorite.
If Nader’s life has taught me anything, it’s that we can dream implausible dreams. So I’ll dream that Nader has an October surprise up his sleeve: that just before election day, he’ll withdraw from the race and urge his supporters to vote for Kerry. There’s no need to pull the trigger, he’ll say, as he slips his gun back into its holster; he just wanted to teach the lowdown Democrats a lesson. Then, his voice tinged with pity and disdain, he’ll announce he’s done trying to protect us from the outlaws ruining our town. He’s done running for president — and he’s done with everyone who begged him not to run. He’s done with those of us who wake up every four years, vote, and go right back to sleep. Like the disillusioned sheriff in the movie “High Noon,” he’ll toss his badge in the dirt and ride out of town, leaving us to ponder his sacrifice and our own moral turpitude.
This isn’t a Hollywood movie, though. Instead, I feel as if I’m watching a Shakespearean tragedy unfold. I wonder, as Nader approaches the end of his life, whether the stubborn determination that once served him — and us — so well hasn’t calcified. I wonder if he’s become bitter as his former enemies grew stronger, not weaker. Powerful corporations became even more powerful multinational corporations; government itself began turning into a corporate oligarchy. Maybe he thinks he’s failed. Certainly he thinks his old allies have failed him. Maybe, as Yeats wrote, “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”
Like many others, I want to see the emergence of a strong progressive movement in this country. Maybe Nader could play a key role in it — as long as he remembers that, until we have real electoral reform, a third party’s greatest influence will come through grass-roots organizing, not another unsuccessful presidential bid. In 2004, at least, voting for Ralph Nader isn’t like picking up a brick and laying the foundation for a revitalized progressive movement. It’s like picking up a brick and hitting ourselves in the head.