Make You Ralph

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MARCH 8, 2004

Make You Ralph

As Ralph Nader prepares for another spoiler run at the presidency,
liberals are again wringing their hands at the damage he may do not
only to Democrats' chances of retaking the White House but to his
own reputation as well. "The most regrettable thing about Mr.
Nader's new candidacy is not how it is likely to affect the
election, but how it will affect Mr. Nader's own legacy, "
editorialized The New York Times this week. "Ralph Nader has been
one of the giants of the American reform movement. ... [I]t would
be a tragedy if Mr. Nader allowed [his anger] to give the story of
his career a sad and bitter ending." The same theme was sounded in
November of 2000. "Bernie Sanders is right. Ralph Nader is 'one of
the heroes of contemporary American society,'" argued Eric Alterman
in The Nation. "How sad, therefore, that he is helping to undo so
much of his life's work in a misguided fit of political pique and
ideological purity." As Robert Scheer lamented in the Los Angeles
Times, "What Nader did was to impulsively betray a lifetime of
painstaking, frustrating, but most often effective, efforts on his
part to make a better world. He is a good man who went very
wrong."The good-man-who-went-wrong assessment of Nader is virtually
unchallenged among liberals. But, if you think about it for a
moment, it's awfully strange. Heroes of history do not normally
reverse themselves out of the blue. George Washington did not end
his days pining for a return of the British monarchy to U.S.
shores. George Orwell did not suddenly warm to the virtues of
totalitarianism. Nor, for that matter, did Ralph Nader go wrong
after decades of doing good. The qualities that liberals have
observed in him of late--the monomania, the vindictiveness, the
rage against pragmatic liberalism--have been present all along.
Indeed, an un-blinkered look at Nader's public life shows that his
presidential campaigns represent not a betrayal of his earlier
career but its apotheosis.

Nader made his name with the 1965 publication of Unsafe at Any
Speed, an expos of the Chevy Corvair. Today, people generally
remember the ways in which Nader was right--the appalling lack of
concern for safety in the automobile industry and the need for
federal regulations. Few realize that Nader's campaign against the
Corvair was only the most visible edge of an uncompromising,
conspiratorial worldview. Nader believed not only that the Corvair
was dangerous but that General Motors (GM) knew it was. Justin
Martin, in his fair-minded 2002 biography, Nader: Crusader,
Spoiler, Icon, shows how Nader hounded liberal Connecticut Senator
Abraham Ribicoff into investigating whether GM had lied about what
it knew in testimony before Congress. In a letter to Ribicoff,
Nader wrote, "Now comes decisive evidence which reveals a
labyrinthic and systematic intra-company collusion, involving high
General Motors officials, to sequester and suppress company data
and films." Nader insisted he had an array of inside sources and
documents that would reveal this conspiracy. Ribicoff dutifully
assigned a pair of staffers to the case, and they spent two years
chasing down Nader's leads. None of them panned out. The
investigators found no evidence that GM knew of the Corvair's safety
flaws. The failure to confirm Nader's suspicions enraged him. "He
could not let go of the Corvair issue," one of the staffers told
Martin. "He was fixated. And, if you didn't accept or believe the
same things he did, you were either stupid or venal."

During the late '60s and early '70s, Nader developed a reputation as
a wonk's wonk, a data-driven do-gooder with a stack of papers
perpetually tucked under his arm. In fact, even then his work was
driven by ideologically motivated fanaticism. In 1971, Nader
pressured one of his associates, Lowell Dodge, to sex up his study
"Small on Safety: The Designed-in Dangers of the Volkswagen." In
his self-proclaimed 1976 hatchet job, Me %amp% Ralph, former tnr
managing editor David Sanford describes how Nader insisted that
Dodge rewrite the conclusion of the study so that it began, "The
Volkswagen is the most hazardous car in use in significant numbers
in the U.S. today." Objecting that "the conclusion is not reflected
in the data," Dodge left the project, allowing others to take
credit as principal authors. "I have always carried around
considerable guilt about what I regard as the extreme intellectual
dishonesty of that conclusion," he told Sanford.

Nader's true fame came not from Unsafe at Any Speed but from the
fact that its publication prompted GM to hire a private
investigator to dig up damaging personal information that might
discredit him. The irony is that Nader's grandiose paranoia
predated this episode. Before publishing Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader
worked as an obscure functionary at the Labor Department under
then- Assistant Secretary Pat Moynihan. "Ralph was a very
suspicious man," Moynihan told Charles McCarry in his 1972
biography Citizen Nader. "He used to warn me that the phones at the
Labor Department might be tapped. I'd say, 'Fine! They'll learn
that the unemployment rate for March is 5.3 percent, that's what
they'll learn.'"

Nader's friends recalled that often he would act furtively, speaking
in code, always convinced he was being monitored or phone-tapped.
When he insisted in 1966 that he was being followed, one of his
friends replied, according to Martin, "Ralph, your paranoia has
grown to new extremes." Of course, it turned out that in that
instance Nader was being followed. But this merely proved the old
adage that sometimes even the paranoid have enemies plotting against
them.

Nader sued GM and won $425,000, which he used to found activist
organizations that helped push through a staggering series of
consumer and environmental reforms, most of them in the late '60s
and early '70s. Nader rightly wins credit for spurring progress
during the era. And yet, even during his heyday, Nader habitually
denounced liberals and their work, sabotaging the very causes he
claimed to believe in. Martin's biography is filled with examples.
In 1970, Nader championed a report by his staff savaging Ed Muskie,
the liberal senator from Maine. Muskie, who helped engineer the Air
Quality Act of 1967, had a reputation as an environmental ally, but
Nader's report called the act "disastrous," adding, "That fact
alone would warrant his being stripped of his title as 'Mr.
Pollution Control.'"

That same year, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to create a
Consumer Protection Agency (CPA), what Nader called his highest
legislative goal. But, just days after praising the bill, Nader
turned against it, saying that "intolerable erosions" had rendered
the bill "unacceptable." As Martin writes, "Without Nader's
backing, the bill lost momentum" and died in committee. The pattern
repeated itself, as the CPA passed either the House or the Senate
five more times over the next six years, but Nader rejected every
bill as too compromised. "Ralph could have had a consumer agency
bill in any of three Congresses," liberal consumer activist and
former Nader associate Mike Pertschuk told Martin. "But he held out
for the perfect bill."

The final defeat came in 1978. Again, Nader's strategy was to impugn
every Democrat who harbored any reservations at all about the bill.
He maligned Washington Representative Tom Foley as "a broker for
agribusiness"--despite the fact that Foley had bucked agribusiness
to pass a bill regulating meatpackers. He attacked Colorado liberal
Pat Schroeder, who had supported earlier versions of the CPA but
had minor reservations this time, as a "mushy liberal" selling her
vote to corporate contributors. He so alienated Democrats that, as
the measure went down to defeat, one reportedly said as he voted
no, "This one's for you, Ralph." House Speaker Tip O'Neill told The
Washington Post, "I know of about eight guys who would have voted
for us if it were not for Nader."

For Nader, it was almost axiomatic that anybody who disagreed with
him was a corporate lackey. "Nader sees critics as enemies," wrote
Sanford, a former ally. "Those who do not serve him serve the evil
elements of corporations." This Manichaean worldview came through
in everything Nader did. In the 1970s, he worked to establish
automatic funding for Public Interest Research Groups (pirg) on
campus--proto-Naderite outfits to train the next generation of
like- minded activists. Nader's preferred funding mechanism was for
every student to automatically contribute $1; those who objected
could go to the college administration for a refund. But the
administration at Penn State University in 1975 opted instead for a
positive checkoff, whereby each student would check a box if he
wanted to pitch in $2 for the pirg. Nader attacked Penn State as "a
citadel of fascism" and threatened one Penn State board member: "I
would advise Mister Baker to study very carefully the meaning of
conflict of interest if he wants to understand the kind of
disclosures that will be forthcoming in the coming year."

The Jimmy Carter presidency only saw a heightening of Nader's
schismatic tendencies. "I want access. I want to be able to see
[Carter] and talk to him. I expected to be consulted," he told The
New York Times. That Carter filled his administration with former
Naderites didn't help. Less than a year after Carter put former
Nader deputy Joan Claybrook in charge of the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration, Nader denounced her, demanding she
resign for implementing an air-bag regulation with "an unheard of
lead time provision." In 1980, Nader told Rolling Stone, "In the
last year we've seen the 'corporatization' of Jimmy Carter. Whereas
he was impotent and kind of pathetic the first year and a half,
he's now surrendered. ... The two-party system, by all criteria, is
bankrupt--they have nothing of any significance to offer the
voters, so a lot of voters say why should they go and vote for
Tweedledum and Tweedledee." (Liberals today who anguish over
Nader's insistence that no important differences exist between the
two parties should note that this belief dates back more than two
decades.) In the summer of 1980, Jonathan Alter (now a Newsweek
columnist) worked on Nader's voting guide for the presidential
election. Alter came away amazed by Nader's fury at Carter. "He
didn't seem overly distressed at the idea of Ronald Reagan becoming
president," Alter later told Martin. As Nader addressed a gathering
of supporters in 1981, according to The Washington Post, "Reagan is
going to breed the biggest resurgence in nonpartisan citizen
activism in history."

Of course, that did not happen. But twelve years of Republican rule
failed to dim Nader's conviction that little difference existed
between the two parties. Even Nader's critics seem to forget that
he began running against Democrats in 1992, when he urged New
Hampshire primary voters to write in "None of the above." "None of
the above" meant Nader himself, as he would tell audiences: "Hello,
I'm 'None of the above,' and I'm not running for president." Nader
demanded that the major candidates address what he deemed the
important issues of the day. In his 2002 memoir, Crashing the
Party, Nader alleges that Bill Clinton leaked the Gennifer Flowers
adultery revelations himself to avoid having to address Nader's
agenda. "I'm almost certain that [Clinton] and his supporters knew
[the Flowers scandal] was coming," he posits. "Clinton knew how to
stay on message, and nothing was going to get him to take a stand
on President Bush's nafta proposal before Congress, or on nuclear
power, or on the failing banks in New Hampshire." This assertion
neatly encapsulates Nader's style of thinking--the fevered
conspiracy-mongering, the moral righteousness, and the laughably
outsized role he assigns himself in world events.

As Nader embarks upon his fourth protest run against the Democrats
in as many elections, there is something slightly ridiculous about
the shock of his liberal critics. They still don't know who they're
dealing with. Nader is not a heroic figure tragically overcome by
his own flaws; he is a selfish, destructive maniac who, for a brief
historical period, happened upon a useful role.

In the waning days of the 2000 election, some of Nader's campaign
advisers urged him to concentrate on uncontested states, like New
York and California, where he could attract local media without
competition from the major-party candidates and win liberal voters
who needn't fear tipping the race to George W. Bush. Instead, he
chose a whirlwind tour of battleground states, campaigning in
Pennsylvania and Florida, where votes would be harder to come by but
more consequential to the outcome of the race. Liberals assume
Nader tried to maximize his vote total without regard to how it
affected Bush and Gore. The truth is that he actively sought to
help Bush, even at the expense of his own vote total.

It's therefore both comic and sad when liberals take Nader at his
word that he does not believe he affected the outcome of the 2000
race. The website RalphDontRun.net patiently explains how, if Al
Gore had netted even 1 percent of Nader's 97,000 Florida votes, he
would have overcome Bush's 537-vote margin. Like other liberals,
the people behind the website seem to think, if they could only
persuade Nader that his candidacy might help reelect Bush, it would
dissuade him from running. More likely, it would have the opposite
effect. The real mystery is not why Nader would do something so
destructive to liberalism. It's why anybody ever thought he
wouldn't.

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