POLITICS MAY 20, 1996
Ralph Nader is different from other presidential candidates. The literature on him is endless, for instance, even though he has never stood for office. It runs from Nader's own books on corporate wrongdoing to books by Naderites on all manner of social ills to miles of congressional testimony to children's books about Nader, complete with drawings of little Ralph. There is a book called Me & Ralph: written twenty years ago by a former managing editor of TNR named David Sanford. Over 135 blistering pages it details how the author, who edited Nader's articles for this magazine, came to loathe Nader—and fear he would run for president. There is another book, called Ralph Nader Will You Marry Me?, by Amy Deveraux, a minister in the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness in California, who spent twelve years chasing after Nader and writing him poems, letters, songs and even a stage play. (“I was so happy to see him,” the author writes, of her most intimate encounter with Ralph, “that I beamed up at him and started singing my solar energy song. Ralph tried to cut me off by gruffly saying he had already heard it, and his secretary grabbed me by the shoulders and muscled me down the hall.”) This man whose career has been chiefly concerned with the nuts and bolts of consumer safety evokes strong and unruly passions. Is Nader Unsafe For America?
Maybe that's why Nader is harder to find than other presidential candidates—though when you finally do, he is accessible in a way even obscure candidates are not. The first few times I called him he failed to respond. On my fourth try, however, I heard back from him immediately. He seemed to have all the time in the world. “This is not like the other presidential campaigns, you know,” he warned me. “I don't intend to go up in the state of California waving signs and shouting and all that.” But before he hung up he agreed to take me along the next time he hit the road in the name of the Green Party, which will have put him on perhaps thirty-five state ballots by November.
Then the candidate vanished. Completely. Over the next two weeks I called him a dozen times—to no avail. No one I asked about him seemed to have any idea where he lived or what he did in his spare time. Then one day last week he called out of the blue to ask if I would like to attend a lecture he was giving at Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania. He told me to be in front of the Dupont Plaza Hotel at 3:00 sharp. He didn't want to keep me waiting, he said.
But he has. At 3:20 I am still shifting my weight back and forth on the pavement. I pass the time reading a yellowing transcript of the congressional hearings about General Motors' lurid investigation of Nader. The story that led to the hearings was broken exactly thirty years ago by James Ridgeway in TNR: “The Dick,” it was called. But it was the hearings held by Senator Abraham Ribicoff ten days later that transformed Nader from an obscure Washington lawyer into a national celebrity. The transcripts still make good reading. They open with the president of General Motors offering a predictably lame defense. Then the car company's private detective, Mr. Vincent Gillen of Garden City, New York, has his say. Gillen was Nader's godsend; before he testified, The Dick had used a miniature camera to snap photographs of the senators and other witnesses; during the testimony he confessed that he traveled the country at GM's behest and, on the pretext of conducting an employment background check, asked Nader's old friends about his sexual and financial behavior. The rest is history.
By 3:30 I am starting to worry that maybe I am, too. I call Nader's office. “Don't worry,” says the woman who always answers the phone. “Ralph's always thirty minutes late.” I return to the transcript. There I read, for the first time, Nader's original testimony. Thus an American legend was born:
“Mr. Chairman,” Nader began, “I owe you a deep apology for being late this morning. I ought to explain it briefly to you and to anyone else in the room. I usually take no more than twelve minutes to come down from my residence to the Capitol by cab. In this instance I gave myself twenty minutes. And I waited and waited and waited to get a cab, and as my frustration mounted, I almost felt like going out and buying a Chevrolet....”
Exactly thirty-five minutes after he was scheduled to arrive, Ralph Nader pulls up to the Dupont Plaza Hotel in a mid-sized Ford. I squeeze myself into the backseat directly behind Ralph and alongside a pair of Gettysburg College students, and we're off. For the next hour and a half I watch the back of Ralph Nader's head, an unruly salt-and-pepper tangle that tumbles down over the exposed white tags on his shambolic windbreaker. He alternates between scratching out his speech with a number-two pencil and responding to my questions until he grows weary of them and starts asking his own. Nader is interested in just about everything political. He wants to know, for example, if the oddball third party candidates that he encountered in New Hampshire in 1992 are still around in 1996 and is delighted to hear that they are. He wonders whether I agree that Alan Greenspan's confirmation hearings, at which he was the lone dissenting voice, were “the closest thing we have to what it must have been like in the old Soviet Union.” He asks if I ever noticed the way conservatives are more likely to be compassionate when they actually see what happens in the world. His favorite example of the phenomenon is George Will, who, immediately after seeing a woman die in a car crash outside his home, penned a column demanding mandatory air bags. “It was a rare event,” says Nader. “A professional conservative forced to confront reality.”
For my part I am preoccupied. As we whizz off the Beltway and into the countryside I notice that everyone but me is strapped down tightly; it's not often you see people so well trussed to a backseat. I confess my negligence. “I can see the headlines,” I say. “Nader Dies In Crash: Impaled On Pen Of Rocketing Journalist.” In a flash Ralph turns and locks my door. “I've just increased the likelihood of that,” he says. Then he adds: “Don't worry. I'll be your airbag.”
At Gettysburg, Nader takes the stage for what will be a two-hour lecture, followed by question time. He won't leave the stage until the last question is answered. He begins at seven o'clock. He will not finish until nearly eleven. In those four hours an entire worldview—and a partial presidential campaign—emerges.
The worldview can be broken down roughly into two parts: Nader's critique of markets and Nader's critique of American democracy. Nader is no socialist—he is too acutely aware of the power of market incentives. The difference between Naderism and socialism is that Nader picks his spots—he accepts the logic of the market but focuses his fierce energies on the places where it has failed or might fail: monopolies, public goods and so on. Underpinning his views is his belief that markets are made up of consumer psychology and that psychology can be tinkered with for the commonweal. “For example,” he says, “there is now a market for seat belts. People will pay for them. Why did that happen? People learned. You have to teach people what they want. Corporations understand this—they create wants all the time. But we need to create other wants.”
Nader's view of democracy forms a kind of corollary to his view of markets: what he calls the “two party duopoly” has so ossified that the difference between Clinton and Dole, for instance, is negligible. Both parties are equally beholden to corporate interests, which intersect with the well-being of society only by accident. Just as Nader's solution to market problems is an active, well-informed consumer, his solution to political problems is more active, better-informed voters.
In a nutshell that is Nader's message—and, in a nutshell, it can sound naively technocratic. But as he speaks something more than the message emerges. You can see people edging out on their chairs. Forty minutes into his talk he has moved away from his detailed arguments against hot dogs and fossil fuels and onto an entirely new plane. He is drawing his audience into his peculiar vision of life:
There are very few people [he says] who are happier than active citizens, even though they take a lot of brickbats and ostracism and ridicule and are in uncomfortable positions. They are furthering their sense of values. They are trying to help other people. That's deeply ingrained in our religious/secular ethics psyche—some people think it's more deeply ingrained than that: it's biologically ingrained.
This theme, once established, expands and contracts until Nader reaches yet another plane:
Time is the essence here. As young people, you have a different sense of time than people who are older. The longest year in your life was probably when you were 15 waiting to get your license. And, as you grow older, a year is like six months, then three months, then one month. And then it's over. I mean you're 70 years old, and you've lived a fairly good life and raised your kids, and you have some money in the bank for the children and grandchildren. Your grandchild comes and sits on your knee and says, “Grandparent, what did you do with your life?” ... And you're thinking, “How am I going to answer this?” You're thinking ... what are you going to say? I developed an advertising campaign for Geritol? I built up a chain of manicure storefront shops? I represented mergers and acquisitions to make investment bankers and golden-parachute-laden executives richer than the dreams of avarice? And, then, in the merger and acquisitions, all kinds of workers were laid off? How am I going to answer that question?
How strange, I think. The thing to say about Nader is that he is spiritually deficient, a man who worries more about American hot dogs than about world hunger. Yet when he asks, “How much has this nation lost because there are men walking around today with invisible chains?” you can hear it echo over Walden Pond. It's no wonder the Green Party has set upon him with such enthusiasm.
In the college parking lot I tell Nader that he has given me the title for my article. In praising the people who joined Ross Perot's United We Stand he had said, “It's a good thing that they did that. Some of them are eccentric. But so what? The eccentric of today is the normal person of tomorrow. There are a lot of examples of that.” “I'm going to call my article `The Normal Person of Tomorrow,'“ I say. No answer.
“Do you consider yourself an eccentric?”
And then: “No one calls Michael Jordan an eccentric because all his life he's been trying to get a ball through a hoop,” he says. “One hundred and thirty years ago if some guy spent all his life trying to get a ball through some hoop they'd have stuck him in some cave.”
“Where did you first see that the good citizen was an anomaly?” I ask, to shift the subject.
“There was a man in our town named Mr. Franz,” he says. “He was the one who spoke in the town meetings—asking detailed questions of the auditors and so on. And people would look at him as if he were some freak. The guy who took his citizen duties seriously was a freak. You got your town fool, your town drunk and your town citizen.”
“Why do you live the way you do?” I ask, as we pull out of town. “The secrecy of your private life only creates suspicion and gives your enemies ammunition.”
“That's what keeps me from becoming a jet-set celebrity,” he says, “a diversion, an attention person. My parents always told me that the most difficult thing once you've become successful is to stay successful. To be able to endure it. To do it you need to control your time. To do that you need solace, you need privacy.”
We are passing the site of Pickett's Charge. Nader is asking the driver, who seems to be something of an authority: How many men died here? Why did they do it? Why wasn't Lee's reputation more badly tarnished? Then Nader sees something that bothers him. Another market glitch: the car window. In the old days, he explains, cars had small windows that enabled the passenger to get fresh air without making conversation impossible. They did away with them, he explains, to reduce the cost and to sell air conditioning. People still want that small window, he insists, but the market will not provide it since it is such a small factor in the overall consideration of which car to buy. It is past midnight and pitch black when we arrive back in Washington.
I sit in Skewer's restaurant waiting for Ralph Nader. He's fifteen minutes late, but now I know not to worry. The phone next to the cash register rings. It's Ralph. He's caught the flu. Then he vanishes yet again.
I return to my reading—an account of an exchange between Ralph Nader and Senator Jake Garn that offers some idea of Nader's ability to play rough if necessary. This quality will soon come in handy. Nader appeared before the Senate Banking Committee in 1979 to argue against the Chrysler bailout. He was demanding that the company promise to make safer cars when Garn waylaid him. “I would suggest that if the American consumer knew what you had cost us in the name of consumerism they would run you out of the country,” he thundered. The tension builds, and then something strange happens. The fight becomes deeply personal:
Mr. Nader: I suspect, Senator Garn, that some senator's personal tragedy might not have occurred if the auto industry had listened to some of us in the early years to build safer cars.
Senator Garn: Mr. Nader, I take exception to that. I think that is one of the cruelest comments you have ever made. Yes, my wife died in an automobile accident.
Mr. Nader: And she could have been saved. She could have been saved with cars that should have been built twenty years ago.
Senator Garn: You always know about everything, don't you? You know the circumstances of the accident, you know how it happened, do you?
Mr. Nader: Yes.
Senator Garn: You do?
Mr. Nader: Yes.
Senator Garn: Well, tell me about it, then. Let's find out if you do.
Mr. Nader: I will tell you when this hearing is finished.
Senator Garn: No; I want to know right now. You made an assertion. Let's put some facts with your assertion.
Mr. Nader: It was a crash in Utah, I believe.
Senator Garn: No it was not. It was in Nebraska.
Mr. Nader: All right, Nebraska. That's hardly relevant.
Senator Garn: Typical of your research.
Mr. Nader: And it was a crash that was under a 60-mile-an-hour collision level, and that level of crash should be survivable.
Senator Garn: It was not a crash. It involved no other vehicle.
Mr. Nader: It was a rollover, wasn't it?
Senator Garn: Yes.
Mr. Nader: And a rollover is exactly the kind of preventable injury that the auto companies could have designed for, compared to, say, being hit head on by a trailer truck.
Senator Garn: Are you aware she was wearing a seat belt?
Mr. Nader: Yes.
Senator Garn: Her seat belt was on and fastened. Are you aware that three of my children happened to be with her, and had no seat belts on at all and had no injuries whatsoever?
Mr. Nader: I don't think you are ascribing that tragedy to the seat belt.
Senator Garn: That the personal tragedy of losing my wife of nineteen years, to interject that into a hearing. What kind of human being are you?
Mr. Nader: A human being who is working to save lives on the highway. Don't try and overemote. I'm saying that safer cars would have saved many Americans, including people in a crash of that kind. And for you to try to pillory me because I am trying to say that your wife could have been saved in a casualty of that kind is irresponsible.
Thus runs the dispute between the man whose emotions are all on the surface and the man whose emotions are buried in his principles. Maybe that's how Nader stays on course. What to others would feel coldhearted to him seems like an act of goodwill.
It's hard to say what role Nader will play in the fall election, though he has promised to run for as long as the Green Party will have him. On the one hand he is entirely out of sync with the times. Even old-fashioned liberals seem to have had their fill of trial lawyers and government regulation. Indeed, it was Clinton's decision to sign the bill rescinding the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit that drove Nader round the bend and into the race. On the other hand, capitalism as we practice it is now strangely in need of its critics—so much so that Pat Buchanan, of all people, has arisen to meet the need. The economic system we've perfected over the past 200 years finally enjoys a global monopoly. By its own logic that is not a good thing. After all, the system is premised on the need for competition to keep people and companies in check. But capitalism itself now has no competitors. It is to ideology what General Motors once was to automobiles. And we all know what happened to General Motors.
This article originally appeared in the May 20, 1996 issue of magazine.