On an unseasonably warm afternoon in March, Ralph Nader stands in the gold-domed statehouse in downtown Trenton, New Jersey, and declares his intention to run for president on the Green Party ticket. As a speaker, Nader is only slightly more riveting than Al Gore, but his message, at least, is more provocative. “Over the past 20 years, big business has increasingly dominated our political economy,” says Nader, dressed in his customary dark suit, thin tie, and black shoes. “This control by the corporate government over our political government is creating a widening ‘democracy gap.’ Active citizens are left shouting their concerns over a deep chasm between them and their government.”
It’s the first day of a campaign swing that takes Nader through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. In Wilmington, he urges about 100 people at a Unitarian church to reclaim a “government of the General Motors, by the Exxons, and for the DuPonts.” In Princeton, he holds a fundraiser at a natural foods store and spends a minute or two with each of the dozens of people who line up to meet him (including a woman whose seven-year-old daughter was petrified to attend the event because she thought her mother said they were going to meet Darth Vader). In Philadelphia, Nader huddles with a group of core supporters at the trendy White Dog Café to plot strategy for the coming months.
Ralph Nader on a campaign swing? This is the man who in 1996 spent less than $5,000 on his presidential bid, and who wouldn’t even allow the Green Party to use his name for fundraising. This year, Nader vows things will be different. “Last time I stood for president,” he says. “This time I’m running.” Since he announced his candidacy, Nader has hired full-time campaign workers, pledged to raise $5 million, and hit the road to stump in all 50 states before the Green Party held its convention in June.
But given Nader’s noncampaign of ’96, questions remain about what he’s really hoping to accomplish. Is Nader risking his hard-earned reputation as an anticorporate crusader by representing a tiny and disorganized third party whose other leading contender for the nomination was the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys? In private, even some Nader loyalists recognize that their candidate has opened himself up to ridicule. “He’s running against Jello Biafra,” says one, “and he’s getting attacked by all sorts of people.” The skepticism extends to some of the 250,000 members of his own party. “Nader could become the Gus Hall of the Greens,” warns Michael Donnelly of the party’s Oregon chapter, recalling the perennial Communist Party candidate. “What are they going to do — nominate him every year?”
Nader’s stature as a corporate watchdog and consumer advocate is the stuff of legend. In 1965, he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed — demonstrating that General Motors covered up safety hazards in the Corvair to protect profits — and he’s been taking on big business ever since. Over the years he has established dozens of public interest groups like Public Citizen, inspired and trained thousands of young activists, and had a hand in the passage of hundreds of important laws on such issues as auto safety, nursing home abuses, insurance rates, and worker protections. Travelers who are bumped from their airline flights receive free tickets and hotel rooms for the evening because the same thing once happened to Ralph Nader, and it made him very, very mad.
“He’s demonstrated that each citizen can have an impact and change the government,” says Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio who has known Nader for 25 years. “He’s had more of an impact on institutions of government and corporate life than many people who have held public office.”
As a child, Nader was a baseball fan whose hero was Yankee great Lou Gehrig. “He represented stamina — 2,130 games consecutively played,” Nader once said. “He was a model of self-control.” That’s a pretty good description of Nader himself. Now 66, he continues to work seven days a week, often putting in as many as 80 hours. He may be the most intensely private man ever to run for public office. He has never married, and only a handful of close friends know the address of his apartment in Washington, D.C. Few who know him will speak about him for publication, saying they respect his privacy — and fear the anger he often directs at those he feels have wronged him.
The secrecy surrounding his personal life leads to plenty of speculation. “He’s an icon and a very attractive man, so naturally we hypothesized about whether he had a love life,” recalls Karen Croft, a writer who worked for Nader in the late 1970s at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, which continues to serve as his headquarters. “On my last day there, we all went out to dinner. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Karen, this is your last chance.’ So I asked him if he had ever considered getting married. He said that at a certain point he had to decide whether to have a family or to have a career, that he couldn’t have both. That’s the kind of person he is. He couldn’t have a wife — he’s up all night reading the Congressional Record.”
To all appearances, Nader is next to Mao Tse-tung in regard to personal abstinence. When in Washington, he eats almost daily at a modest Middle Eastern restaurant down the street from his office, because customers get a free meal after dining there five times. He doesn’t own a car, keeps nearly a dozen manual typewriters stashed away so he’ll never be forced to use a computer, and has a wardrobe, if that term can be used, that looks like it was last updated in the 1960s.
With his ethic of everything for the cause, nothing for the self, Nader can be almost comically single-minded. He once stunned guests at a D.C. wedding by using his turn in the reception line to buttonhole the bride and groom about supporting his cause du jour. At a tribute a few years ago for his longtime aide John Richard, friends and co-workers regaled the audience with funny and moving stories about the guest of honor. The last spot on the program was reserved for Nader, who gave the flattest speech of the night, unable to summon up a compelling anecdote or emotion about a man who had served him loyally for a quarter century.
Within his inner circle, Nader sometimes manages to loosen up. Joe Page, a Georgetown law professor who attended Harvard Law School with Nader, recalls encountering a mutual friend who was studying the sounds whales make. “Ralph got very enthusiastic about this, even though it had nothing to do with his usual crusades,” says Page. “We were at a dinner party and he was sitting at the table imitating whale sounds.”
On the campaign trail, though, Nader isn’t known for his sense of humor. As a progressive crusader, he lacks the charisma of a Jesse Jackson. His appeal lies in his substance, not his style. At stop after stop, Nader carefully outlines the antidemocratic nature of globalization and corporate welfare, and issues reasoned calls for universal health care, fair lending laws, and tougher protec-tions for tenants. The speeches are dense and dry — but they seldom fail to draw respectable crowds. College stu-dents born nearly two decades after Nader burst on the scene turn out in large numbers to hear him speak. At his alma mater, Princeton, a university not known as a left-wing stronghold, Nader drew several hundred students to a talk at McCosh Hall. “I never knew there were so many liberals here!” a preppy-looking student said to a friend as they passed the long line that had formed outside.
It will take more than college students, of course, for Nader to meet his stated goal of winning 5 percent of the popular vote — the threshold needed to qualify the Green Party for millions in federal campaign matching funds. It will take at least 5 million votes, more than five times the number Nader received the last time he ran. Nevertheless, he insists his campaign is no quixotic quest. “Every major movement for social justice in this country started with a handful of people, and we are more than a handful,” he says at one campaign stop. “The modern civil rights movement began when Rosa Parks refused to sit down in the back of the bus. It makes us look like jerks for saying there’s nothing we can do.”
As Nader sees it, the biggest obstacle he faces is the united front that the two major parties and the media form to lock third-party candidates out of the electoral process. By way of illustration, he points to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is in charge of setting up a series of televised encounters between the candidates this fall. The commission was created by the two big parties and is headed by two corporate lobbyists and former party chairmen, Democrat Paul Kirk and Republican Frank Fahrenkopf. The debates are underwritten by corporate money — Anheuser-Busch is putting up $550,000 to pay for a scheduled affair in St. Louis — and only candidates with at least 15 percent support, as determined by five media polling organizations, are allowed to participate. “All three networks had cameras on hand when I announced that I was running for president, but there was nothing on the news about it that night,” Nader says with a laugh. “By not covering the campaign, they ensure that we don’t come close to the 15 percent. It goes beyond caricature.”
Not all of the hurdles faced by Nader are external to the campaign. So far, the Green Party has not demonstrated much ability to reach beyond its core constituency. Nader’s audiences are often overwhelmingly white and disproportionately filled with practitioners of decidedly alternative lifestyles. At campaign events, tables are invariably stuffed with literature on animal liberation and vegan nutrition, issues that are unlikely to play in Peoria.
On the March swing, an oppressive air of virtue and clean living hung over many campaign events. At the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, for instance, the crowd gathered among shelves laden with whole-wheat spinach pies, organic soy-nut crunchies, and unsulphured, unsweetened pineapple rings. At many events, not a drop of booze, not even a beer, was available. The puritanism comes from Nader as well as the Greens. A vegetarian, he has been acutely health conscious, especially since his brother Shafeek died of cancer in 1986. At the office, Nader employees who grab lunch at McDonald’s have been known to eat their food on the sly, careful not to let the boss catch them with a Big Mac.
Critics on the right have long castigated Nader for what they see as his moral absolutism, and for the support his nonprofit groups receive from trial lawyers. “Ralph thinks the corporations are big and greedy, and the trial lawyers are out to do good,” says Victor Schwartz of the American Tort Reform Association, a business-backed outfit that wants to limit lawsuits against companies that make defective or dangerous products. “The people I work with have their self-interest — they want to make a profit, sure. But so do the trial lawyers.”
But some progressives also dislike the way Nader focuses on corporate power to the exclusion of almost all other issues. Katha Pollitt of The Nation has condemned Nader for failing to speak out aggressively on topics like race, abortion, and civil rights. During the 1996 campaign, she points out, Nader dismissed internal Green Party debate about same-sex marriage as “gonadal politics.” “A third party needs to get people excited so they go out and vote, but he hardly mentions issues that are vital to many of us,” Pollitt says. “It’s amazing that he’s so diffident.”
Nader’s agenda does tend to be as dry and unemotional as his personality. Asked about social issues like racism and sexism — which involve messy interactions between human beings — Nader reduces them to clear-cut economics. Social issues “must be addressed from a class perspective,” he says, and lays down what could well serve as the guiding principle of his campaign: “Whatever your issue is, whether it’s racism or homophobia or policy issues or taxes or urban decay or health care, you’re not going to go anywhere with it if we don’t focus on the concentration of power.”
This time around, Nader has been careful not to dismiss the parts of the Green agenda that he considers secondary. To some extent, he and the party are using each other: The Greens are capitalizing on his name, and he’s tapping them as an established, if marginal, political entity with organizers able to get his name on the ballot in 45 states. Nader claims he has no problem with the party’s stance on social issues, only with the way it presents itself. He recalls hearing one Green leader lecturing about the evils of “patriarchy,” which Nader says is an example of “jargon that I hope they’re gonna replace with more understandable terms. What that means is that women and men should have the same rights. Why don’t you say it that way instead of using sociological gobbledygoop?”
Nader says he respects the consumer and environmental battles waged by the Greens, whom he sees as a social movement as much as a political party. In Connecticut, he notes, local Greens have fought nuclear power, opposed utility deregulation, and blocked the use of taxpayer money to build a football stadium. “Small as it is, that’s the party that’s on the ramparts,” Nader says. “The two other parties are nowhere to be seen, except in salons collecting money for the next campaign.”
Though he won’t say so directly, Nader knows he’s not going to be sworn in as president next January. He is running, in part, because of his deep-seated anger at the way President Clinton and the Democrats have favored big business at the expense of ordinary citizens. The party of FDR, he says, is “incapable of being internally regenerated.” To a man whose entire life has been devoted to the proposition that democratic government should regulate corporate excesses to protect workers and consumers, Clinton’s famous declaration that “the era of big government is over” was nothing short of a complete capitulation. Nader is withering in his assessment of Clinton — or “George Ronald Clinton,” as he calls him — and believes that Al Gore and George W. Bush are political clones. “Look back and you’ll see that liberal Republicans of the 1970s were better than most Democrats today,” Nader says. “That’s what we’ve gotten by voting for the lesser of two evils; it just legitimizes the downward slide of our political system.”
Many liberals and progressives applaud Nader for giving voters a meaningful choice in November. “He’s offering an alternative to the major parties,” says Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States.“This will give him an opportunity to bring the issue of corporate power to a larger audience.” But others worry that in a close race, Nader could simply take votes away from Gore (especially in key states like California) and swing the election to Bush. Come Election Day, many people who support what Nader stands for will no doubt hold their noses and vote for Gore. “There’s a reason that school teachers and union members usually vote for the Democrats,” says Pollitt. “Hey, I can make my protest vote and help the Greens get millions of dollars, but I can also help elect George Bush president. Maybe that risk is worth taking, but the risk is there.”
Whatever the criticisms of his strategy or agenda, however, no one who knows Nader questions his sincerity or integrity. For him, running for president is no ego trip — it’s simply a continuation of his life’s work. The man Life magazine named one of the 100 most influential people of the last century is beginning the new one doing the same things he’s always done, day in and day out: traveling, giving speeches, bashing big business, urging citizens to make a difference. If he is risking his reputation on a hopeless cause, he does so with the same determination that he has brought to dozens of other campaigns over the years. Some of those causes were hopeless, too, before Nader got involved.