[Marxism] Washington Post article on Nader

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 25 09:58:32 MDT 2008


Miles to Go
In Ralph Nader's Race for Reform, This Is No Time to Slow Down

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008; C01

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Ralph Nader still gets hate mail. Strangers stop him to 
dress him down. Friends and associates who supported him eight years ago 
have moved on. Worse, people who revered him for decades of advocacy on 
behalf of a zillion good causes -- from auto safety to environmental 
protection to the Freedom of Information Act -- curse his name.

Nader still pays a price for running for president in the contested 
election of 2000. But for Nader's candidacy, say many critics, Al Gore 
would have been president and history would be different. For this, many 
won't forget or forgive Nader. But he thinks they're wrong and when the 
subject comes up, he sometimes offers three grumpy words: "Get over it!"

Then again, Nader didn't get to be Nader without a pilgrim's belief in 
the righteousness of his mission, which is nothing less than the 
transformation of the federal government into an instrument of 
"progressive" thought and action. He believes Democrats and Republicans 
have ignored him and his issues for years.

So at 74, shunned and marginalized, he's running for president for the 
fifth time.

"It's the rational approach," he declares. "If you're locked out of the 
governmental system, if you can't get a hearing, and I can't, you go to 
the electoral system. What's my alternative? Should I go to Monterey and 
watch the whales?"

Not him. On a recent Friday evening, he's standing in a Unitarian church 
pulpit across the street from Harvard (his law school alma mater), 
addressing a Nader-for-president rally. Only it isn't much of a rally. 
About 200 people, mostly young, fill about half the church. This has to 
be disappointing, given that Cambridge is among the places most likely 
to embrace a brainy iconoclast such as Nader. The next day, in 
Providence, R.I., it's worse; about 25 people gather in a downtown 
bookstore to hear him.

Nader doesn't seem to mind. In both places, he offers the same intense 
discourse -- a college lecture more than a campaign speech -- about 
what's wrong with democracy circa 2008.

His basic themes, even some catchphrases, echo those of his four 
previous campaigns: Corporations have rigged the political system, 
thwarting the popular will (on universal health care, an Iraq pullout, a 
"living wage"). Democrats are as beholden to big business and their 
contributions as Republicans are. Washington is "corporate-occupied 
territory" administered by a "two-party elected dictatorship." Sens. 
John McCain and Barack Obama are but the major parties' latest 
"corporate candidates."

Several Nader bromides ("Where was the Democratic rebellion against the 
stolen election? Where was the rebellion against Bush's tax cuts, the 
war, the Patriot Act, against his Supreme Court nominees?") elicit 
polite applause in Cambridge. Nader's praise of Canada's public health 
system -- "We have so much to learn from Canada, before we take it over" 
-- draws rare laughter.

Nader is too professorial to really rouse his audience. When he starts 
hammering "the bloated, wasteful and corrupt military budget," a young 
woman lays her head on a friend's shoulder and closes her eyes, as if to 
nap. When Nader discusses the need for single-payer health insurance, an 
older woman dozes.

Afterward, Nader walks the town's darkened streets, blabbing about the 
perniciousness of corporate influence. He's a familiar figure -- the 
stooped, Lincolnesque frame (he is 6-3), the dark eyes and rumpled 
suit-- yet he invites few "isn't that?" looks from passersby.

Nader doesn't seem to notice that he's barely noticed. Later, sitting in 
a hotel lobby and talking animatedly, he seems distracted rather than 
pleased by the occasional interruptions of admirers. When an aide relays 
a young woman's request to stop for a picture, Nader has had enough. 
"No!" he snaps, walking away. "It's always 'one more'!"

Nader likes to describe his independent candidacy as a tugboat. He's 
nudging the major candidates toward his issues, he says, on the strength 
of the movement he's building. Implicit is the admission that he has no 
hope of winning. No matter: "Every reform movement starts small," he 
says. " 'Don't vote for the [abolitionist] Liberty Party, it's never 
going to win.' 'Don't vote for the [suffragist National Woman's Party], 
it's never going to win.' 'Don't vote for the Farmer-Labor parties, 
they're never going to win.' " Yet votes for these parties, he says, 
eventually made profound social reforms politically tolerable.

Nader says he'll need about 5 percent of the vote in November for his 
movement to be taken seriously. He's encouraged by a recent Associated 
Press poll that showed him drawing 6 percent in a nationwide race. Six 
percent, he repeats. A real difference. He suggests that even 15 percent 
is conceivable.

Conceivable. But achievable is another question.

* * *

The odd thing about Nader is how a man who has been in and out of the 
public eye for so long -- making headlines since Lyndon Johnson was 
president -- can remain an enigma. Even people who've known and worked 
with him for years don't know much about him beyond his prodigious 
capacity for work.

For decades, media accounts have depicted Nader as an ascetic policy 
wonk, a man married to his many crusades. For the most part, that seems 
accurate. Michael Richardson, who has worked on Nader's campaigns, says 
Nader works "12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year." 
Nader says he occasionally sees a movie (a recent selection, "Michael 
Clayton," is about a compromised corporate lawyer) and likes watching 
sports. But "downtime" is an alien concept to him; Nader rarely is seen 
at social events or anything unrelated to his work.

Outside of a fleeting rumor, Nader -- a lifelong bachelor -- has never 
been romantically linked to anyone. Justin Martin, a Nader biographer, 
says in the 2006 documentary "An Unreasonable Man" that he searched for 
evidence of Nader's personal life and came up with nothing. Paul 
Krugman, the New York Times columnist, called Nader "a rebel without a 
life."

Even close associates were surprised in 2000 when Nader filed financial 
disclosure forms revealing that he conservatively estimated his net 
worth at $3.9 million, thanks primarily to savvy investments in tech 
stocks. He also disclosed that he had made $512,000 in speaking fees 
during the preceding 16 months.

Nader deflects questions about his finances today by saying he donates 
much of his income to advocacy groups and charities. He says he receives 
speaking fees -- charging $1,000 to $15,000, depending on the group -- 
although he adds that the invitations don't come "all that often anymore."

Matthew Zawisky, a campaign aide who has traveled with Nader since 2001, 
says he's never seen him drive a car or use a computer (aides print out 
relevant documents for him). "He's purely an Underwood typewriter guy," 
says Zawisky, a bit amused. Nader makes copies of his work using carbon 
paper. "I think he foresaw the computer revolution and stocked up on 
it," Zawisky says.

Joan Claybrook, who has known Nader since 1966 and worked with him on 
his pioneering auto-safety crusade against General Motors, says he reads 
10 books a week and speaks seven languages (Chinese, Portuguese, Italian 
and Arabic among them) well enough to converse with native speakers.

Nader seems able to talk about anything and at length. Before sitting 
for a newspaper interview at his sparsely furnished campaign offices on 
the riverfront in Georgetown, he had to finish a radio interview. His 
subject: the NBA refereeing scandal.

"Ralph is really a charming guy," says Claybrook, who heads the advocacy 
group Public Citizen. "He has a great sense of humor. If the public knew 
him really well, they would be enthralled with him."

* * *

Plenty of people think Ralph Nader -- consumer advocate, government 
reformer, rabble-rouser extraordinaire -- was one of the great Americans 
of the 20th century. But many of them have a hard time thinking the same 
thing about Ralph Nader, politician, in the 21st.

Since 2000, Nader has been shut out of places that used to welcome him. 
Once a familiar figure on the Hill, he is shunned by Democrats when he 
offers to testify at congressional hearings, even on matters such as 
auto safety. ("Joe Biden said, 'He better not come up to Capitol Hill,' 
" Nader says, a bit hurt.) He finds publishers reluctant to take his 
manuscripts. Trial lawyers have stopped contributing to one of Nader's 
long-cherished pet projects, a museum of tort law, which he wants to 
build in his home town, Winsted, Conn.

Even Public Citizen, which Nader co-founded in 1971, has distanced 
itself from him since 2000, because of a backlash from contributors. 
When Nader announced his latest presidential campaign, Public Citizen's 
Web site carried this posting: "Mr. Nader has no formal relationship 
with the organization and has not had any such relationship for years."

Nader remains so toxic in Democratic circles that Rep. Leonard Boswell, 
a six-term congressman from Iowa, defeated his primary opponent, Ed 
Fallon, this month by reminding voters that Fallon supported Nader in 
2000. Fallon apologized for doing so, to no avail.

Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor and a liberal author, 
admits he becomes "splenetic" on the subject of Nader the candidate. "I 
regard him as a saboteur of the cause to which he purports to devote 
himself," Gitlin says. "Nobody I can think of in public life has so 
willfully repealed his contributions to American life with such 
intensity and conviction."

Eric Alterman, another liberal commentator and author, calls Nader "a 
megalomaniac" and "a Leninist," in the sense of Nader's belief that 
things must get much worse before reform can begin. "There was only one 
person in entire world on election eve who could have prevented Bush's 
election."

Nader doesn't feel a need to apologize. He doesn't worry that the first 
line of his obituary will describe him as the spoiler of the 2000 race. 
He often quips, "You can't spoil a system that's rotten to the core." To 
strangers who get in his face, he has another deflection: "Gore won. The 
election was stolen. Go after the thieves."

It wasn't his responsibility, he says, to persuade people to vote for 
Gore. If voters were attracted by his positions and issues, he says, 
then Democrats were free to take the same positions. Bottom line? "The 
Democrats couldn't beat a bumbling governor from Texas," Nader mocks.

Nader wasn't the only man who could have changed the election's outcome. 
His name was one of eight third-party candidates on the Florida ballot, 
all of whom attracted far more than the 538 votes Gore needed to change 
the outcome.

Nader thinks it's futile to keep arguing about it. He also thinks one 
man could stop the "scapegoating": Gore. "If he would stand up and say 
publicly, 'Ralph Nader wasn't responsible,' that would make a huge 
difference," Nader says.

So why hasn't Gore -- who Nader says once signed a book with "To my 
friend, Ralph Nader" -- done so? "No one has really asked him to do it," 
Nader replies.

And then he adds, "I wish he would."

* * *

In theory, Nader could cause trouble, particularly in closely contested 
states such as Ohio and Florida. Yet it's hard to see that happening.

In 2000, as the Green Party candidate, he drew 2.74 percent of the 
total, or 2.88 million votes, the most he's ever attracted. As an 
independent candidate in 2004 (he walked away from the Greens, 
frustrated by party infighting), Nader practically disappeared. His 
total slipped to 0.38 percent (465,560 votes), as Democratic Party 
operatives launched legal challenges to keep him off some state ballots. 
The 2008 race looks like even more, and even less, of the same.

Forget the political calculus. Obama, the most liberal candidate that 
Democrats have (presumptively) nominated in years, figures to cut deeply 
into Nader's natural base of support among reform-minded liberals. Nader 
has other issues working against him, such as limited campaign funds and 
limited media attention. He expects to be excluded from the presidential 
debates, which are run, he notes, by a nonprofit corporation funded by 
companies that lobby the federal government.

Just as important, ballot issues again could make it difficult for 
people to vote for Nader. A welter of state election laws work against 
independent candidates, says Richardson, Nader's ballot-access 
coordinator. Billionaires such as Ross Perot, Richardson says, can "buy 
their way on" by hiring signature-gathering firms to gin up petitions. 
But a thinly capitalized candidate such as Nader has an uphill fight. 
"The laws are rigged to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot," Richardson says.

Back in Cambridge, Nader has ended his speech. But he isn't finished. He 
promises to return for questions. But first, some business.

As Nader exits, the soft-spoken Zawisky steps into the pulpit and seeks 
contributions. "Who'll give $2,300?" -- the maximum permissible under 
election law -- he asks.

The room is silent. No one steps up, even after Zawisky throws in an 
autographed, 40th-anniversary copy of "Unsafe at Any Speed," Nader's 
seminal work on auto safety.

"How about $1,000?" Silence. Finally, a hand shoots up, to applause. 
Zawisky scales back. He gets no takers at $500, one at $250. When the 
ask descends to $100, five people raise their hands. Four do so at $50. 
The night's take: almost $2,000.

Nader raised $8 million with the help of the Green Party in 2000. As an 
independent, he raised $4 million in 2004. This time, he says his goal 
is $10 million.

He's got a long way to go. With less than five months until Election 
Day, his campaign has raised $150,000.

No matter. Ralph Nader isn't going away anytime soon.




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