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What to make of Ralph Nader

He has made his name as a consumer advocate, but as a candidate he is struggling to get people's attention.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000

MINNEAPOLIS -- As a crusader for consumers, Ralph Nader has been hailed as an American hero. He revolutionized auto safety and prodded Congress to pass laws for cleaner air and water. That beep-beep-beep when a truck backs up, the sound that may have saved your toddler's life? They call it the Nader Bell.

The angry young man who attacked Big Business in the 1970s is an angry 66-year-old now, using the same tactics in his campaign for president. Instead of General Motors, now he directs his venom at Microsoft.

Spend a few days on the campaign trail with Nader and you'll find the kind of offbeat crusade you would expect. He stays at Hampton Inns, so he can get the free breakfast buffet, and he flies coach, using senior citizen discount coupons.

But you'll also find something disconcerting: The hero is struggling just to be relevant.

Mr. Political Molotov

The concourse at the Target Center looks like a festival for leftists. A vegan group called Compassionate Action for Animals has a booth, as does the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The vegans are showing a videotape of a cow being slaughtered, which might explain the slow sales at the nearby Papa John's Pizza stand.

Around the corner at the Nader 2000 table, volunteers are giving away biographies of the candidate and his running mate, Winona "No Nukes" LaDuke. The volunteers wear T-shirts that say "Bush and Gore Make Me Wanna Ralph."

Inside the arena, a couple of guys in chicken suits are flapping their wings to suggest that Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are afraid to debate Nader. A Minneapolis janitor named Eskit ("I don't have a first name") comes on stage and breaks into song:

Who will stop the misinforming?

Who will stop the global warming?

Nader Man! Nader Man!

Next up is Michael Moore, the acerbic Roger & Me filmmaker, who tells the crowd that "a vote for Ralph Nader is a political Molotov. Throw that political Molotov!" Nader, he says, "is ready to rock this nation with the truth!"

The nation, it would seem, isn't ready to rock.

Nader is struggling to be heard. He has been shut out of the presidential debates and mostly ignored by the national media. A recent three-day campaign tour in the Midwest attracted no one from the major TV networks.

It's a painful twist of fate for the nation's premier consumer activist. Through the years, Nader has masterfully used the news media to gain leverage over the nation's most powerful companies. But now, 35 years after he launched the consumer movement, Nader can't get attention.

"It's a Catch-22," he says. "If you don't get mass media, you don't go up in the polls. If you don't go up in the polls, you don't get mass media."

A tort museum!

While his high school classmates were going out on dates, Nader was home reading the Congressional Record. He discovered a stack of them in the school library and convinced his senator, Prescott Bush, to get him a free subscription.

"It was wonderful," Nader says of the daily journal of the House and Senate. "It had so many excerpts from articles -- and the debates were fascinating."

At the family dinner table, his parents led a nightly discussion of current events. His father, Nathra Nader, quizzed young Ralph and his three siblings about issues near and far -- from the war in Europe to the infrastructure needs in their hometown of Winsted, Conn.

Nathra, a Lebanese immigrant who owned a bakery and restaurant, would tell his kids:

"Never look down at anybody, and never look up at anybody."

Ralph Nader earned his bookish reputation at Princeton University. In a 1972 biography, Nader: the People's Lawyer, a college roommate described him as "the kind of guy who would go to the bathroom and come back telling you all about the new book he finished reading while on the john."

Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader's muckraking account of the dangers of the Chevrolet Corvair, started a revolution in auto safety. Before it was published, the federal government did little to regulate the industry. The book led to a host of new laws that forced automakers to make safer cars.

Has your life been saved by a seat belt or an air bag? Thank Nader. Survived a crash because of a padded dashboard or a collapsible steering wheel? Send Nader your regards. He's also responsible for the beep-beep-beep alert from big trucks when they're backing up. Consumer banking laws, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Freedom of Information Act, federal inspections of beef and poultry -- Nader is largely responsible for them all. His disciples -- "Nader's Raiders" -- came to Washington in the early 1970s and started a loose-knit collection of watchdog groups that are still barking today.

Retired talk show host Phil Donahue, campaigning for Nader, calls him "the most important private citizen of the 20th century."

You might expect Winsted would be proud of its native son. Just the opposite: Many people in the depressed mill town find Nader's constant rabble-rousing to be irritating.

The hard feelings date to the 1980s, when people in town wanted to bulldoze an old school, while Nader crusaded to renovate it. Relations were further soured in 1996 when the local hospital wanted to join a chain. Nader tried to stop it.

What now rankles many people in Winsted is Nader's plan to build an odd new attraction in the heart of town: a museum of tort law. He describes it as "a museum about the civil justice system and how wrongfully injured people have achieved justice," with exhibits on harmful medical devices and environmental toxins. Others describe it as Nader's congratulatory monument to himself.

The complaints you hear in Winsted are the same ones you hear in Washington: Nader sees disagreements in stark, unrealistic terms. He won't compromise.

"You either agree with him or you are evil, a spawn of the devil," says Richard Lavieri, a Winsted selectman.

Lavieri scoffs at the idea that Nader's auto safety efforts have saved thousands of lives. He says Nader has "destroyed the Corvair and increased the cost of cars so it's out of reach for most people."

Nader shrugs off the criticism. "If there were a popularity contest in Winsted, I would win."

Green hair and blue blazers

The Target Center event is the high point of the campaign: 12,500 people who each pay $7 to hear speeches from Nader, Moore and Donahue, plus a couple of songs from Eskit. (It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a hurricane! Nader! Nader!)

The crowd includes plenty of suburbanites in Birkenstocks and young people like Jackie Loubert, a 16-year-old whose green hair is molded into six perfect spikes.

But there also are a few political tire-kickers, white men in blue blazers and khaki pants who say they're unhappy with how the Republican and Democratic parties have converged.

The Target Center, an arena named for a chain of department stores, is a strange setting for Nader's tirade against Big Business. The arena is filled with signs hawking Pepsi and Miller Lite. But for a big political rally in downtown Minneapolis, the Target Center is the only choice.

Nader's main campaign message boils down to this: Big corporations have co-opted the Republican and Democratic parties and are taking over our government.

He tells the crowd that Bush's campaign "may be unconstitutional. George W. Bush is really a corporation running for president disguised as a human being!"

In Milwaukee, he tells supporters that "this election is all about power, about the concentration of power in the hands of the few."

His speeches cover an unusual hodgepodge of issues. He rails against Bill Gates ("the great software imitator") and the "phony Social Security crisis" (a scare tactic by Gore and Bush to get votes). He campaigns against redlining, lead paint, corporate welfare and the government's effort to outlaw industrial hemp, which comes from a plant related to marijuana. At a Nader fundraiser in Madison, Wis., the buffet includes a bowl of sugar-covered hemp seeds with a sign that says: "Legal today, not tomorrow."

His running mate is Winona LaDuke, a Harvard-trained economist who once chained herself to the gate of a GTE factory to protest the use of thousand-year-old trees to make phone books. She tells the Minneapolis crowd: "When the white men in this country realize pollution is causing their testicles to shrink, money (to fight pollution) will flow like water."

The anti-corporate man

The nation's most famous crusader against corporate power is a wealthy man, with a net worth of more than $3.8-million. He is heavily invested in high-tech companies, including Cisco Systems and 3Com.

Fame has brought Nader a fortune. Groups including the American Society of Tropical Medicine and WMNF-FM in Tampa pay him an average of $6,000 for a speech. He earned $222,000 giving speeches last year.

Nader donates about 80 percent of his income to charity or his watchdog groups. He says his annual salary is about $25,000, just enough to pay rent on his modest Washington apartment.

"I don't have much time for material comforts," he says.

He lives frugally, using the airlines' senior citizen coupons to save money on his campaign trips. But when the airlines offer him a free upgrade to first class, he accepts.

He does not own a car, nor does he get cable TV. His set is a 12-inch black-and-white.

"Ralph is bare bones," says his sister Laura Nader, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "He doesn't have a psychological need for things. He's an idea person."

For fun, he watches a lot of baseball, college basketball and occasionally, Politically Incorrect, the sassy late-night talk fest. A bachelor, he offers no details about his private life.

Nader has spent his life watching out for Everyman, but he has no desire to shake Everyman's hand. He shuns the hand-shaking, baby-kissing and schmoozing of the campaign trail.

Arriving in Flint, Mich., where a crowd is eager to greet him, Nader chooses to sit quietly in his van rather than get out and say hello.

He explains later that he thinks shaking hands with people is "very superficial," the kind of thing President Clinton adores.

"He thinks the world exists to touch his hand," Nader says of Clinton. "I'm a commoner. The idea of someone wanting to treat me as a celebrity does not set well."

The potted plant

Late as usual, Phil Donahue and Nader stride through the Detroit airport, Donahue working the cell phone. "All right, I'll call Russert," Donahue says into the phone.

The white-haired TV star is trying to help Nader get into the presidential debates. But Nader's national poll numbers are in the 4 to 5 percent range, well below the 15 percent threshold for the debates. Donahue is going on Tim Russert's Meet the Press to make the case that Nader should be included because he provides an important, independent voice.

Donahue, who retired from his own talk show four years ago, has never endorsed a candidate until now. He got to know Nader through his frequent appearances on the show -- more, in fact, than any other guest.

At Michigan State University, Donahue fires up the crowd. He says Nader has done so much for our society that "we should be erecting statues of this magnificent man."

Donahue and Moore, the filmmaker, add spice to Nader's otherwise serious appearances. Donahue usually opens with a passionate talk about why Nader should be allowed to debate. Then comes Moore, disheveled and always wearing a baseball cap, to deliver the wisecracks.

Moore complains about the dozens of congressional incumbents who are running unopposed, and says he is trying to get a potted plant named Ficus on the ballot in those districts. He brings Ficus on stage. "This potted plant can do better than what we've got in Congress right now. Look at it! It's giving you oxygen right now! Has any congressman ever done that?"

Moore says he knows that many Democrats worry that a vote for Nader might cost Gore and end up helping Bush. He pleads with them to have courage to support Nader. "A decision made out of fear is never a good one."

Bush and Gore run tightly controlled campaigns, with every minute scripted. Nader's campaign is more free-form. The candidate is often late. The backstage food at Nader events is Whole Earth fare -- portobello mushroom sandwiches or pita bread with hummus.

The youthful crowds bring an atmosphere missing at Bush or Gore events. At the conclusion of Nader's speech in Madison, local rock bands take the stage and the hall fills with the aroma of marijuana smoke.

Nader's big crowds -- more than 10,000 at events in Portland and Seattle, 12,500 in Minneapolis -- have gotten scant national attention. C-SPAN covered the Target Center speech but used only one camera, so the telecast did not show that the place was nearly packed.

At news conferences, Nader dodges questions about his chances of winning in November but makes it clear that his real goal is to establish the Green Party, primarily known for its stance on environmental issues, as a potent force for the future.

"We're building a political party," he tells reporters in Flint. "After the election, we'll emerge with a major third party that will be a strong watchdog."

The Green Party could be his last and biggest legacy -- if he can just find a way to get people to hear him.

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