An Evening with Ralph Nader
By Gar Smith / The-Edge.org
March 9, 2007
The-Edge caught up with consumer activist and occasional presidential aspirant Ralph Nader during a recent book-tour stop at the Dominican University in San Rafael, California. Nader's new book, The Seventeen Traditions, celebrates old-fashioned values: discipline, equality, reciprocity, charity, work, patriotism, civics and the family table.
Nader took to the stage and spoke for more than an hour. Nader's comments were largely focused on the substance of his new book, a small, beautifully illustrated and deeply felt recollection of growing up in small-town America -- in a world defined by nature, by parents, by school and by work. But, inevitably, the conversation turned to politics.
Hunched over the podium in that familiar posture of earnest intensity, Nader spoke of the lessons of his childhood and the virtues of simplicity that became lasting gifts from his parents.
"They grew up in a world without electricity," Nader said. "In Lebanon, the only sounds in their world were the sounds of human voices and the sounds of the natural world." He lamented the fact that, by contrast, "Today, children in the US spend 40-50 hours a week looking at screens -- computers, TVs, cellphones." The result is children whose experience is largely "virtual," manufactured and manipulated by corporations in search of consumers.
Nader traced his skeptical, argumentative nature in large measure to his father whose restaurant in Winsted, Connecticut, was known as "the place where, for a nickel, you got a good cup of coffee and ten minutes of politics."
Nader remembered returning from school when he was ten years old. His father looked him in the eye and asked: "Well, Ralph. What did you learn in class today? Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?"
He shared some other parental quotes that stuck with him:
"If you keep talking all the time, you'll never learn anything," was one. And he remembered complaining to his mother about having to wear short pants at school when all the other boys wore long pants. Her reply: "Why are you so afraid of being a little different?"
He remembered his mother's aphorism: "Determination puts hope on wheels." "I gave that one to Jessie Jackson," Nader laughed. "I told him it's not enough just to keep hope alive."
He recalled a reporter once asking his mother: "What makes Ralph tick?" And her response: "What makes you NOT tick?"
Then he paused and noted: "Both my mother and father just missed their 100th birthdays. So this is book is a love letter to them."
Naturally Ralph had some one-liners of his own.
On observing three generations of the Bush family: "Over the years, I've observed a steady decline in contemplative ability."
"If my mother had raised George W. Bush, we would not be in Iraq today."
"There should be classes on propaganda in every US college."
"Yes, there are differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. But they both flunk. We can do better."
"I've spoken with Al Gore. He was very cordial. He knows why he lost the election. He knows it wasn't me."
Nader has an undeserved reputation as a humorless scold but in the new documentary on his life, "An Unreasonable Man," you can catch him flinging some great zingers. At a 1960s press conference on GM's unsafe-at-any-speed Corvair, Nader calls it, "One of the few cars I know that can do the bossa nova on dry pavement and the watusi on wet." (For younger readers, the bossa nova and the watusi were two popular dances from that era.)
And there was Nader's stint as host of Saturday Night Live. The two filmmaker's behind "An Unreasonable Man" managed to score some rare archival video of Nader hosting the iconic TV show. In the opening sketch, Nader warns Lorainne Newman not to hug him too tight for fear of triggering his safety air-bag. (And then there was the sketch with Nader relaxing in his bachelor apartment with two inflatable life-size love-dolls.)
Nader on Politics
During the question-and-answer period that followed (which may well have run longer than the formal address), Nader deplored the "Bush regime and the ideological hijackers who have taken over our government."
Asked the inevitable question about why he was willing to risk putting George Bush in the White House when he knew he didn't have "a snowball's chance in Hell of winning," Nader smiled and replied: "What about a snowball's chance in Heaven?"
And then he got serious. He tried helping the Kerry Campaign, he explained. Not by throwing votes their way but by throwing ideas their way. "In December, we sent them a 25-page list of our issues and said: 'Please use them! Be our guest!'" Nader proposed that Kerry could win votes from Nader's supporters -- and other candidates -- by focusing on just three key targets: (1) corporate reform, (2) the corporate crime wave, and (3) labor law reform. "These issues would have won him the election," Nader said. "He wouldn't buy them."
Instead, the Democrats continued to harass Nader's campaign, hiring Kenneth Starr (Bill Clinton's Whitewater nemesis) to file lawsuits to cripple Nader's campaign.
"The Democrats lost with a candidate that should have landslided Bush," Nader said. He criticized Kerry for allowing himself to be "Swiftboated" and scolded the Senator for not questioning Bush's War on Terror.
At the time of the election, Nader noted, 42% of Americans wanted the troops brought home. Kerry not only continued to support Bush's invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, he sternly took to the stage and promised that, if elected, he would "track down and kill Osama bin Laden."
That's the problem with voting for the "least evil" of two candidates, Nader explained. If you aren't demanding anything of a candidate -- if your vote is given as a matter of desperation, not conviction -- they have no reason to listen to you. With "Lesser-evilism," you have no leverage. And that was one of the reasons it was important for Third Party candidates to run.
So what if Kerry had won? Nader was asked. "If he did win, he wouldn't owe any of these people anything. He'd float into Washington, DC and find himself surrounded by 25,000 lobbyists and 9,000 corporate Political Action Committees."
A Personal Encounter
In the Q&A, I thanked Nader for dedicating his life to pointing out the defects in America's manufactured products and told him I was pleased to see him turning his attention to examining the defects in America's culture and psyche.
"You'd make a good 'family values' president," I told him. Before retaking my seat, I turned back to the microphone and added: "Any announcements you'd like to make."
"Don't get me in trouble," Nader replied.
After the speech, I asked Nader to autograph my copy of "The Seventeen Traditions." I also invited him to autograph a DVD screener of "An Unreasonable Man," the new two-hour documentary about his life and the controversy over his 2000 presidential race. Nader obliged, glancing at the DVD quizzically and chuckling that he hadn't actually had a chance to see the film yet. I assured him it was well-worth the 2-hour running time.
Picking up a pen, he asked for my name. I replied with my full name "Garwood," and waited for his reaction (knowing that there was a connection between my namesake and a link to a cherished memory from Ralph's boyhood).
Nader looked up at me with a glimmer of recognition. "Gar Wood! The boatbuilder!" he beamed.
"There is no second!" I replied.
Nader was momentarily stunned. "Where did you hear that? Is that in the movie?"
"No," I explained. "Many years ago, when I was working on a news story at an underground paper in Berkeley. It was late at night and I was the last one in the office. I needed to do some fact-checking, so I called Public Citizen in Washington. I really didn't expect anyone to be working at that hour but someone picked up the phone."
When I gave my name, the fellow on the other end of the line started reminiscing about watching Gar Wood race his speedboats around the local lake. There was an island in the middle of the water that blocked the race from the people on the shore.
"So we'd call to the people on the island and ask them who was in the lead. And they would shout back: 'Gar Wood is in the lead.' Then we would shout: 'And who is second?' And they shouted back: 'There is no second!'"
And then the voice on the other end of the phone on the other end of the continent, very late in the night, paused and added: "This is Ralph Nader."
Twenty-five years later, in San Rafael, we were both smiling at the rediscovery of this long-ago connection between a consumer activist in Washington and a reporter calling from the West Coast. It was strangely magical, after all these years, to revisit that exchange in person.
A Legacy of Lives Saved and Principles Honored
In "An Unreasonable Man," one of Nader's colleagues thoughtfully considers the charge that Nader is a man on an ego trip. "It's not the ego of fame -- he's had that. It's the ego of trying to make a difference. That may sound sappy but that's the way he operates. He's outraged by injustice. It's not an act: it's what motivates him. If it was a question of ego, he wouldn't be doing this because it risks destroying his legacy -- a 40-year reputation as a pro-justice hero."
"I don't care about my personal legacy," Nader insists. "I'm concerned with how much justice is being advanced in the US and the world. Besides," he asks, "what are they going to do? Are they gonna start ripping seatbelts out of cars? Are they gonna tear airbags out of cars?"
Of course not. Not any more than they will be removing warning labels from medicines, cigarette cartons and home appliances or removing food safety labels or consumer product warnings. Nader's legacy is now firmly cemented in the infrastructure of the American Marketplace.
The Genesis of a Film:
From Sit-com to Documentary
The roots of this documentary first sprouted in a New York comedy club in the 1980s, when Steve Skrovan met a fellow stand-up comedian named Henriette Mantel. Over drinks, Mantel entertained Skrovan with stories of her days as an office manager at Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law. "A public interest nonprofit sounded like a good setting for a sitcom," Skrovan says, "a place where a lot of diverse and interesting characters could congregate. That's a key requirement for any sitcom."
The idea never got past the talking stage until 15 years later, when Skrovan and Mantel met again in Los Angeles. He was now a writer for the sit-com "Everybody Loves Raymond" and he had a development deal for a show of his own. When he ran into Mantel, he begged her to recount her experiences in Naderland as he scribbled notes.
In his spare time, he began to research Nader's career. "Ralph Nader had barely been on my radar screen in 2000," Skrovan confesses, but as he continued to read about the man, "I became more and more impressed with his accomplishments.
"Somewhere along the line, the idea of a documentary started to take over from the sitcom," Skrovan recalls. "It occurred to me that I had never heard or seen a definitive documentary on Ralph Nader. Comedy is hard. A documentary seemed like it might be a little easier." (That turned out not to be the case.)
There's a saying in Naderland: "Once you work for Ralph, you always work for Ralph." And it works the other way around. Henriette contacted Ralph and gained access to his sisters, Laura and Claire, and was able to reach dozens of former colleagues.
During the two years it took to compile and edit the interviews, Skrovan says Nader only gave the film crew one order: Make sure you talk to people who oppose me." Skrovan chuckles at the recollection. "That's pure Ralph," he says, "He never shies from an argument."
"An Unreasonable Man" opens across the US in early March. For more information, go to: www.anunreasonableman.com
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