Ralph Nader: Redemption of an Unreasonable Man
Film Review by Gar Smith / The-Edge
March 9, 2007
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world;
The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
-- George Bernard Shaw, "Man and Superman."
Those words from Britain's most famous author/activist, march across the blank screen that opens the new film, "An Unreasonable Man" -- matched by the urgent clatter of a manual typewriter on the soundtrack.
David Ross Brower, Earth Island's legendary founder, would have loved this film. A few days before his death in 2000, Dave made sure he cast an "absentee ballot" for Ralph Nader, who was running for president on the Green Party ticket.
Dave liked to joke that, "I was not always unreasonable -- and I am sorry for that." Dave also echoed Shaw by observing: "Reasonable people have never accomplished anything." These "Browerisms" define that other great American maverick, Ralph Nader.
Nader's name was once wed to the phrase "consumer advocate" but these days, even many of Nader's former friends link his name to the word "traitor." Dave Brower used to lament that, in times of peril, the Democrats could be counted on to "circle the wagons... and commence firing within." This certainly applies in the case of Nader, who, in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election debacle, quickly became the target of Democratic wrath.
"Unreasonable Man" (a 2006 Sundance Film Festival award-winner) devotes 122 minutes to profiling Nader as controversial rabble-rouser, an incorruptible moral force and a uniquely American patriot. Filmmakers Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan admit that they had two goals. First, to examine the life of a man who over "30 years and without ever holding public office... built a legislative record that rivals any contemporary president." And, second, to try and answer the question: "How does a man go from being a hero to a pariah?"
This engaging -- and often enraging -- documentary makes the case that the Democrat's ire should have been directed elsewhere. The film features interviews more than 40 of Nader's most vociferous critics and staunchest supporters. Despite the venom of Left-critics like Columbia Univeristy Journalism Professor Todd Gitlin and The Nation columnist Eric Alterman, the film provides compelling statistical evidence that the Green Party candidate was not, in fact, responsible for depriving Al Gore of victory. Which is not to say that the documentary spares Nader. Quite the contrary, the first words are from his critics.
Gitlin is scathing in his critique, calling Nader's presidential bid "worse than naive. It borders on the wicked" and adding that he finds Nader's claim "that he had no responsibility [for Al Gore's defeat] is a matter of ethical dishonesty and incomprehension that I find absolutely flabbergasting."
Alterman remains one of Nader's most savage critics. "He's deluded. He's a psychologically troubled man," Alterman seethes. "The democrats were incompetent but Nader was dishonest.... This megalomaniac thought his campaign was more important than the potential destruction of much of what he claims to stand for.... To argue that he's a progressive force when he's the single most important reason that we have the most reactionary president in, perhaps, the history of the United States, is a form of delusion.... Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq War; thank you, Ralph, for the tax cuts; thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the environment; thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of our Constitution."
Burden of Proof: Nader Not a Spoiler'
Nader's critics inevitably point to Florida where Bush's margin of victory over Gore was determined to rest on a slim margin of 527 votes. If Nader hadn't been running, the argument goes, Gore would have become president.
But as one of Nader's campaign strategists points out, "every third party candidate got more than the 537 vote difference that separated Bush and Gore in Florida." The greater scandal was the 2 million mostly minority voters who were purged from Florida's voting rolls by the machinations of Governor Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris.
"They killed him for saying there wasnt a dimes-worth of difference between the parties," says former talk show host Phil Donoahue, "And then the Democrats spent the next four years proving he was right! The Democrats folded on the war, they folded on healthcare, on No Child Left Behind. They hid under their desks.
Alterman claims that Nader reneged on a promise not to campaign hard in swing states where the vote would be close and then he went and spent all of his time in swing states.... I think Nader intended to be a spoiler," Alterman snapped, "I think Nader is a Leninist he thinks things have to get worse before they get better'."
"I spent 28 days in California and two-and-a-half days in Florida," Nader responds. "If anything, I neglected a swing state like Florida. And a study by Harvard Associate Professor of Government Barry Burden bears him out.
In an exhaustive study published in American Politics Research journal, Burden probed whether Nader had, in fact, ruined Gore's chances. Certainly, trying to earn 5% of the popular vote was a stated goal of the Green Party. But when Burden reviewed the records of all the campaign stops Nader had made from Labor Day 2000 to Election Day, he was surprised.
"There was lots of evidence that he was trying to maximize his vote," Burden acknowledged. But then he matched Nader's personal stops with media markets and political advertising buys. And, as I cut the data -- in every possible way, both for his campaign appearances and TV ads -- I couldnt find any evidence that he was trying to spoil. There was nothing there."
Burden admits hes a Democrat and he voted for Al Gore. In his published study, "Ralph Naders Campaign Strategy in the 2000 Presidential Election," he concludes: "I find clear evidence... that his goal was maximizing his vote, not throwing the election.
Alterman remains unforgiving. "Fifty-two percent of the country voted against Bush -- either voting for Gore or Nader. The only way those numbers could have assured a Gore victory would be if Ralph Nader had gone on television before the election and said, 'OK, weve run a good race, weve raised a lot of important issues but, in fact, there is a dimes-worth of difference between these two parties' -- And asked his supporters to throw their support behind Gore."
I have no memory of a candidate ever dropping out at the presidential level because of fear of costing anyone a victory," Burden reflects. "The Nader campaign was polling at close to 5% near the end of the 2000 campaign. A campaign that was geared toward that goal would absolutely keep going... It would be irrational to avoid an outcome that puts you close to the goal youve been pursuing.
But the Democratic Party found it easier to scapegoat Nader as the spoiler who cost Gore the presidency.
Nader: From Crusader to Traitor
Karl Rove could not have devised an outcome more endearing to the hearts of the conservative community. In the election's aftermath, Ralph Nader, the crusader who humbled the biggest corporations in America and forced the US government to pay heed to the powerless, was now being torn apart by the forces of the Left.
James Ridgeway, The New Republic reporter who was the first to publish Nader's warnings about unsafe US automobiles (GM's rear-engine Corvair, in particular), has this to say about Nader's detractors: "The Democrats just totally trashed the guy. They trashed him for four years. They were the meanest bunch of motherf-kers I've ever run across."
Nader's critics were no more forgiving when he announced plans to run for the presidency as an Independent in 2004. Former cohorts Bill Maher and Michael Moore pleaded with Nader not to run. Even the usually charitable Jimmy Carter proclaimed: "Ralph, go back to examining the rear end of automobiles and don't insist on costing the Democrats the White House this year as you did four years ago."
"There were carrots and there were sticks," Nader Campaign Organizer Gregory Kafoury remembers. "People told Nader: If you don't run, we will lavish money on your organizations. Very extravagant sums of money were offered." But "if you do run," Kafoury recalls being warned, the same interests vowed: "We will strangle your organization."
Nader confirmes that "millions of dollars were offered through third parties if I would drop out." When he didn't, Public Citizen suffered a punishing drop in donations and foundation support. Claybrook even considered deleting Nader's name from the stationary and removing his portrait from the wall.
I Own this Microphone Mister Speaker!
The filmmakers revisit the incredible spectacle outside the Presidential Debate in Boston in 2004. Nader (along with Pat Buchanan and other third party candidates) had been denied an opportunity to appear onstage with Kerry and Bush and 5,000 angry citizens were gathered outside chanting "Let Ralph Speak!"
As the cameras roll, Nader attempts to enter the grounds with a ticket to watch a live broadcast the debate in a nearby overflow auditorium and finds his path blocked by State Police. Pressed by Nader, a police officer admits that he is acting at the behest of the Presidential Debate Commission. When Nader points out that the officers are not legally empowered to act as political agents -- "This is political exclusion!" --, he is threatened with arrest.
While some may still believe that the presidential debates are hosted by the Women's League of Voters or some other nonpartisan organization, the truth is that the confrontation a commercial operation controlled by the two major parties -- whose representatives sit on the board of the Presidential Debate Commission. Until this changes, it is unlikely Americans will ever hear from a Third Party candidate.
As TV insider Phil Donohue puts it: "Their life is the price of their stock. And Ralph Nader threatens that.... We cannot overstate the power they have to stop him.... Including the power to decide that he is not getting on this stage."
The Road from a Harvard to Washington
Until Nader came along, no one questioned the automobile. It was a dream machine, a sexy, turbo-charged magic carpet. Under the heady spell of mass-advertising, the US had become a car-worshipping culture. Americans were repeatedly told that they had "a love affair with the automobile."
The American automobile promised a Stratospheric V-8-powered path to freedom and a perfect life. And, if anyone dared ask about the huge numbers of people dying in car crashes (47,800 in 1964 alone), Detroit has a ready answer: Accidents were caused by "the nut behind the wheel."
Nader was spurred to action after a Harvard Law School classmate (and father of four) was rendered paraplegic following a car crash. Nader wrote a freelance article for The Nation complaining about the "designed-in dangers" of US automobiles -- or, as Nader called them, Detroit's "psychosexual dreamboats." Nader showed how sharp edges, hood ornaments and easily crushed sheet-metal construction were killing and maiming Americans unnecessarily.
When Nader's book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," was published, General Motors hired private investigators to tail him and female temptresses' were paid to rub up against Nader at the local check-out counter in hopes that a sex scandal would silence him.
Pat Buchanan, who lends a refreshingly jovial note to the film, wryly observes: "We heard GM had turned the babes loose on him in the Safeway supermarket. We thought that was an unwise move from a public relations standpoint."
GM also went after Nader with harrassing phone calls including 3AM warnings to: "Watch out, buddy boy." Nader's mother received threatening calls in the middle of the night advising her: "Tell your son to back off."
In the meantime, "Unsafe at Any Speed" had become a public sensation and Nader was becoming a celebrity. Henry Ford II, responded to Nader's criticisms by announcing a Pioneer Safety Package that included seat belts and padded dashboards.
Despite the program's popularity, Ford mysteriously and suddenly dropped the safety options. Public Citizen's Joan Claybrook explains what happened. "General Motors was outraged. The head of GM called Henry Food and said 'If you don't stop it, we'll undercut you and put you out of business.'" Ford folded.
The attempt to smear Nader backfired spectacularly. The head of GM was called before a Senate Committee and compelled to offer an unprecedented public apology. Nader filed a landmark invasion-of-privacy lawsuit and won $425,000 from GM. With obvious pleasure, Nader used GM's money to fund what became a 40-plus year campaign to hold US corporations and politicians accountable to the public.
John F. Kennedy galvanized the nation's youth with the Peace Corp and Nader drew the nation's best and brightest into the ranks of Nader's Raiders -- a team of incorruptible sleuths-for-the-public-good.
And what they accomplished is unparalleled. In the years between 1975 and 2004, seatbelts alone saved an estimated 195,382 American lives. "Just imagine," an aging Nader's Raider tells the filmmakers, "if every seatbelt, every airbag was stamped with the brand-name NADER."
It's not necessary. This quintessential American maverick and patriot has become an unmistakable landmark on the American cultural landscape.
"An Unreasonable Man, opens in theaters across America in March.
For more information, see: www.anunreasonableman.com
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