WS>>First person with Ralph Nader
carl william spitzer iv
cwsiv_2nd at JUNO.COM
Wed Mar 3 20:22:54 MST 2004
By Maralyn Lois Polak
Typically, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph
Nader "doesn't do things that virtually every politician
does," John Miller writes in the Oct. 23 issue of the Na-
tional Review, "such as talk in the first person. You would-
n't know from listening to him that he's the son of immi-
grants ... that his mother ran a restaurant and bakery."
In the year 1984, symbolically enough, I interviewed
Ralph Nader, for a series of character studies and personal-
ity profiles I did as a magazine columnist. He was 50,
graying at the temples, boyish and lanky, his voice deep and
riveting, his dark eyes fervid. This is what I wrote:
The enigmatic Ralph Nader, who has found fame crusading
for the public good while scrupulously shielding his private
life from scrutiny, manages to be, at 50, one of the most
driven of men, seeking nothing less than "the qualitative
reform of the Industrial Revolution."
Rumors portray him as an intellectual without a date in
college. An ascetic subsisting on raw vegetables and seeds
when reminded to eat. A hygiene zealot who will not accept
dinner invitations from friends who own pets. A canny skin-
flint whose shoes and socks are relics of his Army days. A
petty person who once puffed 15 cigarettes a day before he
quit and subsequently denounced smokers as "weak" in charac-
ter. A work-obsessed wind-up doll needing only four hours'
He, however, sees himself as a full-time citizen, a
public citizen. "In ancient Athens there were people who got
up in the morning and went around trying to improve the
community. They are called public citizens, in contrast to
private citizens who cared for the family and children and
personal needs," he explains. Wherever he goes, he puts his
principles into practice. In his contract for a speech at
the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he specified that he be
picked up in a mid-size American car equipped with seat-
belts. "That was to avoid getting picked up in a VW Beetle
or something like that," he says. Oh? "We wrote a book
against it," he laughs. ''They're hazardous, especially
Despite his relentless seriousness of purpose, he is an
informative, persuasive and entertaining speaker with a
well-developed sense of humor.'' The property damage done by
spike heels is greater than that from elephants," he says,
and he means it.
Style, fad and fashion never swayed Ralph Nader; he
wouldn't follow the crowd. He traces his individualism back
to wearing short pants in elementary school, where he
"caught a lot of ribbing, some of it not very kind." As a
boy, he read about muckrakers and wanted to be Clarence
"My parents always told us, when you go through life,
never look up at anyone, never look down at anyone. So you
see, that kind of little bit of advice sets you in life." He
was the youngest of four children of Lebanese immigrants who
ran a "bakery-delicatessen-restaurant" in tiny Winsted,
Conn., where he worked behind the counter while attending
private school and being active in sports and the drama
club. At Princeton, where he studied government and econom-
ics and was Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude, he
refused to wear white bucks, and is reputed to have attended
class in a bathrobe to protest conformist clothing.
The last car he owned was a 1949 Studebaker while at
Harvard Law School. After Harvard, which he called "a high-
priced tool factory" that equipped students for profitable
corporate careers rather than for defending the People, he
spent six months in the Army as a chef, once baking banana
bread for 200 soldiers; the service taught him "humility."
He left the law after practicing three years in Hartford
because "I would represent people injured in car crashes.
But I was interested in preventing the injuries."
He's a hero to some, a god to others and a fanatic to
still others. ''Well, on the business of the use of the word
'fanatic.' People who are aiming at becoming Olympic-level
skiers have to get up at 4 in the morning; they're just
called champions; they're called determined. Writers who
work around the clock to put out their novel, they're just
called dedicated -- they're 'efficient.' But citizens who
try to upset power systems that are abusing people and they
don't stop after the first move, ah, they're called fanat-
"I'm not saying that a lot of people say that, but
that's a pejorative term used by our adversaries. See, I
think GM is a fanatic, because 24 hours a day it's poisoning
people's air and water. See? I think GM is negative, because
it's producing a lot of defective cars. Like they call
critics negative. They say why don't you ever say anything
positive? I say well, it's like a doctor. First you diagnose
a disease. And in diagnosing a disease, is a doctor de-
scribed as negative? And then the doctor prescribes. So you
see, you have these terminologies, I call them defensive
semantics, they try to put the citizens on the defensive."
When Ralph Nader first went to Washington nearly 20
years ago "and I would phone up senators, phone up govern-
ment officials, they'd always say, 'Who are you with?'
Because the only people who ever were there were affiliated
with trade associations, labor unions, companies. And one
day I got so upset at this kind of question constantly, I
was at a pay phone; there was a dog kind of yapping at my
heels. They said, 'Who are you with?' and I picked up the
dog and I said I'm with this dog -- and the dog yapped into
"It's not an activity without pressure. I mean, there
is a lot of pressure. We've got to be very careful. I mean,
when GM set detectives on me in the '60s, they weren't
interested in the validity of my studies ," he laughs. "They
were out to smear. But there was nothing to find. In this
kind of work, you can't even jaywalk. Because, see, when
they can't counteract your arguments, they try to discredit
you personally. ... So it's like operating in a fishbowl.
And so we're operating in a fishbowl and trying to get
(others) to operate in a fishbowl."
Presidents Johnson, Ford and Nixon were said to have
shunned Ralph Nader. Jimmy Carter occasionally consulted
him. As for Ronald Reagan, they debated in 1975 at a sympos-
ium. Reagan was "very cordial. The reverse of Woodrow Wil-
son, about whom was said, 'Wilson loves humanity and dis-
likes individuals.' He had all the techniques down then that
he uses now. Like, we were discussing heavy sugar breakfast
cereal. And I said this isn't responsible behavior by corpo-
rations to get children to eat, consume all that sugar. And
he said, well, I don't see what's wrong with a little sugar.
And I said I wasn't saying a little sugar. That plays well
up there when there's no rebuttal. Unfortunately, he now
plays well out there because there's no rebuttal."
I suggest to Ralph Nader that despite his visibility,
he's a mystery man. "What way?" he says, as if surprised by
the notion. Does he still work 18-hour days? "Long days." Is
work his whole life? "Yeah, just as it is for a sculptor. I
mean, if you like your work it doesn't have the same conno-
tation. I mean, a guy working in the mines 16 hours, he's
forced to do that, I'm sure he doesn't like to. But if you
like your work, then the distinction between work and non-
work melts away."
Does he have any outside interests? "Ah, well, I used
to, but I don't anymore. I mean, it's because the world is
our interest, is my interest. ... You have to know a little
bit about a lot of things, and a lot about a few things you
specialize in. But I mean, I go into a town when I have a
few hours off (from a lecture), and I meet people and go to
schools and go to factories and so forth. I mean, it's a
very varied experience."
I'm surprised to learn he watches television. "It's
part of American life, number one. Number two, I need to. I
watch 'Nightline,' the news and '60 Minutes' and so on. And
I should watch just once each major program in the top 30. I
have not seen 'The A Team'; I should watch it." Why? "Be-
cause I was talking to some youngsters and they talked about
it. You know. I watch three or four times a year, Saturday
and Sunday mornings, the kids' shows -- Tony the Tiger and
all that -- to see what they're being fed, the ads and
programs and so on. Pretty bad. Awful stuff. But I mean, you
should watch it to be more specific."
Does he sacrifice his social life for his career? "That
is my social life." He lives as he has always lived, in a
single rented room. Abstemiously. In his refrigerator are
"fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, fish. I'm
not a vegetarian. I maybe eat half a pound a week of red
meat." He has never owned a home. I get the impression of a
monk-like existence. "No. See, that's the framework, I mean,
compared with four billion people, what percentile do you
think I'm in, with creature comforts? The other thing is I
don't like to be bothered with daily kinds of worries about
material things like getting my car repaired, getting the
plumber and so forth. That takes time, and that time is
bought at a serious price of not doing other things."
"A lot of people see us as taking on the big guys," he
says. "You never lose. It's just how much you're gonna win.
Because even where you 'lose,' you've documented a problem
and you've given history an example of a need that has to be
met, and it will be met in the future. So you don't really
lose. You always leave some legacy, whether it's the expo-
sure of an abuse, or a strategy that was tried and didn't
work, thereby saying to people you gotta think up a new
strategy or you have to mobilize more.
"And that's one way of looking at it. Which avoids a
lot of people discouraged. The public gets discouraged,
because they are evaluating their performance in a very
conventional way, win and lose like a football game." But
life isn't a football game, Ralph Nader says, ''it's an
The best thing to hit the Internet in years - Juno SpeedBand!
Surf the Web up to FIVE TIMES FASTER!
Only $14.95/ month - visit www.juno.com to sign up today!
More information about the Rushtalk