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:

          Citizen Nader
          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
     hazardous cars."

          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
     the phone.

          "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
     uphill stream."

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