Citizen Nader

Air bags. Clean air. The Freedom of Information Act. He has never had much of a personal life, but Ralph Nader has deeply affected American public life.


Karen Croft
January 26, 1999 2:37PM (UTC)

I remember Ralph Nader sorting mail. He'd come into the Center for Study of Responsive Law, hunch his 6-foot-4 frame over the boxes of mail (some addressed only to Ralph Nader, Washington, D.C.) and use the time to catch up on what his troops were doing. He'd be alert to every detail in the casually chaotic front office, where I worked in the late 1970s and early '80s, one of an army of laughably underpaid but passionately loyal minions who have served Nader over the years. Two phones, each with five or six lines, would be ringing and the office managers would be juggling everyone from Marlon Brando (in town with a Native American group) to a lady in Detroit who'd sent her car's broken drive shaft to Nader because no one else had helped her and she knew he would.

Without looking up, he'd ask us to find newspaper articles for him ("It's on the left side of the front page of the second section of the New York Times within the last three weeks"), get someone on the phone (his way of orchestrating his escape to his paper-strewn warren when he was ready) and inject occasional questions about the outside world, like "What movies are people seeing?"

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Ralph Nader didn't have time to do things like see movies. He has been busy since 1968 being the most vigilant citizen in America. He works harder than any president or member of Congress. He has affected your life as a consumer more than any man, but you didn't elect him and you can't make him go away. All of us Naderites (there have been thousands over the years) call him Ralph, even though we all have the deepest respect for him. We call him Ralph because that's what fits. Like Uncle Ralph. Or Father Ralph.

Nader really is like a priest. He is little affected by the world he affects. He has never been married, never had children. No one knows for sure if he has a love life. He has never owned a car and has lived in the same inexpensive Washington boardinghouse for many years. "Fashion" is not a word he could define: He has the look of a man who cuts his hair with kitchen scissors and his idea of great bedtime reading is the Congressional Record. His hero is baseball legend Lou Gehrig because Gehrig was a modest man who just kept going, playing in 2,130 consecutive games. Ralph has served in the nation's capital for 30 years now, dueling with its entrenched political and corporate interests and trying to rouse the citizenry. These are, arguably, comparable feats.

Nader's accomplishments have become part of the fabric of American public life. You know that clause on plane tickets that says that if you're bumped, the airline has to reimburse you and put you up for the night? Nader got bumped from an overbooked flight and got angry, and that's why you get treated fairly now. Remember the days before seat belts and air bags? Nader wrote an article for the Nation in 1959 titled "The Safe Car You Can't Buy" and ranted as early as 1975 to Congress that all auto manufacturers should have to install air bags in their cars. People said Nader was a nut. Now car companies advertise that their air bags are the best.

And remember the march on Washington after the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island? Nader organized that and was a key player in changing
this country's attitudes toward nuclear power.

Ralph Nader was born in 1934 into a loving middle-class family of Lebanese descent in Winsted, Conn. His dad, Nathra, ran a restaurant called the Highland Arms, and he and his wife, Rose, raised Ralph and two daughters, Claire and Laura, and another son, Shafeek. The family talked politics and good citizenship over dinner, and Mr. and Mrs. Nader felt responsible, as do many immigrants, for seeing that their children should do better than they had.

Even while growing up in the self-satisfied 1950s, Nader was eager to launch crusades. He majored in economics and Far Eastern regional studies at Princeton, where he fought to ban DDT from the school after he found dead birds on the lawns. He attended Harvard Law School in 1955 but, after becoming disillusioned with the complacency there, started writing freelance articles for the Nation and other publications. After the 1959 piece on auto safety he started practicing law and began research for a book that was published in 1965 called "Unsafe at Any Speed," which was to his career what "Born to Run" was to Bruce Springsteen's. The book detailed the flagrant carelessness of the American auto industry, especially General Motors with its fragile Corvair. In it Nader wrote, "A great problem of contemporary life is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology."

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After GM tried (and failed) to get dirt on Ralph by sending call girls to ambush him in the cookie section of a grocery store, he sued and became the Nader we know today -- the white knight who goes to battle for all of us against the corporate dragons who abuse their power.

He won the GM suit, got $425,000 in the settlement and used it to start the first Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C. (they are now tilting at windmills in most states). He came up with a plan for recruiting young idealists from all over the country. He spoke to college students many times a year and appeared on lots of television shows such as "Donahue," "Merv Griffin," "Saturday Night Live" and "Dick Cavett," talking about sexy subjects like auto safety, job safety and utility rates. In 1966 he led almost a one-man crusade for the Traffic Safety Act that called for mandatory seat belts in American cars. Since then countless lives have been saved because of his tenacity.

Once upon a time, this kind of passion for justice and safety got young people excited. We watched as Nader in all his geeky glory walked into college gyms and got standing ovations from the same kids who'd been cheering rock stars the night before. He inspired wave after wave of what one writer termed "tweedy acolytes" to head off to Washington to help. It's true, you had to be at least middle class to afford to live on the meager salary Ralph paid (about $500 a month when I worked for him). That was part of the plan: He paid very little, so people would stay for an average of six to nine months and then move on, inculcated with Nader's spirit, vigor and distrust of those in power. It was a training ground for activists. And they helped him crusade for some of the most important reforms this country has seen in the last half-century, including the Freedom of Information Act (1966), the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Consumer Protection Agency (1978).

He also started groups to oversee the public officials who are supposed to work for us. In 1971 he began the Congress Project (which later became Congress Watch), a comprehensive examination of all members of Congress that ended up as a 21,000-page report drawing on the labor of nearly 1,000 volunteers. That same year, he started the Health Research Group and Public Citizen by sending out two mailings to 62,000 contributors that raised more than $1 million.

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Some Naderites have gone on to high-profile careers in politics and media. Ray Bonner is an intrepid foreign correspondent for the New York Times; Mark Green is the elected public advocate of New York and widely touted as a leading contender for Mayor Rudy Giuliani's job; Ron Brownstein is a nationally prominent political reporter for the Los Angeles Times; Bill Taylor (who was editor of Ralph's Multinational Monitor) started the magazine Fast Company; and Joan Claybrook, who now runs Public Citizen, served as head of Jimmy Carter's National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

Most of those who work for Nader soon leave, burned out by the grueling hours and monkish pay. (There are a few exceptions, such as John Richard, Nader's longtime right-hand man, who came to the Center for Study of Responsive Law in 1978, shortly after I did. Over the years, Richard has acted as Nader's buffer to the outside world, advising him on which ideas are most feasible and which might be a bit wacky -- like the anti-siren campaign Nader started in 1979. Richard is the son Ralph never had.)

Nader was, in fact, like a father to many of us. He's a strange kind of alpha male; though he doesn't draw attention to himself, he is the center of any room he enters, and people listen to every word he says. He is handsome, like a bookish cousin of Alan Alda. He is shy, but he can make you laugh with him and at him (we'd laugh with him when he did his stinging impressions of famous people he'd met; we'd laugh at him when he asked things like, "Is that singer Jackson Gray going to perform at the Musicians United for Safe Energy Concert?"). He can be awkward if he has to make small talk, and attractive women sometimes make him nervous. He could be blunt and demanding, asking for the impossible and demanding we give ourselves the way he did. Projects could drag on for years, some never completed. Boxes stuffed with papers would pile up in the office, making information-gathering or simple navigation of the hallways almost impossible. Sleep deprivation was rampant. Still, we came back the next day.

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We came back because Ralph, like Lou Gehrig, kept coming back. One day Ralph pulled up a chair and joined us as we prepared a mailing of 3,000 form letters to private citizens who had contributed to Public Citizen, his nonprofit umbrella group. Ralph sat there and signed every letter by hand, with a ballpoint pen. When we asked why he didn't just use a stamp or a printed signature, he said, "They'd know."

And he kept us entertained. One day in 1979 a couple staffers were taking Nader to the airport. We rolled up to a stoplight next to a Honda Civic with a Reagan bumper sticker. Nader rolled down his window and shouted at the driver, "How can you drive a Honda and be for Reagan?!" He was serious. He genuinely wanted to know.

On another occasion, in the middle of a staff meeting, he plopped his foot on the table, pulled back his pant leg and pointed to his socks, by way of illustrating the importance of frugality. "See these socks? I've had these for 20 years! Army surplus. They're cheap and they last forever!"

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Critics would get on Nader's case for being a nag, for being single-minded, for not getting certain issues. Gloria Steinem once told me that she thought Nader never understood the women's movement. He was always more interested in general consumer issues than feminist causes like the Equal Rights Amendment or abortion rights.

And while he has tried to stay current with consumer causes, organizing a conference last year on Microsoft's monopolistic power several months before the Justice Department launched its antitrust suit against Bill Gates' empire, some observers question whether the 64-year-old activist has lost his ability to touch the public's nerve. His office says he communicates regularly with the Clinton White House, but not since Jimmy Carter's days has Nader operated at the center of Washington's political circles.

But bestowals of presidential favor have never been of much importance to Nader. There is a heroic quality to his unfashionable obstinacy. Henriette Mantel, a comedy writer and actress who worked alongside me in Nader's office for two years, says, "He's just a great man. He's a walking, talking Jefferson Memorial, except he doesn't have as much sex."

One hopes Nader would laugh at this. I once asked him if he ever wanted a wife and kids, to have a family like the one he grew up with. He said he had considered it, but felt that he couldn't give all of himself to both family and work, so he had made a choice.

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He chose to work for us. And, like the priest-ballplayer he is, he sits long into the night, surrounded by mounds of paper, books and his poster of Gehrig. When I asked via fax how he wants to be remembered, he wrote: "For helping strengthen democracy, for making raw power accountable and enhancing justice and the fulfillment of human possibilities."

Let the record show he has lived up to this epitaph.


Karen Croft

Karen Croft is the editor of Salon Sex.

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