Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

RALPH NADER America's last angry man

Fasten your seat belts. Ralph Nader has just walked in.There is a damp spatter of applause on this rainy day at the National Press Club, where some members of the S.R.O. audience are reporters. Reporters don't clap much -- even for the gent who is a one-man consumer crusade, who has generated more copy for them in the last 15 years than almost anyone in Washington, except a president.

He is a tall man, 6 ft. 4 in., who walks self-consciously into the crowded room with his head down a little as though he were ducking under a low doorway. He is smiling faintly as he talks with the people who trail him like pilot fish. When he reaches the speaker's seat at the podium he accordions his long frame into a chair and immediately begins poring over a stack of papers and notes, jotting reminders to himself before he launches into a chicken crepe lunch. When he finally gets up to blast Big Business he will not even glance at his notes. He talks not in the revivalist style his crusade might suggest, but with the grim urgency of an Air Force commander in a World War II movie briefing his men for a bombing run that may cost them their lives.

About these ads

He talks, for instance, of "the silent cumulative violence inflicted on innocent people against their will, violence in the form of [corporate] pollutants. . . ."

There is more, much more, as the man behind the passage of the National Traffic and Safety Act, the Highway Safety Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, the Comprehensive occupational Health and Safety Act, the National Gas Pipeline Safety Act, the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act, and the National Consumer Co-op Bank Act leads the charge against what he feels is the enemy for the '80s: the giant corporations. His Press Club speech is an early kick-off for a Nader-backed and inspired Big Business Day, a sort of anti-corporate version of Earth Day, to "stimulate citizens and communities" to think about how "corporations govern them, and how they in turn should govern corporations."

It is no coincidence that waiting in the wings are cartons of the red and black paperbacks just published by Pilgrim Press as a Nader group effort, title, "The Big Business Reader -- Essays on Corporate America." "Blow the whistle on corporate abuse" is the cover slogan for the book, which includes a foreword by Nader along with essays by experts like environmentalist Barry Commoner, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and Federal Trade Commission chairman Michael Pertschuk.

The book and the speech, both new, are vintage Nader, full of the cold, accusatory wrath of the last angry man in America, as he says: "The principal call is almost primeval in nature. It is a call for corporations to stop stealing, stop deceiving, stop corrupting politicians with money, stop monopolizing, stop poisoning the earth, air and water, stop selling dangerous products, stop exposing workers to cruel hazards, stop tyrannizing people of conscience within the company and start respecting long-range survival needs and rights of present and future generations."

It is harsh invective, the trademark of the steel-and-dreams reformer who was raised on a diet of pure citizenship by his immigrant parents, and began to forge the dream of reform as a scholarship student at Princeton and Harvard Law School. He made it come true in 1965 with the publication of his best seller, "Unsafe at Any Speed: the Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile." It was an attack on the industry for putting profits above safety, as exemplified in General Motors' Corvair. Ironically, it was GM which helped Nader realize his dream of a powerful consumer counterforce when he won an invasion of privacy and harrassment suit against GM in 1966 for hiring private detectives to follow him and attempt to smear him. Nader turned the $425,000 GM settlement into the seed money of his public interest movement.

Today it is a paradox that Ralph Nader, who rails against the giant corporations, has fathered what could be called the Nader corporation: a network of consumer interest organizations that take in by his own estimate "about $1.5 million a year and employ about 90 people full time plus volunteers and part-time workers."

They include the umbrella organization Public Citizen, the tax-exempt organization which supports the others with what Nader describes as "mostly $15 contributions." Sheltered under Public Citizen (Ralph Nader, president) are such groups as Congress Watch, the lobbying division of the Nader consumer movement; Public Citizen Litigation Group; the Health Research Group; Critical Mass (an energy project); the Tax Reform Research Group; the Public Citizen Visitors Center; Corporate Accountability; the Aviation Consumer Action Project; the Retired Professional Action Group; and the PIRGs (public interest research groups).

About these ads

In addition, Nader is managing trustee of the Consumer Complaint Research Center, the Clean Water Action Project and the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse.

Then there are the books that Nader is responsible for -- dozens of them -- on subjects as diverse as "The Interstate Commerce Commission," forests, communication satellites, hearing aids, Volkswagens, Congress, food safety, pensions, and pollution.

And Nader himself is a communications center, writing not just books but a weekly newspaper column (he swears he writes every word) syndicated in 50 paper, and delivering a fusillade of speeches across the country (at about $3,500 a clip), turning most of the profits back into his organization. He is of course a multi-media dream, the guaranteed headline, the reliable source for endless TV , radio, and newspaper interviews.

The second part of our two-part interview, for instance, is a three-ring media circus. Nader lopes back and forth from this newspaper interview to a radio interview with columnist Tom Braden to a Metromedia TV interview. Somehow he keeps us all on hold with that minimal charisma that he offers unexpectedly, like the tiny sesame seed and honey candies he carries in one pocket for "quick nutrition."

Nader on camera and in print comes across as the ardent ideologue, the relentless, obdurate champion of consumer right against fill-in-the-blank wrong. Tough, often grim. But in person, at first glance, he's something of a pussycat. At our first interview he wandered in from behind the stacked cartons and files at the Center for the Study of Responsive Law with an apologetic grin for being late.

True to his press clippings, he looks faintly rumpled in a blue-gray suit that hangs loosely on his tall, big-boned frame. There is an unexpected ease and warmth about this man who is often publicly spotlighted in tense, adversary situations. When he smiles he looks almost mellow. He is wearing his crisp, curly black hair a bit longer now, and there are grizzles of gray at the sideburns. The familiar, intense face is still boyish, probably always will be, though there are now subtle crescent-shaped lines running from cheekbones to chin. The eyes are so extraordinary: a dark, glittering brown, guarded except for those few moments when the secrecy about his private self lifts and the vulnerability shows through.

The public Ralph Nader wants to tell you more than you care to know about corporate accountability, air bags, and citizen co-ops. The private Ralph Nader wants to tell you nothing about himself. And when he can't scuttle behind the issues, when he has to talk about himself, it is almost painful. He sometimes blushes.

He is asked if he is any of the things that people call him in print: a loner , super-idealistic, puritanical, paranoid and secretive, boyish, a Frank Capra hero, "the essence of honest," obsessive, modest, arrogant, compassionate, ambitious.

He is sitting in a straight-backed chair under a lamp at dusk, in a vast marble hall that's just off the warren of offices the center has in the Carnegie Institute of Washington. The echoes of voices ring in the distance. He starts to say no, he won't describe what he is, then pauses. He looks up, a visionary, faintly martyred look, and it is clear he believes he's badly misunderstood.

In a soft, low voice he begins: "I really care deeply about justice and people's well-being, enough to spend a great deal of time trying to advance these causes, which I think is the evidence of care."m

Is he, then, any of the adjectives which have been hung on him?

"No, I don't think so. Ambitious usually means climbing a ladder. And we're not climbing a ladder. We're just trying to advance a cause on a plateau. The ultimate office of citizenship is doing citizen work, period."

Is he, then, as described, a Frank Capra hero, a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a selflessly idealistic hero?

"Am I a 'selfless person?' What does that mean?" he counters. When it is suggested that it means always thinking of something apart from yourself he says , "Well, I think that's the definition of happiness, that's the essential definition of happiness, to go through life by helping others. It's a secret which unfortunately more people need to discover. . . ."

Still trying to get at the truth of how Ralph Nader views himself, I ask him about some of the most common descriptions of him: muckraker, Savanarola (a media favorite) crusader, lone ranger, wild-eyed radical, tyrant to work for. "Who are you?" Nader is asked.

He doesn't miss a beat. "Full-time citizen," he says. "The most important office in America for anyone to achieve is full-time citizen. And under our Constitution people have the right to do that. The office is important for many reasons. One of these is that anybody can achieve it. You don't have to be elected and compromise yourself, be funded by special interests that want your vote.That's the basis of democracy. Period.

"The basic thing is that people have got to spend more time on their citizen duties. . . . They can have all the rights they want but they've got to parallel it with time. They've got to say, 'Well, how much time did I spend last month on my citizen activities?' Whatever they want to choose. There are plenty of problems to choose from. It's like they say how much time did I spend on the job, how much time with my family, how much time as a citizen. That's a dramatic switch in society's use of time. Most people consider citizen activity just voting. . . ."

That is the granite commitment of Ralph Nader, citizen Nader, at its most rock-like. If you understand that kind of commitment, which he lives, it's easier to understand why Nader is so unfathomable in ordinary terms. Nader might have been hatched on as asteroid, for all the earth's standard comforts mean to him. He reportedly earns up to a quarter of a million a year from his lecturing and writing but still lives in the $5,000 a year he did over 10 years ago, despite inflation ("I watch for sales") lives in a furnished, $85-a-month room in downtown Washington, works seven days a week, does not own a car, considers vacations decadent, and allows himself only those diversions which will further his work through knowledge or contracts -- two or three movies like "The China Syndrome" a year, or an occasional party.Movies like "Syndrome" have inspired him to turn to feature films as a channel for his causes; he admits he's been to Hollywood recently, scouting the studios, and has half a dozen ten-page treatments of film ideas based on real incidents like those involving the Pinto lawsuits.

If he had not devoted his life to being a reformer, he says under prodding he might have a Walter Mitty dream or two about being a variety of things: a satirist and writer like Voltaire, an anthropologist, an explorer of faraway places, like central Tasmania.

Ralph Nader fuels on work. When you ask him about non-work, or how he spends his free time, his brown eyes glaze with impatience.

"This is a full-time effort. It pulls you. It pulls you. Because like you're working on a situation dealing with the auto industry or legislation affecting energy. You're not in control of your time, you see? Congress controls your time. . . . You're always being asked to trade off the significant for the recreational. And you see it's not a trade-off. You might say, 'Well, I think I'll take off and spend five hours at a movie or playing bridge.' In the meantime what you could be doing is making that extra effort to change a situation that might affect millions of people exposed to hazardous meat products or hazardous drugs. So after a while you don't even think about it. Who can gauge that kind of luxury?"


"I don't recognize vacation. That's a modern industrial culture definition. Most societies through history don't even have a word for vacation, getting away. I mean that doesn't mean you don't rest."

Then how does he relax?

"The work load itself is a relaxant. The work relaxes. Most people can't view controversial work as anything but upsetting, and they get nervous. Even if they prevail and they win, they have to have great relief valves. That reflects a lack of self-control."

There is a dedicated stoicism about Ralph Nader that surprises in its thoroughness. He loves music, for instance -- music as disparate as Tchaikovsky , Charleston jazz, Stravinsky, Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, and Segovia's Spanish guitar. But even in those brief moments when he relaxes he doesn't allow himself to listen to music much any more. "It is so pleasant that it disrupts my concentration," he explains.

It goes on. He used to like playing squash and chess, but there is no time for them now. When he reads fiction, which he now does rarely, it's with a purpose.

"I like to read books because their authors wrote them in great deprivation. I've always been fascinated by how creativity is often the result of deprivation. . . ." He is fond of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," for instance, "because the character development is unparalled."

But it is Alyosha, the youngest brother in Dostoevsky's "the Brothers Karamazov," whom Nader resembles: "Alyosha . . . was not a fanatic, and in my opinion, at least, not even a mystic. . . . He was simply an early lover of humanity," writes Dostoevsky, describing Alyosha later as "honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself, for it."

That idea of creativity being the result of deprivation intrigues Nader. He strikes out on it like a path through a pine forest, and a stroll with him offers a glimpse of his inner thoughts. "I don't know whether Edison would have done what he did if he'd had a Bell Research Lab, if he was part of that. See, that's the ultimate self-reliance, when you're a lone inventor, a lone writer and no one recognizes you and you've got a strong desire to create what you want to create.Then you've really got that, then that's the ultimate productivity."

He explains his theory on why there are no outstandingly creative people in America:

"My father once told me he wondered if the Constitution would have come out as well as it did if the telephone had been in existence in Philadelphia. See, they had time to think. They had time to sit in a room and discuss the federalist papers and so on. Discussing discourse and so on. Whereas now you have two kinds of interference: one is the telephone, airplanes, and so on, where you're constantly on the go, and don't have the solitude to think. And the second is excessive comforts. I suppose if the rulers of any society wanted to deal with dissidents they'd put them all on scholarships. Give 'em annuities. Say 'Here you are, you're secure. You've got a nice place and you don't have to worry.'"

Nader snorts about the "excessive comforts" the discourage creativity. For him, they sometimes include sleeping and eating. He reportedly sleeps four or five hours a night at most, often less when he's on the road.

Mark Green, who's just taken a leave of absence as head of Congress Watch to run for the New York legislature, has watched Nader, too, for years as a friend and disciple. He says, "Ralph reminds me of a camel -- he has the discipline to go for 10 or more hours without eating, but when he does it's in such volume that he seems to be storing it away for the future. He's happy when he's eating , and he'll eat whatever is in front of him, as long as it's not on the FDA list (of hazardous substances) . . . I really would be shocked to find him wolfing down a diet soda and a hot dog [both of which Nader has campaigned against]." Among the Nader favorites when he takes a camel break: chocolate cake, fresh salmon, veggies, the Lebanese dish called hummus, and of course, his mother's Arabian home cooking.

Ralph Nader remembers meals at home as learning times. He says when he was growing up in Winsted, Connecticut, he and his brother Shaffak and his sisters Laura and Claire would come running home from school and gulp down history lessons with their carrots. His sister Laura explains, "My mother used to read historical novels, and it was like a soap opera, we'd rush home to hear her tell about the next chapter at lunch. . . ."

Their parents, Rose and Nadra Nader, Lebanese immigrants, ran a small bakery and restaurant in Winsted; Laura Nader remembers that "The food inspector, Mr. Fish, would come in and tell my parents about the conditions in the meat plants he was inspecting. . . . The things Ralph talks about today are the things we talked about around the dinner table." Things from civic responsibility to food additives, from self-reliance to safety in the marketplace.

So that while Ralph Nader was growing up collecting stamps, reading about muckrakers like Lincoln Steffans, playing baseball, he was also thriving on a daily family lesson in citizenship. One of the keys to understanding Nader the reformer today, his sister Laura believes, is in his childhood.

"He was less intense than the rest of us. He was the last child, the most relaxed, the most regular. He was loved a lot. Ralph is not looking for love. He's secure in always having had a lot of love. His being secure that way allows him to take all the criticism. His security -- without it he wouldn't be able to do what he's done over the years and be such a leader."

She snorts at the idea of his being a fanatic. "How many people do you know who are happier than Ralph? I think he's at peace with himself, and happier than 90 percent of the people who are running around, taking desperate vacations in Bermuda and Hawaii, spending money, and at the end of the year wondering what it's all about. He's not a radical. He's just practical. . . . People are always talking about the mystery of Ralph. Well, there is no mystery. . . . My mother was once asked by an interviewer, 'What makes Ralph tick?' And she answered, 'What makes other people notm tick?'". . . . He's very solid, and steady. If there is a crisis in the family he doesn't rattle." He is also, she adds, a comic spirit with a spontaneous sense of humor, based on the incongruity of life, and a wicked mimic.

Laura Nader Milleron, now a fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, is on leave from her post as a professor of Anthropology at Berkeley. To her children, Nader the Crusader is simply Uncle Ralph who's quick with baseball scores, courage, and family jokes.

The two women who talked of Ralph Nader -- his sister and his former associate, Joan Claybrook, mention a side of him that doesn't often appear in print. They speak of his tenderness. Joan Claybrook, who headed Nader's Congress Watch until 1977, is now Highway Traffic Safety Administrator.

"To a certain extent there is a tender part of Ralph that is not evident during Congressional hearings or on TV. He has an incredible sense of tolerance for good-hearted people who are trying hard but not producing."

She describes how he will sometimes act in an almost fatherly way, encouraging, prodding staff members along until a project is done, a book published in some cases over a period of years. She calls him "shrewd, compassionate, energetic, demanding. He pushes people to do things they never thought they could do, and that's terrific."

But Nader's former chief lobbyist, Claybrook, has also had a taste of the Nader lash -- in her case, backlash. Although he initially supported her appointment, he called unsuccessfully for her resignation two years ago as Highway Traffic Safety Administrator. He accused her of "a failure of nerve" and "a trail of averted or broken promises." She says she was upset initially at his attack and felt it unfair, but came to realize it sprang from his concern that industry was trying to put too much pressure on consumer interest regulators in the Carter administration, and that their will must be stiffened. "I had been under the scrutiny of his self-examination before and knew how hard it had made me work afterward," she says.

Nader has been fiercely criticized, often by some of his former staffers, for running a sweat shop, with ridiculously long hours, few vacations, low pay, grungy surroundings, little attention or praise from himself, for being "a royal kvetch."

"He is extremely charismatic and charming, and that's how he gets people to do things for him. He is very persuasive," says New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, who spent five years "on and off" writing a Nader book on the communications satellite called "Outer Space and Inner Sanctum." "That my life was in constant turmoil [during that time] was certainly true," says Kinsley, "and other people's lives were in ruins." Nader's demands -- weekend work, late night work, midnight and early morning phone calls to staffer's home -- are sometimes blamed for a series of divorces among his staffers.

Mark Green scoffs at stories about the difficulty of working for or with Nader. Green calls him "creative, indefatigable, caring," and explains, "You do best working with Ralph if you were a caring, hard-working person before working for him, and that is your normal cruising speed. . . . He works 72 hours in a 24-hour work day, and he sometimes can't lavish attention on everyone. . . . You don't have to punch a time clock, but if you don't haul your 16 tons of coal he'll wonder why. . . ." said Green just before he exited on a leave of absence.

Ralph Nader tends to polarize people. One of his followers, Jonathan Rowe, co-author of "Tax Politics," a Nader book on tax reform says, "If I could say what Ralph Nader stands for in my mind, it's that I'm better because my life touched his. . . because of his commitment and passion. He taught a whole generation of Americans what commitment was about. . . ." Rowe now works for Citizens for Tax Justice. He's one of the people who will talk on the record about Ralph Nader; many won't, out of loyalty to the consumer cause or concern that Nader will scald them within the movement. People tend to be as secretive about Ralph Nader as he is about himself. (When he had offices at the National Press Club fellow tenants remember that although the outer walls of his office were opaque glass, like that in showers, he also lined them with brown paper to keep anyone from seeing in.)

One former Nader staffer says, "Ralph is definitely an idol with feet of clay. He has lots of strange character idiosyncracies. I found it frustrating to work with him. . . . He doesn't know how to make decisions. He's disorganized. He's an anti-administrator, he's out of touch with the modern realities of what's going on in public interest groups, he's still keeping people in bad working conditions with low salaries. . . . He's too shrill for the times. His style is turning more and more people off -- he still gets good people, but not the same quality, and he doesn't keep them. His movement is in grave danger of becoming a children's crusade. Ralph has spread himself too far , too thin. Ralph is a declining star, but he probably will stay a star as long as there is a public interest movement. His influence has waned considerably, though."

But representative Benjamin Rosenthal (D) of New York, chairman of the House Consumer Affairs Subcommittee, thinks Nader's "effectiveness, skill, and energy" have not ebbed. The new problem, says Rosenthal, is that the business lobby has increased its effectiveness enormously. White House Consumer Affairs Advisor Esther Peterson chides Nader's stubborness but credits him with being responsible "for the whole consumer-awareness movement -- he's created a lot of little Naders and been effective in it."

Some of the Nader critics who admit he's as sensitive as a Geiger counter to consumer interests charge that he is totally insensitive in terms of human relationships, to both the people who work for him, and those who oppose him. In public encounters, for instance, he received a bad press for asking the first black Secretary of Transportation, William Coleman, whether he was putting as much effort into transportation reform as he had into civil rights. And in a highly publicized incident, Senator Jake Garn (R-Utah) asked Nader to apologize publicly for suggesting at an auto safety hearing that Garn's wife would not have died in a car accident if legislation had already been enacted. Is Nader ever concerned that there is a side of himself that alienates the public response he works so hard for?

He gives the faint, inward smile that is characteristically Nader. "No. It just happens that when there are opponents, and we do have opponents, [again, he refuses to discuss himself in the first person singular] they don't challenge your evidence, they try to pick at something else. They pick at a style or a particular episode."

He argues that it was Coleman who initially had used the civil rights analogy to him, privately, "so I just reminded him of it at a public hearing." He argues that he was simply trying to seek "common ground" with Garn, whom he regards as "anti-consumer, anti-corporate accountability. . . . Well, he exploited it, he was posturing," Nader believes.

Is he insensitive in dealing with his staff? "No. Actually, see, first of all -- no, it's wildly exaggerated as to the work and how hard the work is. We give young people an opportunity to work on their favorite causes. I mean in another society they'd pay tuition for the right, you know. . . . They never work on anything they don't believe in, and they're usually working on their first choice. . . . "

The revisionism that has set in about Nader and his mission in the last few years is perhaps best exemplified in "Me and Ralph -- Is Nader Unsafe for America?" It was an attempt by New Republic former managing editor David Sanford to slay what he regarded as the Nader myth: his "press agentry . . . his facile way of imputing bad motives to those he disagreed with . . . his successful efforts to manipulate the press and to quash negative publicity . . . his clandestine ways with money, his lust for power. . . ." In that book Sanford described Nader as "the most powerful non-elected politician in America."

It is what Time Magazine headlined as "Nibbing at the Nader Myth," and it is chic today to do so. One critic, Ralph Winter, a law and economics expert who is William K. Townsend Professor of Law of Yale Law School, says "I don't much favor a lot of the causes he's espoused. It does seem to me there's an urge for power there. . . . He's secretive and autocratic. . . . One of the things that's very relevant is whether he's prepared to go back over time and open the books. It appears there's a very large cash flow there."

Some of Nader's critics suggest that he has indeed spread himself too thin; there is the hint that he has franchised himself, become the Colonel Sanders of consumerism. "Well," he says patiently, "the whole idea is to be a Johnny Appleseed, the whole idea is to get more people to do this kind of work. . . ."

The last time I saw Ralph Nader he was dashing out of the National Press Club , after signing autographs for civilians. A tan Datsun rumbled up. The driver signaled to an aide at Nader's side and Nader rushed to the car through a pelting rain. He jumped into the front seat, the aide into the back. Suddenly, with a look of great urgency on his face, Nader turned around and began signaling to the aide wildly. The aide unsnarled a harness seatbelt and passed it to Nader, who buckled up with a look of relief as they drove away.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.