Nader's Politics Of the Disconnect
By Dana Milbank, Washington Post,
Tuesday 5 September 2000; C01
LOS ANGELES -- Occidental College, a small liberal-arts school here,
should be fertile ground for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign. The
campus is so politically correct that it boasts a non-sweatshop
clothing zone in its campus bookstore. When Nader comes to speak, the
college president introduces him by comparing him to Martin Luther
And yet, when the 66-year-old consumer advocate finishes his favorite
lines about "government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, for
the DuPonts," a student rises to ask why Nader's issues reflect
"white, middle-class interests," not gay, nonwhite or youth
concerns. Nader retorts: "There's plenty of injustice for
everyone, isn't there?" The applause goes to the questioner, not
"He doesn't talk about poor people very much--he talks about
cars," complains Susannah Straw-Gast, an Occidental
senior. "He is speaking to the white middle class."
Straw-Gast, who wears a bandanna and a tattoo, and participated in the
protests at the Democratic National Convention, should be a natural
Nader supporter. But if the election is close, she says, "I'll
vote for Gore."
A swing with Nader through California finds similar doubts at almost
every stop. In San Diego, a caller to a public-radio show hosting
Nader complains that he represents "white progressives" who
don't care about race. In Santa Barbara, Neil Coffman-Grey carries a
sign protesting a Nader remark denouncing gay concerns as "gonadal
politics" and another sign declaring "Vote Nader, Elect
Bush." Coffman-Grey says that on gay issues, "Gore is more
progressive than [Nader] is."
Al Gore more progressive than Nader? Nader an anti-gay candidate
indifferent to the poor and minorities? It seems absurd on its
face--and yet it haunts Nader.
Herein lies a cruel irony: Nader is failing to rally the far left for
the same reason Gore failed. Many in the badly fragmented left wing
are suspicious that Nader is soft on some of their favorite causes:
civil rights, animal rights, gay rights. And many on the left,
rejecting Nader's argument that he's the only untainted candidate in
the race, don't want him to sink Gore and elect Bush. Gore, after all,
has proved happy to pander to special interests of the left.
Not Nader. His only enemy is the corporation. "The left has become
heavily concentrated on identity politics--gender, race and
homophobia," Nader says. "It's devolved itself into
grievances. Slights are magnified, and they tend to implode on
themselves. It's a real dilemma."
Particularly for him.
High in the hills over Santa Barbara stands a gated manor with a
commanding view of the Pacific. You can sit by the pool, listen to the
fountains and gaze into the valley. Or you can park your car near the
Mercedes, Jaguar and Volvo in the driveway, where a golf cart is
available to take you to a fundraising party inside. Here, a corporate
chieftain is hosting guests who paid between $100 and $1,000 to
The occasion for such luxury? Why, it's a fete for Nader, scourge of
corporate America, patron saint of consumer protection. Last night
Nader, celebrated for his monastic frugality, slept here. He stands
behind leather furniture to give his speech--then hands off to an
aide, who asks for more money.
"I'm not a revolutionary, I'm a business guy," says the host,
Russell Palmer, a recording equipment executive who calls himself a
Republican. "I don't want to tear things down, and I don't believe
he does either. He's a legitimate guy." Back in the '70s, "we
saw him making strong and surly comments on TV," Palmer
says. "I thought he might be that older surly guy--but he's
not. What a gentleman!"
Huh? First the lefties are calling Nader anti-gay and anti-poor, and
now a wealthy Republican is calling him a gentleman? This can't be
Ah, but it is. As he runs for president this year on the Green Party
ticket, Nader is doing many things that seem a bit out of his ascetic
character. It's not that Nader is changing his behavior but that his
presidential campaign is showing the world that Nader was never the
cultural hermit that myth made him out to be. He eats fatty food at
midnight, he breaks the speed limit, he watches TV and indulges in air
At a fundraising stop at a San Diego home ($250 per person for a
buffet of rolled tofu tacos, soy cheese quesadillas and vegan cookies
with carob chips), he grants his hostess's request for a photo of him
in a '64 Corvair--the car he vanquished in "Unsafe at Any
Speed." "You see what I do for a campaign?" he asks, as
the cameras click. "I want to put it in my scrapbook as an example
of how far I'll go."
If some vehicles are unsafe at any speed, all vehicles are unsafe at
certain speeds--including the Nader campaign van at 90 mph. Nader has
only 1 hour and 10 minutes to travel the 144 miles from San Luis
Obispo to Salinas. When his van driver cranks the speedometer over 90,
Nader protests gently: "You can't go over the speed limit."
When an aide in the van urges the driver to step on it, Nader puts his
hand to his face in mock horror. "Let it be recorded that I
object," he says. The driver slows. The aide tells him to put the
pedal to the metal. "You're contradicting my lifelong devotion to
lower speed limits," Nader says, but then drops his argument. The
speed limit is 65; the van is going 93.
The scene underscores the tension Nader faces between his personal
mythology, developed over 35 years, and a less neat reality. Some
picture him as a modern-day Gandhi, his bed a mattress on the floor of
a cheap rented room. In truth, he has few possessions. No car. No
wife. No children. He devotes most of his energy to work, donating
most of his income to his organizations.
He does play to the myth on occasion, refusing to eat at McDonald's,
and snubbing tap water to protest lax purity standards. Bill Hillsman,
who designed a Nader TV ad spoofing MasterCard commercials, told
reporters that "we did have to explain that to Ralph--he doesn't
watch much TV."
But the truth is more complicated. In fact, Nader had seen the
MasterCard ads, and he has even seen an episode of "The West
Wing." He wears leather shoes, eats meat and junk food, drinks
wine and reads novels. He's an avid Yankees fan and goes to Orioles
games monthly. He listens to Bonnie Raitt, and he likes George Carlin
jokes. He hikes in New England and likes movies and flamenco
music. Though he lives modestly, he invests in Cisco Systems and his
net worth is at least a $3.8 million. He talks on a Motorola cell
phone. He even jokes with his staff ("The last time I heard a yawn
like that, the emitter had four legs," he says to one).
Waiting in a TV station greenroom for an appearance, Nader is
approached by an admirer who assumes he eats no animal
products. "You're vegan, aren't you?" she asks. Nader points
to the turkey and roast beef sandwiches he's eating. "Not when
there's stuff like this," he says.
To Nader's Raiders, the idealists who passed through one of Nader's
public-interest law groups out of elite colleges or law school, none
of these revelations about Nader's comfort in the consumer culture is
surprising. He was always that way, never a saint or a
martyr. "Exaggerations and embellishments," Theresa Amato, a
Naderite turned Nader campaign manager, says of the myths. Tarek
Milleron, Nader's nephew and campaign adviser, laughs about the
"old raincoat and rumpled suit" that reporters assign Nader in
their stories (unless they catch him acting normally, in which case
he's a "hypocrite").
In truth, he's neither holy nor hypocrite. "He's devoted to a
cause," says Carl Mayer, another old Nader Raider. "He hasn't
taken a Gandhian vow of poverty." Nader himself doesn't see any
martyrdom in his lifestyle. "It's not an ordeal," he says as
his van travels up the California coast. "What is the pursuit of
happiness? You can't pursue happiness if you're oppressed. Justice is
the bulldozer that clears the highway of happiness. Day after day, it
becomes happiness itself."
But to Nader's would-be allies in the Green Party and among the far
left, the realization that Nader is tainted by compromise and
corporate culture comes as a disappointment. The merger between the
Greens and the Naderites has never been easy. The Naderites are
good-government lawyers who believe in advocacy and congressional
hearings. The Greens are radical activists in sandals who would rather
replace the system. A gathering of Greens attracts a vast array of
oddball causes, from Malthusians to a group called Beaver Power! that
wants to install hydroelectric generators in beaver dams.
And, like the angry radicals at some Nader events, some Green leaders
believe that Nader's cause is different from their own. "There
are different agendas," says Tom Linzey, a Nader adviser in '96
and a current Green Party candidate for Pennsylvania attorney
general. "He never moved beyond the regulatory. People wish he
would move." Nader, he adds, is just "putting out spot
While some Greens and other left-wingers see Nader as insufficiently
pure, the Naderites worry about moving the radicals into the political
process, which is "not as sexy as shutting something down," as
Nader adviser Ross Mirkarimi puts it. "It's inside the
system. You're reorienting them. It's going to take a hell of a lot of
sweat equity just to get them to the polls."
A third-party candidate for president must be willing to suffer
certain indignities and miscues. For example, when Nader holds a news
conference in Los Angeles to announce the endorsement of AFSCME Local
1108, the union reps don't show up as promised. When the candidate's
van attempts to get to a rally north of Los Angeles, the Russian
immigrant driver insists on going south from downtown and continues
several exits before Nader staffers finally persuade him to desist.
Why would Nader subject himself to the unseemly game of fringe
politics? After all, he has a reputation and fame that most
politicians could only dream of.
Three decades ago, he was one of the most admired men in the world and
was touted as presidential timber. He virtually created the field of
public-interest law and forced the passage of consumer protections
that have saved thousands of lives. A phone call from Nader could get
an article in the papers or a hearing on the Hill.
But now, Nader can't even get into the presidential debates. "It's
so much harder now," he says.
That explains his presidential run: a way to gain some publicity for
his moribund issues. For Nader, there's little downside in this
quixotic campaign. He'll either build a viable third party (unlikely),
force Gore to adopt some of his positions (more likely) or get a lot
of press for his pet issues (very likely).
Nader, after a halfhearted presidential bid in '96, has put together
all the elements to keep his campaign in the news. He's raised $2
million and hopes for $5 million, visited all 50 states and expects to
be on the ballot in at least 45, and is drawing crowds in the hundreds
and the thousands (including 10,000 in Portland, Ore.). He claims
high-profile supporters such as Don Imus, Susan Sarandon, Woody
Harrelson and the Indigo Girls. He has a paid staff of 55.
And he loves the microphone. His hour-plus stump speeches put him in
league with Castro. At a utility deregulation event in San Diego,
Nader rambles from the "Chimpanzee Channel" to TV weather
broadcasts to Alan Greenspan to Justice Brandeis to Bill Gates, back
to Brandeis, then to Thomas Jefferson and finally to Cicero. When
aides finally point out to him that he's late for a flight, he walks
off the stage dragging the Nader presidential banner from a string
around his ankle.
So obsessed with news coverage is Nader that while driving through the
central California town of San Luis Obispo, he spies a man with a
video camera on the street. "Hey, there's a TV camera!" Nader
exclaims. "Ninety percent of people get their news from
television. Get out and get that guy." The van pulls over, until
aides gently convince Nader that the cameraman is probably doing a
project for film class.
The Nader campaign is based on a simple premise: There is no
difference between the two major parties. This is true if you stand
far enough away from the two parties--in the same way New York and
Tokyo would look similar if you were standing on the moon.
But look closer and you'll see the two sides disagree over taxes,
Social Security, education, health care, abortion, conservation and
gun control. And just as the Greens and the far left don't necessarily
embrace Nader as their own, they don't necessarily buy his argument
that there's no difference between Bush and Gore.
As a result, Nader can't escape the question of whether his campaign
is simply stealing votes from Gore. Nader offers a dozen reasons why
this isn't so, or doesn't matter. He cites the Clinton record
("How could the Republicans have done worse?") and points out
that a Democratic Senate allowed Clarence Thomas to join the Supreme
Court. "When you vote for the least worst, you get the worst,"
Nader likes to say.
Yet, the spoiler questions persist. "I thought that would've
stopped," Nader says. "It gets tiring listening to this."
The questions linger in part because union leaders have toyed with
endorsing Nader as a way to wring concessions out of Gore, and
Republicans are thrilled to exploit a Nader candidacy.
But the questions persist also because Nader himself seems to suggest
that he wants Bush to win. A "provocateur" like Bush, he says,
would rally the left more than a smiling "anesthetist" like
Gore. "Is it better to have a James Watt, who galvanizes the
environmental movement, than Clinton-Gore, who anesthetize the
environmentalists?" Nader asks.
Whatever the cause, Nader can't dodge the spoiler rap in his recent
trip through California. On Bill Maher's "Politically
Incorrect" TV show, a conservative guest tells Nader that there
are "Republicans out there actively campaigning" for him to
hurt Gore. At his next event, a $150-a-head fundraiser at the House of
Blues in Los Angeles, a questioner wants to know if "a vote for
you is a vote for Bush." The next morning, Nader calls in to San
Diego radio talk shows, and Mel from Hillwood declares that "Nader
is the best friend George Bush could have."
The question surfaces even at seemingly friendly venues. One night,
Nader's name is in lights outside Ventura College, where an impressive
1,300 people pack the gymnasium to hear him. Police escort him onto
Nader is buoyant. "The guys back in Washington are worried,"
the guy from Dupont Circle bellows.
But the crowd, though big, is more curious than enthusiastic. Local
organizers had invited all the liberal groups in the area to bring
their members and set up tables outside.
Susan Vinson, a local activist, came to promote the county hospital,
not to support Nader. "I don't see any point in splintering off
the vote and ending up with Bush," she says. "Gore needs all
the help he can get."
Charlotte Jensen, a student at the U.N. Club table, explains that many
students have come because they "get extra credit" for
attending. She's for Bush.
Of course, Nader always can count on a small band of passionate
followers who don't much care if Nader hurts Gore. "I'd like to
punch Al Gore in the guts--I'd like to see his guts fall out,"
says Liz Hush, an activist at a Nader fundraiser.
At a rally in Santa Barbara, an admirer hands over a $25 contribution
with a note. "Diogenes would be as proud of you as we are," it
The ancient Greek philosopher, a Cynic, had contempt for possessions
and believed that only virtue brought happiness. He begged for food,
lived in a tub and walked barefoot through Athens with a lamp, looking
for an honest man.
Yes, Diogenes probably would have liked Nader. Problem is, he died
2,300 years ago, and he is not registered to vote.
© 2000 The Washington Post