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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 King Jr.

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 to Nader.

"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 attend.

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 right.

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 conditioning.

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 fires."

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 the campus.

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 says.

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 Company

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