Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, the most vilified man in the presidential election, counts no heroes among his critics
To hear his critics go crazy on him, a steam vent in hell would
be too nice a place for Ralph Nader to pay penance if Al Gore
ends up losing to George W. Bush. One by one, Democrats and
activists eagerly lined up for batting practice last week on the
rumpled old consumer advocate and Green Party nominee.
"He cost him the election," Delaware Senator Joseph Biden
ranted, saying that enough of Nader's nearly 100,000 votes in
Florida would have gone Gore's way to make him President.
"Whatever mistakes Gore made, we wouldn't even be talking about
it if Nader hadn't run... God spare me the purists." Deb
Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said
the Nader biography has to be rewritten. "This changes his
legacy as a person." What really rankled them, critics said when
they paused to catch their breath, was Nader's glib insistence
throughout his campaign that there was no significant difference
between Bush and Gore, whom he called Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
"There was such a contrast between the two [on labor issues],"
said an angry John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. Kate
Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive
Rights Action League, said Nader "cavalierly dismissed the
threat to women's rights as the result of a George W. Bush
election. Ralph Nader is no friend of American women."
It was quite a show, so many lefties ganging up on a guy for
having the gall to act like--how best to describe it?--such an
old-fashioned Democrat. You might expect the target of such
vitriol to be squirreled away in a bunker somewhere. But Nader
seemed no more folded in on himself than usual. Visited several
blocks from the White House in the dumpy town house that served
as his campaign headquarters, he was unrepentant and
unsurprised. "Well-intentioned cowards," he called his critics,
whom he finds unforgivably tolerant of a poisoned system in
which both major candidates dance on strings controlled by
corporate villains. "They're otherwise good people. They just
don't have the courage of their forebears."
The only critic who got under his skin, it seems, was the wife of
the current President. Nader saw a Washington Post quote from
media executive Harry Evans, who reportedly exclaimed at a party
celebrating Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate win in New York, "I
want to kill Nader." Hillary, affirming her support for capital
punishment, reportedly responded, "That's not a bad idea!" Nader
said Evans had apologized to him but Clinton hadn't returned his
For all the frenzy to string him up, Nader said, only one person
will have cost Gore the election if he loses it: Gore himself.
Nader wondered, with a gleam in his eye that has begun to scare
people, why no one is asking the Vice President why he cost Ralph
Nader the election.
That is precisely the kind of hubris that drove some people out
of the Green Party, says Seattle city councilwoman Judy Nicastro,
who quit the Greens two weeks before the election. "What was all
this work for?" Nicastro wonders, saying the Nader candidacy
became an egomaniacal crusade that failed in every one of its
objectives. Nader did not get the 5% of the vote needed for the
party to get federal funding; the Green Party is splintered; Bush
might be President. Says Nicastro: "It could overturn so many of
the things Ralph Nader has fought for, which makes it perverse."
But it is only fair to ask why, if Gore were so vastly superior a
candidate, the sniveling public-interest groups didn't do a
better job of getting their constituents off the davenport to go
vote for him. Election calculus is fuzzy math, to borrow a
phrase, but it is possible, as Nader suggests, that fear of his
threat to Gore actually got more people out to vote for the Vice
President than otherwise would have. And Nader volunteer James
Williamson, 49, of Cambridge, Mass., says he is offended by the
suggestion that his vote for Nader should have been traded in on
Gore the way you might exchange a Christmas sweater. Williamson
was inspired by Nader's passion for ending the raffling of public
policy. "When I voted for Ralph, I was moved to tears. It was one
of the few times in my life I could vote for someone I felt good
about voting for."
"Idealism can be very charming," says Nicastro, "but politics is
When Nader hears this kind of thing, he starts rattling off such
names as Rosa Parks and Thomas Jefferson. What's happened to
dissent in this country? he wonders. The issue, he says, is that
neither Bush nor Gore will run Washington. "The decisions in this
town are made by the Chamber of Commerce, the National
Association of Manufacturers, 22,000 corporate lobbyists and
9,000 PACs who have their grip on every department in government.
Who do you think is the most powerful force on the auto-safety
agency? It's the auto companies. Food and drug, aviation, you
name it--they all have their clientele agencies."
Yes, Nader admits a little too reluctantly, there are some
differences between Gore and Bush--but not on things that matter
most. And spare him the clatter about politics as the art of
compromise. "Politics is the art of transforming leadership, and
a transforming leader is a person who says, This is the right
thing to do, and I'm going to help mobilize the American people
to counteract the special interests."
Two thoughts: First, John McCain tried this, and his wagon went
off a cliff. Second, with all due respect, 3% of the vote
doesn't signal a revolution, nor does it transform leadership.
And here is where you wonder why a guy with 40 years of
effective cage rattling to his credit would marginalize himself
by jumping into the cage.
Nader has never been more noble or more naive. There is no place
for uncompromised idealism in politics, or for anyone who knows
exactly who he is. Some of his former friends wanted nothing more
than for him to admit that Gore and Bush are like night and day
in many ways, and Nader might still have their respect if he had.
But the fight goes on, with or without them. "If you believe
you're right," Nader says before disappearing through a door in
the dim light of the quiet house, "you never lose the election."