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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 call.

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 about compromise."

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."


Cover Date: November 20, 2000



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