It's Saturday Night Nader!

NEW YORK -- A few weeks ago, students wearing aerodynamic hiking boots and glazed expressions packed an auditorium at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor for a political rally. They applauded Phil Donahue and hooted for filmmaker Michael Moore. One of the loudest cheers of the day, however, came when Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader came out on stage and squinted into the glaring spotlight. "Could we turn the light down a little?" he asked an offstage tech crew. "This is politics, after all, not show business." The kids went bananas.

Of course, we all know that politics is>is show business, which is why George was so chicken-and-biscuits charming on Oprah and Al tried tucking away his inner android for MTV. Politics is what comes on some time between Buffy and Letterman, and it's all the candidates can do to compete with "Malcolm in the Middle" for the psychological equivalent of Nielsen ratings in viewer's minds.

Ralph Nader, at once the begrudging Luddite who handles his assistant's cellphone like a hot potato, and the scathing cultural critic who blames television for everything from childhood obesity to strip-mall culture, knows well the power of the tube. That's why last weekend he became the first presidential candidate in the 2000 election to go on Saturday Night Live.

"Look, this place is in tumult," Ralph says while sauntering into studio 8H of NBC in Rockefeller Plaza, gesturing at the plywood sets piled in the hallway lined with photographs of people like Rick Moranis and Jimmy Smits and Glenn Close, celebrities who get attention simply for existing outside their celluloid and televised images. "Have you ever been here before?" he asks, as if it's a popular local watering hole.

In fact, not only have I never been to the set of SNL, but I haven't even seen the show in about ten years and I'm seriously disappointed to find out comic Dana Carvey is no longer on it. Ralph, on the other hand, hosted the show in the '70s and has made cameo appearances a couple of times since then. He is ushered into a dressing room, leaving us journos to snoop around.

The set is an extraordinary scaffolding of dollies, wires, cables and a shallow pool of tomato sauce, apparently for use in a sketch later on. A couple of NBC lackeys studiously scrawl cue cards inside a vast maze of paint cans. Frenetic directors storm through the cruise-ship-narrow corridors and political humorist Will Durst flaunts a pair of lace-tushied green panties in the costume room.

In the studio, Rob Lowe is rehearsing a sketch in which he plays a flamboyant, squealing quasi-drag queen named Mango, shooting a porn flick with a gaggle of bikinied girls. Immediately, I think of Ralph Nader sequestered in his dressing room, a man so squeaky clean and civic-minded that he's almost priest-like, and I'm embarrassed he should be in such close proximity to jokes about "Ben Assflex" and sperm disinfectant.

As the rehearsal for Ralph's sketch approaches, a few cast members bolt past his dressing room, one of them proclaiming, "That's Ralph Nader, he's running for president." Just the fact that this actor, Tracy Morgan, has correctly identified Nader as a presidential candidate impresses me, so I ask how he feels about having Ralph on the show. "Well, I think he's good for TV and I think he's good for politics," he says, indicating some intrinsic order of importance.

Ralph is escorted to his sketch, where he listens to the director with the same stolid patience and attention with which he listens to loopy, wild-eyed Greens ask rambling questions about Tibet. Standing next to Lorne Michaels, in his crisp, gray, single-breasted suit that surely cost the equivalent of Malawi's annual average per capita income, Ralph looks like a schlepper. Almost every journalist covering his campaign has made snide gibes at Ralph's rumpled old-fashioned blue suit, and I always resisted the temptation -- "It's a classic suit," he told me once, "very durable" -- but now I see what they mean.

After everyone breaks for dinner in the NBC commissary (where Ralph is more concerned with finding out about his beloved Yankees than anything else), Micah Sifry, whose conference on "Independent Politics in a Global World" had Nader as its keynote speaker this weekend, is seen lounging backstage. So is Juliette Beck, the Global Exchange organizer who was crowned poster-child of the anti-globalization movement last spring in the New Yorker. "This is great publicity for Ralph," she gushes. "It's showing his sense of humor, that he's a real person who people can relate to as a human being."

The show's musical guest, Eminem, then walks in with his entourage and settles into a dressing room across the hall from Ralph Nader's, and I become instantly preoccupied with the possibility of a meeting between the two. Unfortunately, Eminem, a runtish suburban wigger who vaulted to hip-hop superstardom this year, was not interested in meeting Ralph, giving the press a comment on Ralph, or, for that matter, giving anyone a comment on anything. But a professional Eminem impersonator named Scott Keogh who, strangely, was brought in with the Eminem entourage was all too willing to talk.

"I think the main reason I don't vote is because I don't follow it, it's just too much," says Keough. "Like, you just told me about Ralph Nader, I have no idea who's even running. Like, Hillary Clinton is running for something, but not for president, right?"

I hesitate to harp on this kid's cluelessness about the presidential election when I am in fact pretty clueless about Eminem, and in the giant mush of popular culture, Eminem wins. There are many more hulking bodyguards, pimply assistants and impossibly skinny young women with no apparent purpose milling outside Eminem's dressing room than outside Ralph's, and while Nader might pack a few stadiums, Eminem has, in a way, already been elected (in fact, his keyboardist attests that he would only be lured into a voting booth if Eminem was running.)

Ralph's sketch is a witty little bit that has him first begging with Lorne Michaels to let him be in the debate sketch, and then has him droning on and on about big business to Rob Lowe, who in a voiceover is heard thinking, "Who is this guy? Is he one of my agents?"

Then, as Rob Lowe is speaking, Ralph is heard thinking in a voiceover "Look at him, he's high! I should tell him my position about the decriminalization of weed, that'll get his vote!" Eventually, Ralph gets yanked out by security in a parody of his exclusion from the real presidential debates last week, and his facial expression is so convincingly shocked as to confirm a real future in acting if the whole campaign thing doesn't work out.

Eminem performs a couple of desultory numbers, the show pokes predictable fun at Bush, Gore and the Olympics, and the audience laughs and applauds dutifully when the "Applause" light flashes. Along with Farrah Fawcett and Dan Aykroyd, Ralph is hanging out backstage asking how well he did with the facial expression, and pontificating about the importance of Saturday Night Live and its comedic ilk.

"The ultimate purpose of life is laughter. Think about it," he says, "if you solve all the other problems..." I play the spoilsport, wondering how far you have to be from the world's problems to have a good guilt-free laugh, and reminding him of General Electric's ownership of NBC.

"Isn't that unbelievable?" he says. "They're so secure in their power they can have me come right on their property and talk about big business. There's nothing to conspire against!"

The finale of the show brings out all of the guests for the ritual goodbye, and there they are, Ralph Nader, Rob Lowe, Eminem, and the whole cast of Saturday Night Live (minus Dana Carvey, which I'm still trying to accept) uniformly regurgitated by the great maw of show business.

Looking at Ralph standing there, awkward but cordial as he waves to the audience, it's clear that he is not only competing with George W. Bush and Al Gore in this election, but also with Rob Lowe and Eminem and Rick Moranis and Jimmy Smits and every other celebrity who exists in the public mind, as sifted through the cultural equalizer. He's smart for going on the show, according to the doctrine dictating that all publicity is good publicity. But whether or not he can keep qualifying his politics as not entertainment when it seems everything is entertainment, I'm not so sure.

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