Nader Lets Loose

HOUSTON -- Ralph Nader is clearly running for president on a completely different planet than the one inhabited by Al Gore and George W. Bush.

While the Democratic and Republican nominees squabble over how to invest the current bountiful government surplus and improve upon the United States' unprecedented economic prosperity, the Green Party candidate is battling grimly to counteract American voters' "total loss of control" of a country he says is actually worse than the nightmare envisioned in George Orwell's "1984."

"Orwell just didn't have a big enough imagination," Nader said in Austin, Texas Wednesday. A more accurate futuristic novel, he said, is Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."

With his famous rumpled blue suit, droopy eyes, hunched back, Ichabod Crane fingers and a voice that sounds perpetually in need of a glass of water, Nader can come across so dour he makes Jimmy Carter look more bubbly than Richard Simmons. When he begins rallies by droning: "Welcome to the politics of joy," there is a great temptation to laugh.

Yet, despite first impressions - and after some shaky attempts earlier in the campaign to leaven his bleak worldview with jokes involving a rubber chicken -- Nader is actually running a campaign full of good humor and crowd-pleasing punchlines, especially in the last few days.

In Austin on Wednesday night, for example, Nader announced apropos of nothing in particular that he was launching an initiative to reduce the classical seven-second soundbite to a single second ... by transforming them into "soundbarks." Whereupon he answered a mythical question about Alan Greenspan raising interest rates by letting out a mangled-sounding canine scream.

This newfound looseness at least superficially softens Nader's depiction of a litany of problems completely off the radar of Gore and Bush. Of course, it is hardly surprising that a lifelong anti-corporate consumer advocate running a reformist campaign would have a darker view of the public condition than the dominant mainstream candidates. But some of Nader's policy prescriptions, while very popular with the thousands of supporters who pay to see him almost every day, seem almost willfully antithetical to the conventional wisdom on voter tendencies.

For instance, in San Antonio on Thursday, Nader actually called for an increase in Internal Revenue inspectors. "I don't like the idea of the majority of American people fairly paying their taxes, and a few millions of people not paying their taxes," he explained. "These are a lot of rich people, too."

Those taxes, too, would be increased in several areas under a Nader presidency, to help pay for his smorgasbord of aggressive policy iniatives.

"You apply a modest 3.5 percent payroll tax to cover universal health insurance, and if anything more is needed you have the biggest source of overdue taxpayer dollars in American history, and it's called the trillions of dollars in stock transactions every week that are not taxed one penny," he said. "One quarter of one percent of stock transaction tax will bring in over $100 billion a year. It also serves another purpose -- it dampens speculation. We should tax things we don't like first, like pollution, rather than things we do like, like honest labor."

Nader didn't elaborate on the differences between a "payroll tax" and taxing "honest labor."

While Bush sounds the popular alarm against the influence of the deeply unpopular "trial lawyers" over the Democratic Party and the country as a whole, one of Nader's biggest applause lines is about how he's "sued the federal government more than anyone else in history."

Bush "gleefully declares how he restricted the rights of Texans when they're wrongfully injured from having their full day in court before Texas judges and Texas juries, and he did this on behalf of corporate perpetrators who produce toxic chemicals that produce disease and who produce defective products," Nader charged Thursday.

Novel Use of Capital Punishment

On several counts, though, Nader stands in complete opposition to a fairly unified Bush-Gore stance.

While both major party candidates agreed at the final debate Wednesday night that the death penalty is an effective deterrent, Nader says that "every study in history shows the death penalty doesn't deter crime," and then further suggests that if capital punishment must exist, then it should be enforced on "corporate criminal CEOs."

While Bush and Gore argue incessantly over whose military budget has the largest increase in spending for readiness and weapons, Nader advocates drastically slashing the defense budget, and recalling U.S. forces from Western Europe and Asia, "where we spend $70 billion defending our prosperous allies from a nonexistent enemy."

On issue after issue, Nader's positions spring from his analysis that the country is facing a much graver civic illness -- a "cancer" spread by giant corporations -- than perhaps any presidential candidate has ever diagnosed. Bush's call for education reform elicits a rant against the "tyranny of the multiple-choice standardized test." A question about public transit brings the gloomy reply: "It's almost too late."

Whether it's duty, perversity or an innate taste for political theater, Nader almost never passes up an opportunity to point out how the American glass is half-empty. In Las Vegas, he said he was against gambling. In the Silicon Valley, he held a press conference criticizing Intel's plan to build a new plant that would create more than 20,000 jobs. If he mentions the Internet, it's usually in the context of "all your personal information, whizzing all around the world without your knowledge."

Riffin'

But increasingly these bitter pills are followed by easy to digest comic riffs, many of them absurdist, or completely tangential.

"Have you looked at your late evening news lately on TV? Can you bear to?" he asked 1,000 or so students in San Antonio, in the middle of a more sober discussion about taxing corporate broadcasters to finance a "people's TV." "Here's what the late-evening television news is, thirty minutes: It starts out with three minutes of street crime usually, very superficially covered. No debating of political stories or city hall. The first weather team comes on -- they're obsessed by the weather! It's unbelievable! Doppler radar, dozens of meteorologists, and they start, you know, 'Over the Cascades, there's something coming heading over the Rocky Mountains, heading towards San Antonio. And they allot about four minutes to the weather.

"And you know sometimes they run out of time because the sun is out, right? So they give you the suburbs around San Antonio that are maybe like four miles apart, 'Seventy-two degrees here, 74 degrees there,' on the map. And when they want to eat up more time they say, 'twenty years ago it was 80 degrees!' And then they give you four minutes of sports, one minute of contrived chit-chat between the two anchors. A random animal story. Latest report from the New England Journal of Medicine. And they say that's what happened in San Antonio tonight? Hello!"

Thursday, he went out of his way in San Antonio and Houston to praise Southwest Airlines, which has been shuttling him in coach class from town to town. "Our favorite airline is Southwest. Not only are they fighting the other airline monopolies, they answer the phone on the second ring." This spurred a two-minute rant about being on hold and listening to "robots."

"You know, if I'm working late in my office and want to hear some classical music, I just call up United Airlines," Nader said.

Like Arianna Huffington, Nader has learned that humor is an effective tool in getting a point across, and defrosting the public's skeptical opinion of ideological sorts. From the beginning he has employed one-liners of uneven effectiveness to lampoon his rivals -- "Bush is really a corporation running for president disguised as a human" being the stalest of the lot. Some of his wisecracks have fallen with a painful thud, such as during his painful appearance on the Tonight Show, when he responded to Jay Leno's question about what he does for fun by blurting out "Strawberries!" (It is possible that this was inspired Dadaism, but at the time he looked like a man who does not spend much time making his fellow humans laugh).

But as the campaign has rolled along, Nader's tortured syntax has sharpened up a bit, and his comic timing has improved exponentially. Now his endless sub-clauses are punctuated with funny little cheap attacks. "Industrial hemp has only one-third of one percent of THC -- even Bill Clinton couldn't get high off it," he said Thursday. And: "Bush says he's a 'compassionate conservative' ... he says that without smirking now."

The levity may provide some welcome relief to the earnest crowds who nevertheless probably have some limit to how much they can hear in one night about pipeline safety, flouridated water and the 50 ways giant corporations are trying to ruin everybody's lives. And -- could it be? -- the experience of making a doomed run at the presidency, and attracting nearly 100,000 paying supporters who scream on his every word, seems to be providing this notoriously austere senior citizen with a legitimate sense of energetic joy.

"This is a lot of fun," he said last night. And though he was referring to the arcane tactic of rewriting customer contracts, he may as well have been speaking for his candidacy as a whole. "You should try it some time."

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