Ralph and Me

When George W. Bush squeaked by Democratic candidate Al Gore in Florida to win the right to lead this country for the next four years, I felt betrayed.

Despite Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's unswerving -- some suggested maniacal -- assurances to the contrary, the vote for him had been a vote for Bush. Not only that, but the party failed to get even close to the five percent of the national vote needed to allow it to qualify for federal matching funds. My vote for Nader really had been a waste.

Nader's behavior post-election didn't help me feel any better. Never known for his contrition, in interview after interview, Nader blamed the loss on Gore, obdurately refusing to acknowledge that just maybe his presence in swing states like Florida had absolutely changed the course of this election and therefore this country's future.

My disillusionment was echoed by plenty of others, some of them far more stalwart and closer to the fray than I. "I'm not going to answer his phone calls," Robert Music, director of the progressive Physicians for Social Responsibility, told Mother Jones. "He cost us an election at what may be a turning point in American society," Alice Germond, executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, told the same magazine.

Trial lawyers, formerly among Nader's biggest fans because of his consistent stance against tort reform, were among the most vocal. "I think what he did in the political arena will cost us for a decade," Fred Baron, president of the 56,000-member Association of Trial Lawyers of America, was quoted saying in the Recorder, a publication of American Lawyer Media.

Even citizen groups founded by Nader started distancing themselves. Public Citizen, which Nader founded 30 years ago, was so worried about its post-election drop-off in contributions that it began sending out a letter with a new disclaimer: "Although Ralph Nader was our founder, he has not held an official position in the organization since 1980 and does not serve on the board. Public Citizen -- and the other groups Mr. Nader founded -- act independently." Other Nader groups, such as the Center for Auto Safety and the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, also saw drop-offs.

This initial dismay was only fueled in the first 100 days of the Bush Administration, as the very real differences between Bush and Gore -- particularly in the environmental arena -- became evident. Nader may have insisted on the campaign trail that they were Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but Bush's environmental policies certainly suggested otherwise as he rejected the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, broke his campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and scuttled a Clinton Administration rule cutting arsenic pollution.

Nader's uncharacteristic, almost deafening, silence during both the Florida post-election debacle and Bush's first 100 days only made matters worse for those who had pulled the Green Party lever. Where was Ralph now?

I found myself less and less willing to defend him among former fans who are my friends and peers. And yet, something about this man makes me want to give him a second chance. For one thing, Nader's often right. Whether it's about how major parties handicap competitors, or about the need for public financing of campaigns and the need for universal health care -- to name just a few of his platforms -- he's taken the time to analyze what's needed and he's not afraid to say what he's found. Name one politician willing to do the same.

He is also indefatigable. As one of the most influential persons of the 20th century, a man whom we can thank for many of the safety, health and pubic information privileges we enjoy, the 68-year-old Nader could retire to Winsted to write books and garden, and no one would think less of him.

Instead, he continues to criss-cross this country to lecture and exhort people to action at a level that leaves many of his younger staffers exhausted. After the election, Nader founded Democracy Rising, a coalition designed to link local groups together in a civic movement for accountability and action that he hopes will help hold politicians more accountable in coming elections. To spread the word, he organizes and speaks at Super Rallies.

The rallies, which are part rock show/part old-time political rally, have a decidedly younger skew. But while it's exciting to know that 7,500 can gather in Portland, Oregon in a Nader call-to-action, I worry about an overall movement whose base seems so young. To really make a difference in our civic and political landscape, Nader must lure back the disaffected older voters who took a gamble and voted their consciences in 2000 but now feel betrayed and reach out to the disaffected older voters who were too cautious to take the leap but now feel as if those who did were fools. What will Ralph say to them?

I thought his new book, "Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender," might offer some explanations or perhaps a game plan. While detailed in its behind-the-scenes annotation of events and clear in its agenda for the future, the book is short on any mea culpa. The bad guys are really bad. The good guys are just about everyone associated with Nader's campaign.

It left me unsatisfied, because I think an admission of mistakes and then learning from them is what's needed for certain people to learn to trust Nader again.

It was time to give Ralph a call.

I wasn't looking forward to the conversation. As a reporter, I have had dealings with the Nader family off and on for about six years. I have seen firsthand the speed with which they can attack if they think someone is on the "wrong" side. As a reporter for the Litchfield County Times covering the close of their hometown hospital -- the first hospital in the state to go bankrupt and one whose closure left rural Winsted without immediate serious emergency care -- I was fortunately on the right side ... and received the attention that this can afford. I was invited to their home for a Christmas party. I met their mother, Rose, a woman whose short stature belies her gigantic influence in the Nader siblings' lives. There was talk of my writing a book on the family.

But even as I continued my investigative series, eventually revealing a complicated web of financial mismanagement on the part of the hospital CEO that still couldn't save the hospital in court, I was aware of my tenuous position. I witnessed how quickly the Naders could turn against those they thought were against them, sometimes merely because these perceived enemies offered up another point of view.

So I figured Nader wouldn't take kindly to my asking about the election and if he'd learned anything, that he would continue to parrot his rhetoric that the election was Gore's to lose and that the choice between the two parties is really no choice at all.

I was wrong.

The conversation began with Ralph agreeing that being a consumer activist is different from being a political activist. Where a consumer advocate speaks for people, a politician, in order to gain followers, must speak to them.

Nader admits he's still fine-tuning his approach, which is one reason why he founded Democracy Rising. It brings him back to his roots and lets him do what he does best -- galvanize people to action. As a coalition devoted to helping grassroots groups work together on local issues, it also has little to do with politics specifically other than the hope that people will be moved to political action where appropriate. "There's always a back and forth between the civic and political," Nader says.

Nader is a little less forthcoming when first asked about luring back the disaffected, as he initially gives a now-familiar variation on a theme.

"There comes a time when you have to pronounce that the two parties have flunked," he says, "Everybody has a break-away point." Berating a third party for trying to effect change -- and yes, taking votes away from a status quo party -- is counter-democratic, indeed counter-nature, Ralph says. "That's an unacceptable assumption that you can't exert outside influence." More simply put, whatever happened to competition?

That said, Ralph admits many don't like his approach, which has been called dogmatic at its best, tyrannical at its worst. While not suggesting he should have done some things differently in the election, he is trying to mend a few fences. He relies on intermediaries, for instance, to approach groups who tongue-lashed him after the election. He creates coalitions. "None of us have more collaborators than we need," he says. "The door is always open; I carry no grudges."

The approach seems to be paying off, he says. Already, the Sierra Club, which skewered him in the press for his Green Party bid before endorsing Gore, has been among the groups hosting tables at some of the Super Rallies. "Stagnation gets you nowhere; drawing lines gets you nowhere," Ralph says.

But what about the older, more experienced/cynical voters/non-voters? What about people like me who want to believe but now wonder if 2000 was just the beginning of the nightmare?

Uncharacteristically, Ralph Nader doesn't have a ready answer. "That's a good question," he says, "it's hard to answer." He launches into a story of a friend who had been a compatriot for years who, post-2000 Election Day, sent him a vituperative letter whose venom amazed Ralph. What can you tell someone like that? he asks rhetorically.

"You can tell him 100 things -- Why pick me out? Why don't you blame Gore's performance?" No explanation would really make a difference, Nader says, because these people are "really saying I shouldn't have run, that no third party should ever run." And, that, as Ralph has said before, is an option he refuses to consider because he believes it dooms the democratic process.

So instead Nader is trying to let his actions speak louder than his words.

And he continues to look for the next person to take up the leadership mantle, whether it be as a consumer guru or as someone who galvanizes political change among a disaffected electorate. "I think about it all the time," he says, noting that democracy is an "exhausting cottage industry. If I see a bright young star," he says, "I will take an hour to talk, to connect, to ply them with books -- there is no substitute."

We end the interview by talking about Gov. John Rowland and Democratic hopeful Bill Curry's chances and whether or not the Enron/CRRA scandal will hurt Rowland's run.

I hang up and, as is often the case after I've talked to Nader or heard him speak, I feel reassured. Yes, Ralph can be self-righteous and didactic to the point of becoming a parody of himself -- what was with that recent letter to the NBA commissioner where he complained about the officiating during the LA Lakers' series with the Sacramento Kings and called for a review of the refs? -- but underneath that crusty exterior, Nader really does seem to just want what's best for democracy and, by extension, the American people. Maybe his view isn't everybody's, but at least he's trying to get a dialogue going. And as a reason to take a political leap of faith and trust him again, that's seems as sane an explanation as any for me.

Janet Reynolds is the editor and publisher of the Hartford Advocate. Email her at jreynolds@hartfordadvocate.com.

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