If one didn't know his history, one might think Ralph Nader looks more like a candidate for involuntary commitment than a candidate for president.
He's clearly a savant. But aspects of his mien include vaguely frightened, furtive eyes and the kind of pinched brow I've always assigned to serial meltdown artists. His voice has diminished, noticeably reedier than when we last spoke, about nine years ago in Washington, D.C. He is wearing a slightly rumpled suit, and he's got a speck of hummus at the corner of his mouth.
He's just been served a meal at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Dearborn, and he's responding to my questions as he samples the spread before him.
I don't begrudge him his sustenance. It's been a long afternoon. The champion of American consumers is 70 now, and he's just concluded a meeting with a throng of volunteers whose ardor will determine whether his name appears on the Michigan ballot this November.
He has signed copies of his book, Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender. He's chatted one-on-one with the few journalists who've responded to his campaign's entreaties for coverage on this Sunday, April 25. I just happen to be the last to get his ear, and now he's hungry. There are more events ahead in the evening.
I don't really believe Nader belongs in a padded cell.
Group therapy, perhaps -- ideally with people other than the scores of devotees who've come to stock up on petitions and burst forth, breathless and rosy-cheeked, to gather 31,000 valid signatures by June 15 and uplift their hero.
And, perhaps, assure George W. Bush another four years in the White House.
Neither Nader nor the clutch of close allies that listens balefully to our dialogue want to talk about this probability. To do so is to be reminded of Nader's undeniable role in the election of the worst president in modern history, perhaps the worst president ever. Bush the Younger is certainly the most rigidly ideological and messianic to occupy the Oval Office, and therefore the most dangerous. He is easily the most brazen and capacious liar, a creature of Orwellian proportions. The man should be clapped into stocks on the Washington Mall.
In the 2000 election, Nader garnered 97,488 votes in Florida, which Bush carried by 537 votes. Nader got 22,188 votes in New Hampshire, where Bush's edge was 7,211.
If Al Gore had captured either state, he would be president today.
It's true, as Nader says, that Gore ran a wretched campaign. But without Nader on the ballot, Gore the dubious campaigner would have beaten Dubya anyway.
Current polls indicate that Nader's presence on the ballot would have a similar effect in many key states this fall. Nader's pulling 8 percent in a recent survey out of pivotal Pennsylvania, with Bush supported by 45 percent of the state's voters and Kerry 39 percent.
Nader stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his role. With his face straight, almost Lincolnesque, he has the temerity to speak of how he and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, will work together to rid us of Bush. He says he is in communication with Kerry's campaign and hopes to meet with Kerry to "see where we can collaborate against Bush on issues."
"I'll take more votes away from Bush this time than Kerry," Nader tells me.
The aggregation that just filed out of the dining room -- including a fair share of Greens and libertarians and bohemians and anarchists and hackie-sackers -- suggests something else to me.
If I didn't know better, I'd think I was listening to the kind of delusional babble that spews daily from the lips of Dubya himself.
It seems that Nader and Bush do have something in common -- followers who embrace their heartthrobs' unstinting determination, even denial, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. True, uncompromising believers.
Nader theorizes that his bandwagon is not sideswiping Kerry, but suddenly teems with conservatives fed up with Bush's reckless deficit spending and the Patriot Act and the "corporate violence and pornography being beamed to our kids."
"Conservatives think that corporate Republicans have hijacked their party," he says.
It's more sad than outrageous.
I'd long admired Nader. During his career as a consumer crusader, his exhaustive research helped make him a credible font of reality, one small voice piercing the manipulative (often malevolent) rhetoric of Big Business' slick image-makers and their mandarins in government.
But things have flipped. Now it's Nader whose rhetoric defies reality.
His acolytes are along for the ride, their talking points well polished.
"My vote's too important to be sold to the lesser of two evils," says Michael West, 30, who's traveled to the confab from Grand Rapids with eight others. "If people think I'm a spoiler, then so be it."
A stack of petitions in hand, the "florist/coffeehouse worker/freelance illustrator" possesses immutable conviction.
"I voted for him last time and I'll vote for Ralph again," he says. "And in four years I'll vote for him again. It's important to get the corporations out of our political system. We shouldn't be run by corporations. We need democracy for the people."
I, too, voted for Nader, the Green Party candidate, in 2000. I shared his belief that the Republican and Democratic parties had calcified into a single fossil, belching empty slogans while beholden to their campaign donors above all else.
I don't think that way any longer. What's changed? Nobody could have imagined that Bush would be as bad as he is. Neither the nation nor the planet can tolerate any more of Bush et al.
Nader and his latter-day raiders refuse to confront one simple truth: Their protestations pass muster only if one clings to the fallacy that there's absolutely no difference between George W. Bush and John Kerry.
Anyone who can't, or won't, recognize the disparity might want to consider a Rorschach test. Or appoint Sancho Panza as his campaign manager.
I won't suggest that Nader doesn't have lofty egalitarian ethos, encyclopedic knowledge or innovative ideas. I do maintain, however, that with Bush in the Oval Office, we will continue to take quantum leaps away from the day his ideas will get a hearing.
Nader has every right to seek a spot on the ballot and make his case to the people. But people of influence have a responsibility to pursue their ambitions in the context of the greater good. It pains me to say that Nader is up to no good.
He fixes his gaze and says without a hint of irony: "The Democrats have become very good at electing very bad Republicans."
True enough, I think. But I have no intention of descending further into the sulfurous abyss of lies, distortions and destructive fantasies where the nation now resides.
We can't afford the luxury of indulging Ralph Nader's pieties.
I ask Michael West, the fervent volunteer, what he'll do if Nader doesn't qualify for the Michigan ballot.
"I would vote," he says. "I would probably vote for the Democrat."
His voice catches and his eyes widen as the weight of his heretical statement hits home.
Jeremy Voas is the editor of Metro Times.