Stoop-shouldered and wearing the same gray suit he's worn for the last three days, consumer advocate and Green Party presidential hopeful Ralph Nader stands before a group of about 30 people gathered in Paul Newman's Manhattan living room and speaks of why he wants to be president.
His Lincolnesque stature and craggy face seem oddly in tune with the primitive American art filling much of the wall space.
"I'm not going to start with the usual exhortations," Nader says. "I want to talk to you about Gerry Spence."
Spence, for the uninitiated, is a wildcat flamboyant Wyoming lawyer, famous in part for winning a $1 million-plus verdict for the estate of whistleblower Karen Silkwood against the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Oklahoma, after Silkwood's car mysteriously ran off the road and her apartment was found to be contaminated with plutonium. When Nader heard a few years ago that a U.S. Senate position was opening up in Wyoming, he called Spence and urged him to run.
"Ralph," Nader recalls Spence saying, "I'm sitting here looking out the windows at the Grand Tetons, my life is good, I can take the cases I want. Why would I want to enter that Senate cesspool?"
"I think your country needs you, Nader says he responded, urging Spence: "Suppose someone came by in the middle of the night and dropped a truckload of manure on your front step, blocking your front door. Would you fight it or would you still say, 'I'm sitting here looking out the window at the Tetons and life is good'?"
There was a pause before Spence said, "You bastard."
The group in Newman's living room includes former talk-show host and longtime Nader friend Phil Donahue, as well as the publisher and the editor of The Nation. They chuckle at Nader's punch line: "I'm only standing here because any one of dozens don't want to."
Not exactly the fist-pumping rhetoric typical of other presidential hopefuls.
But the anti-politician Nader isn't typical. "We're counting on each other," he said repeatedly to groups around New England in May, "and I don't want to do it without you because it doesn't work."
It's a low-key approach that has some dismissing Nader's campaign even as it's begun to hit its stride. By the middle of June, Nader, who announced his candidacy at the end of February, will have visited all 50 states, something no other candidate will do. He has pledged to raise $5 million and has raised more than $600,000 so far. He is on the ballot in 14 states, though not yet in Florida, where more than 1,000 voters are registered Green.
To become a candidate in Florida, Nader must mail a list of 25 delegates to the state's Division of Elections. Green Party officials should accomplish this after the party's convention in Denver next weekend.
In other states, volunteers are gathering signatures to get on the ballot. He expects to have 30 full-time organizers focusing on getting out the vote, and in Florida he already has a campaign manager, Johnny Ardis of Pensacola.
But Nader must overcome more than the already large -- some would say insurmountable -- obstacle of running as a third-party candidate. Besides fighting to get on the ballot and included in the presidential debates (see The debate debacle), Nader must combat the perception that he's yesterday's man.
Sure, he was instrumental in the mid-'60s and early '70s in changing political history. His intervention between 1966 and 1970 via Nader's Raiders, a group of young lawyers dedicated to exposing government abuse and corporate wrongs, is directly responsible for the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act, Wholesale Poultry Products Act, Wholesale Meat Act, Radiation Control Act, Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act and Occupation Health and Safety Act. In addition, Nader was a key player in creating the Freedom of Information Act and the Consumer Protection Agency.
But in a society whose attention span can be measured in 30-second sound bites, many wonder what Nader has done for them lately. Those who do remember his role in this country's history may worry that his approach is anachronistic in an age rooted in cynicism and apathy.
Nader is haunted as well by his 1996 presidential bid. He spent less than $5,000 and did not campaign as the Green Party's candidate then, prompting people to ask why they should believe he's really running this time around -- especially if it means that a vote for Nader is a vote taken away from Democratic candidate Al Gore.
To dismiss Nader this way, however, is to miss the ways in which he could be a real factor in this campaign and the ways in which he could, again, change the course of political history. Disgusted with political patronage and corporate corruption, Americans have avoided the voting booth in hordes in recent elections.
Supporters are hoping Nader's common-sense approach will lure people back into politics. Already, one national poll puts Nader in the 5 to 7 percent range, ahead of likely Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
In Oregon Nader is at 7 percent -- before even campaigning there -- and in California he's at 9 percent.
After spending time with him on the campaign trail, this much is certain: He is up for the challenge. And as history shows, there's nothing Ralph Nader likes more than a good fight.
Which is good, some pundits say, because he's in for a losing battle. Besides the difficulty of getting on enough ballots to garner at least 5 percent of the national vote -- the magic number required for federal matching funds for the next election -- and trying to get included in the presidential debates, Nader could be hurt by the credibility of the party he's likely to represent.
After all, how seriously can people take a party whose other presidential hopefuls include former Dead Kennedys punk star Jello Biafra and Stephen Gaskin, who helped found The Farm, a hippie commune, in the '60s?
Although he was a household name 35 years ago, an entire generation of new voters has no idea Nader is the man who has made their lives cleaner and safer.
"Ten to 15 years ago if Ralph Nader was going to a college campus, they had a sense of who he was," says Bruce Altschuler, chair of the political-science department at the State University of New York at Oswego. "Now he's been out of the spotlight, and I think more people in that age group, if you say, 'Ralph Nader,' you need some explanation. He's also not what you call a hip figure." (This despite the fact that Time recently referred to Nader as "retro cool.")
Nader's name recognition and appeal only become more important when you consider the Green Party itself. While not as openly divisive as the Reform Party, which is gradually imploding under the new involvement of right-winger Pat Buchanan, the Green Party is certainly not without controversy.
The U.S. Green Party, founded about 20 years ago, had as its inspiration the Green Party founded on environmental principles in Germany. The U.S. Greens now have two factions, the National Green Party and the Green Party USA, under the broad Green Party label.
Randy Toler, one of the original Green Party founders, remains confidant the party will galvanize around Nader.
"We have to get our act together here," he says. "Ralph Nader has his faults, but he is the best bet to push Al Gore on the environment. The Green Party needs Ralph Nader more than Ralph Nader needs the Green Party."
Finally, while Nader dismisses the spoiler effect, others don't. "Most people who are clearly on the left will end up voting for Gore," says Southern Connecti-cut State University political-science professor Arthur Paulson. "The voter for Nader is not really a swing voter" -- that is, someone who votes for a candidate rather than a party. "In the absence of Nader, that voter would vote Democratic most of the time.
"I really don't think a lot of people will sign on to the Nader idea," adds Paulson. "The disgusted voter will tend to stay at home, as they have in recent years."
Florida Green Party members expect Nader to give them a much-needed boost. The state party hasn't been very well organized or committed compared to Western and Northeastern states. "I think he's the best thing to come along for the Green Party," says Marie Falbo, who was elected Green Party chairman in May. "This time he's really promoting the party, which he didn't do in '96."
"The Nader idea" has always been a good distance ahead of the mainstream political curve. That makes Nader hard to place on the political landscape. Knowing a little bit about his background helps to put his ideas in perspective.
You don't need to spend much time at all with the Nader clan, some of whom still live in Ralph's boyhood Winsted, Conn., home, to know that little is done without a family chat. Sister Claire is a social scientist; she is followed by Laura, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. At 66, Ralph is the baby of the family. The eldest son, Shafeek, who helped found the first institution in Connecticut's community-college system, died in 1986 of prostate cancer. Their father, Nathra, is also dead, survived by his widow, Rose.
Immigrants from Lebanon, Nathra and Rose taught by example, taking their children to Winsted town meetings. Anyone who ate at the family's Main Street restaurant knew that their food came spiced with Nathra's commentary. Nathra once started a protest about congressional pay raises by walking alone down Main Street decrying the change. By the time he reached the end, the protest had become large enough to warrant and Associated Press photograph that was published around the country.
Rose is still a part of Nader's audience whenever possible, and Nathra's spirit lives on in anecdotes. Nader often tells a story of his father asking him, when he was about 10, whether he had learned to think or believe at school that day.
"I went into my room to think about that!" Nader laughs at a campaign stop. Another favorite is his father's response when a young Ralph told him America needed a good third party. Said Nathra, "I'd settle for a second."
Questioning the status quo began early for Nader, while an undergrad at Princeton University majoring in Far East politics and languages. In 1951, Princeton boys wore white shirts and tweed jackets. Nader thought this a silly convention, so he showed up to class one day dressed in his bathrobe. At another point, he noticed dead birds on campus the day after the elm trees had been sprayed with DDT. When his questioning letter to the Daily Princetonian wasn't printed, Nader complained.
The complaining continued at Harvard Law School, where Nader spent more time turning the student newspaper, the Harvard Law School Record, into a muckraking journal than he did attending required classes.
But it was while hitchhiking home from Harvard -- the only way he traveled -- that Nader's consumer career path perhaps began. He saw a car accident in which a young girl in the back seat had been decapitated by a glove compartment that flew open on impact. He wrote a paper on car safety.
After graduation, he wrote an article for The Nation on car safety. But it wasn't until 1964, when he was asked to help prepare a report for a federal conference on traffic safety, that Nader really began to explore car safety in earnest. In addition to the report, Nader wrote an article on the Corvair for the New Republic, which led to the book "Unsafe at Any Speed," which forever changed the auto industry and gave rise to the consumer-activism movement.
Before this 1965 book the consumer was essentially held responsible for car safety. Nader's book showed how a car's design has a direct impact on the safety of its passengers. He accused the automotive industry of sacrificing safety for the bottom line.
Regardless of the agency under attack, Nader's theme ever since has been corporations putting profits over people. He has had an impressive string of victories. In addition to the laws cited above, Nader founded the original Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C., as well as the Center for Responsive Law and Citizens Consumer Action Group, to name just a very few of his involvements.
By 1972 Nader was such an icon and political force that George McGovern considered him as a vice presidential candidate.
By the '80s, though, Nader's influence had waned. With Ronald Reagan at the helm, the government's attitude toward regulating industry did a 180. Reagan felt regulations stifled free trade and enterprise, and slashed away at many of the social services and agencies Nader had spent his career creating and building up. The Environmental Protection Agency, another creation Nader helped spawn, was especially hard hit. In 1986 his brother died, and Nader suffered an attack of Bell's Palsy, paralyzing the left side of his face and affecting his speech.
It was the insurance industry that brought him back. In 1988, California citizens took on the insurance industry's usurious rates. Nader got behind Proposition 103, a measure to force insurance companies to roll back their rates. The insurance giants spent $70 million to fight the campaign. Their opponents had only $2 million, but they won.
That was just the beginning. As the country began to feel the effects of deregulation, oil spills and the savings and loan debacle, Nader went on the attack. He was on the forefront of the S&L battle and a leader against a 51 percent pay raise for Congress. Nader was back.
Which is one reason he doesn't put much stock in naysayers. He doesn't have time.
At Newman's fund-raiser, Nader answers the spoiler-effect argument -- in which people suggest a vote for Nader and the Green Party is essentially a vote for George W. Bush -- this way: It's a vote for progressive change rather than a vote against the least worst candidate.
In the car ride back from Manhattan to Winsted, Nader is abrupt about the suggestion his candidacy might hinder more than it helps.
"It helps with name recognition," he says of his candidacy. "It raises the sights beyond certain single issues."
As for the toll his '96 presidential stroll -- rather than serious run -- may take on his campaign, "That's dissipating fast," he says. "We're going to every single state."
And people who can make a difference in attracting voters are endorsing him weekly. To date Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Beatty, Susan Sarandon and columnist Jim Hightower have endorsed him, while Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine have said they will do voter registration on his behalf at their summer concerts.
Indeed, it takes only a few days on the campaign trail to prove Nader's seriousness of intent. In a whirlwind tour through the six New England states in six days, Nader meets with citizen groups or gives speeches on college campuses. The overall theme is making all politics local.
So at an alternative incarceration home in Worcester, Mass., Nader talks of the cost savings and success rate of this kind of facility over a traditional state correctional approach. After noting that it costs $3,000 annually to house an inmate at an alternative home rather than the $60,000 at a traditional jail, and that the home has a much lower recidivism rate, he berates Massachusetts' governor for slashing appropriations to the facility and bemoans the national trend toward privatizing the prison system. "Almost nothing is off limits to corporatizing except the Pentagon," he says.
In Rhode Island, at the State House Rotunda, he talks to a crowd composed heavily of college students about their fight to end sweatshop labor. In Hartford, he cites the fight against a new stadium as a success story that shows citizens can make a difference.
"We need to merge the political movement with the civic movement so the political movement never forgets its roots," he says. "You can't change inside Washington inside Washington."
At Newman's apartment, Nader tells the group, "We're not allowing people to label themselves and [then] turn themselves off," adding he will talk to any constituency, including conservatives.
Nor will Nader say outright what he knows to be true: that he won't win. "I don't have to believe one way or the other," Nader said when asked at Assumption College in Worcester, where he had gone to celebrate a nurses' win in a strike. "Whatever we get in November, we build on for the future."
"I'm not holding this campaign to any artificial ceiling," he said at a press conference. "We're out for every vote."
Nader points to history as proof that third parties and dedicated citizens can effect change. Abolitionists and trade unionists, for instance, succeeded against seemingly unbeatable odds.
"The key is, we don't grow up with a sense of civic stamina," he says. "The only place democracy comes before work is in the dictionary."; ;
So Nader plugs away. Time and again he reminds audiences that it takes only 1 million people each donating 100 hours and raising $100 to make a third party viable.
"To those who say, ‘I'm not turned on to politics,' I say, ‘Then politics will turn on you.'"; ;
Just how far he must travel, though, is clear as he walks down a street in New Haven. It's the kind of meet-and-greet that polished political pros would take an hour to accomplish, as they press the flesh and chat with every passerby. Nader, in contrast, walks along intent in conversation with people about a proposed waterfront mall. He has to be reminded to stop to meet various merchants along the way. Not once does he utter the words, "I hope I have your vote in November."; ;
When the occasional person whispers and points or, as one man does, yells out, "Yo, Ralph Nader my man," he doesn't even look up. Indeed, for the most part Nader walks unrecognized.
Until he enters Yale Co-op, where he is scheduled to give a speech and sign copies of "No Contest," a book on how corporate lawyers have perverted justice in America. As soon as he walks in, the clapping begins. First it's just a few of the clerks by the door. By the time Nader has reached the open space created for his speech, the cheers resound from the couple hundred gathered, many of them holding "Nader 2000" posters.
Again, no glad-handing. Nader waits patiently for the Green Party members to conduct business. Then he speaks.
"Why is it other Western nations have better public transportation? Why is it other Western nations have better health care? More livable downtowns? Are ahead in alternative energy?" Nader says. "We're supposed to be No. 1.
"Well, we're No. 1 in the number of people in prisons. We're the world's leading debtor."
A few minutes later Nader holds up a bottle of Poland Spring water. "The contented classes can afford this, and they're no longer interesting in improving our drinking water. The problem is that the contented classes have too many ways to exit."
He concludes with quotes from two historical figures: Sir Alfred North Whitehead and Cicero. "Duty," Whitehead noted, "arises out of the power to alter the course of events."
"Freedom," Cicero said, "is participation in power."
The crowd cheers loudly, and Nader smiles.