It was the night after Election Day, when the nation should have anointed a new President, and Ralph Nader was in la Washington, D.C., taxi bound for the National Press Club, where he was to concede that his own quirky quest for the White House had come to an end. But when Nader reached for his wallet, the cabbie told him to put his money away. “It’s on me, Mr. Nader,” he said. “I support what you’re trying to do.”
Those were among the kindest words Nader would hear in the wake of the too-close-to-call presidential horse race. To many of his onetime liberal supporters especially, the consumer and environmental advocate, who took 3 percent of the vote for the Green Party—including, crucially, more than 97,000 votes in Florida—had metamorphosed from St. Ralph into Darth Nader, the villain who may well have thrown the election to George W. Bush. But Nader, 66, remains unrepentant. “I’m sorry that Bush and Gore took the election from us,” he says. “I don’t think they ran for President to give it to someone else.”
His quixotic but pivotal campaign made for some surrealistic moments on the stump, uniting, as it did, idealistic college kids, aging hippies and showbiz types (including Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, singer Ani Difranco and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder) with a straight-arrow candidate seemingly born in a suit. But all shared a sentiment expressed by one T-shirted supporter in Boston: “Bush and Gore make me want to Ralph.” With donations of just S8 million, Nader managed to hector the major-party candidates (who spent more than $250 million between them) in all 50 states, dismissing them as indistinguishable corporate lackeys—”Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” as he called them. Not only did he refuse to step aside, rejecting pleas from fellow liberals that his presence on the ballot would mean Bush’s election, but in the final days he ramped up his rhetoric, warning, “Don’t go for the lesser of two evils, because at the end of the day you wind up with evil.”
“Egomaniac!” sputtered Democratic strategist James Carville. “Reprehensible,” fumed AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, whose members endorsed Gore. Even erstwhile supporters joined organizations such as Nader’s Raiders for Gore or e-mailed the Nader 2000 Web site in disillusionment. (“No money, no support, no respect for you, Ralph, ever again,” read one such rant.) Al Gore refused to say Nader’s name for months, and on Election Eve, according to Newsweek, every time Nader appeared on TV, Gore aides turned off the sound. Concludes Pat Buchanan, who ran a distant fourth in the presidential race: “We have seen the lethal power of third parties in American politics.”
Nader himself shrugs off the criticism. “It goes with the territory,” he says, repeating his mantra that every private citizen has a duty to engage in public service. Should conservative Supreme Court justices be appointed by a Bush administration, he argues, so what? Democrats approved those appointed by the last Republican presidents. Talk show host Phil Donahue, a friend of 35 years, defends Nader. “An egomaniac? Ralph was the only candidate who wasn’t,” he says. “He flew coach.” Nader’s sister Claire, chair of the watchdog Council for Responsible Genetics, says, “People do not understand Ralph. This is not a game. This is in line with his long-standing mission to empower the people.”
That is a family tradition. “I promised my dad I’d always be an independent,” says Nader, who has never joined the Green Party he fronts. “When asked if he was a Democrat or Republican, he said, ‘I’m an American.’ ” Nathra Nader, who died a decade ago, left his native Lebanon in 1912 and opened a cafe in the old mill town of Winsted, Conn. During dinner-table discussions, he and wife Rose taught their children to ask questions and take citizenship seriously. All were achievers: Eldest son Shafeek, who died in 1986 at 62, started Northwestern Connecticut Community College; Claire earned a Ph.D. in government from Columbia; and Laura is an anthropology professor at Berkeley.
Ralph, the youngest, went to Princeton, where he majored in Far Eastern studies. One morning on the way to his dorm after an all-nighter in the library, he saw dead birds on the sidewalk. Recalling that workers had sprayed pesticide there the day before, he took one bird to the student newspaper, where the editor scoffed that DDT was harmless. So began Nader’s war on the status quo. A few years later, he was hitchhiking to law school at Harvard when he passed a car accident. “I saw a little child with a severed head—the glove compartment door had opened up like a guillotine,” he recalls. The paper he wrote for his third year in law school became his bestselling 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, in which General Motors’ Corvair was singled out as a deathtrap. Though GM investigated Nader’s private life, the company not only failed to gather any dirt—Nader doesn’t have much of a private life—but wound up settling his harrassment suit for $425,000 and taking the Corvair off the market. All cars today have seat belts and other safety features made mandatory after Nader’s exposé.
In the ’60s Nader went on to push for safety regulations governing mining, dental X rays and meat packaging. In the ’70s his work led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In the ’80s he addressed water pollution, inequities of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and exorbitant auto-insurance rates. The only time he seemed to run out of steam was following the 1986 death of his brother. But after a period of “deep sadness,” he was back in the struggle. In 1992 he asked voters in the New Hampshire presidential primaries to write “None of the Above” as a protest. Four years later the Green Party put Nader on the ballot, and he got 700,000 votes without campaigning. Last February he decided to run for real.
The Nader 2000 headquarters, a well-worn townhouse in Washington, D.C., still has folding tables and ringing phones crammed from basement to attic. The twentysomethings who helped him run his campaign have not packed up the maps or dismantled the Web site. Bodyguards still man the front door. Although he had hoped for 5 percent of the vote, the minimum to be eligible for government funds, Nader claims not to be discouraged by the shortfall. He doesn’t know whether he’ll run again but plans to push Green Party candidates in 2002: “We reached the takeoff stage.”
And then there are all those other matters that appeal to his curiosity or streak of righteous indignation—the airstrip in the Everglades, the global spread of tuberculosis, hemp as the fiber of the future. And by the way, he asks, why are our prisons full of drug users, while men who have admitted using illegal drugs in their youth run for President? He does not indulge. “Do you think I’d turn my brain against my body?” he asks incredulously. “I’m pure as the driven snow.”
His life is indeed austere. Ferociously private, Nader has never married or had children. “You have to make a choice,” he says. “I don’t believe in being an absentee father. You don’t take weekends off and defeat these companies.” On the Tonight Show not long ago, Jay Leno asked what he did for fun. “I said, ‘I eat strawberries,’ ” Nader gleefully reports. He also eats a little fish and chicken, but no red meat. He stopped smoking in 1962 and drinks rarely. Though he has a driver’s license, he owns no car (“Why add to the congestion?”) and walks to his Dupont Circle office from his nearby apartment. Though his personal worth approaches $4 million, he puts most of what he earns from lecture fees (reportedly $512,000 in a recent 16-month period) into his causes, living on about $25,000 a year. He stays up until 2 a.m. reading, does a wicked Richard Nixon impersonation and is a fervent Yankees fan—though even in the stands he may try to work out a political theory. “He doesn’t compartmentalize,” says his sister Claire. “He’s willing to try new things, shake things up.” And if that includes presidential elections, brother Ralph isn’t troubled even a little bit.
Brian Karemen in Washington, D.C.