Lyndon Johnson had little use for Ralph Nader. Nixon couldn’t stand him, although he was invited to Tricia Nixon’s wedding because the bridegroom, Edward Cox, had been a member of Nader’s Raiders. President Ford was standoffish.
Now, for the first time, it looks as if Nader finally may have a friend in the White House. Well, if not a friend, at least an acquaintance. Before Jimmy Carter’s election, Nader went down to Plains for conversation and Softball. In Washington, Nader threw a big lunch for the candidate.
Then, shortly after Carter began naming his Cabinet and staff, differences surfaced. Nader wanted Dr. Gar Alperovitz, an advocate of worker participation in economic planning, on Carter’s Council of Economic Advisers. Carter picked somebody else. Nader said publicly that he was not enthralled by most of Carter’s appointments. Carter waved an olive branch. He announced that Nader had the presidential telephone number, and he promised to listen.
So far Nader has rung up twice. He declines to be specific about the conversations but is considerably more cheerful about Carter’s administration now. “The Carter people are very open,” Nader says. “At the sub-Cabinet level some very good people are being selected and they will be accessible to citizens’ groups.” Last week Joan Claybrook, a Nader lobbyist who has worked for mandatory air-bag crash protection, was nominated to head the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Another example cited is Carol Foreman, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, expected to be named Assistant Secretary of Agriculture.
According to a Nader associate, “There is no sense of contention at all anymore with the White House. Ralph has access, but he is also free to criticize. Carter knows that Ralph’s not a good old Democrat. In about a month or so we’ll know better if there has been any real impact.” Nader himself adds in his lawyer language, “There will be no ambiguity to Carter’s success or failure. He has generated high expectations and general trust which become clear standards to measure against his performance.”
Excitement was running high in the offices of NBC-TV. Ralph Nader had agreed to host Saturday Night, the irreverent (and sometimes sophomoric) live comedy show. Why would he do a trendy comedy show? “Because humor is a good way to communicate,” Nader explains politely.
Whose idea was this? It was Mark Green’s. He is a 31-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who has worked with Nader for six years. “I see Ralph as someone who can tell truth through humor to the millions of Americans who watch the program. After all, where is it writ that the only way Ralph can communicate to his public is via his writing?”
What if Nader is awful and viewers hate the show?
“So what?” says Green. “Ralph doesn’t care.” Nader struck some critics as embarrassingly inept. Others were titillated to see him act the fool. The show itself was a ratings smash. Presumably because of the Nader name in the promos, nearly seven million sets were tuned in, the second biggest audience in the show’s history.
Would Nader do more television comedy? Green says, “Ralph enjoyed it, but he’s not about to sign up for 52 weeks on Dinah Shore.”
Nader relishes being a man of mystery. It is not known for sure where in Washington he lives, whether he has girlfriends or any other social life, even what his childhood was like. Now the curtain has parted slightly. He was born Feb. 27, 1934 to Lebanese parents in Winsted, Conn., a middle-class factory town (clocks, straight pins, toasters and textiles). His family owned a small restaurant, the Highland Arms. He grew up in a little white house with green shutters with two sisters and a brother, all older, a dog and a cat. He collected stamps (“my favorite was from Tannu-Tiva,” then a republic on the Mongolian border), loved books about the wilderness and listened to the radio for hours. “One of my favorite programs was The Shadow.”
World War II was the major event of his childhood. “I listened to the news on the radio. I was worried about air raids. I remember the little silhouettes of planes we were supposed to spot.” Young Ralph followed sports closely (and still does). “In 1941 I remember Mickey Owen, the Brooklyn Dodgers catcher, and his famous dropped third strike, and how he came back the next season against overwhelming odds.” Upstate Connecticut was a peaceful, rustic area then. Nader took long walks in the snow and tapped maple trees. He recalls the smell of the woods, the lake, the fire-house, the courtroom. “I always wanted to be a lawyer. A lawyer to me meant someone fighting for justice.”
Something special happened when Ralph was 5. He was taken to the New York World’s Fair. “I saw fantastic models of automobiles. Cars with spectacular shapes—magical forms—cars of the future. I was told how clean and efficient and fast and safe they were supposed to be.” (Twenty-six years later he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed.)
Nader rode a bicycle to private school. The town painter, Henry Bee-man, taught him how to look at flowers. In the afternoons, Ralph worked behind the counter at his parents’ restaurant. When workers from the nearby New England Knitting Co. mills came in, he would listen sympathetically as they talked about their lives, their frustrations.
Growing up, Nader read history, Boswell, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Ida M. Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company, Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There was a book list in the kitchen. His mother filled each day with tasks and projects that she thought would be educational. Discussions at the dinner table went on for hours.
Ralph was eager to go to college. “I liked Princeton because they let you alone. You didn’t have to go to classes if you didn’t want to. It was very free. And it had open-stack libraries.”
Freshman Nader was no preppie in white bucks and Princeton scarf. Martin Oltarsh, a classmate who is now a theatrical consultant, recalls, “Nader was an intellectual who never had a date, who didn’t want to join any of the exclusive eating clubs. He ended up in the Prospect, an open club for Jews, blacks, outsiders and the most interesting and odd people on campus, a club for people who were not social.”
Another student at Princeton recalls Nader as “extremely bright. He was popular with the Jewish intellectuals who joked with him about being an Arab.” (Last month Nader was not amused, however, when an adversary of several years, Federal Trade Commissioner Paul Rand Dixon, called him a “dirty Arab” in a speech. Dixon grudgingly apologized first to the Arabs and, two days later, to Nader.)
Nader went on to Harvard Law School and spent six months in the Army. “It taught me a great deal about discipline,” he says. After that he practiced law in Connecticut, traveled in South America and wrote for the Christian Science Monitor. In 1964 he took a job in Washington, compiling investigative reports about the auto industry.
Nader’s main organization is called Public Citizen, Inc. Set up in 1971, it is not tax exempt, so Nader can lobby and raise money without limitations. Public Citizen, in turn, supports seven other Nader activities: Congress Watch, the Tax Reform Research Group, the Citizen Action Group, the Litigation Group, the Health Research Group, an Aviation Consumer Action Project and the Public Citizen Visitors’ Center.
Nader works mostly out of an office on K Street, about six blocks from the White House. Public Citizen raises some $1.1 million each year from contributions. Nader reveals no more about his finances than the law requires. The money he personally raises through lecturing and writing is estimated at $250,000 to $400,000. (In 1970 General Motors settled his suit against the company for invasion of privacy for $425,000.) Nader says he personally pays 19 of his 110 employees out of his own pocket. Salaries range from $8,000 to $20,000. One Raider says, “We’re all paid, but the pay is so low, in a sense we’re volunteers.” The slave-shop tales are legendary. “Ralph drives his staff not by a whip but by example,” says one staff member. “He won’t yell at you to work on the weekend, but you know he’s working over the weekend.”
Richard Grossman, publisher of Unsafe at Any Speed, says that Nader is effective because “he is a great teacher. I remember watching him train the first five Raiders in my basement apartment. He didn’t turn them on to Ralph Nader—he turned them on to what they could do to assert themselves.”
For a man who demands openness in government and accountability from public officials, Nader’s own secretive-ness about money and his private life has not gone unchallenged. David San-ford is the author of a recent critical book, Me & Ralph. He once edited Nader’s column for The New Republic. “You start any criticism by saying that you’re grateful that there is a Ralph Nader,” Sanford concedes. “However, I think he’s become arrogant and self-important. It’s arrogance reinforced by adulation. You cannot be the sixth, or whatever, most admired man in the world, receiving the mail that he does, the press attention he gets, without being changed by it somewhat.”
It seems impossible to separate the myth and the man. Who still believes that Nader maintains himself in an $85-a-month rooming house and lives on $5,000 a year? That he needs only four hours of sleep each night? His life is spartan, to be sure. He has not owned a car since the mid-’50s. His social life is reading and watching sports on TV. He rarely attends parties. He has no small talk. At Christmas he is generous with gifts of books and subscriptions to magazines. Recently he’s been giving out organically grown nuts.
He is close to his bachelor brother, Shafeek (Shaf) Nader, an education consultant, who lives in an elegant townhouse on Bancroft Place. Nader visits so often that some neighbors think he may live there. To most people with a normal interest in the pleasures of the flesh, Nader’s inexplicable quality is an absolute commitment to his role as a concerned citizen.
But Nader certainly is no intellectual recluse. He is with other people all the time—at meetings, business appointments, lectures, interviews, testifying before Congress, discussing ideas-for projects and new books.
He never ducks a fight. A couple of weeks ago, for example, Nader took up the question of raises for Congress. Armed with his own research, he pointed out to a House committee that the $12,900 increase proposed for each congressman was nearly the same as the average annual income for a worker’s family of four. Nader then went on Good Morning America, two radio shows and spent the rest of the week publicly criticizing what he considered not only a governmental extravagance, but an attempt by Congress to sneak the bill through.
Ralph Nader calls himself “a full-time citizen working on government and business to make them more responsive.” His opponents in Congress, business and government over the years have called him “a son of a bitch,” questioned his honesty, impugned his motives. For the moment, and it is unique in Nader’s career, the vibrations from the White House are good. The first baseman from Winsted and the pitcher from Plains seem to be playing ball.