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Ralph Nader-Apoplexy Season All Over Again

by Tom Gallagher

It's Ralph Nader-apoplexy season in the mainstream media again. That Nader's by now regular presidential announcement creates a certain level of upset we can understand, given that the winner-take-all structure of American politics does mean third party candidacies can tip an election to the major party candidate who is actually farther from the views of the third party's target audience. Still, something seems seriously off when journalists and editorialists express greater outrage at Nader than at the candidates or policies they condemn him for potentially aiding.

For instance, there's the February 26, 2008 New York Times entry, "Mr. Nader's Unforgivable Wrong" where blogger Ron Klain writes that "There was a time when Ralph Nader was my hero" - a common stance in such articles - but "the harsh, mean-spirited, hugely wrong and unfair things he told voters about Al Gore in 2000" are "unforgivable." Nader, he concludes, should issue "an apology for the misguided direction he gave in 2000." Shall we expect a follow-up article calling for John McCain, the candidate Klain fears Nader's candidacy will help, to apologize for bombing North Vietnam? Or do words speak louder than actions in this realm?

Probably no publication goes further over the top on the subject of Nader than the New Yorker where a March 8, 2004 Hendrik Hertzberg article claimed that "More than any other single person, Ralph Nader is responsible for the fact that George W. Bush is President of the United States. Nader is more responsible than Al Gore ... Nader is more responsible than George W. Bush." As with most of Nader's media critics, Hertzberg's stance is that it isn't Nader's political views that are the problem, but rather their inappropriate airing in the final election campaign when they carry spoiler potential. Nader's general retort is that his platform will receive substantial attention only if he runs in the final and only if his candidacy generates controversy. Anyone who considers Democratic primary campaigns the appropriate venue for creating an American electoral left precisely because third party campaigns can help elect a George Bush or a John McCain would probably like to say that Nader is wrong on that contention, but the evidence does not particularly back up what we might wish were true.

The fact is that much of Nader's platform - immediate withdrawal from Iraq; a single payer, Canadian-style health care plan; a worker and environment-oriented trade policy; etc. - was actually represented in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, most resolutely by Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. But by far the greatest attention the New Yorker ever gave to his campaign was a November 12, 2007 article, "Going After Hillary," also by Hertzberg, describing a presidential debate question about Shirley MacLaine's report of a joint UFO sighting with the candidate. Serious issues on which Kucinich distinguished himself from all the other participants in that debate - like his proposal to take American troops out of Iraq in three months - went unmentioned.

To be fair, though, Hertzberg did devote more space than most mainstream journalists to the Democrats' other hardcore antiwar candidate, writing that the field held "more than one space cadet. The other, Mike Gravel, was missing this time, having been triaged out on the ground that his campaign has consisted almost entirely of showing up for TV debates, to which his passport, now expired, was his service as a senator, which ended a quarter century ago." And with that, the veteran political reporter wrapped up his magazine's coverage of what he characterized as "the Pacifica Radio wing of the Party." So, in outrage on the one hand, and with mockery on the other, the New Yorker went on its way dismissing political views it finds uncomfortable, without actually discussing their merits - as does most of the big media.

And when all else fails, there's always the last resort of dismissing what Nader says as simply a matter of ego, as in another February 26, 2008 Times article, "Trying Times for the Remaining Nader Faithful," that reported "former Nader associate," and one-time Connecticut secretary of the state, Miles Rapoport saying "I think his narcissism has simply taken over, the sense that nothing is happening in the world except when it's around me. ... Simply to say the two parties don't represent me ... is only true if the only place one looks is in the mirror."

The beauty of this one is that there's no real way to rebut the egoism argument, since we all presumably do what we do because it makes us feel right in some sense. But the fact remains that even if we might consider his chosen method problematic, Nader does find a way to draw attention to ideas like getting the US out of Iraq long before the major candidates propose to do so and creating a universal non-profit health care system they won't touch. And those of us who share these views might want to look in the mirror ourselves and ask how effectively we are promoting them before throwing the first stone at Ralph Nader.

Tom Gallagher can be contacted through his email.

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