In the last couple of weeks, some of Ralph Nader's biggest fans have described him in many ways. Spoiler. Egotist. Narcissist. Irrelevant. The torrent of insults began as soon as Nader, America's most famous consumer advocate, announced that he'd be running for president again, this time as an independent.
You could practically hear the fractious left, newly unified under the anyone-but-Bush standard, coming unglued:
The chairman of Florida's Democratic Party told a local newspaper that Nader is a "Benedict Arnold of modern democracy."
"Outside of Jerry Falwell, I can't think of anybody I have greater contempt for than Ralph Nader," said James Carville on CNN's "Crossfire."
The columnist Robert Scheer compared Nader to a "faded chanteuse in a dingy nightclub."
Nader refuses to take the criticism personally. (The fact that his feelings aren't hurt, he avers, proves he's not an egomaniac.) In fact, if you spend more than about 30 seconds with Nader — who was in town the other day to celebrate his 70th birthday — it's pretty clear he thinks Democrats should thank him. After all, he's doing them a favor.
"I am not one of those people who is hysterical because he's chosen the path of irrelevance. I was disappointed. He's a hero of mine. I just fear this poorly thought out, Quixotic effort will tarnish a great legacy.
Jeff Cohen, founder of the liberal media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
"They need a wake-up call," Nader said after a sparsely attended news conference last Friday at the Los Angeles Press Club in Hollywood. "When the Democrats are running scared
they work hard to get out the vote."
People who think Nader's Green Party presidential candidacy in 2000 cost Al Gore the presidential election are not only wrong-headed, said Nader, they can't count. Although Nader received slightly more than 97,000 votes in Florida and George Bush eked out a winning margin of only 537 votes, "a quarter of a million registered Democrats in Florida voted for Bush," said Nader. "They couldn't keep their own rank and file loyal to their own national candidacy!"
This assertion makes people like John Pearce sputter. "If Nader hadn't run," he said, "Al Gore would be president."
Pearce, the founder of a San Francisco media research and software company, is the co-creator of a popular anti-Nader website, http://www.Ralphdontrun.net , which has a slick, one-minute Internet movie that calmly discusses the 2000 vote and asks people not to vote for Nader. The site, said Pearce, became "a major part of Nader's announcement coverage
. Every time Nader put his head up, we were there."
Jason Salzman, another anti-Nader activist, took plenty of heat from his Democratic friends and relatives after voting for Nader in 2000. Even after the election debacle in Florida, Salzman, a 41-year-old Denver publicist, held fast. When his neighbor presented him an "Unrepentant Nader Voter" bumper sticker, he proudly slapped it on his 1987 Honda Accord.
But he soon started having second thoughts, and not just because anonymous correspondents were slipping "Nader is evil" notes under his windshield wipers.
"With Bush's tax cut and basically his rightward tilt after he entered office, I became more and more repentant," said Salzman. "When the bombs started falling on Baghdad, I got the razor blade and took out the 'Un' from 'Unrepentant.' "
In June, Salzman and his business partner, Aaron Toso, launched a website, http://www.repentantnadervoter.com (which features a photograph of the redacted bumper sticker). They ask visitors to sign a pledge of support for "the presidential candidate most likely to defeat George W. Bush in 2004." So far, said Salzman, about 1,400 people have signed on.
While the repentant Salzman is campaigning against Nader, he still respects the guy. "We love Ralph Nader," said Salzman. "But we hate Bush more."
Democrats, Nader has said repeatedly, should "relax and rejoice" over his candidacy. He argues that he will take more votes from Bush than from the eventual Democratic nominee. Disaffected Republicans, upset about the deficit and the perceived civil liberties infringements of the Patriot Act, will flock to him, he predicts.
That's doubtful, said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). "I am a Republican who is upset about the deficit," said Dreier. "I am a Republican who worked in the Congress to get sunset provisions in place for the Patriot Act
so Congress would be forced to look at it again to make sure we do not jeopardize civil liberties
. And I am not going to vote for Ralph Nader."
To many Democrats, Nader represents an election-stealing evil just this side of the anti-Christ.
Cynthia Yorkin, wife of TV producer Bud Yorkin, practically started shouting on the phone the other day when his name came up.
"What is wrong with this guy?" she said. "He must be so narcissistic. To do this negative thing is so sick and so undermining, it's disgusting. Work out your ego issues with a therapist, Ralph, not with us!"
Rob Reiner, a major Gore fundraiser in 2000, has been known to become heated when Nader's name comes up. Van Jones, a 35-year-old San Francisco civil-rights attorney who admires Nader, recently found out first-hand just how passionately Reiner feels.
Jones, who was Northern California political director for Arianna Huffington's gubernatorial campaign, struck up a conversation in October with Reiner at an event marking the state's purchase of Ahmanson Ranch. Reiner said something that he has said often in public and in private: that when Nader said there was no difference between Bush and Gore, he was telling "the biggest lie that any politician in this country has ever told."
Jones disagreed: "Well, there wasn't much difference between their campaigns," he told Reiner, who was not pleased. "His face turned beet red, he started literally screaming at me," said Jones.
Jones said he thinks "that there is a level of irrational anger and hostility toward Ralph Nader
. You can't call yourself a Democratic Party and when people exercise their democratic right to a candidacy you don't like break out your nuclear weapons."
But people do. At a lunch last month for John F. Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Koryne Horbal, a longtime Minnesota Democratic activist, said she didn't speak for a whole year to a friend who voted for Nader in 2000.
Though the current Nader candidacy has provided many a Bush-hater with a hair-pulling moment, it has perhaps caused the greatest distress to those who have been his friends and supporters over many years.
"Especially given his extraordinary contributions, Ralph has every right to run," said former New York mayoral candidate Mark Green in an e-mail. But the longtime friend of Nader and co-chair of the Kerry campaign in New York state says Nader should sit this one out. "If Ralph believes that Washington is corporate-occupied territory and that Bush is the most anti-progressive president in our lifetime, why do anything to ensure the exact result he deplores?"
Last week at USC, as he waited for the CNN-Los Angeles Times debate to start, Democratic presidential candidate Dennis J. Kucinich, who stands for virtually everything Nader believes in, would not even respond to a question about whether Nader belonged in the race. "He and I have been friends for 30 years," said Kucinich, "but I don't have anything else to say."
(Nader was more voluble than his friend: "I have openly and repeatedly supported Dennis Kucinich," he said. "He responded to my candidacy very well.")
Last month, in an open letter to Nader, editors of the Nation lovingly pleaded with him not to run. "Ralph," they wrote, "you've been part of the Nation family for a long time, from the day in 1959 we published one of your first articles
. Since then, you've been a consistent advocate for active citizenship, investigative scholarship and environmental stewardship. It wasn't hype when we called you Public Citizen No. 1." However, they added, "if you run, your efforts to raise neglected issues will hit a deafening headwind."
Jeff Cohen, founder of the liberal media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, worked hard behind the scenes to persuade Nader not to run. "I am not one of those people who is hysterical because he's chosen the path of irrelevance," Cohen said. "I was disappointed. He's a hero of mine. I just fear this poorly thought out, Quixotic effort will tarnish a great legacy."
He can still smile
It may strain credulity but Ralph Nader, who is tall and slim and seems stooped under the weight of his fight to end "corporate rule and domination in Washington, D.C." has a sense of humor. This comes in handy when the invective is flying.
Last week, on the set of Bill Maher's HBO show, "Real Time," where he was presented with a flaming Pinto birthday cake, he demonstrated a point about cable television by grunting. "In the media today, we're going from sound bites to sound barks," he said, and then, yes, he actually grunted like a dog when describing the level of political discourse on Chris Matthews' MSNBC show, "Hardball." (Matthews recently told Nader he wasn't mature enough to be president because he hadn't married and raised a family, prompting Maher to ask: "The only way to demonstrate maturity is to spawn?")
After Nader's friend Michael Moore, author of the anti-Bush tome "Dude, Where's My Country?," endorsed the now-failed candidacy of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark in New Hampshire last month, Nader dropped him a note asking, "Hey dude, where's my buddy?"
And at the L.A. Press Club, after he was asked for his political slogan ("End corporate rule"), he said he had come up with a slogan for how the press has covered his campaign. "Are you ready?" he asked. "We're bored silly with Democrat/Republican campaigns and their repetition. How dare you?"
For all his emphasis on openness and oversight, Nader remains curiously reticent about certain aspects of life on Planet Ralph. He won't disclose how he votes. He won't make his income tax returns public.
And he wouldn't let a reporter attend what his staff called a "birthday party" for him last Friday at the Painted Bird restaurant near LAX, even though the event was actually a $200-and-up-per-person fundraiser. About 100 people attended, generating between $65,000 and $70,000, according to two guests. Green Party presidential hopeful Peter Camejo, who has run twice for California governor, was there and thinks Nader's 2004 candidacy is "the best thing he has done in his life."
The very thought makes anti-Nader crusaders groan.
"The irony," said Pearce of Ralphdontrun.net, "is that for 40 years, Ralph Nader changed this country, by confronting lies, exposing malfeasance, by civil action. When he started going down the third party route, he started doing great damage to the causes he's always tried to advance
. He has a purity of vision that actually obscures his ability to see."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times