Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and corporate scourge, is saying nice things about the kind of folks you'd expect him to despise.
"Never in America have there been more super-rich people with relatively enlightened views," says Nader, lean and hopeful at age 75, dark eyes aglow as he speaks at the offices of Public Citizen, the progressive research and advocacy group he founded nearly 40 years ago.
"Not all the super-rich are craven greedhounds, dominators and bullies. Some of them take on their counterpart greedhounds, dominators and bullies."
It's as if Glenn Beck had found the bright side of socialism.
Nader hasn't turned conservative and he isn't making this stuff up, although he is, in a way. After decades of speeches, articles, policy papers and policy books attacking corporations and politicians, Nader has turned to fiction.
"Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!" is more than 700 pages, worthy of a billionaire's portfolio, and its heroes are a gang of 70-something plutocrats, from Warren Buffett and Ted Turner to Bill Cosby and Yoko Ono, who conspire to set off a progressive revolution.
The story begins in 2005, not long after Hurricane Katrina. A secret gathering is convened by Buffett at a Maui mountain retreat, where 17 very wealthy people agree to take back the country they think has been betrayed.
They give speeches, write books, organize community action groups. They infiltrate corporate boards of directors, stage demonstrations for the environment and better wages. They start a People's Chamber of Commerce, advocate changing the national anthem to "America the Beautiful" and dream up a politicized parrot, "Patriotic Polly," that becomes a media folk hero.
"Fiction is a way to liberate the imagination," Nader says, "to see what could happen if 17 billionaires and super-rich people really put their minds to it, along with a parrot, and took on the existing business power bloc and the politicians in Washington who serve (it)."
The super-rich name themselves "Meliorists," believers that people can make the world better. They persuade the elusive Warren Beatty to run against Arnold Schwarzenegger for California governor. They conspire to force Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to allow its workers to unionize. They push for universal health care. They start a new political party, dedicated to publicly financed elections. They are so quick, and clever, their foes can't catch up.
The masses respond. Conservative smear campaigns fail. The corporations and the politicians retreat, powerless against the joy and fire of an engaged public.
It all works.
"In the real world?" asked Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, the liberal weekly where some of Nader's early writings appeared. "In the real world of satire I can imagine it, but not in the other world, the one we inhabit. But Ralph is a prophet; he has been right about so many things the rest of us couldn't imagine."
"The cast seems a bit like People magazine, doesn't it?" said author-journalist Alexander Cockburn, who supported Nader's 2000 and 2004 third-party presidential campaigns and has frequently published his essays in Counterpunch, a left-wing newsletter Cockburn co-edits.
"Good luck to Ralph. God knows how he found the time to write a 700-page novel. ... But the use of billionaire's money for anything other than malign purposes is extremely rare, as Ralph well knows."
Nader teases, but doesn't kid. He believes the top can motivate the masses and wants very much for the people mentioned in his novel to read it. He already has some success: Early blurbs came from Beatty ("With this utopian fantasy, he shows us how good he thinks things could be") and from Patti Smith, whose "People Have the Power" becomes a progressive theme song in the book.
Messages left with Buffett and fellow Meliorist Barry Diller were not immediately returned. Spokesmen for Ono and Turner each said their client had yet to read the book and would have no comment.
Since the days of Karl Marx, revolutionaries have debated how much, if any, help from the top was needed to overthrow the ruling class. Nader thinks that the aging rich make for ideal instigators - wise and wealthy, beyond accusations of personal ambition, people of the highest achievement, yet also frustrated.
"They're very demoralized as to the state of the country," Nader says. "They play golf and they grumble and they've persuaded themselves that they're powerless, which is absurd."
His book includes pages of detailed policy proposals, Nader's common literary format, and draws upon public and personal observations. He believes each of the super-rich included is capable of the actions taken in his novel, citing as an example Turner's well-documented interest in the environment.
Nader says his decision to write a novel was in part a response to the nonfiction books he had read in recent years. The corruption of politicians and financial institutions is diligently investigated and revealed. But only the problems are addressed; solutions either are not provided or are too dull to inspire.
"You can see it on TV," he says, "when (liberal author-journalist) Bill Greider gets on Bill Moyers, for example, and he talks about the failure of the Federal Reserve and the Wall Street collapse and that's all very interesting.
"And then he gets to, `Here's one thing you can do about it. You can re-enact the usury laws and control the skyrocketing, gouging interest rates that fed all this speculation.' People look the other way."
Greider, whose books include "Come Home, America" and "The Soul of Capitalism," countered that he had received strong, positive reaction for his advocacy of usury laws, which set maximum interest rates for loans.
"But I agree, in general, about what happens with exposes," he says. "It's a basic complaint, that there's not a follow-through of outrage and action to books like mine, and to his, I might add."
Parts of the novel are now physically impossible. The super-rich crusaders include Paul Newman, who last year died of cancer (Nader says he was already well into the book, and that Newman's role was too important to remove him from the story).
Another Meliorist is Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble Inc., whom Nader places in charge of organizing street rallies. The reason: Riggio once told Nader that he had a lifelong dislike of bullies, strange comfort for the many independent booksellers - retailers long championed by Nader - who blame Barnes & Noble for helping to drive them out of business.
"I'm pretty sure that's accurate, what he feels about bullies, but it's still ironic," says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, which represents the country's independent stores.
"There are ironies," Nader acknowledges. "These people are not angels. And that's one reason they're so effective, because they're not angels."
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Nader was born in Winsted, Conn., in 1934, and remembers that as a teenager he finished "dozens" of socially conscious works such as Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and the muckraking of Ida Tarbell. He would read and listen to the radio, to baseball games featuring, irony again, those ultimate underdogs, the New York Yankees.
"That's my only Yankee imperialism," he says. "But that was before (team owner George) Steinbrenner. I was coming off the image and history of Babe Ruth and my hero, Lou Gehrig ... because he showed me stamina."
His education was pinstriped: Princeton University as an undergraduate, then Harvard Law School. In his 20s, he taught and worked as a lawyer in Hartford, Conn., and freelanced articles, notably a 1959 piece for The Nation in which he charged the leading automakers with caring more about design than about safety.
Six years later, he published "Unsafe at Any Speed," a slow seller at first that helped launch the modern consumer movement, thanks in part to those he attacked. General Motors, builder of the Corvair, the "sporty" little deathtrap that was the main target of Nader's book, assigned private investigators to dig up dirt. The resulting publicity propelled the book onto the best-seller lists, got Nader a personal apology from the president of GM, and pushed Congress to pass new auto-safety laws and regulations.
"Ralph Nader became famous 40-plus years ago operating on a fairly straightforward logic, that if you expose wrongdoing and get attention, it will produce a political reaction," Greider says. "And that's what his campaign was about, and it was successful, and helped lead to laws for clean water, clean air and a rather long list of legislation."
Nader said it took just months to finish the novel, "the words flying out" of his Underwood typewriter, a process so flush that when an occasional thunderstorm knocked out the electricity he would continue to work, by candlelight.
He cites a couple of reasons for waiting until now to try fiction: "insufficient" imagination and a stubborn belief, now worn down, that the truth was enough, that "around the corner we'd have a breakthrough in health care, we'd have a breakthrough in corporate accountability." His mind was not changed by the election of Barack Obama.
Even Utopia isn't perfect. Of all the hurdles cleared and miracles realized in his novel, one great leap is never considered:
Ralph Nader becoming president.
"Fiction has some boundaries," he says with a laugh.