"An Unreasonable Man"
A challenge to debate democracy
Was Ralph Nader right or wrong to run as a third party candidate against George W. Bush? Did his campaign really cause Al Gore to lose? Is Nader responsible for the Iraq war? The huge deficit? The post-Katrina debacle?
A paradox: here is one of the most significant and controversial men of recent American history, and yet the media rarely mention him. Once a hero, he has become a pariah. This new documentary is a good record of the achievement and the controversy. While it's friendly to the man, it also lets some of his most vitriolic political opponents, like Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, speak out loud and clear. It's hard to leave the theater without entering into a debate over the final issue the film raises: Was Nader right or wrong to run as a third party candidate against George W. Bush? Did his campaign really cause Al Gore to lose? Is Nader responsible for the Iraq war? The huge deficit? The post-Katrina debacle?
The film takes us back to Nader's origins: he was one of four siblings born into a Lebanese Christian immigrant family in Winstead, Connecticut, whose town meetings he came to consider an example of true direct democracy. His mother was a political activist and his father a restaurant owner who encouraged, if not required, political debate with customers and at his own dinner table. "What did you learn at school today"? his father would ask young Ralph. "Did you learn to think, or did you learn to believe?" Clearly the man, his brother, and his two sisters, learned leadership from these origins. Each became outstanding in his or her own field. Nader went to Princeton and Harvard Law, and then, after a brief stint in the Army and time as a lawyer and teacher of government, he went to Washington, and the rest is history.
What is it about Ralph Nader? Surely there is no one like him in public life. The crusader, the Knight in Shining Armor. One thinks of the lean face, the uniform of dark suit and plain tie, the calm, piercing, often ironic voice. One thinks of the man's dedication, his frugality. He has never married, a conscious choice: work comes first; there's no room for family. It's been written in Current Biography that before leaving his six-month stint in the Army in 1959 Nader acquired four dozen cheap, sturdy military socks from the PX that by the mid-Eighties he still hadn't worn out. Thoreau would have liked that. Indeed the man marches to the beat of a different drum. In his glory days of major accomplishments as a consumer advocate—a legacy so pervasive we're barely aware of it, though it has saved many lives—Nader worked stolidly through the system right at the time—the Sixties—when the Counterculture was at its peak. The Crusader, the Idealist, Nader is a stubborn man whose stands have won battles and infuriated many. His rigidity, his nerdiness: rising to prominence in the Sixties and Seventies, he never adopted the looser, more florid, "anti-establishment" style of those days but always kept to the monastic suit and tie and short hair.
People in government have to compromise. For Nader, that's been unacceptable.
Spurred by a good friend's becoming handicapped after a car accident, Nader first came to national and international prominence by fighting Detroit via government regulation for safer cars, the Chevrolet Corvair being a famous target. This was to be an epic battle in which the auto manufacturers tried to dig up dirt against him and bait him with prostitutes. He fought back with lawsuits and won. Nader has tackled government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Aviation Administration. In his battles to keep the air and water clean, provide safe food and automobiles and decent nursing homes, protect forests and many other things, Nader has founded literally dozens of non-profit organizations. The list is so long the film can't quite keep up; it's best on the early period of advocacy for auto safety. "Nader's Raiders"—the popular name for the hundreds of young activists who came to Washington to work with Nader in suited, hard-working teams—provide some of the many talking heads who reminisce and voice differences, besides the angry opponents (largely missing: corporate critics). Jimmy Carter's presidency was a turning point. Nader felt betrayed by Carter, who seemed so friendly at first, and by some of his former associates who went to work in government agencies. Nader will not compromise. People in government have to. For Nader, that was unacceptable.
Some other points: Nader is a "consumer advocate," but that doesn't mean he's pro-consumption (remember the socks). Perhaps Nader's attitude toward the Democrats goes back to his difficulties with Carter. It's not difficult to point out the many ways that Clinton as president was pro-business, anti-welfare; the way he failed to keep the promise of a national health service or to protect gays in the military. With a different façade, Nader points out, Clinton continued many of the pro-corporate, neo-liberal, anti-individual rights policies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Nader's just fed up with the principle of the "least worst"—but few of us who live in these United States can be so uncompromising, so maddeningly self-righteous and rigid—and often so surprisingly right.
Nader defies the two-party system. Nader holds, as the film shows, that any independent candidate who knuckles under when the final push to election time begins and throws in his support to the Democrats' candidate is telling Republicans and Democrats alike they can do what they want. It's essential to have a third party that's a real threat. And the reason why this is so is that there is not a big difference between the two parties. Still: George W. Bush no worse than Al Gore? One critic says Nader is a Leninist: he implicitly wants things to get worse to force a change. Not quite true—he's just fed up with the principle of the "least worst"—but few of us who live in these United States can be so uncompromising, so maddeningly self-righteous and rigid—and often so surprisingly right despite everyone else saying otherwise. In short, few of us are like Ralph Nader. If those who voted for him in 2000 had foreseen the disaster that is the current administration would they have done so? And yet—would not the world be measurably worse without him? That's what this fascinating film challenges us to consider. The man is extraordinary—and deeply flawed. Don't we always need more, not fewer, such people? Mantel and Scrovan's documentary is admirable for laying out so much of the Ralph Nader story for us to see.
©Chris Knipp 2007. Chris Knipp, of San Francisco, writes about movies, politics and art on his blogsite
For information about the filmmakers, click here.
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This story was published on March 6, 2007.