On Getting Inspired (and Snubbed) by Ralph Nader
When my grandmother found out that I was going to see Ralph Nader speak, she told me to give him a message from her: "Tell him not to forget about the South next time he runs."
Grandma, mind you, is not some sassy progressive clinging to the New Deal politics of her youth. She's a right-wing evangelical fundamentalist Republican, as is 'most everyone' in my corner of South Carolina. She voted for Bush in 2000 but has grown steadily disenchanted with his management of the economy (scores of workers were just laid off where she works, a common occurrence here) and his insistence on a war with Iraq.
She is not unique. Another ardent Bush supporter in the area shocked me recently by fuming, "The government's obviously waging this war just because they can. They're just showing how tough and powerful they are, and it makes me sick every time I think about it"-footage of Iraqis kissing U.S. tanks in Baghdad notwithstanding.
Of course, neither of these women nor the "good Christian folk" worthy of their association would ever vote for a Democrat (baby killers, all!) for president, no matter how much they sour on Bush. But the growing discontent among the people in Bush country with the war and the economy presents a greater opportunity for a third-party maverick like Nader-still well-regarded in these parts-than perhaps either Democrats or Republicans appreciate.
Many of Nader's critics fault him for campaigning hard in swing states in 2000. It irked my grandmother too, not because of the effect it had on the election but because, as she put it, everybody took the rural states of the South and the heartland for granted. The only thing Southerners hate worse than condescension is being ignored. The predominantly rural states that fell to Bush in 2000 are riddled with out-of-work textile workers and dwindling numbers of farmers breaking their backs to survive. If some public figure were to show a strong interest in them without pandering, they are likely to appreciate the attention, as Ross Perot discovered in 1992 when disaffection with another Republican incumbent named Bush-and for very similar reasons-allowed the populist billionaire to put a sizeable dent in the Republican base.
It is too soon to say, but perhaps that was what Nader had in mind by visiting South Carolina on March 18, the day after George W. Bush issued his declaration of war on Iraq.
The American Demosthenes
From behind the podium at the University of South Carolina's Russell House Auditorium, Nader spoke with fluid nonchalance, sans notes, sans TelePrompter, but the words that fell out of his mouth were pregnant with righteous indignation. "Our Commander-in-Chief," he said, "is a messianic militarist on a revenge trip."
This statement was followed by one of the longest sentences ever spoken in a public speech: "After listening to his [message] day after day, week after week, while our country's health insurance leaves so many people out and so much to be desired, while our environment is degrading in serious and long-range ways, while our energy policies are a shambles focusing on global-warming gases and ignoring solar energy and renewable; while our massive poverty continues as a scar on our national conscience, while our unemployment is increasing, while child poverty is five times higher as a percent of the population than it is in the Netherlands, where they're ashamed of it and want to do something about it; where Americans can't make ends meet with two members of the family working, and they're going into trillions of dollars of consumer debt; where our public works are crumbling, our libraries, our clinics, our public transit, our bridges are in severe disrepair even compared to the Depression years of the Thirties-what do we hear our president say every day on television? 'Attack Iraq. Attack Iraq. Attack Iraq.' An obsessive-compulsive syndrome like has never been seen before."
Laughter competed with applause before his next words sobered everybody up: "President Bush has a serious personality problem. And he has a great deal of power to inflict the consequences of that closed mind on millions of people, with terrible consequences years hence."
And it is all thanks to you, Mr. Nader, countered some in audience. During the Q & A session following the speech, one man explicitly accused Nader of putting Bush in office by siphoning votes from Al Gore in 2000.
Nader rejoined that he didn't put Bush in office, the Supreme Court did. "Al Gore won the election," he insisted, citing the independent commission that found that a statewide recount in Florida would have shown Gore had the most votes.
"At the time [of the election], I urged the Democrats to ask for a statewide recount, because there's more integrity in that kind of recount. You just ask for three counties, people think you're trying to rig the system. Gore wins the popular vote-in reality he won the electoral vote, not counting all the disenfranchised, all the shenanigans in the state that's been documented where people couldn't even vote-but then it goes to the Supreme Court and Bush is selected. I like to be able to predict the future, but unlike those Democratic critics of mine, I just couldn't predict that sequence: that Gore would win, would win, and then would lose in a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court. 'Hey, we won, and if it wasn't for you, Ralph Nader, we would have-won again?' "
Nader added, "The Socialist candidate got 3,600 votes. Gore [is said to have] lost by some 500 votes. Do we say, 'David McReynolds, you're responsible for George W. Bush!'?"
All of which begs the question, what about 2004? Nader gave strong hints that he is gearing up for another campaign.
"Common to all the people who say that [the Nader campaign hurt Gore] is the obligation to answer a more basic question, 'What would you have me do?' And their answer is, 'Not run.' And that's not acceptable. This country does not belong to two parties."
"If I do run, I will work very hard to depress Bush's votes, in ways the Democrats can't, won't. Already, I am doing more than I think a lot of Democrats are doing to take him on."
Nader did, however, make a point of praising one of the Democrats seeking the presidential nomination. "Right now, the better person is [Congressman Dennis] Kucinich," Nader said. "I think he'd be a good president," though he acknowledged Kucinich needs more money to secure the nomination. (Memo to Nader-phobic Democrats: Want to keep Nader out of the 2004 election? Campaign for Kucinich.)
But for the most part he dismissed congressional Democrats as sellouts. "As far as the Iraq war is concerned," Nader said, "we have a one-party system, with a scattering of members of Congress you can count on your two hands who are telling it like it is."
Another audience member challenged Nader to come up with a better way to deal with Hussein's bloody regime. In the first place, Nader said, the U.S. needs to stop propping up dictators all over the world, as it did with Hussein years ago. But starting from today, he thinks there are two more efficient solutions than war: (1) a coup, for those who, unlike Nader, believe in aggressive intervention, and (2) support the liberators the way the French supported U.S. colonies in their Revolutionary War. Tongue-in-cheek, he said the third solution is to lure spoiled dictators out of their countries to a luxury island where they can't do any harm.
"There are alternatives [to war], but they're violent alternatives," he said. "Except the island."
Cassandra-like, Nader warned that the route the Bush administration has chosen could increase terrorism in the U.S. and destabilize the Middle East. "Nobody can predict the future. But we certainly know that Turkey is very worried about the northern border and the Kurds. We certainly know that there's severe hatred between Shiites and Sunnis, between Kurds and Sunnis, and Kurds and Turks. Remember when we illegally bombed Cambodia in the Seventies? That was a tranquil country. When you destabilize a country that is pregnant with those kinds of savage conflicts, you get savage conflict. Cambodia got Pol Pot."
That Americans seem to largely support the war, according to polls, doesn't surprise Nader. The government, he said, "lives in a system now that shields them from accountability, because if you can get on national TV day after day and engage in the most outrageous prevarications garnished with a pseudo-rationale for going to war, and it's not rebutted day after day, and it's not refereed day after day, because we have state television called Fox News, and because we have a Democratic Party that's gone to sleep, then obviously you're going to hold up in the polls, because people aren't hearing the other side. Imagine going into a court of law, with the jury only hearing the plaintiff, or only hearing the defendant and no one else."
He also had harsh words for the administration's handling of the Israel-Palestine crisis, which he described as a "resolvable" conflict. "The Israeli peace movement, which has often massed hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations-which is composed of former ministers of justice, members of parliament, professors, civic leaders-is not being listened to by our government. The human rights group, B'Tselem, with impeccable integrity documents atrocities on both sides. To the chagrin of Israeli military regime, it documents the atrocities against the Palestinians as well. And so our country has aligned ourselves with the Israeli military government instead of the Israeli peace movement, which has intimate contacts with peace advocates on the Palestinian side. That's a curious way to pursue peace, isn't it? You fund and ally and weaponize the Israeli military government that has designs on the entire Palestinian area and wants to continue the occupation."
In a remarkable passage, Nader proved himself savvy enough to understand that a South Carolina audience is as interested in the degradation of economic opportunity and social mores as in terrorism, Iraq, and the Middle East. The typical worker, according to Nader, is plagued with "an overwhelming preoccupation with paying bills, as if our society of wealth should not enable people to spend more time on the things that count. Children spend less time in our generation with adults than any generation in human history. The commercialization of childhood is a huge industry, and children under 12 are now on the average spending 30 hours a week in the laps of these corporate hucksters and purveyors of low-grade sensuality: junk food, violent programming, and over-medication."
Nader constantly invoked the vision of the nation's Founders, and how it is being assaulted by diseased priorities. "We don't have enough money for drinking water safety upgrades, we don't have money for auto safety, we don't have money for clinics in poor and rural areas. We have money for B-2 bombers that have trouble flying in the rain, and that were originally designed for [combat against] the Soviet Union, not to drop bombs in Iraq."
"The situation has now reached such a crisis and the invasion of our privacy is so massive, they now know more about ourselves than we do in many areas. You can't remember them all, but they've got them in computer banks. Now, post-9/11, the government's demanding all kinds of personal information in indiscriminate dragnet systems. They're going to squeeze these credit files and medical files and so many of the other files on millions of Americans into the government's computers. So you're getting a convergence of giant corporations and giant governments in what is known as the 'Corporate State'-charitably known as the Corporate State. More rigorously known as Corporate Socialism. More historically known as National Socialism: the control of government by private economic power. In 1938 it was called by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: fascism.
"How much proof do we want that our democracy is slipping away? How much proof do we want that we have a regime that is chilling political dissent, with the opposing major party cowering and looking the other way? How much proof do we want that our media is increasingly a propaganda machine for corporate advertisers?"
That last sentence provoked the evening's longest standing ovation.
"It all calls for a drive to create a far more engaged citizenry which must not give up on itself. Many of you are students-as-citizens, you're not citizens-in-waiting because you're students. You're citizens now. Your forebears helped get us out of Vietnam, put the environmental violence on the front pages, expanded student rights, and fought the civil rights battles not so many years ago. Isn't it time for you to pick up the torch of justice for your generation? It's not enough to sit around a table in and cafeteria and rationalize your futility."
To that end, Nader offered a sign-up sheet for a citizens' skills course at the university. And he encouraged people to visit his website.
Whatever his critics' qualms with his policies, his methods, his campaigns, it is hard to deny that Nader is our greatest living orator, our American Demosthenes.
Within minutes-it was now after 11 p.m.-Nader was working another crowd, this time at a fundraiser for the South Carolina Green Party. He gamely auctioned off several otherwise unremarkable knick-knacks-a pen, a 2000 Nader/LaDuke campaign banner-which went for hundreds of dollars apiece. All told, thousands of dollars were raised and people gorged themselves on hors d'oeuvres and optimism. Tom Turnipseed, a fiery Southern populist, told me he was thinking about running as a Green for U.S. Senate, especially if incumbent Fritz Hollings (D) decided to retire. "And I think I've got a good shot."
The crowd thinned. I waited patiently for Nader's admirers to turn him loose so I could deliver Grandma's message, admittedly an awkward and not very professional mission for a journalist. But for the moment the tape recorder was off and I was just a concerned citizen. "Ralph is very approachable," one of the party's organizers assured me. As a failsafe, one of Nader's aides told me he would introduce the two of us at an opportune moment.
The moment came as Nader excused himself from a table and put on his trenchcoat. The aide gallantly stepped in. "Ralph, this is Brad Carlton, one of the editors at the Baltimore Chronicle."
"Great," Nader said, with the enthusiasm of a fast-food clerk asking if I wanted fries.
For the moment there was nothing clever on my tongue. "Thanks for coming here to South Carolina," I said, holding out my hand. Nader kept his hands firmly in his coat pockets.
I was acutely aware by the weary expression on his face that I was an obstacle to his exit. So I got out of his way-perhaps he nodded in my direction-and he was gone. My grandmother's message would go undelivered.
Of course, it was the witching hour, Nader is almost 70, and I can appreciate that he might not be thrilled, at the end of a long evening, to see a journalist materialize out of the ether to block his way to the exit. Still, it was a humbling experience. You know you're plankton in the journalistic food chain when you get snubbed by someone who needs good press as much as Ralph Nader does.
Could it be that he's so fed up with reporters and the media in general by the way we've covered him (or not covered him) in the past that he's suspicious of us as a species? If so that's understandable, but it won't win him any points in 2004.
Either way, I knew my bruised ego counts for exactly nothing in the face of the chronic political crises so aptly diagnosed in Nader's speech. Yet it was still hard driving home, trying to think what I would tell my grandmother the next day.
Brad Carlton is currently on a fact-finding mission in South Carolina, where he was raised, investigating the plight of the yeoman farmer.
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This story was published on April 10, 2003.