Manchester,N.H. -- IT WAS, in a word, extraordinary.
In a state where much-courted voters have long been inured to the appeal of political candidates, most candidates are encouraged if 50 or so folks turn out to hear them.
So it was an eyebrow-raiser here the other night when upwards of 500 New Hampshire citizens of all ages showed up to hear Ralph Nader, the nation's foremost political scold, introduce himself this way: "Hello, I'm none of the above, and I'm not running for president."
Nader, who then proceeded for nearly two hours to tell his listeners what's wrong with the American political process and what they can do about it, is in fact offering his name for a write-in vote in New Hampshire's Feb. 18 presidential primary as a stand-in for "none of the above."
Nader believes there should be a "none of the above" option on the ballot permitting voters to express their active dissatisfaction with all of the declared candidates if they really don't like any of them. The device, he says, would make it difficult to dismiss current low turnouts as mere apathy.
The "none of the above" option, Nader told his rapt audience, should be one of several "taxpayer tools" by which to bring
candidates and the current political process to account. He would make such a vote binding, so that if "none of the above" comes in first on election day "it ends the election and sends the candidates packing."
As Nader spoke, a few hand-printed signs saying "Write In Ralph" hung from the curtain behind him. But he made clear in his exhaustive lecture that the so-called "Draft Nader" effort is principally a publicity magnet for a more serious, basic assault on the political process as practiced in the New Hampshire primary and beyond.
Nader began with Vice President Dan Quayle, who was scheduled to campaign here the next day and, Nader said, "is going straight to a country club" -- not precisely correct,but not far off, either. Before he was through, Nader had attacked members of Congress, including Democratic candidates Sens. Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey, for voting themselves a pay raise "after midnight;" corporate America for its greed and larceny; and influence peddlers of all manner in Washington.
Voters, he said, "want to be led by example, not hypocrisy," he said, and are turned off by "government by double standard that breaks the moral authority" of elected officials. Quayle, a millionaire, could have made points by turning down his latest pay raise, he said, but didn't.
With little interruption for applause, Nader painted a word mural of gross exploitation of voters by the political establishment that, he said, could be overcome only by voter empowerment, which is what his effort in New Hampshire is all about.
In meetings such as this one in Manchester publicized in a local newspaper ad, Nader is drawing impressive crowds he hopes to mobilize to demand straight answers on issues of deep concern to voters that he says are not being addressed -- issues of environmental safety, health care, governmental irresponsibility and neglect, and so on.
By encouraging his listeners to what he calls "citizen action," including devoting time to find out what politicians are doing with the public's money and other resources and demanding an accounting, Nader hopes to make the New Hampshire primary more than a routine appeal for votes.
He wants those who attend these meetings to form community groupsthat will explore serious issues between now and primary day and at some point call on the candidates to appear before them to answer specific questions not usually addressed as they -- about the state expressing boiler-plate views.
Although Nader rapped elected officials at every turn, his complaint really got down to voters. "We don't spend enough time knowing," he said at one point. Complex times require more informed citizens, he said, and they must commit themselves to being informed, and to act on what they know.
It's hard to say what the large turnouts for Nader mean. In 1964 in New Hampshire, a write-in campaign for Republican Henry Cabot Lodge actually defeated candidates Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller.
There seems little doubt, however, that many New Hampshire voters are not happy with the choices confronting them, and Nader's "none of the above" option is an intriguing one for them.