Ralph Nader slouched casually through the stone doorway at St. John's Methodist Church in Baltimore Wednesday afternoon wearing his standard issue, coal-gray, off-the-rack business suit, looking tall and lean and remarkably at ease.
The edgiest, meanest, most bodacious bad boy of American politics, the man Paul Starr, editor of the American Prospect, recently called "the delusional and destructive Pied Piper of progressivism," who Michael Dukakis wanted to "strangle with my bare hands" after the election, who the Nation says led the "quixotic quest to elect a reactionary Republican to the American presidency," who the New York Post's Jack Newfield wrote should be "shunned and shamed," the man who put the fear back into frightened liberals looked happy! Undeniably, conspicuously, strangely happy!
Surrounded by rickety church tables holding plebeian veggie plates, cheese baskets and herbal teas, Nader strolled into the humble social hall amid cheers from about 50 people at a Baltimore Green Party fund-raiser, introduced as "our culture's most anti-celebrity celebrity."
It was true. He did not look like a celebrity. He looked like Ralph, the same old Unsafe-At-Any-Speed Ralph with a plain manila folder under his arm stuffed with notes about NAFTA and GATT and the WTO for his speech that night at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Affairs Symposium. He droned on in that familiar low monotone that never fails to sound like a public service announcement, making the same kinds of outrageous statements that are said to be shattering left-wing constituencies in the Democratic Party and sending mainstream politicians into paroxysms of denial.
"You don't see Democratic or Republican Parties on the picket lines fighting stadiums built by tax dollars while neighborhood needs are starved," he said. "They're virtually money-raising machines with no grass-roots organization."
The faithful laughed and buzzed and applauded.
Faithful turn out
For a third-stream political party that locally numbered less than a dozen members two years ago, they had turned out in force: the undaunted Nader supporter wearing his "Vanquish Evil" T-shirt; the young Naderite who boasted 350,000 miles on his Volvo; the poverty-stricken activist who had just come from the courthouse after trying to file an injunction to stop "Orwellian" legislation; the young man in his first political campaign who spent four months going door-to-door in Baltimore to register 48 voters with the Green Party; the bedraggled college student who nailed "Nader Rocks" posters all over Towson and Baltimore two days before the election. They looked weathered but resolute.
"I don't have any money to buy your book," explained Neale Stokes, the poster-nailer, when he met Nader at a book-signing in the hall after the speech. "I just wanted to say hi."
"I don't have any money to buy your book," said Charu Nautiyal, whose boyfriend registered the 48 voters. "I'm just a poor doctoral student."
He heard their problems, listened to their nervous pontificating, signed copies of "The Ralph Nader Reader," which went for 50 bucks a pop, and talked about his goal of establishing 900 Green Party chapters on college campuses by 2002. He mentioned but underplayed the need to fund permanent Green Party staff across the country.
"You know the Greens," he chuckled. "They hate money."
The faithful acknowledged the last 106 days since the election had not been easy.
"I'm still not talking to friends," admitted Mike McGuire, the 28-year-old plumber who staffed the Green Party office in Baltimore last fall. "Every time I try to talk to a couple of my friends about the election, all they do is yell at me. It's just not worth it anymore."
But if criticism of Nader as the Spoiler whose few million votes wrenched the presidency from Al Gore still unsettles some of his constituents, it clearly did not bother Ralph.
How does he interpret his role in the election?
"The purpose of the campaign was to help build a long-term political reform movement," he said, between signing books. "Civil society has been shut out of Washington the last 20 years. You can't get any work done there anymore. Corporate lobbyists are swarming all over place."
What about those irritated Democrats?
"For years, they've told progressives, you can either stay home or vote for us. It's not going to happen anymore and they're not used to that. They're having withdrawal pains."
The words "withdrawal pains" brought a smile to his face.
But what about progressives who keep hollering that he ruined the election?
"Low expectations," he said. "They settle for less and less every four years. They've abandoned their historical roots."
Then he titled his head impishly. The smile broadened. His eyes gleamed. "They're into their whining phase," he said.
The thought made him chuckle. He paused and laughed out loud. "It's their whining phase!" he said.