Ralph Nader demands a holier politics

January 06, 2002|By Steve Weinberg | By Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President, by Ralph Nader. Dunne / St. Martin's. 352 pages. $24.95.

Ralph Nader wants you to know that even if he is not holier than thou, he is certainly holier than Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Hence this combination chronicle of the 2000 presidential campaign, political reform tract and Sunday morning comin'-down sermon.

Holier than Gore-Lieberman, Bush-Cheney? Let Nader count the ways for us, with a campaign stop in Los Angeles as the backdrop. Nader was supposed to board a commercial airliner to Los Angeles in the evening. Flight canceled. To bed for a few hours of sleep, then to the airport before dawn for the next flight. Canceled again, as potential voters waited in southern California, frustrated.

So Nader makes lemonade from the United Airlines lemon: "Presidential candidates prefer private jets," he says. "But if Gore and Bush traveled on commercial airlines, they would understand the outrage that airline passengers feel at the increasing delays, cancellations, poor service, cramped seats and gigantic fares in many markets where there is little or no competition."

Reminding readers that he has flown coach during the 40 years of his fame, Nader simultaneously educates his audience about one of the many reforms he has helped generate: "In the 1970s, Allegheny Airlines bumped me from a Washington, D.C., flight to Hartford, Conn., where a large audience was waiting to hear me speak. In the ensuing case, Nader v. Allegheny Airlines, our lawyer Rueben Robinson discovered that Allegheny, and other airlines, routinely overbooked their planes. The case went to the Supreme Court of the United States, where I won a ruling that later led to airlines changing overbooking practices."

Thank you, Ralph Nader.

He really is holy, at least compared with most presidential candidates. Sure, he has accumulated personal wealth since taking on the auto industry about safety all those decades ago. But he lives the relatively ascetic life and recycles much of that wealth into his organizations that fight for the common good. Yet he sends mixed messages for an ascetic. All those references to celebrities from the movies, television, sports arenas and other stages don't sound much like the words of an ascetic. (For the curious, Warren Beatty, Phil Donahue and Susan Sarandon are especially unforgettable in their cameo appearances scattered throughout the book.)

Are holy politicians usually as stubborn as Nader? Would other reformers have stayed in the race as a third-party candidate with no hope of reaching the White House -- even after it became clear that Nader would drain enough votes from the Democratic ticket to put Republicans Bush and Cheney in office?

Hard to say. Nader has no second thoughts, though. Gore-Lieberman might have been the lesser of evils, but a lesser evil is still evil. Besides, Ralph Nader wants you to know, he really had no choice but to stay in the race. There is the long term to consider. The voters need a third party to counter the corrupt Democratic and Republican parties, he believes; the only way for a third party to win enough votes to qualify for federal funding next time around is to seek votes everywhere. If they come more from the Democratic ticket than the Republican ticket, hey, that is not Ralph Nader's fault. He might be perceived as a maverick, but he is playing by the rules of the political establishment.

Meanwhile, read all about it. It is probably a prelude to Nader for president in 2004.

Steve Weinberg, a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo., is writing a biography of Ida M. Tarbell. He is a contributing editor at a bimonthly magazine on information-gathering published by Investigative Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School. He is the author of seven nonfiction books.

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