Sunday, February 25, 2007

New Ralph Nader Documentary Charts
The Life Of A Most Unreasonable Man


A new
documentary on the life of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, entitled An Unreasonable Man, is now beginning to work its way inward from the coasts. Look for it to soon appear at the Cedar-Lee Theatre, our town's leading movie hall for the thinking person. In a recent New Yorker, David Denby observes that "the long interview with Nader that is dispersed throughout the film suggests that he became, in later years, a thoughtless man who believes only in himself."

Some of that bitterness toward him is no doubt a residue from his decision to run for president in 2000, which split the progressive vote and helped put Bush in the White House, to disastrous consequence. But plenty of it arises from his downright dyspeptic, even misanthropic, personality. Ralph may have earned the right to be called St. Ralph by millions of Americans for his relentless advocacy of consumer protection, but the guy, in all his gloomy joylessness, is still no day at the beach.


I'll never forget my lone brush with him. I was in college at the time, waiting tables at a reasonably upscale restaurant on weekends. One day he walked in with a couple of ladies, who were no doubt his local hosts on a speaking tour. Everyone recognized him instantly, but no one bothered him. As I approached to take the trio's order, he didn't defer to his female companions, but went right ahead and ordered first, in full mumble, without ever making eye contact with me. In the oddest twist of all, he ordered his dessert right along with his entree (I believe it was apple pie a la mode, if memory serves). His social skills, in other words, were non-existent.

Of course, he's not the first social reformer to have been accused of caring about humanity in the aggregate more than about particular individuals. And judged on the whole of his life, you'd have to say that this country would certainly be a much poorer place without his contributions. I've learned to forgive him for his lack of social graces, but I'm not so sure I'll ever forgive him for helping to put Bush in the Oval Office.

20 Comments:

At 3:15 PM, Anonymous roldo bartimole said...

Oh boy, I'm trying for the second time.

Nader didn't lose the 2000 election. Clinton did. Clinton's triangulation and his inability to ignore a flirtatious young woman who showed some flesh lost the Gore election, with help from Gore.

Nader tried to pull the Democrats to the left, where they should have been and from where they can win - they can only win. Republican lite won't do it.

I remember hearing Nader before the election at John Carroll. He was asked by Janice Cogger - she was rightly concerned about voting Nader and getting Bush - what should she do. Nader said if the election here in Ohio was going to be lost, vote for him. If not then vote Democratic.

Gore pulled out of Ohio long before the election. He shouldn't have.He could have won Ohio. But he played the typical Democrat and lost.

As to Nader's personality. I was at a lunch with Nader in D. C. when he was playful with the waiter. We heard a crash of dishes and Nader jestingly asked if that meant we would be paying more for our lunch, a sort of joke on himself as a consumer advocate.

In the early 1980s I needed a break from Cleveland but lacked resources. Nader paid my expenses and my sons to spend a couple of weeks in D. C. I did work at the Multinational Monitor, which he owned but it was a kindness on his part to have me.

He also was instrumental with his sister in giving me (and two other small publication strugglers) the only kind of journalism (really civic courage) award that's worth seeking, one that has a financial aspect.

I have confronted Nader as when he came to Cleveland to back Dennis in the 1970s after Kucinich had played racial politics. So we do differ on some matters.

Nader is trying to save the ideals of democracy, which we are fast losing to the serious damage of the U. S. and the world.

He is not so much an unreasonable man as one who doesn't waffle. Last night I watched "A man for all seasons." It was painful to watch Sir Thomas More refuse on principle to bow to the king. Such a waste. But what happens when all bow and no one takes a stand.

 
At 3:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I was thinking about some of this history you have with him as I composed that entry, Roldo. I also thought about how you have observed over the years that Ralph and his organizations personally did more investigative journalism than any media outlets.

And I was also recalling an old acquaintance who was an activist on playground safety, and who always referred to him as St. Ralph, for how he doggedly pursued federal regulations governing the use of materials softer than concrete in their construction. He's famous for pushing auto safety, but of course he has had an effect on dozens of other areas as well.

To your point about his effect on journalism, more than a few prominent journalists began their career as young so-called "Nader's Raiders." Michael Kinsley is among them, and he's written about how it left a mark on his world view.

I suppose I'm at least partly persuaded by your argument about how he didn't lose the election for Gore. I had forgotten how that campaign disastrously decided to basically concede Ohio in the closing weeks, which looks pretty stupid in retrospect (as did his bizarre orange makeup during the debates and his hiring of feminist guru Naomi Wolff to coach him on courting the female vote).

Anyway, thanks as always for adding your insights. You do have more and better war stories than just about anyone I know.

 
At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Jim Kenny said...

As I understand, Nader gained fame by defaming the Corvair. He was right for pursuing Big Auto in the 1960s. There was plenty to attack. He, however, chose the wrong target (a car with fuel economy) and was seduced into stretching his claims when convenient.

The only difference today is he's more transparent when acting this way and his message, often right, gets lost because he lets the ends justify the means.

Is there goodness in Ralph Nader? Absolutely. However, he must trust it before I do.

 
At 9:19 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim,
Actually, his problem with the Corvair was that, due to a design default in the gas tank, it tended to explode an inordinate number of times upon collision. That proved to be true, so your use of the word "defaming," which is about false accusations, isn't really accurate. And I would suggest that that episode by itself probably wouldn't have vaulted him to fame. It was the fact that GM responded by unleashing private detectives on him, and was caught doing so, that made him an instant folk hero. He used the resulting money from the damage award as seed funding for his consumer activism.

 
At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Jim Kenny said...

John, you're confusing the Corvair's issues with the problems that plagued the Pinto, Ford's first venture into fuel economical vehicles. The Corvair was damned by Nader's book "Unsafe at Any Speed."

Ralph correctly pointed to safety concerns in the handling of the Corvair. These issues weren't as severe as he portrayed. Furthermore, these were no longer relevant as they were only prevalent in the early iterations of the car. By the time Ralph came forward with his inflated data in 1965-66, the Corvair had gone through a complete model makeover. Ralph ignored these facts as they clouded his campaign to condemn GM.

Again, Nader was right for going after Big Auto and GM for their collective disregard for auto safety. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Ralph became consumed by the attention this cause brought to him. This flaw of his own seduced Nader into inflating data to support his cause, making him as guilty as those he was trying to persecute. Nader's questionable practices were later revealed by former, disenfranchised Nader's Raiders who expressed their regret after losing faith in their leader. By then, however, the Nader myth had been cemented.

The issue I have, John, is unchecked power. It offends me as much with the large corporation as it does with the individual. I suspect Ralph and I share this to a degree. We differ with how we act on it.

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim, thanks for the correction. Right you are that I was mixing up the Pinto story with the Corvair situation. Can you cite any reference on the part about how his own Raiders subsequently expressed regret. I'd like to educate myself on that whole chapter a bit, since my memory proved to be so faulty.

The larger issue, though, is that we at least largely agree (and thus I must disagree with my friend Roldo) that Nader lost his way by making everything a moral issue, and by turning things into such stark, white and black moral issues. The world is often more complicated than that, and I guess I just tend to distrust self-righteous moralists who are sure they have the received wisdom. I think my visceral dislike and distrust of Kucinich is of a similar quality to my feelings about Nader. They both tend to reflexively demonize opponents, rather than try to find some common ground.

 
At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Roldo said...

Please all read Chris Hedges piece on Truthdig on Nader.

He's got it right.

 
At 2:54 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, I will check that out.

 
At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sure, technically, clinton lost the election. but nader's "candidacy" changed the equation, and he's annoyingly disingenuous about this. if he really wanted to do something worthwhile for the country, he would have aligned with the democrats. but his mantra is that the two parties are indistinguishable, which makes him at once arrogant and stupid. do they play the political game in similar ways? sure. but they are most assuredly different in what they want and believe for the nation's future. What Nader spawned is important and valuable. He's brilliant and passionate (and probably mostly well meaning). But he's also delusional and full of himself. That makes him pretty much like most other politicians. In the extremely unlikely event that he ever became president, his tenure would be no less disastrous than Bush's...

 
At 6:23 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Anon, this is all well said and on target. While I understand and am sympathetic to those who think the Dems have become too much like the R's in their fundraising tactics and outreach to the have-mores (as typified and taken to extremes by the egregious lizard Terry McAuliffe), I also think the need to compete on a somewhat level playing field (or risk forever losing elections) forces them into tactics most of them wouldn't otherwise engage in.

But the real issue is what they do once in office. And to me, at least, only a fool, a moral dullard or a liar would make the argument that a Gore presidency would have been essentially the same as a Bush presidency. I don't know too many people who would argue that with a straight face, as in fact Ralph perhaps no longer would (I think he would instead change the subject, as he can do with his accomplished debating skills). But I'd sure love to ask him about it sometime.

 
At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Jim Kenn said...

John, for the benefit of your readers, here are some demystifying facts from Bob Helt, a well known and longtime member of the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) and a tireless defender of the GM’s last great innovation:

http://www.corvaircorsa.com/handling01.html

And for the truly inquisitive:

"Evaluation of the 1960-1963 Corvair Handling and Stability"
U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
July 1972. Published by the National Technical Information Service, publication number PB-211-015.

Also, there is PB-211-014, an independent review of the tests and the conclusions.

To order, go to the the NTIS web site (http://www.ntis.org). PB-211-014 is
$28.50. PB-211-015 is $41.00. You may need to inquire via email for these,
they don't have documents before 1990 in their online catalog.

 
At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Jim Kenny said...

BTW, Nader's abuse of his Raiders is told at:

http://archive.salon.com/news/feature/2004/07/01/nader_jacobs/index_np.html?pn=3

 
At 12:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

did nader ever come clean on any of this?

 
At 1:54 PM, Anonymous jim kenny said...

Nader's arrogance has forbid him from conceding to the facts.

The good-natured members of the San Francisco chapter of the Corvair Society invited Ralph to serve as speaker at their 1993 conference. Nader was quoted telling the audience that they had to be the best drivers in the world -- they were still alive. His arrogance added, "It was a pretty car ... deadly, but pretty."

Here's the local news report: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/01/04/EB122362.DTL&type=printable

 
At 6:34 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

One more link to add to the discussion. Here's the pro-Nader piece that Roldo recommended from Truthdig, a progressive site that I had never come across, but which I found quite interesting. Anyway, this piece is by Chris Hedges, a byline that gets my attention. A longtime Middle East correspondent for the NYTimes, he is smart and passionate and relentless, and has written more than one good book. Do give a read to his take on Nader: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20070226_an_unreasonably_principled_man/

 
At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hedges definitely makes a few good points, which is moving me to give RN a second chance. but the issues hedges raises are tricky. if you run for the presidency by railing against corporations, you’ll likely end up like Nader. do I wish it weren’t so? of course. but that’s the deal for now. then you’ve got the schizophrenic media to deal with. That’s a complete guessing game knowing how navigate that path. the only thing you know for sure is that if you screw up in whatever way they suddenly decide is a screw up, you’re screwed. so good luck on that front. and as for voters, I guess I have no idea. they’re smart, they’re dumb. they don’t care. they care but they don’t believe voting changes anything. and they can be tempted—--not always—--but they can be tempted to drink the media’s kool aid. as we’ve seen from bush, with disastrous consequences. the other problem with the “it’s the corporations, stupid,” argument is the issue of what people are willing to give up. capitalism, if you’re lucky enough to be gainfully employed (and sometimes even if you’re not), has a way of enmeshing us all. we accumulate material goods, we procreate, accumulate more goods, procreate, buy houses, procreate, buy stuff for the kids, put them in schools, buy more stuff for them, buy stuff for ourselves, and all along the way wade into increasingly deeper debt just to keep everything going. funny thing is, despite the challenges, exasperations and bills, it’s not such a bad deal. in fact, it’s a bit comfortable. and why shouldn’t it be? we’re enjoying the fruits of our efforts. Nader is so radical because we perceive him as asking us to put all of that at risk for something unknown. I don’t think many of us are ready for that kind of revolution. I guess I still believe that the democrats, despite their spineless tendencies and dependence on corporate largess, have the capacity to do the right thing. but they’re trying to do so within the confines of system that only allows incremental change, so yeah, it’s exasperatingly slow. anyway, we’ll all see how receptive Americans are to change during the evolving discussions about healthcare. we already have a nationalized system, in that we all pay for the financing of the delivery of care. but somehow people have had trouble coming to terms with this reality. but now that healthcare is so ridiculously out of reach cost wise, perhaps people will finally entertain the idea of something radical. Maybe if that happens (and I ain’t holding my breath), there’s a place in our future for someone like Nader. Anyway, thanks for recommending the hedges piece…

 
At 3:51 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

All interesting points, and I'd agree with most to all of it. You're right that capitalism gets its hooks into the average person in a way that it seems nearly impossible (I know it does for me) to imagine getting untangled from. And I also think you're right that the average person is reflexively disinclined to think about radical solutions, and thus incremental change is most often the way things happen. Thanks as always for reading and commenting.

 
At 6:13 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim K., a final, bizarre asterisk to our earlier Corvair conversation: I just happened to come across an article that provides more detail than I'd ever seen before about First Lady Laura Bush's tragic auto accident in 1962, when, as a teen, she was driving a car that slammed into another and killed a young man. The car she hit happened to be a Corvair.

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger K-Oh said...

I don't care what anyone says: If Gore had won, we wouldn't be at war in Iraq. Simple as that. Proabably would be in Afghanistan, but perhaps not so stupidly.

I think there was a massive failure of the left to research and recognize just how bad Bush was, to rest on the familiar and comfortable "they're both same old same old" about the Democrats and Republicans. This is certainly true on many issues and for many individuals, but there was a massive venality gap between Bush and Gore. As Anne Lamott says in her new book, "It could take a century or more for the nation and world to recover from the George W. Bush years."

I will forever spit on Nader for this-- he could have prevented this disaster by pulling away the day before the election and have made all the points he wanted to make.

 
At 12:02 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I heartily agree with you, Kris. I think you've coined an excellent new phrase: venality gap. As to your point about how long it will take the world to recover from Bush's moral pollution, I was a little startled by this news this morning, that some Mayan priests feel the need to "purify" a sacred archaelogical site after a recent visit by Bush. How much lower can our reputation in the world go than that?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/09/AR2007030900076.html?nav=most_emailed

 

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