Twice now, Ralph Nader has caused me to take the Lord's name in vain. The first time was last August when, I walked into the Memorial Coliseum and saw it packed with banner-waving fans who'd come from around the Northwest. The second time was last Saturday night at the Rose Garden, when I walked out onto the floor and looked up.
"Jesus Christ," I said aloud, "He's done it again."
What it is, however, isn't exactly clear, but during the pre-show press conference, Nader gave a clue.
"The media does not recognize civic leaders anymore and turn them into civic celebrities," he said.
While there were celebrities aplenty, including Danny Glover, Jello Biafra and Eddie Vedder, it wasn't the stars that filled the stadium.
Medea Benjamin, for example, founder of Global Exchange, got roars of approval warming up the crowd attacking everything from NAFTA to Nike. (She didn't mention that Glover's girlfriend, Gina Warren, works for the Swoosh.)
But it wasn't until Nader walked onstage that the 7,000 people--who'd paid up to $10 apiece to get in--leapt to their feet, defiant in their welcome, suggesting that Nader's laments about the death of civic celebrity was premature.
The Portland rally was a kick-off for a several-city tour designed to reignite democracy--to remind Americans that, contrary to all the evidence, the country does, in fact, belong to them.
While there was a wide mix of ages in the audience, it was mostly filled with twentysomethings, the generation that responds to the phrases "electoral politics" and "401K" with about the same enthusiasm. They're the least likely group to show up at the polls, yet they are willing to travel to Genoa and get beaten up by Italian cops. Weaned on the Utne Reader, they are volunteering for worthy causes in record number and tossing out words like "community" and "livability" as easily as their parents spoke of "peace" and "love."
So why has a 67-year-old, buttoned-down intellectual become their hero?
Maybe because he doesn't tell them that the world is more complicated than they can understand at their age, that when they grow up and buy houses and have kids they'll feel differently. He has caught a generation of progressives before they have compromised their values--by telling them that they may not have to.
Nader speaks what they already know. He, unlike any other national politician, labels the corporations, the media and the established political structure as a dark force that has so undermined the Republic that cynicism has replaced citizenry.
Yet Nader did more than just complain Saturday: He also told the Rose Garden minions that they are partially to blame for what the country has become.
"What would you do," he asked, "if someone walked up to your house and introduced themselves as your new neighbor and told you that they were going to send your children to war? They were going to raise your taxes while cutting those of people who have more money than you. Would you say, 'Why are you bothering me? I'm in the middle of watching Survivor!'"
The call to responsibility plays well in Portland, where high-density neighborhoods are filled with idealists who have created what out-of-town progressive activists view as a nirvana. A city where the mayor's office wrote a permit for an anarchists' protest. Where bike activists and light-rail boosters battle over who has more power.
After the rally, petitioners for initiatives ranging from banning genetically engineered foods to establishing universal health care in Oregon were busy harvesting signatures. Clusters of potential activists lined up at tables for Nader's Democracy Rising organization and the Pacific Green Party.
One of my colleagues said the rally felt more like an ending than a beginning, an attempt to bring closure to the 2000 election. It is true that this rally did not have the energy of last August's pre-election frenzy. There were no dancing WTO-style puppets or "Ralph Nader for President" signs. In fact, the only placards were held by protesters outside, "thanking" Nader for handing the election to George W. Bush. Nader himself seemed tired at times during his speech, and some of the applause felt less inspired than respectful. Still, 7,000 people turned out in Portland to hear the message. What isn't clear is how the message will play in Peoria--or what's next for Nader.
's recent interview with Ralph Nader is available here www.wweek.com/flatfiles/News1869.html .