The recoil his name sometimes provokes in liberal circles is a recent development after a 35-year hero's run that began in 1965, when Nader wrote a searing indictment of the U.S. auto industry, Unsafe at Any Speed.
But in 2000, Nader had the temerity to launch an independent campaign for president that angered lefties who complained his quixotic candidacy cost Democrat Al Gore that election. Nader won far more votes in the pivotal state of Florida, for instance, than the margin by which Republican George W. Bush won that state.
(Those same critics talk less about Gore's failure to win his home state of Tennessee, or his former boss's home state, Arkansas.)
Forgotten by many Nader-bashers is that he's a brilliant, relentless watchdog public-interest lawyer who's spent a lifetime terrorizing greedy corporations and spineless regulators. He also founded consumer organizations such as Public Citizen and the Public Interest Research Group, which now has chapters in most states.
Nader, now 72, still prowls the country to spread the gospel. He's also just published his 31st book, The Seventeen Traditions, a brief memoir of his childhood that tries to do for wayward parents what Unsafe did for the auto industry.
A new documentary about him, An Unreasonable Man, opens here next month.
WW: Why this book now?
Ralph Nader: It's an ode to my parents. Also, I think it's helpful to a lot of parents who think things are out of control, especially younger parents.
Is it an attempt to rehabilitate your image?
No, not really. I don't look at it that way. I think my critics have to rehabilitate their political bigotry against small-party candidates.
How can a guy with no kids write what's essentially a parenting book?
I'm really just speaking on behalf of my parents. I'm not adding my own views. Not only relating what they did, but what impact it had on us.
Why didn't you have children?
It was a choice. You get involved in all these political battles. You become an absentee father. I didn't believe in that. I tried to help the safety and health of lots of children in this country as a way of protecting the future generation.
How do you recommend parents shield children from commercialization and the negative effects of technology?
One thing is to read to them when they're young, so they pick up a reading habit. Second is put the TV in the closet, don't put it in their bedroom. Take it out for occasions sanctioned by the parents. At a young age, keep them off the Internet. You know, parents are in charge. They gotta act as if they are not afraid of their children. Otherwise corporations will be raising our children more and more than they even are now.
Yet critics say your political candidacy put corporations like Exxon-Mobil and Halliburton in the driver's seat.
Those are the same people who believe that Gore really won the election. They should go after the thieves who took it from him. But they don't do that because they're hung up on, "How dare any party challenge the Democratic Party from the left?"
Do you really believe there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats?
It depends. If you look at it from a telescope and not a microscope, they both have commercialized our elections. Both have allowed the militarization of our country, the commercialization of our country, the pauperization of our country. They don't do anything about the vast waste and fraud and redundancy of the military budget. The Democrats speak a good game, but they ran a lot of the regulatory agencies into the ground under Clinton-Gore. You can find some differences: Social Security, Medicare, questions like pro-choice, gay rights. But let's say both parties flunk—one party just flunks a little worse than the other. If you leave them alone, they're both going to get worse every four years, and pretty soon they'll be wholly owned subsidiaries and Fortune 500s, if they're not already.
So, no difference?
Let's put it this way: The similarities tower over the dwindling differences that they're really willing to go to the mat over, instead of use rhetoric over.
Do you have any regrets about running in the past two presidential elections?
No, the only regret is the Democrats are too stupid to pick up some of the issues that we put coast-to-coast, like living wage or a decent minimum wage, which they could have won both elections on [chuckles]...well, they did win both elections in Florida and Ohio. But they could have had a larger margin.
When will you decide what you're going to do in 2008?
Later this year.
How do you feel about the title of the new documentary about you, An Unreasonable Man?
[Laughs] As a literary appellation, for those who know George Bernard Shaw, it's not a problem. But since most people don't know what it means, I would have preferred another title. But then, it wasn't my film.
What title would you have preferred?
Builder of Democracy [bup bup bup bup, ta da!—sings a song].
In 2000, Nader got 5.05 percent of the vote in Oregon. Gore narrowly won the state.
Nader will read from The Seventeen Traditions on Feb. 13 at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Doors open at 6 pm; program at 7 pm. Tickets at Bagdad box office and through Ticketmaster. $19.95 admission includes a copy of the book.
The documentary An Unreasonable Man opens at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., on March 2. Call 223-4515 for showtimes.