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Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man--by James G. Abourezk

posted on: Mar 24, 2008

I had always wondered what it felt like to be a person who, virtually single handedly, made a monumental difference in our world. To find the answer, I decided to talk to Ralph Nader, who is one such person. What I learned was that the positive changes he has brought about in the United States has given him immense respect from those of us who understood the impact of what he has done, and intense dislike by those whose gravy train he brought crashing to the ground. By the latter I mean the corporate operators whose consuming greed has caused so much suffering and hardship to the people of this country, and to other parts of the world.

What is important to know is that Nader’s still at it, despite the slings and arrows that are hurled at him, not only by the corporations whose sins and criminality he has exposed, but also by former allies and admirers—all liberals—who seek to blame him for derailing Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000. He’s called a spoiler by the people who were for Al Gore. In my view, it was Gore who spoiled Nader’s chances to be president. And although I like and admire Al Gore, a Nader presidency would indeed be something to behold.

Ralph Nader was born to Lebanese immigrant parents—Nathra and Rose Nader—who ultimately settled in Winsted, Connecticut, after doing some wandering around America. Winsted was the final stop in Nathra’s search for a choice American location where he could make a living and raise his family. Nathra first emigrated to Detroit as an auto worker, after which he moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to work in a mill, then on to Newark, New Jersey, and to Danbury, Connecticut, where he worked in a wholesale grocery company, then finally to Winsted, where he opened a restaurant.

He returned from America to his village, Arsoun, in 1924, and met Rose, who was from Zahle. They married and she came over the following year to Winsted, where they started a family.

Knowing both Nathra and Rose as I did fully explains Ralph’s intensity on the issues with which he concerned himself. At dinner in my apartment in Washington one evening a number of years ago, Rose lectured me about the dangers of eating too much cheese. And Nathra told me he would personally straighten out the U.S. Senate if they were unable to straighten it out on their own.

The river that flowed through Winsted periodically flooded, destroying both homes and lives in three different years when the waters rose too high. Tired of the government’s inaction, when Rose heard that George W. Bush’s grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush, planned to attend a campaign reception in Winsted, she went there and waited in the receiving line until she could shake his hand. Instead of shaking her hand and moving on, however, Senator Bush was unable to extricate his hand from Rose’s strong grip, and was forced to listen to her demand that he promise to try to fund a “dry dam,” a backup system that would catch water flowing over the existing dam on the river.

In order to move down the receiving line which Rose Nader was blocking, Senator Bush had no choice but to promise he would have the dry dam built. He kept his promise, and there have been no floods in Winsted since the dam was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Nathra’s neighbors in Winsted had a saying about him: if you paid a nickel for a cup of coffee in his restaurant, your bonus—wanted or not—was 15 minutes of politics from Nathra, or from the customers who liked to discuss the public’s business. Although most immigrants are shy around public officials, Nathra held back nothing, expounding his views to his customers on a daily basis, saying, when provoked, that, when he sailed past the Statue of Liberty in 1912, he took it seriously.

Ralph attended college at Princeton University, where Phillip Hitti was chairman of Middle East Studies. The university’s library was open almost all night, which gave Ralph the opportunity to read every book he could lay his hands on. He read everything he could find, eventually writing a thesis on “Agricultural Development in Lebanon,” in furtherance of which he spent a few months in Lebanon as an undergraduate on a $600 scholarship. Earlier, as a child, his mother had taken him back to Lebanon in 1937 to visit relatives.

From Princeton, Ralph went to Harvard Law School, where he edited the Harvard Law Record, a publication that went out to Harvard Law’s alumni. His first long article for the Record was a 10,000-word piece entitled “American Indians: People Without a Future.” He was stunned when, despite criticism of it the Indian Health Service in the article, the Service called him to tell him that they wanted to distribute his article to Indian reservations, so he sent them 10,000 copies to distribute.

It was his work on the Harvard Law Record that got Nader started as a consumer advocate. He had written an article detailing how the two major political parties managed to stop small third parties from getting on state ballots—an amazing look into the future, when his own political aspirations tried to come to fruition. He then wrote another piece for the Record entitled “American Cars Designed for Death.” That article later grew into a book, which people will remember as Unsafe at Any Speed. His book, which exposed the danger of General Motors automobiles, brought him to national prominence—and to the attention of General Motors. Instead of correcting the safety defects of its Corvair, GM tried every way it could to discredit the author.

GM sent private detectives out to dig up dirt on Nader under the pretense they were investigating him for a possible job. Ralph discovered what the corporation was up to when one of his law school classmates told him that GM’s agents had approached him with questions about Ralph’s past. GM also sent two different women to lure him into an embarrassing situation, to no avail. But the lawsuit Ralph brought against GM, and the resulting publicity, had just the opposite effect that GM was trying to achieve.

Nader had started out investigating auto safety for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at the time was assistant Secretary of Labor. But he decided that the most effective place to work on the issue of auto safety was Capitol Hill, so he turned his attention to Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff and the powerful senator from Washington State, Warren Magnusson, who was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. After Nader succeeded in getting Ribicoff to take on the challenge, Congress very shortly passed an auto safety law, which President Lyndon B. Johnson then signed.

Nader ultimately sued General Motors, a lawsuit which was settled when GM paid him $425,000, which he used to start a citizen group.

Liberal Democrats began their attack on Nader in the fall of 2000, when he was running as a third party candidate for president. In the forefront of these attacks was former Congressman Toby Moffett, a Lebanese American, who was a liberal when he was in Congress, but went on to become a lobbyist for Monsanto Chemical Company and later joined the lobbying firm of former Republican Speaker of the House Robert Livingston. Moffett also had supported the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

As Ralph had written about in his earlier law school studies, in both 2000 and in 2004 the Democratic Party used every trick in its arsenal to deny him access to the ballot in many states where he sought access. The Democrats hired both the largest and the most Republican law firms to challenge his right to be on a ballot, costing him a great deal of both time and money to fight back.

But Nader’s reasons for running as a third party candidate were to try to steer the political parties—especially the Democrats—back to their original purpose in life. Since the 1980s, when California Congressman Tony Coelho, as chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, began fund-raising for Democrats from corporate interests, the Democratic Party had begun to lose its punch as the people’s party. There was so much corporate money being poured into Democratic campaigns that one would have to look long and hard to find any Democratic congressperson criticizing the beginning of the corporate takeover of the government.

“If you ever wanted to document the corruption of money in politics and how it can change positions and turn politicians into cowards, Coelho’s action was the signal event,” Nader told me.

Of course, today we are witnessing the same result with the newly elected Democratically controlled Congress, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken impeachment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney totally off the table. Imagine Bill Clinton starting a major war based on lies, approving secret wiretapping of Americans without a warrant, doing away with the Writ of Habeas Corpus, as both Congress and President Bush did in the PATRIOT Act—then try imagining how long it would have taken the Republican Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.

Although the Democrats claim they want to end the Iraq war, they have taken the cowards’ way out, telling the American people that Bush is vetoing their legislation. Of course, if they really wanted to end the war, the Democrats need only to sit on the war appropriations legislation. There would be nothing to veto—but also no more money for the war. Mr. Bush would have to bring the troops out of Iraq as soon as he could. But cowardice is the rule nowadays.

The result of congressional pandering to the corporations has been the weakening of the regulation of corporations that once prevented them from polluting the water, earth and skies, from creating monopolies that are damaging to average Americans, and, among other things, from preventing concentrated corporate ownership of television and newspaper media.

Nader saw that any resistance to the move by corporations to consolidate their power was rapidly disappearing, so he made the presidential run to try to pull the Democrats back into their traditional mode of protecting the public interest. The result has been the sharp attacks on Nader and his movement, weakening somewhat his efforts to protect consumers. But he continues to believe that the presidential runs were necessary to try to publicize the issues being kept out of sight with the cooperation of both major political parties.

Although Nader spoke up only briefly on the Middle East before 2000, he made the Palestinian-Israeli issue one of his campaign platforms, and has since written and spoken on the sins being committed by Israel’s government, with the backing of the American government.

I asked Ralph if his position on the Middle East cost him the loss of any of his staff, but to my surprise, he told me that it actually attracted staff to his various causes.

His major concern has been, and continues to be, the abuse of corporate power—an issue that goes to the heart of American life. He puts it this way:

Who is saying “no” to universal health care?” Obviously, the HMOs, the pharmaceutical companies, the hospitals.

Who is saying “no” to a living wage for workers? McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Burger King, etc.

Who is saying “no” to the unfair tax system, where the rich are paying less and the middle class are paying more, with the deficit being left to our grandchildren to pay? The corporate lobbies.

Who is saying “no” to the rational allocation of the taxpayers’ budget by turning half of it into military armament purchases, along with subsidies to oil companies and other corporations? The corporate welfare system, lobbied into existence by corporate power, among them military contractors.

Who is saying “no” to the corrupt electoral system where big money counts more than issues or the wishes of the public? The corporate lobbyists, including those companies who manufacture corruptible voting machines that allowed George Bush to claim the presidency when Gore had won the vote.

Who is saying “no” to a clean environment? The polluters, the automobile manufacturers, the oil and coal companies.

To Nader the answer is obvious: it is excessive corporate power that, although comprising a minority of executives, overrides the wishes and the best interests of the public at large. Nader points to the public opinion polls showing that 70 percent of the American public is opposed to the Iraq war, but, mysteriously, Congress cannot seem to end it.

It is the presence in Washington of some 35,000 corporate lobbyists, some 10,000 political action committees funneling money to candidates from both parties that ensures the public’s interest is ignored.

When asked if he has a solution to the situation created by the establishment of such overwhelming corporate power, Nader said he believes in grass roots organizing of the public. “There should be a minimum of a couple of thousand citizen watchdogs of the Congress in each congressional district,” he stated, “who are organized to the teeth to make certain that congresspeople represent the public rather than the corporations who send them money.”

Asked what he would recommend for young Arab-Americans who have an interest in working for the public, his response was simple and to the point: “Organize, organize, organize.” The same advice holds true for non-hyphenated Americans, he said. If grass roots power could be organized, he believes, a third party could be formed that would compete with the Democrats and Republicans, who are now so overwhelmingly compromised by corporate power.

“An Unreasonable Man” is the title of a new documentary about the life and career of Ralph Nader. Aside from Muhammed Ali, Nader is perhaps the most recognizable American on our planet. I once hosted a cancer researcher from Kumamoto, Japan, Dr. Hiroshi Maeda, at my home in Washington, DC. One of the sights he wanted to see while in DC was Ralph Nader. I watched him go into virtual shock when, walking down Connecticut Ave., we ran into Ralph, who was walking toward us.

Now in his 70s, Ralph still carries the burden of public interest on his shoulders. Despite the severe criticism he’s received from former friends as well as from his corporate enemies, he has refused to slow down or give up.

Here is a partial inventory of the positive changes wrought by Ralph Nader, either through his sole effort or in collaboration with other public interest people: automobile safety legislation; meat and poultry inspection laws; the Consumer Products Safety Commission; air pollution laws; water pollution laws; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Occupational Health and Safety Act; the safe drinking water act; the Freedom of Information Act (which was vetoed, then overridden); the National Cooperative Bank Act; the Resource Recycling Act; and many others.

If one were to put Nader’s name on his accomplishments, Americans would find themselves benefitting from such things as the Ralph Nader Seat Belt, Ralph Nader automobile air bags, Ralph Nader “no smoking” signs on airplanes, trains and buses, and on and on. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine what life was like before Nader was able to push all these laws through, when cars had no seat belts, etc.

As he himself would acknowledge, the strength Ralph Nader inherited from his parents has served him well, and has made a great difference for all of us. For that, he should be thanked, rather than criticized.
James G. Abourezk is a former U.S. senator (D-SD) and founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He currently practices law in Sioux Falls, SD.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2008, pages 28-30