He looks like a ghost. A tall, hulking, haunting figure. No, it’s more like he looks haunted by a ghost. And he is.
I’m talking here about Ralph Nader, whom I sat next to at a recent benefit.
He’s always looked a bit haggard and raccoon-eyed, probably because for half a century, he’s been a nonstop muckraking machine. He’s one of the few who can’t ignore life’s constant stream of outrages, so few redressed or even noticed by the rest of the world. So many suffer; so few seem to care. Until the economy blows up like a defective car and everyone asks, “Why didn’t we see it coming?”
Watching Ralph Nader, you feel that he does suffer with the people who suffer. He’s not a cold-blooded diagnostician of the diseases of corporate power; this is not some clinical operation he’s been running. He may be cynical about the perpetrators, but not the victims.
Ralph Nader has done so much good in his career, exposed so much corporate and government corruption—so much bribery, law-breaking, malfeasance, malpractice, product defects, drug company-subsidized science. And he has a remarkable record of laws that resulted at least in part from his exposés. One wonders what we’d do without him and the numerous watchdog agencies he’s given birth to; the generations of idealistic public interest lawyers and activists he’s inspired; the tireless work that has led to legislation, regulation, reparation, prosecution, public outrage, all of which have—or should have—changed the way we look at the unchecked operation of naked capitalism.
Ralph Nader has had an effect. The malefactors of great stealth have had to learn to worry that Ralph Nader is forever looking over their shoulder. And yet it never stops. The crooks in the expensive suits and suites have found that however much light Nader sheds on their dirty deeds, they generally get away without jail time. They go on inventing new and dirtier deeds, a constant proliferation despite all the exposure. The system that spawned them seems unable to correct itself. All their whining about onerous regulation works: They’ve brainwashed the Tea Party dupes into an anti-regulationist frenzy, the kind of peerless obstructionist stupidity that puts their own families in danger.
But Nader never gives up. He’s always been one of my heroes.
Still, when I happened to be seated next to Nader at this benefit recently I wondered about that haunted look. The last time I saw him in person, some 15 years ago, he was just as haggard-looking. Now he’s nearing 80, and he scarcely looks a day older than he was then. It could be my imagination but his look now had an element of the tragic to it. I’m speculating, of course, but to me he seemed haunted by history, by a cruel twist of fate. By Florida, 2000. By the charge that his five-figure vote total in that corrupt state’s presidential election changed history, bequeathing us Bush, Iraq, Abu Ghraib.
Did he have any second thoughts? Could he have done something different back then? Might he have taken a tactical retreat from principle for an imagined greater-good, or lesser-bad, back in 2000 when the race seemed so close? Does his campaign now haunt him? Has he reconsidered his decision to run or not to drop out?
Because many of those who were once his fans, followers, and admirers turned on him after Bush was named president by a partisan Supreme Court. Mention Nader’s name to some of these people now and they snarl. “He gave us Bush! He was only thinking of himself!” Not that they’re doing anything noble or selfless with their lives, but they can blame everything—the great decline, the war crimes, the brilliant investment banking scams that blew up the economy—not on George W. Bush, nor the lame candidacy of that hapless loser, Al Gore—but on Ralph Nader. For doing what he’s always done, for following his principles, acting as the conscience of both parties. It’s an American tragedy.
This is something I learned in the days after my recent encounter with him. When I’d tell friends about it, tell them the guy is still on the case, advise them to pick up his most recent book , Getting Steamed To Overcome Corporatism, which, with its old-fashioned title, was a sourcebook of investigative outrage that in many ways anticipated Occupy Wall Street (and—it seems—has outlasted it).
TODAY IN SLATE
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John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.
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The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee
Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?
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Driving in Circles
The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.