Don’t Hate This Man
Ralph Nader is still a hero.
Telling my friends about my Nader encounter, I was stunned at the vitriol some expressed. About how Nader supposedly lost the election for Gore and won it for Bush because of the 97,000 votes out of millions cast that made the election close enough for a partisan Supreme Court to steal it (or at least prevent a fair recount), by putting its thumb on the scales of justice. The exact kind of crude and corrupt act that Nader had spent a lifetime fighting against.
A few friends were more sympathetic. Why is it, one asked, that people blame Nader rather than the fatuous Al Gore, who crucially failed to win his home state and, in a masterstroke of strategic genius, failed to ask Bill Clinton to campaign for Gore in his home state of Arkansas, either one of which would have made the Florida outcome irrelevant? Why not blame Gore for failing to attract a greater share of the registered Democratic voters in Florida?
So for the haters, Nader takes the fall for all the sins of the Bush era. Not Bush, not the guards at Abu Ghraib, not Lehmann Bros. Nader.
Nader’s fall from grace is fascinating; it’s Shakespearean. He may be a tragic hero. but to me he’s still a hero. And when I saw his place card next to mine at the benefit (for the worthy Lapham’s Quarterly; we were both guests of the businessman and activist Frank M. Flynn) I was glad, because I’d at least have a chance to apologize to him in person for doubting something he said to me a long time ago. (Actually the first thing I did when I saw his place card next to mine was guard it like a hockey goalie from a woman who was trying to move it to the seat next to her, right before my eyes.)
I held my ground. It may have been my last chance to offer that apology. And now I wonder whether my eagerness to offer an apology had something to do with a desire to apologize for the larger injustice: the way a certain smug think-tank liberal segment of our culture has treated him. No. More than that, to apologize for the way the cruel whimsy of history has treated him: a crusader for justice ambushed by unjust obloquy.
My particular apology had to do with a story I was working on some 15 years ago. About the whole medical malpractice “tort reform” scam. In the wake of the release of scary figures about the number of deaths and mutilations that result from doctors’ mistakes, the insurance industry was busy conducting a stealth state-by-state campaign for the euphemistically named “tort reform,” which would—among other ways of undercutting legal redress for botched medicine—limit the damages the victims of incompetent doctors could recover in malpractice lawsuits. Damages that helped the families of the dead, that helped the survivors who needed expensive lifelong care. At the time, malpractice lawyers who sought redress for terrible avoidable medical catastrophes were being demonized while the doctors who butchered their patients were being shielded by their white coats. I was attempting to put the "tort reform" movement in the context of how severe—and common—medical malpractice and mistakes were at the time, and I had come upon several shocking stories of insurance company, doctor, and hospital malfeasance, including the unpublicized case of a major New York hospital, one of whose brain surgeons had operated on the wrong side of a patient’s brain. (Remember this when you say causally, “Hey it’s not brain surgery.”) When I interviewed Nader back then in his barebones Washington office and told him I had an assignment from a major New York magazine to write about medical malpractice and the doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies that were trying to escape the consequences of their mistakes, Nader told me, “They’ll never print it.”
I scoffed at the time. This was a prominent periodical with a reputation for integrity. But it turned out, I had discovered one mistake too many. I was summoned to the office of the head of the hospital where the wrong-side-of-the-brain operation had been performed. I’ll never forget the aura of power that radiated from his vast desk in his vast office: New York power, the inside track. I’ll never forget the none-too-subtle way the hospital chief let me know he was very close friends with the magazine’s editor. He was just as confident it wouldn’t be printed as Nader, but smugly so.
Long story short: After major rewrites “for balance,” the magazine accepted the story, paid me in full for it—and never ran it. I later learned that one of the other editors there had a wife being treated at the hospital, which may have also figured in the fate of the piece. It was a lesson in how power works in New York City, the kind of thing Nader exposes every day. I was naive not to take his prophecy about it seriously, to underestimate the sagaciousness of his analysis, and I felt I owed him an apology for doubting him.
Nader didn’t remember the conversation, but he was gracious about my apology, and during the course of the dinner proceeded to tick off a litany of medical-related scandals that he chronicles in his most recent book, many of them having to do with the health care system and the obscene profits and powers of the drug companies, profits and powers that allow them to cover up their devastating errors, their biased drug trials, their medical device mistakes, that allow them to peddle worthless or harmful pills.
He went from there to the Wall Street casinos that continue to play idiotic games with taxpayer-funded bailout billions.
Just skimming through his book, which I got a couple of days later, you can’t help but get Steamed. You feel your blood boil at the toxic diabetes drugs, the “mortgage thieves,” the industrialized agriculture pollution, and the “poultry peonage” (he’s talking about the farmers, not the chickens). And the book is full of pithy summaries: “In today’s mad world, underpaid workers are bailing out banks and corporations run by overpaid, undertaxed bosses who milked their companies and our country like cash cows.”
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.