A review of Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, by Justin Martin

The most damning feature of Justin Martin's portrait of Ralph Nader is not what the many enemies of the self-styled "consumer advocate" say about him but the revealing comments made by Nader's friends; or rather, his erstwhile colleagues. For as quickly becomes apparent in Martin's account, Nader doesn't really have any friends, and he eventually alienates his most devoted allies.

Nader, according to one former colleague, "isn't in the personal loyalty business. Virtually everyone who has ever worked with him, he took a shot at later." This from former Nader's Raider Harrison Wellford: "There is no way you could please Ralph for any length of time." Former Raider Michael Harper: "His top agenda was to show himself to be more righteous than people in the government…. You don't work with Nader. He had to do it his own way, he wanted control." Former Raider Lowell Dodge: "I never saw any signs of any personal interest in close relationships with other people, men or women. Ralph's thrill is taking the outrageous situation and translating it into an 'I gotcha.'" Said one congressional staffer who worked closely with Nader, "His zealotry, his intensity, simply does not wear well." Gary Sellers, described by Martin as once "the truest believer," was one of many who broke with Nader over the 2000 election, accusing him of "feeding his eager young supporters a steady diet of gross oversimplifications." In 1977, Nader launched a vicious personal attack on National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Joan Claybrook, who only a few months earlier had been his closest advisor. He explained that "the stakes are too high for friendship and sentimentality." For Nader they always are.

Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon is in no way a hatchet job. Martin clearly admires Nader. When he was in college he heard Nader deliver "the best speech I've ever attended." Martin seems to be a relatively conventional liberal who believes that the legislation Nader helped enact in the 1960s and 1970s was great for consumers, and that the many "public interest" organizations Nader founded were great for democracy. The reader will find no free-market critique of Nader's brand of consumerism here. 

Martin also admires Nader's remarkable political skill and stamina. He describes Nader as the "consummate issue entrepreneur" who had "surprising savvy in the ways of Congress and the media" and "a finely calibrated sense of outrage." If anything, Martin exaggerates Nader's political talent, attributing to him victories that were the work of many other reformers. Moreover, Martin cannot but respect Nader's work ethic. He reports that Nader works 20 hours per day, seven days a week, and has virtually no diversions. Martin convincingly rebuts rumors about Nader's financial relations with the trial lawyers, his lack of candor about his finances and residence, and his sexual orientation. Nader isn't susceptible to standard forms of corruption because he is intent upon living up to his self-created reputation "as a kind of superhero of asceticism, lacking in ordinary appetites, immune to ordinary vices."

Martin's entertaining book traces the many ups and downs of Nader's long career. A bright but somewhat eccentric loner growing up in a close-knit, Lebanese-American family in Winsted, Connecticut, Nader attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, disdaining the former and loathing the latter. He bumped around until age 29, when Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan hired him as a consultant on auto safety. Nader sometimes started work at midnight and claimed his phone was being tapped. But he knew a lot about auto accidents and car design. With assistance from Senator Abe Ribicoff, an eager book publisher, and the incredible stupidity of General Motors, in 1966 Nader rocketed to fame on the back of the Chevy Corvair. 

And he knew how to use his new-found fame. Success followed success. Nader became a media star and a force to be reckoned with in Congress. He helped enact not only auto safety legislation, but laws on meat and poultry inspections, pipeline safety, and use of X-ray equipment. By 1972 he had been on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, had founded a plethora of organizations filled with "Nader's Raiders," and had even turned down an offer by George McGovern to be the Democratic candidate for Vice President. Jimmy Carter solicited Nader's advice during the 1976 campaign and appointed many of his Raiders to important government posts. 

Ironically, the inauguration of a Democratic president marked the end of what Martin calls Nader's "golden age." He quickly grew disenchanted with the Carter Administration. Within two years he had alienated many of his old allies in Congress by refusing to accept even the smallest compromise on legislation to establish his beloved Consumer Protection Agency. Meanwhile, business became considerably more politically adept, and Republicans captured the White House and the Senate. Just before the 1980 election Nader had claimed he could see no difference between the two parties. But as soon as Reagan was elected, he claimed the new president was "the worst thing we've ever seen."

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Nader responded to these defeats in Washington by focusing on such state and local issues as auto insurance (he favored lower rates but steadfastly opposed no-fault), public utilities regulation, and tort reform (he was opposed to anything that limited plaintiffs' ability to win big judgments). In the 1990s he again shifted strategy, entering the electoral arena that he had previously disdained. Nader ran as a Democrat in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, "stood" as a Green Party candidate for president in 1996 (a campaign notable chiefly for his refusal to campaign), and so doggedly pursued the presidency in 2000 that he threw the election to George W. Bush. This last campaign was positively bizarre: one of his rivals for the Green party nomination was Jello Biafra, a lead singer for the "Dead Kennedys"; the super-straight Nader was surrounded by rock stars, advocates of legalizing marijuana, and the "pink-haired and multipierced." Ever the loner, he refused to become a member of the party that had nominated him for president. When the election finally ended, Nader becamepersona non grata among liberal Democrats. "I'm going to shun him," James Carville proclaimed, and "any good progressive ought to do the same."

To some extent Martin presents this story as a classic tragedy. Our hero is brought down by the feature of his character that was essential to his rapid ascent: his overweening self-righteousness. For Nader politics is always a stage for the battle between good and evil. In the original version of Nader's Manichaean view of the world, corporate executives were bad; whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, eager congressional staffers, idealistic college students, and, of course, Nader's Raiders good. Politicians and bureaucrats had to choose sides. Over time, though, Nader decided that all members of Congress and administrators (even former Raiders) had gone over to the dark side. Nader first attacked "Mr. Environment," Ed Muskie, then his old mentor Abe Ribicoff, then reliable supporters like Pat Schroeder and Tom Foley, and eventually the entire Carter Administration. No one elicited more contempt from Nader than Al Gore, who not only moved to the center when he started to run for president, but he refused to return Nader's phone calls. In Nader's mind devotion to the public interest was indistinguishable from devotion to Ralph Nader.

Old ally Michael Pertschuk offered this perceptive analysis of Nader's proclivity for burning bridges:

I keep returning to the metaphor of Nader as an Old Testament prophet. Prophets don't make good presidents. They attack and attack and attack. But to be the public scold, to call people to account for not living up to moral codes, that's the role Ralph performs best. His genuine contempt for Gore came out during the election. Maybe prophets are hardest on those who are lapsed.

Year after year, the prophet Nader traveled across the country recruiting idealistic students and persuaded them to work long hours for low pay. But in the end they would always disappoint him, either because they refused to work 20 hours-a-day or because they decided they valued consequences over confrontation. But there would always be another cohort of youngsters to recruit. 

Martin does a particularly good job showing how Nader's skills as a policy entrepreneur and public scold dovetailed with the politics of 1966-76. Nader appeared on the scene just as activist subcommittee government was replacing the rule of Southern conservative committee barons in Congress. He instinctively understood the growing power of the young legislative assistants who were buzzing around Capitol Hill. He knew how to generate press by "interweav[ing] dry statistics with bursts of vivid phraseology," providing easy stories for lazy reporters and a "megaphone" for good investigative journalists. His regulatory agenda was in tune with the "postmodern" values of the newly affluent society. As the first prominent consumer advocate on the scene, he was able to focus on what Martin calls "truly low-hanging fruit." The Federal Trade Commission of the 1960s, for example, was "a proverbial fish in a barrel, a government agency that was laughably ineffective and corrupt." Nader also understood that in the late 1960s and early 1970s the economically secure graduates of the most prestigious colleges were desperately searching for ways to "cast a shadow" without "selling out." He filled his organizational franchises with an "almost comically elite coalition of people," many of whom later rose to prominence in politics, journalism, and academia. Most of these themes have been developed at some length in the political science literature. But by showing how Nader used the new political opportunities and resources of the 1960s and 1970s, Martin provides the reader with a vivid sense of the era's politics. 

By the end of the book it becomes clear that Nader needed a Republican in the White House in order to work his political magic. Martin notes that "Nader had some of his most conspicuous success with President Nixon in office, and by contrast he felt stymied under Carter and Clinton." During Democratic Administrations Nader had to share the spotlight, which made him peevish. He expected Jimmy Carter to defer to him on high-level appointments and virtually all regulatory matters. "I want access," he demanded, "I expect to be consulted." Moreover, Republican presidents and administrators provided the foils Nader's form of political theatre requires. As Martin explains, 

Often he benefited from the stark relief provided by Republican politics. Unquestionably, a Bush presidency threatened Nader's agenda on everything from antitrust to torts. But Nader has actually suggested that the threat might help galvanize progressives…. "Which [party] is going to get more people mad? Which one is going to get more people organized?"

Nader seemed to realize this in 1980 when, as former Raider Jonathan Alter put it, "He didn't seem overly distressed at the idea of Ronald Reagan becoming president." 

Martin tries to remain agnostic on the question of whether Nader's 2000 campaign was an effort by an idealist to disseminate his ideas or an effort by a bitter has-been to thwart a preppy political parvenu. But his review of the campaign shows that this is not a tough question. Nader did everything possible to defeat Al Gore. When it became clear that the election would come down to a few swing states, Nader traveled to the states with the closest contests, knowing that he would drain far more votes from Gore than from Bush. Pat Buchanan did just the opposite: in the waning days of the campaign Buchanan trolled for votes in states Bush had no chance of

One might conclude that even Ralph Nader had been corrupted by power: he wanted to maintain his standing as an icon of the Left by destroying as many rivals as possible. But I think it would be more accurate to say that Nader has been corrupted by his underlying antipathy to power. He frequently proclaimed "I don't work in government, I work on government." He refused to exercise government authority directly. Rather, his job was to confront governmental and corporate power with a long list of nonnegotiable demands. As soon as government or business passed one test (say, by installing airbags), another would pop up and all previous accomplishments would quickly be forgotten. For Nader the satisfaction came not from the consequences of the resulting policy, but from the confrontation itself, the momentary triumph of his conscience and dedication over someone else's greed and complacency. Nader was intent on demonstrating not just that cars could be made safer, but also that corporate executives were knowingly making unsafe cars and just didn't care how many people they killed. In Pertschuck's words, "General outrage was his currency." This is part of the reason why he has shown such extraordinarily undeserved trust in lawyers and tort law. What counts in the end is the opportunity to hit big corporations and high priced professionals where it hurts, in the pocketbook. If this ends up also hurting the average consumer by driving up prices or driving out producers, well, that is a small cost to pay for the opportunity to enjoy a fine morality play. Besides, consumers would be happier if they lived with the Spartan simplicity and moral clarity of Ralph Nader. 

Martin's book raises this question: Is Nader's truculence and grating moralism simply the product of the peculiar personality of a man who has no car, no credit card, no clear residence, no family, and virtually no friends? Or is it the result of a "public interest" political ideology, which views economic power as evil and political authority as equally dangerous? Unfortunately, as fascinating as Martin's book is, he does not help us answer this question because he pays so little attention to Nader's underlying ideas about markets and politics. As Nader labors assiduously to discredit himself among all but the "pink-haired and multipierced," what, if anything, is left of Naderism? Let's hope that some eager reader of Martin's fine biography will soon tackle this important question.