A Portrait of the Crusader as a Young Man

Ralph Nader reveals a softer side in his new childhood memoir. But don't get him started on iPods, Hillary Clinton, and why he has no regrets about his long shot presidential bids.

When a man in his seventies starts criticizing the way kids are brought up today, he risks being dismissed as an out-of-touch codger. But when Ralph Nader gave an hour-long speech contrasting modern childhood with his own upbringing at a recent book signing in San Francisco, ears perked up.

The 72-year-old Nader was wrapping up a promotional tour for The Seventeen Traditions, his new memoir about growing up as the son of Lebanese immigrants in Connecticut. “Apart from Unsafe at Any Speed, this is the most consequential book I have written,” he told the standing-room-only crowd. The book is largely a nostalgic tribute to his parents’ thrift, level-headed discipline, and civic engagement, but it also affords Nader ample chance to personalize his familiar critique of consumerism. He contrasts contemporary childhood, with its “videogames and iPods and television and all kinds of salacious websites,” with his own upbringing, which he recounts as full of time spent outdoors, family dinners, and trips to town hall meetings. “I am not engaging in familial narcissism,” he said. “Everyone has traditions like these.” The book encourages progressives to reclaim the idea of “family values” from the right; as Nader later explains, “Families are incubators for citizen activists.”

At the reading, Nader revealed a side of himself that rarely emerges on television or before large audiences. He was travel-weary but humorous, recalling Lebanese proverbs his parents had shared with him, at one point speaking Arabic to a man in the front row who had offered to help decode what might be lost in translation. Nader still unleashed his wrath against his usual targets of “corporate crime, fraud, and abuse,” his rhetoric hardly changed by the last five years or the last 25. And he clung to the rationale behind his two polarizing presidential campaigns, namely, that “the great similarities between the two major parties overwhelm the dwindling differences.” Despite the warm welcome, Nader wasn’t about to make nice with his critics. “The last time Nader came to the city,” one of his aides told me warily, “he was greeted with a pie thrown in his face.” But tonight, he was safe.

The new book has garnered Nader a new round of attention. “I would like to go on Oprah,” he joked, “but you know she’s a Democrat.” Plugging his memoir along with An Unreasonable Man, a new documentary about his life and presidential campaigns, Nader has appeared with Jon Stewart and Wolf Blitzer, and he’s started to hint that he’s considering another run in 2008.

Nader sat down with Mother Jones to speak about his book, why Al Gore’s environmentalism is just “stratospheric fashion,” his possible run against Hillary Clinton, and the “political bigotry” of being called a spoiler.

Mother Jones: What inspired you to write about your childhood?

Ralph Nader: My mother passed away 13 months ago, and I thought it was time to write a love story for mom and dad. People are interested in family traditions, and I think a lot of families can benefit from some of the ways that my parents dealt with the challenges of raising four kids in that period of history.

MJ: What do you mean when you write, “As the household goes, so does the nation”?

RN: One thing I wanted to show was that families are incubators for citizen activists. There is not enough self-consciousness about what a family can be, about what it can inherit from forbearers, and what new traditions it can start as a contributor to the community. You will see in the book there was no bright line between family, civic activity, and business practices. They all flowed from the household. The world is shaped by different people with certain personalities that come out of different upbringings. I think George W. Bush’s personality was overwhelmingly shaped in negative ways by his upbringing.

MJ: In what ways?

RN: Well, his grandfather was a very tough taskmaster to Bush’s father, and Bush’s father literally fled from Connecticut to Texas just to get out of the ambit of this patrician, dominating man. So Bush III was raised in the Texas oilfields and became an alcoholic, and the father-son relationship was very acrimonious. There were altercations from their Maine home to Texas. When Bush III became president he wanted to show his dad he was tougher than he was and that he could finish the job in Iraq.

MJ: When you talk about childhood today, you single out the iPod. What is your take on the iPod?

RN: I don’t like too much by-standing, on-looking, and spectator-behavior in people’s lives. Looking at virtual reality through computer screens, video game screens, and above all television screens is a denial of personality development. It’s a denial of socialization, of expansion of vocabulary, of interaction with real human beings.

MJ: You have a lot of people anxious because of the comments you made on this book tour suggesting that if Hilary wins the nomination you might run again in ’08.

RN: By the time she wins the nomination it would be too late. We will have to see what the signs are. It’s too early to say now, and I am focusing on the book, which shows progressive ways to define family values. And one of them is that family values stand up to injustice and power outside the household.

MJ: But do you feel you need to stand up to Hillary?

RN: I think Hillary Clinton is a militarist. She is a political coward. The interesting thing about Hilary Clinton, like Bill Clinton dodging the draft, he never touched the Pentagon—she is in the same position. She is a woman, so she is going to show how tough she is like Margaret Thatcher. She is on the Armed Services Committee, but she has never made a name for herself over the huge waste, fraud, and abuse in the military budget. And she should have since there is virtually no military contracting in New York, except on Long Island. Spitzer goes all the way to the governorship focusing on corporate crime, fraud, and abuse on Wall Street. Wall Street is in her backyard and she doesn’t touch the issue. How many more lacerations to any modest profile of political courage is she going to add?

MJ: So does Elliot Spitzer represent a new direction for the Democrats?

RN: He is showing them how to win, and they are so dumb they don’t even want to touch the issue of corporate crime. If you look at senatorial debates in ’06 it never came up. [Clinton] didn’t even make it an issue; she’s got her hand out. She has to raise two or three hundred million dollars, and you don’t do that with a tin cup on the corner of the Embarcadero.

MJ: Some say in 2000 you were as eager to punish the Democrats as you were interested in building a third party. Todd Gitlin, one of your critics in the new documentary about you, calls you “exultant” after the 2000 election. Were you?

RN: I started out wanting to spend all my time on Bush and nudging the Democrats with a platform they ignored and which would have won for them in a landslide. Gitlin was hysterical in the movie, for which I pardon him. So was [Eric] Alterman. I don’t think I displayed exultation in the campaign as much as astonishment that the Democrats were so stupid as to continue the prospect of losing to this bumbling governor from Texas who couldn’t put three sentences together. My astonishment turned to revulsion as they moved to try to push me off the ballot in 2004, with 21 phony lawsuits.

Instead of Gitlin and Alterman focusing on the thieves that stole the 2000 election or focusing on the utter stupidity of the worst presidential campaigns in modern history—Gore and Kerry, why do they focus on the Greens and the independent candidate? I bet you one thing: For every time they have been asked that question, I have been asked a hundred times, “Do you regret costing Gore the election?”

MJ: But what’s next, since being a spoiler is inherently a short-term strategy?

RN: It’s not spoiling. A spoiler is a kind of contemptuous word, first of all, because it speaks of a kind of political bigotry. What you should call it is the power of a humanizer of politics. That’s the way I see it. Isn’t it easy to say that the Democrats should take poll-tested issues that might get them less cash but more votes with the American people?

MJ:: In the film, it’s interesting to see the sheer number of former allies who either asked you not to run or wished you hadn’t. Was there anyone whose opposition to your running in ’04 made you the least bit hesitant?

RN: Howard Zinn and [Noam] Chomsky—just in the close states. In October [2004] they signed a letter with 70 others, which basically said I should focus on getting more votes in the safe states. But we were running a 50-state campaign. We didn’t prefer one state to another, except I certainly did in California compared to Florida. I spent 28 there, and 2.5 days in Florida in 2000.

MJ: When the Atlantic Monthy recently named you one of the 100 most influential figures in American history, it wrote, “He made the cars we drive safer; thirty years later, he made George W. Bush the president.” You say in the film that you don’t care about your legacy. Do you really feel that way?

RN: I would only care if they showed that I was wrong—that I hoisted some deception on people. It is so grotesque for the Atlantic to say something like that. Just empirically, let’s see who made George Bush president before I did: Al Gore by running a terrible campaign, George W. Bush for stealing the campaign, and David McReynolds—he got 3,700 votes for Socialist Labor. A quarter of a million Democrats voted for Bush. Why are my critics picking on just one of the “what-ifs”?

MJ: Speaking of what-ifs, John Kerry has a forthcoming book One Moment on Earth. Al Gore has An Inconvenient Truth. What do you think it is about losing a presidential election that makes Democrats lean green?

RN: I think they have suppressed themselves for so long. Gore suppressed himself for eight years. He wrote an environmental book in 1992, and then all of a sudden Clinton muzzled him. We couldn’t get him to make one speech on solar or renewable energy, and it’s not because we didn’t ask. Not a single proposal to raise fuel efficiency in motor vehicles after he writes a book that says the internal combustion engine is a global menace. Now he is liberated.

With Kerry, I think he looks at Gore. It gives both of them a frame of reference that has tinges of statesmanship to it. It lets them look out for the whole world. Then there is being au courant. You go to Beverley Hills and New York to raise money and that’s what’s on people’s minds, not asbestos nor asthma in the ghettos, not lead contamination coming off crumbling tenement walls. It’s a stratospheric fashion now. To test their authenticity is to ask how many times they use proper names, excoriating corporate environmental predators, rather than just vague generalities.

MJ: You are famous for saying “The only true aging is the erosion of one’s ideals,” but you have also been accused by those like Roger Hickey of “bedazzling young people, with a self-serving and oversimplified political message,” retiring to comfortable liberal strongholds rather than engaging in the task of building a political majority.

RN: When have I ever suggested retiring to comfortable liberal strongholds? Gee, all those abolitionists—they were tempting and tantalizing the youth of those days to retire to comfortable strongholds—all those people who struggled for labor, and Farmer Progressive, and the Greenback Party, and the People’s Party, and the Liberty Party. Are you saying they were just pie in the sky?

The progress of history is to take the impossible and turn it into the possible. It’s impossible to beat the tobacco industry, to have no smoking on airplanes. It happened. It was supposed to be impossible to have an arms accord with the Soviet Union where we watch each other dismantling nuclear warheads. The whole story of human history is: The blasphemy of today is the commonplace of tomorrow. These guys have aged before they hit 70.

MJ: Now that you are almost 73, do you still have time to read Mother Jones?

RN: Yeah, I still read it. We get it in the library, but I wish you would call me once in a while for ideas.