An Unreasonable Man

The film’s look at Nader post-2004 explores the vitriol the crusader engenders among his critics and the bittersweet respect he still garners from colleagues.

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Since the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader has fallen so far from grace it is hard to believe that in the early 1970s polls showed him to be among the most admired men in America. In 1972, George McGovern asked Nader to be his running mate; the tireless consumer advocate had name recognition, an unmatched record of fighting corporate and bureaucratic power, and—if you believe the Tom Robbins novel Still Life With Woodpecker—sex appeal.

Three decades later, the documentary An Unreasonable Man probes Nader’s life in search of the logic that propelled his controversial presidential campaign in 2000 and unrepentant run in 2004. In the process, the film surveys the vitriol Nader engenders among his critics as well as the bittersweet respect he still garners from his colleagues. The responses from one interview seem to inform the next as the film intercuts between Nader’s attackers and apologists. Journalism professor (and Mother Jones contributing writer) Todd Gitlin tears into Nader for diminishing the difference between political parties. “To conflate the two as Tweedledee and Tweedledum was politically idiotic,” Gitlin says. “It is the responsibility of a serious person not to be a fool.” Responds Phil Donahue, “Liberals killed Nader for saying there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the parties, yet the Democrats spent the next four years proving that he was right.”

The film, codirected by a former Nader aide, tacks toward Nader’s view that defensive Democrats neither vote their conscience nor formulate appealing ideas. While it is hard not to cringe at clips of John Kerry impersonating George W. Bush’s tough-on-terror talk, the filmmakers are too lenient on Nader’s unwillingness to recognize 2004’s anyone-but-Bush imperative. Incapable of admitting even the possibility that he shares some of the responsibility for Bush’s first election, Nader shows no sign that he has learned that purity ofntention provides no immunity against disaster.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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