Ralph Nader's uncompromising nature made him a driven consumer advocate -- and a destructive politician.
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Whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, reactionary or progressive, you probably have little interest in a documentary on Ralph Nader. The man has alienated both ends of the political spectrum, and for someone who always rejected the center that leaves him nowhere to stand.
Truth be told, I thought I had no interest in a Nader documentary -- until I sat down with "An Unreasonable Man," a terrific, fair-minded, well-rounded, warts-and-all profile airing as part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series at 9 p.m. today on WTTW Channel 11.
Opening with a quote from George Bernard Shaw stating, "All progress depends on the unreasonable man," because "the reasonable man adapts himself to the world" as it is, the documentary depicts Nader as the epitome of that unreasonable man. It's what made him a driving and uncompromising consumer advocate, but in the end it's also what made him lose patience with presidential politics, driving him to run himself -- and forever alter the path of history with his role in the tightly contested 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
"There's a Shakespearean feature to this," says Phil Donahue, and "An Unreasonable Man" delivers on that tragic promise.
Nader was the son of a first-generation immigrant, a loquacious restaurateur who relished political debates with his customers and who typically asked his children when they came home from school, "Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?"
So Nader grew up to be an idealistic attorney, eventually hired to write a book fleshing out a story in The New Republic by James Ridgeway on the unsafe design of cars -- "psycho-sexual dreamboats" as Nader termed them in the '50s. That book, "Unsafe at any Speed," about the Corvair, prompted General Motors to try to intimidate him with investigations and entrap him in illicit behavior -- none of it successful. When that intimidation was revealed before Congress in 1966, it led directly to the passage of a landmark auto-safety bill, and Nader went on to win $425,000 in damages in suing GM, which provided him with seed money to fuel "Nader's Raiders" for years.
Many of the reforms we now take for granted -- not just car seat belts and airbags, but product labeling, getting free airline tickets for being bumped off flights and the Freedom of Information Act -- were propelled by Nader and his crusading activists and attorneys. He thrived in the '70s, only to be co-opted and then sold out -- like so many others -- by President Jimmy Carter. He saw many of his reforms attacked and turned back under the Reagan administration -- "a particularly grim time," says one interview subject -- but kept fighting the good fight.
Yet the compromises of the Clinton administration, which pretty much shut him out during President Clinton's second term, pushed him to alter that fight and enter the fray himself.
"I'm a 20-year veteran of pursuing the follies of the least-worst of the two parties," he said, "because you're allowing them to both get worse every four years."
As the presidential candidate of the Green Party in 2000, he had little hope of compromise with Al Gore, who fought his participation in the debates, and little in common politically with George W. Bush. And his belief that democracy was "for sale" by "skulking, cowardly politicians" left no wiggle room. So when the election turned on 537 votes in Florida, Nader of course was blamed for setting back the progressive cause.
Academic author Todd Gitlin attacks the way Nader seemed to gloat in his spoiler role by saying, "I do believe Al Gore cost me the election," while The Nation's Eric Alterman is even more caustic. "The Democrats were just incompetent. Nader was dishonest," he says, calling him a "Leninist" who sought to crash the system in order to remake it.
Look, I absolutely agree with Nader that politics in general and presidential politics in particular are broken. The money politicians need to raise to run for office is obscene, and it makes them beholden to corporations or anyone with deep pockets. But there's also no denying the Bush administration has been antithetical to everything Nader stands for. A little compromise would have produced better overall results where Nader is concerned.
That's the story "An Unreasonable Man" tells, that Nader's unbending idealism fueled his greatest achievements, but also led to his destructive role in the 2000 election.
"I don't care about my personal legacy," Nader says. "I care about how much justice is advanced in America and in our world day after day." So be it. Let that be his epitaph.