INTERVIEW- New focus: Nader turns attention to families
When he has spent a long career fighting for John Q. Public against everything from unsafe cars to greenhouse gases to the two-party political system, what's a consumer advocate to turn to next? Ralph Nader found his answer in trying to right this country's oldest institution: the American family.
In his latest book, The Seventeen Traditions, Nader conveys the lessons of his rural Connecticut childhood in the '30s and '40s, which he says have been lost in the era of soccer moms and iPods.
The Hook: This is a kind of introspective writing we're not used to seeing from you. What made you want to write it?
Ralph Nader: Firstly, it's a love story for my mom and dad, but also in traveling around the country, I found that a lot of parents think things are out of control, including their children. Most children spend 50-60 hours a week in front of a screen. So they're not getting that intergenerational transfer. We have a website called seventeentraditions.org to help people get the ball rolling in their own families.
The Hook: Bill Richardson just put out a memoir, and Barack Obama just published his second. Does this mean you're running for president in 2008?
Ralph Nader: No, that's pretty coincidental. We actually wanted it to come out last year around Christmas.
The Hook: When can we expect to hear if you are?
Ralph Nader: There have to be thousands of volunteers just to get on the ballot, with third party access being made so difficult by phony lawsuits from the Democratic National Committee and their state allies. I'll make up my mind sometime in the fall.
The Hook: What do you think of the Democratic field so far?
Ralph Nader: It's going to be tough to stop Hillary [Clinton]. There are too many IOUs the Clintons can call in. They don't take explicit stands, so they don't offend anyone. They pander and flatter because they're skilled opportunists. She doesn't go after military contractors even though she's on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She hasn't done what [Governor] Elliot Spitzer has done in New York and go after corporate crime. It's going to be hard to stop her.
The Hook: What do you think of Barack Obama?
Ralph Nader: He has great capacity, but he needs to fill in the blanks from a policy standpoint, and I suspect he'll do that in the next few months. None of them will be agents of change unless the citizenry riles itself and organizes. Healthcare for all is an example. There's no grassroots organization. If people continue to be spectators instead of shaping the way presidential candidates campaign by forming coalitions of citizen groups, it's just going to be 30-second TV spots and dialing for dollars.
The Hook: What do you say to those who blame you for putting George W. Bush in the White House?
Ralph Nader: I would say, "Why are you so politically bigoted?" You know as well as I do that Al Gore won the election, and it was taken away from him in Tallahassee and in a partisan 5-4 Supreme Court decision. My arithmetic tells me that Bush took more votes from Gore than I did. Do you think the two parties should get all the voters? Did they oppose Pat Buchannan running in 2000? Secondly, a study by Solon Simmons at George Mason University shows that, based on exit polls, my campaign led people who would have normally stayed home to go to the polls and vote for Gore. So Gore got more votes than I took from him.
The Hook: In spite of your perceived status as being on the political fringe when it comes to electoral politics, you've managed to get a lot accomplished in terms of getting legislation passed to set up new agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safetay and Health Administration. What's your secret?
Ralph Nader: Knowledge, persistence, stamina, weekends, letting others take the credit on Capitol Hill. Also, you get better at something the more you do it, whether it's stone masonry, or medicine, or public advocacy. I've also learned not to be the lone ranger. The more people you train and have working with you, the easier it is. Do you know about this telephone excise tax act?
The Hook: No, why don't you tell me about it?
Ralph Nader: The tax law was antiquated, and there's $10 billion to be refunded to businesses and $10 billion to go to individuals. So there's a box people can check on their 1040 if you had long distance telephone bills in the last three years, and you can get anywhere from $30 to $60 back, or it will reduce the income tax you owe. You can go to irs.gov to find out more.
The Hook: Do you see anyone else taking up the public advocacy mantle?
Ralph Nader: Sure. It's going on all the time on the local level, but you don't hear about it because of the deterioration of the local news. It's a caricature now. There are probably only four minutes of actual news out of 30 minutes. Weather isn't news unless you have got a hurricane. News is what's going on the community: improving neighborhoods, what local businesses are doing. But they actually advertise the weather segment like you can't get it anywhere else. They promote these weather correspondents as seers. There's nothing funnier than watching the weather forecast when there's six days of sunshine. They take the temperature in two towns that are two miles apart and say, "It was 59 in this town, but it was 60 over here!" It'd be tragic if it wasn't funny.
The Hook: Al Gore elevated the issue of global warming in the national consciousness to its highest level with An Inconvenient Truth. Any chance you'd make a documentary?
Ralph Nader: This is the golden age of documentaries. The Iraq documentaries are great, Michael Moore's going to weigh in in June with Sicko [a look at the American healthcare system]. But, no, I have no interest. They did one on me last year, An Unreasonable Man. I didn't participate in it except to be interviewed for seven hours. It almost got an Oscar nomination, but the voters are all of a traditional Democratic party persuasion. An Inconvenient Truth was a gripping PowerPoint presentation, but it was all about Gore.
Ralph Nader will read excerpts from The Seventeen Traditions at a book signing on Thursday, April 12 at 3pm at Gravity Lounge.
Ralph Nader says he'll decide this fall whether to make a 2008 run for the presidency.