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Esquire - December 1983

Ralph Nader, Public Eye

He took on the tough cases other guys wouldn’t touch.

by ken auletta

The public interest, not public relations, has long been Ralph Nader’s primary concern. Blunt, uncompromising, relentless, Nader moved against powerful, well-financed institutions to alert citizens to myriad hazards. Nearly single-handedly, he created a new area of national concern: consumer protection.

Snow pelted the late-model Plymouth Volare as it slid out of the city of Oswego, New York, on its way along Route 57 to Syracuse, forty miles south. Harnessed in the front seat by a three-point seat belt was the guest speaker at the State University at Oswego that night, accompanied by three undergraduates who had volunteered to drive him to his hotel, near the airport.

The four-door Plymouth barreled along at about thirty-five miles per hour, lashed by heavy winds that shoved it left and right, pounded by the thickest snowfall of the year. Suddenly, just after midnight, the car skidded out of control, spinning perpendicular to the highway, its momentum carrying it forward, slicing through knee-deep drifts, scraping and jumping a wall of ice, and coming to a halt at a forty-five-degree angle at the bottom of a ditch dividing the four-lane highway.

While the car spun, the passenger in the front seat said nothing. He sat calmly holding a giant manila accordion file folder containing brochures in his lap, wrapped in the same black raincoat, gray baggy suit, and blue oxford shirt he had worn to give five college speeches in thirty hours. While the car spun, the passengers in the back seat anxiously turned to check that another automobile would not plow into the Plymouth, that the car would not skid to the right, where a steep plunge menaced. All the while, the passenger in the front seat fixed his dark, intense eyes on the feet of the driver, never wavering throughout. When the car finally jolted to a halt, the passenger coolly complimented the student who was driving, Michael Murray of New City, New York, for keeping his foot off the brake. The car might have dipped over had Murray hit the brakes. "That was a classic case of a hydroplane landing," marveled Ralph Nader.

There were no injuries, but the Plymouth was hopelessly mired in the snow. It would take two hours for a tow truck to arrive to yank the car from the ditch, leaving time to contemplate life, and cars, and safety. Ever the evangelist—much like the reverend who asks for witnesses for Christ, Nader’s speeches often begin, "How many of you are hungry to become fighters for justice in America?"—Nader pulled from his folder one of the few remaining brochures he had not dispensed in two days, this one illustrating how automobiles equipped with air bags could save lives. Nader was asked how the safety features of this car differed from the first cars he exposed in Unsafe at Any Speed, the book that catapulted him to national prominence in 1965.

In rapid order, Nader slapped the dashboard, which is now padded; turned around and gripped the headrest, which now prevents whiplash; touched the steering wheel, which is now padded; rubbed the shift handle, which is no longer "shaped like a dagger"; touched the rearview mirror, which now breaks away on impact, and ran his fingers along the rounded frame, which used to have sharp edges—"That took me five years," he sighed; pulled the safety belt harness, which is now mandatory; pointed to the front window, which is now more shatter-resistant. Stronger door latches, Nader said, now keep doors from flying open during a collision and reinforced steel in the doors affords extra protection.

Although Nader was far from satisfied—"None of these changes was done after 1969, except to reinforce the door"—there is no denying Ralph Nader’s legacy. Just eighteen years ago automobile manufacturers claimed that their customers were unconcerned about safety features and should remain free to choose their own interior styles. Nader responded that his copy of the Constitution nowhere asserted a civil liberty "to go through the windshield." Largely through Nader’s efforts—with a powerful assist from General Motors, which stupidly assigned a private detective to spy on the young attorney—in 1966 Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, establishing a federal agency to set national safety standards and with the power to recall defective cars. Since then, 102.5 million automobiles have been recalled for safety reasons.

Reflecting back on his eighteen years of service as America’s foremost consumer advocate, Nader sat recently in his spartan Washington office, surrounded by cartons of printed material generated by the various consumer organizations he has spawned, and softly said, "I think we saved a lot of lives. "

Nader’s activities have not surprised people who knew the young Ralph Nader. At Princeton University and Harvard law school, classmate Theodore J. Jacobs noted that Nader was different. "I always thought he’d be extraordinary because he didn’t have the same value set as everybody," says Jacobs, who was a classmate and who had been Nader’s administrative right arm until they had a falling-out in 1975. Nader lived alone, and even then he was obsessive. Between their junior and senior years, many Princeton students received scholarships to go abroad. Most treated it like a vacation, including Jacobs, who says, "I went to England to study town planning—and went to Spain on a side trip. Ralph went to Lebanon—and took side trips to Ethiopia and Cyprus." Nader, he remembers, wangled credentials as a stringer for a newspaper and somehow managed to interview Emperor Haile Selassie.

The drive and intensity—the religious fervor—could be seen even earlier, in the boy born in Winsted, Connecticut, in 1934, the youngest of four children of Lebanese-born parents. His parents ran a restaurant and bakery, but they spoke often of injustice. "When they sat around the table growing up it was like the Kennedys," says Mark Green, a friend of Nader’s. "Except the subject was not power but justice." His father "is an Old Testament prophet—righteous," says former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk, who has visited the family home. When the father thought a store was charging too much, he thundered. When the mother wanted the library to carry a book, she exercised more charm but was no less persistent. At the age of four, Ralph hung around the courthouse listening to lawyers argue cases, and dreamed of becoming a people’s lawyer. "I read all the muckraker books before I was fourteen—America’s 60 Families, The Jungle," says Nader. "Ralph has an inner core that burns," says Jacobs.

After Princeton and Harvard, where he wrote a paper on automobile safety, Nader practiced law in Connecticut. He came to Washington in 1964 and, in his words, "poked around the auto safety issue to see what could be done." He went to work for Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who shared his interest in auto safety.

When Nader’s book was published, and after it was revealed that General Motors had spied on him, Nader was transformed into a noble David who bested the giant Goliath. The media feasted on the tall, thin, Jimmy Stewart–type character with the monkish ways who lived in a rooming house; had few possessions; ate only when reminded to, preferring raw vegetables and nuts; took no salary except expenses; and set himself up as a people’s lawyer, the consumer’s watchdog.

One sees Nader’s persistence in his shoes. They are low-cut black Army dress shoes with worn, slanted heels. When he served as a cook in the Army in 1959, Nader says, he purchased twelve pairs of low-cuts for six dollars apiece at the PX. He now wears the eleventh pair, and he says that to buy new heels would cost more than he paid for the shoes. Nader has not purchased a pair of dress shoes since, and he boasts of the one new pair waiting in the closet of his one-room efficiency apartment in Washington, just off Du Pont Circle. Nor has Nader purchased a pair of socks since selecting four dozen calf-length cotton-and-wool socks for thirty-five cents a pair at the PX. "I only regret that I didn’t buy two dozen more," he says.

No doubt, a priestly life-style was a key factor in Nader’s success. "If he were living in Chevy Chase with a wife and two kids, he never would have gotten the attention he got," says longtime Nader associate Donald Ross. Nader fed the media’s hunger for novelty, without allowing success to alter his life-style. Today Nader says he lives on five thousand to six thousand dollars in annual expenses. And he is no less fanatical about what goes in his stomach: in the course of two days on the road recently, Nader accepted a tuna fish sandwich only after quizzing the activist who picked him up at the Boston airport, "Is this today’s tuna?"; he grilled two different students about whether the grape punch served at Salem State College was real grape; at Oswego he was thirsty but would not allow the red punch to touch his lips, wondered why the fish served at dinner was fried, and was shocked that anyone would touch the roast beef, saying, "Did you see how red that meat was?" Although Nader can laugh at himself, he says he eats only fourteen pounds of meat a year, can tell you how many teaspoons of sugar are in a can of Coke (nine), and has in the past referred to cigarette smokers as being "weak" in character.

Nader was not the first to advance the issue of consumer rights—one thinks of William Jennings Bryan and nineteenth-century Populists, of the turn-of-the-century muckrakers and Teddy Roosevelt, of the National Recovery Administration’s Consumers’ Advisory Board during the New Deal, and more recently of former senators Estes Kefauver and Hubert Humphrey. But Nader devoted his full-time energies to this task, recruited staff members at modest salaries and hundreds of volunteers to join his mission to create a Fifth Estate to represent the public against what Nader saw as an unholy alliance between corporations and the government. Under his leadership, they launched studies of corporations and their government regulators. Nader was on the phone to the White House. Nader was testifying on Capitol Hill. Nader was secretly meeting with bureaucratic Deep Throats, unearthing fresh tales of corporate and government perfidy. Nader was huddling late in the night with reporters, parceling out valuable nuggets of news. Nader seemed to be everywhere.

This persistent man left his stamp on more than the auto industry. His well-publicized exposés contributed to a hailstorm of consumer legislation and regulations: meat-packing houses were required to be inspected and to meet minimum standards with passage of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967; the dangers of working on gas pipelines or in the coal mines were addressed by the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968 and the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1968; revelations about the perils of exposure to unnecessary radiation prompted Congress to pass the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968. Additional studies played a role in the passage of the Wholesome Poultry Product Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the Safe Water Drinking Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Act. In all, between 1966 and 1973 Congress passed more than twenty-five pieces of consumer, environmental, and regulatory reforms.

Turning from the Congress to the executive branch, Nader aimed the first of what came to be known as "Nader’s Raiders" reports at the Federal Trade Commission, an agency created in 1914 to regulate unfair competition and later granted powers to prevent "deceptive acts and practices" of business. This exposé revealed agency mismanagement; worse, it showed the agency was captive to the very industries it was entrusted to police. An embarrassed Nixon administration commissioned its own study, conducted by the American Bar Association, which led to new regulations requiring advertisers to justify the truthfulness of their claims (e.g., "Gets your oven thirty-five percent cleaner").

Another report, "The Chemical Feast," probed the law enforcement efforts of the Food and Drug Administration. Within a year, the three top officials at the agency had resigned and been replaced and the federal government had banished cyclamates from soft drinks and induced manufacturers to cease putting MSG in baby food, two of the report’s principal recommendations.

Nader’s Raiders struck again and again: evaluations of the government’s air and water pollution controls spurred the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency; probes of smoking and sewage dumping led to the creation of no-smoking sections on commercial airlines and to a ban on sewage dumping on railroad tracks; greater public awareness was aroused about the health hazards posed by agricultural pesticides, hormones, additives, and animal antibiotics, and about the cause of brown-lung disease among textile workers.

With a strong push from Nader, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1974, the only law of its kind in the world. "This law is a hammer you can hold over government," says Donald Ross. Take toxic wastes, for instance. If citizens didn’t have access to government records, government might not perform toxic tests and need not worry about releasing the results. "Almost every study we did of a government agency, the records were generated from Freedom of Information requests, " says Ross. This "hammer" helped open another avenue to Nader: the courtroom. When Nader couldn’t get information from government, he hauled officials into court, pioneering what are now commonly referred to as citizen action suits. Identifying himself as a "consumer of milk, " for example, Nader attempted to force the government to rescind a milk-price-support hike granted in 1971. Nader claimed that the milk industry had used "improper and unlawful influences" by donating $422,500 in campaign contributions to Richard Nixon in 1972.

To advance his crusade against unchecked power, Nader went beyond the original muckrakers in that he did more than expose injustice. He helped create new institutional mechanisms. Tapping his writing and lecture fees, he financed the Center for Study of Responsive Law in 1969, which was the guerrilla base of operations for Nader’s Raiders. Public Citizen, formed in 1971, became the umbrella organization for a variety of efforts, including the Health Research Group, which, under Dr. Sidney Wolfe and a staff of nine, monitors the federal health regulatory agencies and has been responsible for drawing attention to and prohibiting the use of Red Dye No. 2 and asbestos in spackling and joint compounds. The Litigation Group serves as the legal arm, bringing citizen action suits under the direction of former federal prosecutor Alan Morrison. The lobbying arm is provided by Congress Watch, which also serves as their legislative watchdog. Nader’s original Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), formed in 1970, consists of young consumer and political reform activists and has since inspired PIRG organizations in twenty-six states; in New York State alone PIRG has a budget of over $2 million, twenty-five offices, seventeen campus organizations, and 125 paid workers. These are but several of the organizations hatched by Nader and then spun off on their own, free from his day-to-day direction. "He sends his children out the door," says Alan Morrison, one of many individuals recruited by Nader who now shine on their own.

While Nader keeps in daily contact from his nearby Washington office, or from telephone booths, today he personally supervises just four organizations: the original Center for Study of Responsive Law, the Corporate Accountability Research Group, the Public Interest Research Group, and the Telecommunications Research and Action Center.

Not surprisingly, by 1972 Ralph Nader was a household name, regularly listed among the most-admired Americans. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for President in 1972, talked of strengthening his faltering candidacy by asking Nader to run as his Vice-President. Four years later President-elect Jimmy Carter invited Nader to Plains, Georgia, to solicit advice. Many former Nader’s Raiders were sprinkled throughout the Carter government. And during those next four years Nader played a role in lobbying for the successful deregulation of the airline and trucking industries.

"More than anyone else, Nader made the consumer movement a considerable factor in American economic and political and social life," says former Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff, who chaired the first auto safety hearing to call Nader as a witness. "He was the guardian at the gates." Without Nader’s efforts, there would not be a consumer adviser appointed by the President, says Betty Furness, the first to serve in that capacity, under Lyndon B. Johnson. All through her term, says Furness, she was always aware that Nader was watching. In his 1982 book, Revolt Against Regulation, former FTC chairman and Senate aide Michael Pertschuk writes of Nader: "For a very broad segment of the U.S. public, his has been the voice and persona of a contemporary Old Testament prophet ... calling society to account for its drift from its own professed morality…. For those already enlisted in the consumer cause, he was the drill sergeant. He roused us from sleep and relaxation and plagued us into the night."

Back in the mid-Sixties, observes Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, consumers rarely complained. They were passive. Today they drag merchants into small-claims court. "Now," she continues, "every county executive or mayor has a department of consumer affairs. Every TV station has a consumer reporter. Every newspaper has consumer reporters." According to the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, there are approximately 250 state and local consumer affairs departments; thirty-one states have independent consumer offices, and about forty states have consumer divisions with the state attorney general’s office. All of this activity came in Nader’s wake.

Even Nader’s adversaries acknowledge his legacy. Asserting that Nader probably belongs on any list of the fifty most influential Americans in this century, James Miller, President Reagan’s FTC chairman, says, "Nader was more effective than anyone else in dramatizing the need for information. There are market imperfections that need to be addressed." While disapproving of Nader’s tactics, Miller says his early efforts led to a "recognition of the need for regulations in some areas. Some of the auto safety aspects, some of the products and drugs—especially in the safety area." Finally, he says, "Nader was one of the important catalysts in the airline and trucking deregulation debates." Boyden Gray, counsel to Vice-President George Bush and the coordinator of Reagan’s Task Force on Regulatory Relief, says of Nader, "He raised the consciousness of the consumer as consumer, and my guess is that his legacy will be great. "

For almost twenty years, Ralph Nader has been America’s premier scold. Although polls suggest he is less popular today than he was, and his bristly righteousness and unwillingness to compromise have alienated many members of Congress, Nader says he still receives between fifteen hundred and two thousand letters a week, many simply addressed, RALPH NADER, WASHINGTON, D.C. Among college students, with whom he spends about a fifth of his time—lecturing, proselytizing, recruiting, hawking brochures—the Reverend Ralph still draws large, enthusiastic audiences. On the trip that ended in a snow-covered ditch outside Oswego, Nader had made five different speeches at five different campuses, surprising audiences with his humor. But while the wit may be newly developed, Nader himself remains remarkably unchanged. And unchanged, too, is the reaction he arouses among many idealistic college students. After listening to him talk at Tufts University, in Massachusetts, Ruth Moscow, a senior from Birmingham, Michigan, exclaimed, "One of the reasons he’s important is that he tells me to be idealistic. I’m constantly told, ‘Be realistic.’ ‘Don’t be a dreamer.’ He tells me that’s not true, that I can make a difference…. He makes me feel that I have the power to change society." "That notion—that the individual can make a difference—" says Dr. Sidney Wolfe, "is the guts of consumerism."

Nader bridles at being called a scold. People frequently ask why he is so negative. "I say to people, ‘Do you say the cop who catches a burglar is negative?’ I’m trying to stop corporate criminals. No one in the country is more negative than General Motors. They’re forcing you to breathe their noxious and toxic fumes."

This self-appointed-cop image crystallizes the least attractive side of Nader. For Nader represents many of those who came out of the Sixties armed with their Manichaean view of politics, dividing the world into workers versus corporations, white versus dark hats, us versus them. While speaking at Tufts, for example, Nader said of elected officials: "What matters are citizens organizing out there because they’re all opportunists." Imagine if he had said, "All Jews or all blacks are..." Pollution caused by corporations Nader largely blames on "the factor of evil"—not on ignorance, or panic, or cowardice.

Little wonder, then, that members of Congress who vote with Nader on ninety-nine out of one hundred issues are rankled to be denounced as tools of the special interests for a single vote. Even friends of Nader concede he could have gained passage of a Federal Consumer Protection Agency had he been willing to compromise. But Nader is more visionary than pragmatic as a leader. His strengths are his weaknesses. If he had been more flexible, he might have accomplished more. But he would not be the Ralph Nader we know.

Nader piously believes that he can define "the public interest" on most issues, but he often fails to see when legitimate interests collide. What happens when "sainted" workers have a stake in the fortunes of the "evil" auto companies? Or when the interests of employees in protecting their jobs through new trade barriers collide with the interests of consumers, who desire the lower prices of products made in Taiwan? Peter Schuck, a former Nader’s Raider, told Larry Learner, author of Playing It for Keeps in Washington, that, like many zealots, Nader was "hostile to politics. They tend to be interested in an antipolitical nirvana where issues are decided on their merits. Part of it is a class thing. People trained at Harvard law school tend to be snobbish. They think they’re better than politicians. They forget or refuse to acknowledge what politics is all about. It’s a way of getting consent. A politician is mediocre in the way an average citizen is mediocre. A politician’s job is to balance the needs of an intense minority with the needs of a large constituency."

Irving Kristol, coeditor of Public Interest and a leading conservative theoretician, makes a parallel argument: "The socialist countries regulate less than we do because the socialists take responsibility for running their countries efficiently. Nader takes no responsibility. He only attitudinizes." And the attitude Kristol thinks Nader bequeaths—that politics and government are about greed and corruption—inadvertently fans the very public cynicism Ralph Nader has devoted his adult life to erasing.

This argument about attitude can be taken one step further and leads to a recognition that Nader is more useful as a prod than a prophet, better as a catalyst than a leader. For Nader’s concept of an adversarial society, one in which government deals sternly with business, and labor eyes management as an implacable foe, wars with the widespread conviction that America must learn from the Japanese and practice greater conciliation and partnership among government, labor, and business. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the new buzz word of most students of the American economy. In this sense, Ralph Nader is preaching a discredited and perhaps dangerous gospel.

Nader has left another negative legacy, say Kristol and others who view Nader as an emblem for an overregulated society. Vice-President Bush’s counsel, Boyden Gray, estimates that the Reagan administration’s efforts to reduce many of the regulations inspired by Nader will save "seventy billion dollars’ worth of costs to the public over the next decade." Kristol, who serves as a director of Warner Lambert, a pharmaceutical firm, says of Nader and his associates, "They’re constantly scaring people by exaggerating the dimensions of real problems. You end up with overregulation." In order to introduce a new product line, he says, drug companies like Warner Lambert must spend tens of millions more to comply with federal regulations, resulting in higher prices to consumers.

Why, asks James Miller, chairman of the FTC, do Americans have to get their cars inspected annually? "There’s no evidence car inspections do any good." In his memoir, Michael Pertschuk confesses, "We have learned greater respect for somber, unsentimental analysis of the effects of regulation…. We have learned to pay greater heed to the social value of the entrepreneur, to value market incentives as a creative force for productivity and growth…. We have learned that we must be accountable for the costs and burdens of regulation."

Nader does not dispute that regulations sometimes go too far. He cites his own support for deregulating the airlines and trucking. But deregulation is not the thrust of Nader’s efforts. Naderites see a different part of the same elephant, and thus make different generalizations. They focus on benefits, not costs. They focus on the lives and broken bones and cancer and doctors’ bills that are saved. The $70 billion of savings claimed by the Reagan administration "are invented," says Alan Morrison. "They cite savings in reduced CETA regulations. Sure. They abolished the entire CETA public works program! They saved money, and threw people out of work." "If the administration’s antigovernment nostrums make such sense," says Nader, "how come it didn’t work in the eighteenth or nineteenth century?"

Naderism has been on the wane in recent years. Business political action committees (PACs) have launched an effective counteroffensive; the Reagan administration has succeeded in beating back some of Ralph Nader’s cherished advances. But a few defeats do not unmake a revolution. As is true with domestic spending programs, the public is conservative about generalities and liberal about specific programs. Citizens are usually against taxes, but they are for Medicare, for social security, and for those government regulations that cleanse the air we breathe, the water we drink. By filling the government with people from the same industries they now regulate, by emphasizing the "Reagan Revolution" and their desire to liberate corporations from government constraints, Reaganites have managed to scare Americans. As Nader went too far in blaming "the system" and portraying individuals as "victims," so Reagan and his team have seesawed too far the other way, permitting their ideological biases to blind them to corporate greed, incompetence, and pollution. Reagan’s FTC chairman, James Miller, reluctantly concedes the Reagan administration he serves may have gone too far in its ideological onslaught against regulation. Sitting in his office, overlooking Constitution Avenue, Miller admits that when he took over the ETC in 1981, "I probably did too much demagoging when I came aboard about the need for change. I wanted to put everyone on notice that I was not going to be captured by the institution." What has happened is that the Reagan administration has put the American people on notice that hard-won consumer gains may be threatened by the crowd now in Washington.

If that is a correct assessment—and recent public opinion surveys suggest it is—then the wheel is already turning. Ralph Nader, the Satchel Paige of the consumer movement, is in no danger of disappearing before he outwears his twelfth and final six-dollar pair of Army shoes.•

Dossier: Ralph Nader

Nader was born on February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut.

As an adolescent, he read books about Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and the westerns of Zane Grey.

He no longer reads fiction.

He once wrote: "Every time I see something terrible, it’s like I see it at age nineteen. I keep a freshness that way."

He once told a teenage audience to ignore the typical problems of adolescence and "concentrate on what’s important. This is not the time to fool around, wasting countless hours watching TV or chit-chatting. Not when the future of civilization is at stake."

"Stripped of its mysticism," author Robert Buckhorn has asserted, "Naderism simply is a plea to Americans not to adjust."

At Princeton, in protest against conformist clothing, Nader refused to wear white bucks and once went to class in a bathrobe. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the university from spraying campus trees with DDT.

He called Harvard law school, his alma mater, a "high-priced tool factory" that prepares its students to practice law only in the service of a bank or corporation.

It was at Harvard law that he owned his last car, a 1949 Studebaker.

From 1961 through 1964 he traveled as a free-lance journalist through Europe, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and Africa.

The president of General Motors apologized to Nader after a Senate subcommittee learned that GM had hired detectives to tail him.

In 1967 the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce voted him one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year.

When a lavish suite was reserved for him at the Hotel Meurice in Paris, he asked for an ordinary room instead. He lives in a rooming house in a low-rent district in northwest Washington and never allows anyone to visit him there.

In the 1960s his one major office expense was a telephone. His operations have expanded, but his own office has remained small, cluttered, dimly lit, and uncomfortable.

In the 1970s the Public Interest Research Groups he had inspired were raising a million dollars a year on college campuses.

In 1971 Americans voted him the sixth most popular public figure—in between Spiro Agnew and Pope Paul.

When a music box given to Mamie Eisenhower on her seventy-fifth birthday failed to work, President Richard Nixon quipped, "Where’s Ralph Nader?"

During the last few days before a meat-inspection bill became law, Senator Walter Mondale, the sponsor of the bill, would receive phone calls from Nader at three, four, and five in the morning. After a while, Mondale would just pick up the receiver and say, "Hello, Ralph."

Until 1961 he smoked fifteen cigarettes a day. He no longer smokes, and he drinks only an occasional beer or glass of wine. He doesn’t eat ground meat or drink coffee.

He once rode in a convertible without a seat belt.

He eats heartily but won’t eat if he’s too busy. He gets mad when photographers try to take his picture while he’s eating. He lectures waitresses about the evils of Coca-Cola, but it’s rumored that he eats candy bars.

One of his proudest moments came when, while in the Army, he made banana bread for two thousand soldiers.

Even busy people must exercise, he says; he advises them to run up the stairs of the buildings they enter.

He refuses dinner invitations from friends who have pets.

He doesn’t own a television set. He speaks Arabic and has a working knowledge of Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian.

He has virtually no social life but in 1976 he was said to have been seen visiting the house of a young woman who lived on Thirty-fourth Street in northwest Washington. Several mornings the two were seen leaving the rear entrance of the house and getting into a car—which she always drove.

He once said, "My impression of people is that their attention span is about two minutes."

He once theorized, "You’ve got to keep the opposition off balance. Once you get them tumbling, you can’t let up…."

Of his notoriety, Nader once said, "I could have gone to Hollywood and married a starlet and gotten fat and talked about what I used to do."

He once defined his ultimate goal as "nothing less than the qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution."

"All my life in politics, I’ve heard that there ought to be someone to represent the general interest of the public. Ralph is the first to come along and show us the impact that a single informed voice can have. His contribution has been greater than that of anyone else in contemporary times."
—Former senator Gaylord Nelson


© Ken Auletta - all rights reserved
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