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[The Character and Political Personality of Ralph Nader]


People in the News; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ralph Nader

Aired August  22, 2004 - 14:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, he took on corporate America.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When Ralph Nader would speak, you know, people would say, uh-oh.

ANNOUNCER: He rattled an election.

RALPH NADER (I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In America, everyone has an equal right to run for office.

CROWD: Run, Ralph, run!

ANNOUNCER: Now he's doing it again.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: He's playing the same role that he played in 2000, in trying to siphon votes from John Kerry.

ANNOUNCER: His political determination goes back to childhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nader would be forced as an 8-year-old to sit there at the dinner table and to defend his political beliefs.

ANNOUNCER: Still, a man on a mission.

NADER: Everything I do is to fight for the people of this country.

ANNOUNCER: Activist, candidate, enigma. Ralph Nader.

Then, the mega action star who terminated big-screen stardom to become governor of California.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA: Thank you very much to all the people of California.

ANNOUNCER: Growing up poor in a war-torn Austria, he saw his ticket to fame in the weight room.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I need to go and become Mr. Universe in order to get into movies.

ANNOUNCER: This staunch Republican fell in love and married into Camelot.

TIM SHRIVER, BROTHER-IN-LAW: He was huge, confident, and trying to make time with my sister. ANNOUNCER: Allegations from his past dogged him on the campaign trail.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I have behaved badly sometimes.

I am a machine.

ANNOUNCER: Cyborg, humanitarian, businessman, and now California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their stories now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.

PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Hi, welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. He is the other presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, and he could be a deciding factor again in yet another close race for the White House. If that is, he can get on enough ballots.

From consumer champion to political lightning rod, a look at Nader, his life, his beliefs, and what's behind his decision to make another run at the presidency.

Here's Bruce Burkhardt.


BRUCE BURKHARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When your car scolds you to put on your seatbelt, that is Ralph Nader speaking. The airbag pops out to save you, that is Nader also. When you get bumped from an overbooked flight, but walk away with a free ticket, thank Ralph Nader. From the air we breathe to the food we eat, it's hard to go anywhere without running into Ralph Nader's legacy.

It's a legacy that seems to crash head-on with more recent history.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Put me on, Gore has retracted his concession.

WILLIAM DALEY, GORE CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN: Just an hour or so ago, the TV networks called this race for Governor Bush. It now appears -- it now appears that their call was premature.

BRAZILE: Nader was a force in 2000, he was a force in those key battleground states where, of course, the election was decided by 2 or 3 percent of the population.

BURKHARDT: A small fraction of the vote, but enough to end up sending George W. Bush to the White House and enough to brand Ralph Nader as the presidential spoiler.

NADER: It irritates them that anybody dares be an underdog candidate basically say, we're going to break up your two-party party.

BURKHARDT: Now, in the midst of another close election, he's at it again.

NADER: Today, I entered the 2004 elections as an independent candidate for the presidency of the United States.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Democrats are enraged. They are almost as angry at Ralph Nader as they are at George W. Bush. They are just furious that he's running, and they ask, why? Why is this guy running?

BURKHARDT: So just what makes Ralph run? Is Nader a political visionary or simply a spoiler? Is it ego or higher calling?

Political psychologist Aubrey Immelman.

AUBREY IMMELMAN, POLITICAL PSYCHOLOGIST: If I had to put Ralph Nader's personality in a nutshell, I would say that Ralph Nader personality in need of a mission.

BURKHARDT: The mission began in Winsted, Connecticut, a small New England town where Ralph was born in 1934, the fourth and youngest child of Lebanese immigrants. It was a family where citizenship was taken seriously.

Ralph's father, Nathra Nader, ran a restaurant in town. The joke was that for a nickel, you'd get a cup of coffee and all the political argument you would ever want.

NADER: Sometimes people would come in, sit down, and they would hear what he had to say, and they say, you know, there are a lot of people that don't agree with that, you're going to lose business. And he said, really? Well, isn't that too bad. When I sailed past the Statue of Liberty in 1912, I took it seriously.

BURKHARDT: In a small town where everything was within walking distance, Ralph's father would often take his son to the courthouse.

NADER: My father constantly drilled into me that the chief role of a lawyer is to advance justice.

BURKHARDT: Nader also got to witness bare-fisted New England democracy, the town meeting.

JUSTIN MARTIN, BIOGRAPHER: He came away with the notion that democracy wasn't sort of a gentile occupation, it was something fierce and hard-fought and two-fisted.

BURKHARDT: Back at home, the Nader dinner table also served up plenty of food for thought.

CLAIRE NADER, SISTER: My father asked a lot of questions that he wanted us to think about, not quick answers.

MARTIN: Nader would be forced as a 7-year-old or as an 8-year- old to sit there at the dinner table and to defend his political beliefs under just intense scrutiny and intense attack from his father.

IMMELMAN: The children were treated by their parents almost as adults. They were not allowed to go to movies unless it had a moral. CLAIRE NADER: It was a strict household, but not harsh. There was that lovely balance between discipline and love.

BURKHARDT: Growing up in Winsted, Nader was always a bit different.

FRED SILVERLO, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: He carried his books in a briefcase to high school for four years. Most of us just packed them under our arm.

BURKHARDT: In 1951, he took his briefcase and headed to Princeton, a place where Nader continued to stand out from the crowd.

MARTIN: He certainly didn't make too many concessions to the style of Princeton at the time, didn't dress in the chinos and the box shoes that were popular during that era.

NADER: It was just a wonderful place to go against the grain in order to get a real education. If you went through in a conforming way, you would miss out on a lot. And I went through just the opposite.

BURKHARDT: After graduating from Harvard Law in 1959, Nader found a job at a small Connecticut law firm. He hated it.

Just to get away, he spent his summers as a freelance writer hitchhiking across the country. It would be an eye-opening experience.

MARTIN: And he would often get picked up by truckers, and truckers had amazing stories about horrible accidents they'd seen, and that got him thinking about how dangerous cars might be, and he actually saw an accident in which a small girl's head had been -- had actually been decapitated by the glove compartment.

BURKHARDT: Nader had found his calling, a citizen's fight for auto safety.

When we return, the man who doesn't even own a car takes on General Motors.

MARTIN: General Motors hired a couple of really bumbling detectives to try to sort of look into Nader's past and look into Nader's life.

BURKHARDT: Ralph Nader, public crusader.

NADER: Society rots from the head down, like a fish.

BURKHARDT: Or nation's nag.



BURKHARDT: The early 1960s, optimistic time for American commerce. At age 29, Ralph Nader didn't share that optimism. The carnage he had seen on the nation's roads made an impact. Hoping to do something about it, he moved to Washington.

MARTIN: He goes to work in the Labor Department for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but also he starts moonlighting and starts learning about auto safety, writing articles about it, and ultimately he gets a contract to write a book that became "Unsafe at any Speed."

BURKHARDT: "Unsafe at any Speed," an expose blasting design flaws and cost-cutting measures in General Motors cars, particular the Chevrolet Corvair.

JOAN CLAYBROOK, PRESIDENT, PUBLIC CITIZEN: General Motors had hives when they read the book. They had an investigator. They tried to get some dirt on Ralph Nader.

MARTIN: General Motors hired a couple of really bumbling detectives to try to sort of look into Nader's past and look into Nader's life.

CLAYBROOK: They had sent a prostitute after him, also. At the cookie counter at the Safeway, and he had turned her down. And so they thought, well, maybe he is a homosexual.

NADER: And then they followed me down to Senate office building, and then they couldn't find me, so they went to the police guard and the guard said, what are you doing, following people here into the Congress? What's your name?

BURKHARDT: In 1966, a Senate Subcommittee on Traffic Safety saw an opportunity to raise awareness. They put GM's president on the hot seat in a nationally televised hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let us assume that you found something wrong with (UNINTELLIGIBLE), what would that have to do with whether or not he was right or wrong on the Corvair?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What if you found out he was or was not anti- Semitic? What would that have to do with whether a Corvair...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ...was a good or a bad car?


BURKHARDT: On nationwide TV, the gangly young lawyer brought GM to its knees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to apologize here and now to members of this subcommittee and Mr. Nader. I sincerely hope that these apologies will be accepted.

BURKHARDT: GM eventually paid Nader $425,000 to settle an invasion of privacy lawsuit. The committee went on to set up a federal agency devoted to traffic safety.

Overnight, Ralph Nader became a household name. He was just getting started.

NADER: I felt an opportunity and an obligation to take this attention and support by the public into other consumer, environmental, worker safety areas.

BURKHARDT: The modern muckraker used funds from his GM settlement to create an army of young lawyers, the Nader Raiders.

MARK GREEN, FORMER NADER RAIDER: We were the underfunded people, putting our faces against the pangs of power and yelling, let us in, you're corrupt.

NADER: Existing pollution control laws in this country are shams.

BURKHARDT: They spurred the creation of the EPA and other federal watchdog agencies, from air travel to workplace safety, to hot dog ingredients. The Raiders hit hard, and made their boss a feared man in the halls of power.

CLAYBROOK: So when Ralph Nader would speak, people would say, uh-oh.

BURKHARDT: Nader got respect, but he also racked up critics.

FRANCES SMITH, EXEC. DIRECTOR, CONSUMER ALERT: He's pro-big government in almost any situation. In terms of the regulatory burden, it's the consumers who end paying as those extra costs are passed on to them in the form of taxation, in the form of high prices.

BURKHARDT: But love him or hate him, Ralph Nader was an icon.

Sharing the stage with trend setters like John Lennon and Yoko Ono on "The Mike Douglas Show."

NADER: You'll be more likely to want to vote, particularly at a younger age, if you know what the issues are and if you can push for real choices.

NADER: Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!

BURKHARDT: He even appeared later on "Saturday Night Live."

NADER: This television studio is in the RCA Building, in midtown Manhattan, the heart of corporate America.

BURKHARDT: Showing a side of himself rarely seen.

CHARLENE LAVOIE, FRIEND: He has the best sense of humor of anybody that I've ever met.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How would you describe your sense of humor?

NADER: When you have to describe your own sense of humor, you don't have a sense of humor.

BURKHARDT: As a consumer advocate, though, Ralph Nader was deadly serious and single-minded. He dismissed overtures to run for office, even turning down an invitation to be George McGovern's presidential running mate in '72.

On his own, Nader was a powerhouse, though his own house was less than ordinary.

MARTIN: He didn't have a television, you know, didn't drive an automobile, obviously, lived in a rooming house in Washington, D.C. with several other boarders, didn't even have his own telephone.

GREEN: To call him frugal in my mind is like to assume he is a spendthrift. He bought like 10 pairs of combat boots in the 1950s and wore them for the next 20 and 30 years until they wore out.

BURKHARDT: He founded more than 40 consumer advocacy groups, each with its own area of influence, and all with Nader's fervent frugality.

GREEN: So we would have to go across the street, put a coin in a phone booth and make our long-distance calls.

CLAYBROOK: We weren't allowed to have a Xerox machine, because it cost too much. So we had to make everything in purple, you know, those purple mimeographs.

MARTIN: He used to pay people two paychecks a year. That way, he didn't have to waste as much time on payroll, signing checks, et cetera.

BURKHARDT: Ralph's life has been all about work. He never married. He's said to log 100-hour workweeks. The man who raised a thousand issues never raised a family.

NADER: I don't believe in being an absentee father, and when you take on General Motors, and Exxon, and the drug companies, and the banks, and insurance companies, you don't have time for that.

BURKHARDT: But he did have a parent's pride when President Carter tapped dozens of former Raiders to join his staff.

Ralph thought he would be able to flex some fatherly muscle in the White House. He thought wrong.

MARTIN: He would call up his former employees who were placed in various positions throughout the Carter government and berate them for not getting things done fast enough. He would claim they were sellouts. It was the beginning of Nader's decline in influence. It also dates the beginning of Nader's disillusion with the Democrats.

BURKHARDT: In the '80s, his star continued to fall. As President Reagan's morning in America was dawning, the sun was setting on Nader's activism. NADER: They shut us out in effect, and that's when you have to heed Thomas Jefferson's historic words, that when you lose your government, you got to go try to get it back.

BURKHARDT: So Ralph Nader ran for president. In '92 he was a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. In '96, he ran nationwide as the Green Party nominee, but the unsuccessful candidate still thought he had an open line to the White House.

When we come back, unreturned phone calls, and Nader's transition from gadfly to fly in the ointment.

MARTIN: Al Gore indicted he might call him back, but then Al Gore never called him back. Ralph Nader stewed about that for several years, and then I guess had his revenge in 2000.

CROWD: No more war! No more war!



BURKHARDT: 1996, Democrats are riding the Clinton/Gore wave, but Ralph Nader can't even get his calls to the White House returned.

GREEN: It is true that Bill Clinton and especially Al Gore ignored Nader. I don't mean ignored him on issues that he was marginal, but on regulatory issues, consumer issues, auto safety issues. You would have thought they would pick up the phone and bring him in occasionally. They didn't.

NADER: And they just gave the civic community the straight arm, because they said you've got nowhere to go, you're not going to vote for the Republicans. You're either going to have to stay home or vote for us.

BURKHARDT: Turned away and turned off by the two parties, Nader decided to crash the party in 2000.

BRAZILE: Initially we ignored Ralph Nader, we didn't think Ralph Nader would be any threat to Al Gore. We left it to the members of the progressive community to attack Ralph Nader, to challenged Ralph Nader. And what we learned over the course of three months leading up to the election in November was that Ralph Nader was picking up steam in crucial battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin.

SCHNEIDER: November 7, 2000. Ralph Nader suddenly became a figure of influence and importance. Why? Because he threw the election to George W. Bush. There were two states in 2000, New Hampshire and Florida, which it can reasonably be argued, based on the evidence, those states went for Bush, but would have gone for Gore if Nader had not been on the ballot.

NADER: One assumption is all my votes come from Gore. It's completely false. The exit polls show 25 percent of my votes came -- would have gone to Bush; 38 percent would have gotten to Gore, the rest would not have voted.

NADER: I'm Ralph Nader running for president.

BURKHARDT: Not one to back down from controversy, Nader has thrown his hat in the ring yet again, running this time as an independent.

BRAZILE: I think Ralph Nader has had his own agenda for many years now. He believes that he's the only voice of the progressive movement, the only voice of the left, and as a result of it, Ralph Nader has decided that he should be president and not back the Democratic Party's nominees.

MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER: Ladies and gentlemen of the Twin Cities, Ralph Nader!

BURKHARDT: Liberal activist Michael Moore stood up for Nader in 2000, but recently on "Real Time With Bill Maher, he got on his knees.

MOORE: Don't run, please, please.

GREEN: Ninety-five percent of the people who have worked longest with him and loved him the most, and I include myself in that group, implored him not to run, and walked through the reasons. And to his credit, he was patient, he listened to all of us, saying the same thing, and he said, it's Lincoln's cabinet -- 12 nays, one aye; the ayes have it.

NADER: All these people who wrote me letters and asked of me, they've got good jobs, good benefits, good health insurance, usually a good home. They can go to the theater anytime they want. That's not where my compass comes from.

BURKHARDT: Nader's strong sense of direction has cost him friends and support, and left many wondering just what makes Ralph run?

MARTIN: Because of his upbringing in part, particularly I think because of the fierce political arguments that he would have with his father growing up, Nader, in some ways, he's almost tone-deaf. In his mind, democracy is kind of a contact sport. And so when people were livid, enraged at him, you can have no better person out there, no person better suited to handle that. I mean, he just felt like, oh, this is just democracy as usual.

IMMELMAN: I would have to say that Ralph Nader does have certain personality traits that might lend itself to vindictiveness. Primarily, he has a fairly distrusting aspect to his personality, which contributes to the us versus them view of the world.

CLAIRE NADER: I guess being a leader means that sometimes you have to be unpopular.

BURKHARDT: Though he's still fighting to get his name on ballots, he's finding popularity and funding in an unlikely place. SCHNEIDER: Where is it coming from? A good part of that money, like a quarter of the money he raised in Florida, is coming from Republicans. They said, everybody should have a vote, even minority candidates should be on the ballot, and they say that with a straight face, as if, oh, it never really occurred to them that what they're doing is helping George Bush.

BURKHARDT: For their part, Democrats are openly trying to stop Nader.

HOWARD DEAN (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All I'm asking is that we not let the perfect become the enemy of the good, because at this election, it matters.

BURKHARDT: But the citizen candidate remains defiant.

NADER: The Democratic Party thinks it owns it voters, and it's willing to play dirty tricks on any challenger, including collaborating with the Republicans to pass laws to erect huge ballot access barriers so that you can't even get on the ballot.

How long is the learning curve before we recognize that political parties are the problem?

BURKHARDT: Even in the face of another presidential dead heat, he still doesn't see himself as a spoiler.

NADER: We're either spoilers of all other candidates, because we're all trying to get more votes from each other, or none of us are spoilers. If we believe that in America everyone has an equal right to run for office.

BURKHARDT: Is Nader motivated by conviction? Political principle? Or just plain, old-fashioned ego?

GREEN: When people today say, oh, he's acting out of ego, it's odd, because if you're acting out of ego merely, he knows if he loses badly and possibly again elects Bush, he could be ruined in terms of his legacy and his memory.

NADER: Who cares about my legacy? My legacy is established. They're not going to tear seatbelts out of cars. I look to the future. That's the important thing.

BURKHARDT: At the age of 70, Nader shows no signs of letting up. His father, in fact, marched on until age 97.

CLAIRE NADER: My family doesn't retire. They wear out, I guess. Retire to what?

BURKHARDT: And Ralph Nader is still a man on a mission.

NADER: They don't understand me. To me, the greatest gratification in life is fighting for justice, because justice is, as Senator Daniel Webster once said, the great work of human beings on Earth. You have no liberty, no freedom, no pursuit of happiness without justice.


ZAHN: Ralph Nader's campaign hopes to get him on the ballot in more states than in 2000, but so far that isn't the case. Nader even failed to qualify for the ballot in California.

Meanwhile, the Nader camp is gearing up to fight for a spot in the presidential debates this fall.


Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated February 24, 2008