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On the Road with Ralph Nader

By
October 27, 2004

An excerpt from Chapter 8 of the newly released book Looking Forward To It, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the American political process.

Early June:

Nader gives his next talk in Seattle, at the University of Washington in Kane Hall, which is part of an area of campus that’s all concrete and straight angles. There aren’t as many in attendance to see Nader as there were in Portland and the protesters aren’t here either. The room holds 300 and is only two thirds full. It’s a quiet Sunday in June and outside an easy breeze floats over the hills from the Puget Sound. Seattle is a city that should mean something, the birthplace of grunge rock, the WTO protests in 1999. In the 1990s Seattle was arguably the most culturally influential city in the nation. Runaways from all over the country arrived at the park in Capitol Hill where they hung out all day under the trees and got their food and shelter at a church nearby. The kids still runaway to Capital Hill, but Seattle is not a mecca for protest or rock and roll anymore.

The flyers advertised a five-dollar cover charge but the cover is not enforced. The rules in Washington are different. Washington is one of the easiest states to acquire ballot access. The laws permit rolling conventions, which essentially means you can keep collecting signatures everyday until you have 1,000, as long as you declare each day a convention with a small notice in the newspaper. It’s almost impossible not to get on the ballot in Washington.

Still, it’s hard to believe that only 200 people are interested in hearing Ralph speak. At the super rallies during the last election thousands packed into stadiums to see him. He is less popular this time around.

Nader talks first about the Congressional Black Caucuses, how they had demanded he drop out of the race. “It didn’t matter that (in 2000) we campaigned in poor areas that wouldn’t even be on the screen for Gore or Bush… They’re worried about the one million Democrats that voted for me in 2000. What about the eight million Democrats that voted for George Bush? I went into ward eight (in Washington D.C.) where 67,000 people live and they don’t have a single supermarket even though we’ve had a black mayor in Washington D.C. for thirty/thirty-five years… And the congressional black caucus is saying don’t mess up our little party.” Nader’s disgust is palpable. He’s disgusted with the black caucus, disgusted with the Democrat’s efforts to keep him off the ballot. A lifetime of service and here is his reward. In regards to Howard Dean who blasted Nader for accepting support from Republican groups Nader says, “I think Howard Dean should go on the Jay Leno show because he’s becoming comedic.” “He fucked me over too,” I say to no one in particular.

It all seems personal now, which surprises me on some level. It didn’t seem as personal yesterday, which is probably why it’s a good idea to hear every politician twice. Nader doesn’t appear capable of accepting that someone would disagree with him and it explains why so many of his closest partners over the years are no longer with him. He points out that of all the entertainers that supported him in 2000 (Michael Moore, Phil Donahue, Eddie Vedder, etc.) only one, Patti Smith, supports him this time around. He presents it as a strength, something to be admired, the integrity of continuing even when all of your friends think you’re wrong. But I don’t think that’s strength.

Over the evening I begin to see that a relationship with Ralph Nader is unsustainable. At some point you will let him down and when you do he will turn on you without hesitation. Of course he would welcome you back if you admitted your misdeeds, kissed the ring and begged for absolution. But what’s the point in asking forgiveness if you know you’ll do it again?

“I’m sure you’ve met your share of what we call viral liberals,” he continues looking up from the lectern. Nader’s face is filled with small lines and the right front of his nostril appears swollen, as if he had a blister on his nose. But I think his nose has always been that way. “So seized with fear they’ll go to the end of time. Once you have an ‘anybody but Bush’ mindset it doesn’t matter who you are you will stop thinking… That’s why we call it a virus.”

The crowd claps in approval through the speech. There are only the devout in the hall tonight. Ralph continues on to John Kerry, wants to know why Kerry’s not winning in a landslide, criticizes the Democrats for cowardice and points out where it’s gotten them so far. “If you cannot stand up for the workers whose lives are being lost due to occupational diseases, if you cannot stand up for 45 million Americans who don’t have health insurance, who are you standing up for?” He lists the letters that he’s sent to Democratic leaders that have not been responded to. He talks about veterans groups writing to George Bush and Bush not responding to them. He spends a lot time talking about the disrespect and disdain the politicians have for the people and Ralph Nader in particular.

“They shouldn’t blame Ralph,” a journalist from Germany tells me. She wears a tight green T-shirt that hugs her muscular arms. “Last time the Democrats lost by 527 votes. If the Democrats can’t get 527 votes it’s their own fault.” “He asks a lot from people,” I respond. “I think maybe he asks too much.”

When Nader’s done we head into the University District for a hamburger and a beer. I tell her I don’t have a place to sleep tonight and she tells me she has a child and a small, messy apartment that’s not open to me. We sit at the bar, which closes early in the summer, and we talk about travel and writing books and the difficulty of relationships. She was with a man for seven years, a writer, and he was always writing. “He was good in public but he never shared his feelings with me. He didn’t want to be bothered because he spent all of his time writing. At first I admired it but then I realized it was just an excuse.” We shake our heads in agreement, writers are messed up people.

She leaves me at a motel beneath the Space Needle just north of downtown. The hallways with their anonymous carpets stink of soap and beer and the bed sheets are striped green and orange. I stare from the window across the street to where the nicer hotels are. The street itself is six lanes and many blocks with no turns or stoplights. Down the middle is a five-foot concrete barrier. A pedestrian would never make it across.

In the morning I hump my bags downstairs and start toward the airport. I’m getting tired of carrying two bags with me everywhere but I’m not sure how else to go about things. The bags start light but then get heavier as I gather books, reading them and then stashing them in my pack to give away when I get home and in the meantime always buying more. The cafe near the bus stop doesn’t have a bathroom. I wonder how Ralph Nader would feel about a place that sold coffee but didn’t have a restroom.

I’m glad I came here to Seattle to see Ralph Nader a second time. You can’t know a politician after just one speech. I feel better about my lost idealism now knowing that I could never have lived to his standards. I’m not sure anybody could, which may be why he never married or had children, though it wouldn’t explain at all why I never married or had children. Nader’s right when he says if you support a politician without demanding a mandate then the politician will give you exactly what you asked for, which is nothing. You can’t stab a nun and still consider yourself a good Christian. Still, the relief comes from realizing an ideal as unattainable, and maybe the best analogy is to losing your virginity. On the one hand you’ll never be a virgin again. On the other hand, you can have sex now.

Officially, Ralph Nader is not yet on any ballot and the Greens are nose-diving into irrelevance. David Cobb is a nice guy but not a person you would actually want to run the country. It’s possible the Greens will be less than an asterisk next to Ralph Nader when the victors publish the history fifty years from now. And I wonder if we’ll look back on this time with an honest memory, if such a thing is even possible. Will someone write a book about America’s historic rejection of third party candidates at the beginning of the millennium? And if they do, will anybody read it?

G

Stephen Elliott has written for GQ, Newsweek, The Village Voice, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Believer Magazine, among others. He is the author of four novels including Happy Baby, which will be released in paperback in January, 2005. He is also the editor of the anthology Politically Inspired. Currently living in San Francisco, he teaches at Stanford University. See more of Stephen’s work at www.stephenelliott.com.

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