"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 August 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Unsafety First


[the soap opera of keener boy's 

It was only two little pieces of

paper, but an item in the

postman's bag last week changed

forever our longstanding belief

that professional finger-wagger

Ralph Nader doesn't have a sense

of humor. Helpfully pointing out

"a problem of distributive

justice," Nader's letter asked

the recipient to even things

out. A spokesperson for the

recipient's company provided a

fantastic deadpan response to a

reporter who called to ask about

the epistle from Saint Ralph,

which urged the corporate

chairman to redistribute his

personal wealth. According to

the resulting news story,

"Microsoft spokesman John

Pinette said he had not seen the

letter and could not say whether

Gates planned to act on Nader's

suggestions." (Our advice? Give

it a week or so, and then drop

by Chairman Bill's house - he'll

be ready to start passing out

cash to the less fortunate as

soon as he's had a chance to get

to that letter. It probably just

got stuck under a pile of bills.

You know how it is.)


This is hardly the first time

Nader has gone tilting at

windfalls, and the people who

run the nation's newspapers

ought to be grateful. There have

always been slow news days, and

the need to fill the front

section by turning news briefs

into major stories has always

emptied the columns where the

briefs were supposed to go. This

is where Nader comes in. His

name is reasonably well-known;

he provides good quotes, cooked

to just the right level of moral

outrage and distributed in

easy-to-rework press releases

that require little real

reporting; and he's generally

pretty harmless, so there's no

need to worry that he'll break

anything. Anyone remember

Nader's outspoken criticism of

the money the post office spent

marketing the Elvis stamp? Or

the study, for which he played

figurehead, showing that women -

brace yourself - pay more for

haircuts than men?


[little girl at di petro todds and her pixie cut with carmine streaks

Considering the sheer number of

organizations and publications and

neighborhood gaggles founded by

the gloomy one or formed under

his influence, it isn't always

Nader himself making good

Naderesque copy. Back in

December 1993, to pick a year

that qualifies for a

round-number anniversary, a

Nader-founded newsletter lined

up a row of corporations - and

let 'em have it. The

Multinational Monitor named the

"10 worst U.S. corporations of

1993," a "corporate Hall of

Shame," pointing the finger at

companies that "polluted, ripped

off investors, served tainted

food, or tried to break unions."

Yet listees like Jack in the Box

and RJR Nabisco managed,

somehow, to soldier on. And the

long anti-fettuccine-alfredo

jihad ("heart attack on a

plate") led by the similarly

Nader-founded Center for Science

in the Public Interest would

seem to have won as many

converts to steamed broccoli as

the center's other battles

against Mexican food and movie



Nader - and his, um, movement -

haven't always been quite this

silly, but they've had better

than 30 years to work on it. For

argument's sake, the journey

from threat to pest can be

traced in the reaction of a

single corporation to the

Naderite effort to breach the

walls. After he started

investigating automobile safety

in 1965, General Motors hired a

private investigator to dig

through Nader's personal life,

looking for dirt. A Senate

subcommittee ended up

investigating after the snooping

was discovered - and Nader's

book on the company's Corvair, Unsafe at

Any Speed, embarrassed the

carmaker further (he blasted the

really ugly sportscar as a

"coffin on wheels.") Twenty-five

years later, when Nader sent an

11-page letter to then-new

GM Chairman Robert Stempel

generously instructing him on

how to "correct some of Roger

Smith's mistakes," GM apparently

felt that no private eye was



[miss marcy, 'no need for subtlety']

The quest for irrelevance hasn't

been easy. Mostly, it's tough to

look foolish while offering some

not-so-far-off ideas; Nader's

recurring suggestion that the

values of consumerism are

weakening our other cultural

values is too obvious to bother

agreeing with out loud. But

ideally the cry that there's a

wolf ends with the wolf being

chased away - not a Nader strong

point. Trying to position itself

as a significant American

institution, Public Citizen

(founded by Nader) coughs up a

list of accomplishments that

includes biggies like: "Public

Citizen helps to enlist nearly

100 co-sponsors for a

single-payer health care reform

bill" and "Public Citizen plays

a leading role in opposition to

the North American Free Trade

Agreement (NAFTA), launching a

new progressive citizens' trade

movement." Assuming it performed

this activity in England rather

than the United States, it's

batting a thousand. Or .500

right above our northern border,

which qualifies as success to

folks used to making do with

less. A close look at the rest

of that list of achievements

leaves us noticing that the

genuine successes not

infrequently mark Public

Citizen's role as some variation

on "helped to persuade," with

someone else taking the actual



There's a name for organizations

that publish lists of

helped-persuades and

worked-for-passages-of to show

what they've done, and this is

the approximate location of the

door to Nader's closet of

realities he'd probably rather

you didn't notice; for all the

raving about special interests,

Public Citizen meets its payroll

by soliciting contributions from

people who see the group as one

that defends their, yes, special

interests. But of course

"consumers" are wholly selfless;

it's those other people who are

dirty. You know, all those

nonconsumers who are just after,

like, money and power and stuff.

And it's interesting to note

that a clean-politics crusader

named Ralph Nader refused, while

running for president as the

candidate of the Green Party in

1996, to disclose the same

financial information - both

personal and political - that

the nominees of the other

political parties coughed up as

a matter of course. Disclosure,

you understand, is only to be

expected of the impure. The

reaction to Nader's decision

from other watchdogs was just

the tiniest bit confused, but

tended to end on a dismissive

note. Ellen Miller, the director

of a Washington, DC,

organization called the Center

for Responsive Politics, told

reporters: "Anyone who is a

serious candidate should release

such financial information."

Short pause. "But I'm not sure

he is a serious candidate."


[good things worth waiting for

"The trouble," wrote

über-lefty Alexander

Cockburn during that campaign,

"is that Nader is running a

zombie candidacy...." He still is. Like

another marginal progressive

rapidly becoming less relevant

in Washington, Nader appears to

be thinking, these days, about

his legacy. In the past few

days, as Bill Gates was busy

ignoring him, our national scold

has been telling reporters about

the project he dreams of leaving

behind in Winsted, Connecticut,

the town where he was born: A

Museum of American Tort Law. As

he explained to Jonathan

Rabinowitz of The New York

Times, apparently with a

straight face (well, almost

certainly with a straight face):

"There'll be the Pinto with the

exploding gas tank, flammable

pajamas, asbestos and breast

implants, the whole history of

medical malpractice, and of

course the more recent

pollution, like Love Canal." And

bring the kids!


It's hard to imagine a great

deal of tourist traffic in the

halls of a museum dedicated to

the personal-injury lawsuit,

although it strikes us as a hell

of a place to slip and fall.

It's even harder to picture the

proposed gift shop. But mostly

it's near impossible to imagine

that Nader's hometown will ever,

barring the birth of someone who

rises to more noteworthy status,

be especially in need of a place

to remember the work of their

native son.


Although it might not be a bad

place for a General Motors

plant, come to think of it.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers