One of the ancillary benefits of the most recent presidential election is that we can now safely assume that Ralph Nader is dead, once and for all. His candidacy netted him less than half of one percent of the votes cast, well below what seems to have become the universally accepted margin for error in polling. Nader’s moment of fame dragged on for a few decades, but it is now over, and the world will attend to public figures more important and more interesting.
Ralph Nader was born in Connecticut in 1934, became a lawyer, and lectured at the University of Hartford in relative obscurity until 1965, when his book Unsafe At Any Speed came out attacking General Motors largely on the basis of the 1960-63 Chevrolet Corvair’s use of a swing-axle rear suspension. Nader seized upon the tendency of such designs to “tuck” during cornering, causing the tail to swing wide and destabilize the vehicle in its trajectory. Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen all used versions of the basic swing-axle concept during that era, but Nader ignored them. GM was an easy target, much distrusted by America’s left-wing intelligentsia, and visions of breathless David-versus-Goliath press coverage danced in his head.
Nader’s book was a success, and GM did come under fire from politicians and the mainstream media. GM foolishly put private detectives on Nader’s trail. He blew the whistle on them, and his reputation was made. He became the darling of the talk shows, and even I found myself debating him a couple of times on radio and television. He called me after our first joint appearance and said something to this effect: “I just wanted to tell you that you surprised me last night. You’re quite reasonable in person-nothing like the zealot who writes those outrageous columns in the magazine.” I was pleased to get the call because our exchanges had been fairly acrimonious, but I was astonished that anybody could be so flat-footedly and unself-consciously humorless.
Nader soon came to believe that the damage he’d accomplished with his assault on GM could be repeated for all kinds of industries and human activities. He launched the Center for Auto Safety, the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the Public Interest Research Group, Public Citizen, the Clean Water Action Project, the Disability Rights Center, the Pension Rights Center, and the Project for Corporate Responsibility. He was spreading himself so thin, finding so many bogeymen under so many beds, that it all began to run together after a while. He seemed to be against everything and for nothing. In his ubiquity, he had become invisible.
Several years ago, some time before Nader failed to distinguish himself in the 2000 presidential contest, I convened a meeting of the Automobile Magazine staff and suggested that it might be amusing to refer to the Great Corvair Killer as “the late Ralph Nader,” whenever he showed up in our magazine. I had observed him closely over the years, and I was convinced that he was, in fact, dead as Kelsey’s nuts. His runs at the presidency have not changed that perception.
I failed in my whimsical attempt to convince America that Nader should no longer be taken seriously as a living, breathing human being. Literal-minded staff members shouted me down, arguing that we couldn’t say that if Nader was still capable of standing at a podium and putting an entire auditorium to sleep. It breaks my heart. We could have scooped every other magazine on the planet by a decade or two if we’d treated Nader’s demise as a fait accompli. How stupid are we going to look if it turns out he really did die some time before the 2000 Bush-Gore contest?
If Nader had run for the presidency twenty-five years earlier, he might have earned himself a seat in the Cosmic Political Poker Game. He might have brought out enough of his fellow Safety Nazis, Eco Weenies, Bed Wetters, and Hand Wringers to force the mainstream presidential candidates to deal with him. We have mercifully forgotten how many such people ran loose in the body politic back in the days of George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Those were the days when a presidential candidate like Nader could run a campaign around the idea that everybody he knew was afraid of the dark. But he is dead, and the rest of us have to go out and take our chances with our favorite cars.
May his remains be conveyed to hell in a Corvair Lakewood station wagon and the devil turn out to be Joan Claybrook.