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The Last Angry Man

Posted on September 22, 2000

Madison, Wisconsin — Ralph Nader rocks.

“The Orpheum is the place to be tonight,” says a TV reporter outside the theater where a sellout crowd, mostly young people, has paid $10 a head to hear Mr. Nader explain why he’s running for president.

The Republican and Democratic tickets probably could not get this kind of youthful turnout if they paid the audience. And let’s all breathe a sigh of relief for that. No matter whom you hope to see elected president in November, you certainly do not want to live in a country where the universities are filled with students who are passionate about Al Gore and George W. Bush. What would they save for middle age?

Mr. Nader comes onstage to thunderous applause and launches into a long and rambling speech, attacking Joe Lieberman as the “consummate corporate Democrat, that hybrid Republicrat.” Mr. Nader is furious about the selection of Mr. Lieberman for the Democratic ticket. Why, he demands of the audience, couldn’t Mr. Gore have picked a running mate like the pure of heart (albeit somewhat charisma-challenged) Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the champion of campaign finance reform?

Mr. Nader is furious about campaign finance, along with — this is a very, very incomplete list — the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, the death penalty, genetically engineered food, child poverty, the military budget, the Taft-Hartley Act, tuition at public universities, the evening news’s obsession with the weather, the ban on industrial hemp and the fact that Al Gore didn’t show up for the Farm Aid concert. And there’s no apparent priority to his outrage — in Wisconsin on Wednesday, child poverty did not get nearly so much of a raking-over as the Farm Aid snub.

Lack of access is a big theme in this campaign. He told a long story to one editorial board about how Al Gore had weaseled out on a meeting, and complained bitterly about black political leaders who denied him a platform while Mr. Gore and President Clinton were welcomed at Sunday services. (“They’ve got the cadence down, they pander. It’s disgusting to watch.”) Mr. Nader, who by any possible standards is one of the great living heroes of American public life, has been frozen out by the Democratic power structure for a long time. It’s astonishing when you think about it. He may be an irritating nag, but there are tens of thousands of people alive today because of Mr. Nader’s 35 years of work in the consumer movement. And the vice president won’t take his phone calls. No wonder he’s mad.

Fortunately for the campaign, Mr. Nader does not get cranky about creature comforts. (This is the man who regards Hampton Inns as the height of luxury because they have serve-it- yourself breakfasts in the lobby.) After he went unfed for the better part of a day on Wednesday, a merciful newspaper editorial board sent someone to buy him a sandwich. “If something is important to do, it’s fun to do,” he said placidly, as his van rocketed from one side of Wisconsin to the other. Mr. Nader eventually had to stop talking because his throat had dried up and no one had remembered to bring him a bottle of water.

He generally shrugs off charges that a strong showing for him will throw the election to Mr. Bush. Sometimes his team argues that a Gore victory is already inevitable — the only time the Nader campaign is guilty of giving the vice president too much credit. Sometimes Mr. Nader says the two candidates are so much alike, it doesn’t make any difference who wins. (He seems particularly serene about abortion rights, which he claims the Republicans don’t really want to see overturned.)

But even if Mr. Gore does lose and Mr. Bush turns out to be not quite as moderate as Mr. Nader thinks, that would be OK too. A really conservative Republican administration, he said, would mobilize the forces of progressivism. “I remember how Jim Watts [the Reagan administration’s Interior secretary] galvanized the environment movement,” he recalled nostalgically.

We’ve already had one lanky and distinctly uncuddly progressive candidate who felt Al Gore wasn’t strong enough on issues like racial injustice, child poverty and the struggles of working families. Bill Bradley’s campaign never caught on, but Mr. Nader says that was more a problem of style than substance. “He just didn’t show the passion,” said Mr. Nader. “His rhetoric didn’t rise to the indignation level.”

No problem with that here.

Copyright © 2000, The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.