by Pete Karman
Thirty five years ago, when Ralph Nader wrote “Unsafe at Any Speed” about the propensity of the tail-heavy Chevy Corvair to spin like a top rather than run like one, General Motors got very angry. Its first reaction was not to fix the car, but to fix the impudent Nader. GM hired a slew of private detectives to get something, anything, on their critic. But the sleuths soon put in for boredom pay. Nader, they found, was as clean as a whistle, an exemplar of the Boy Scout oath. What a drag. A double drag, in fact. Word of GM’s investigation got publicized and blew up in its fat corporate face. The company’s arrogance not only worsened its own pr mess, but helped to launch Nader as the Prince Valiant of the consumer.
Big business has been out to get Nader ever since. There are, I hear, affluent sunbelt communities heavily populated by flacks and smear artists who retired rich on the corporate fees they were paid to nail Nader. But they never got him. That’s because there was nothing to get. All indications, validated time and again by scandal squads of the wealthiest and most respectable people in America, are--and I know it’s hard to believe in this land of sin and celebrity--that Ralph Nader, when he kicks back, gets down and dirty, finds that private moment, is... is...is...a Ralph Nader. That’s all, folks.
Still, they don’t stop trying. A couple of months back, the Hartford Courant, the once Los Angeles- and now Chicago-dominated voice of Connecticut mall retailers, greeted Nader’s campaign for the presidency with a particularly nasty smear, made all the worse by its lack of substance. The Courant sent its erstwhile arts editor Rinker Buck, who had distinguished himself as a pilot shark in the media feeding frenzy at John Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash, to pick up where GM’s gumshoes left off in the sixties. Buck went up to Winsted, Nader’s home town, and discovered several locals who, hold onto your hat, didn’t much like Ralph Nader or his kin. Some of them accused the Naders of having money. Others said that when it came to doing good things for the town with their money, which everyone agreed they did, the Naders liked to do it their own way. Why these attributes, if so, are deemed admirable by the media in such as philanthropists Frank Sinatra and Bill Gates but deplorable in Ralph Nader, remains one of those mysteries I imagine they tackle in ethics courses at the better journalism schools. In any event, the meager poor-mouthing that Buck managed to wring from his interviewees seemed no worse, if less interesting, than what one would expect to hear about that awful Abe Lincoln at a meeting of the Daughters of the Confederacy. It certainly didn’t deserve headlines of a size usually reserved for the announcement of world wars.
In recent weeks the Nader Knockers have not only gone national but nostalgic as well. Think the Cold War is long dead or that McCarthyism has gone the way of Whiggery? Think again. The New Republic, an under-the-beltway magazine whose writers have been known to plariarize everything but facts, decided it was time to label Ralph Nader a communist--the Castro of consumerism, the Pol Pot of protectionism, the Stalin of civic activism.
A New Republic senior editor, John B. Judis, warned that the “gnarled,” “gangly,” “rumpled,” destructive,” “revolutionary,” “sectarian,” “simplistic,” “demonizing” and “extremist.” Nader was the reincarnation of William Z. Foster, the fellow who ran for president on the communist party ticket back in 1932. He cautioned that a vote for the nominally green but putatively red Nader was a really a vote for “helping conservative Republicans prolong their reign.” Thus support for Nader was damned as pro-left and pro-right at the same time. Now if Nader could also be blamed for global warming and volatility in the stock market... But that’s coming, no doubt.
Indeed, if he keeps doing well in the polls, it can be anticipated that corporate attacks on Nader will spike to crescendo levels.
In this cynical media age, it matters not whether the facts and rumors about a well-known person or a new idea or some scandal are true or even plausible. It’s enough for powerful interests to create “buzz” about a subject. If they favor it, the buzz is positive; If they opposite, it’s negative.
Reporters looking for background on Nader will go to their data bases where they will find the Courant piece headlined “Ralph Nader: Hometown Hero or Heel” and The New Republic’s “Ralph Nader Betrays Himself.” Those stories will give them their cue. In other words, at this early stage of the ‘00 presidential campaign, the already manufactured buzz about Ralph Nader is that he’s an unneighborly extremist, someone who doesn’t have the personality or politics to be president.
One of the serious jobs of the Nader campaign will be to answer the negative buzz campaign hard and soon. Rather than defensively responding to knocks on Nader, they should positively and loudly proclaim that Nader’s enemies are the best evidences of his integrity.
They should hit back with arguments about the Courant’s subservience to insurance interests. They should note that Martin Peretz, the owner of the The New Republic, is a well-known, but apparently scared, Gore supporter. There are bigger and nastier Nader knocks coming. The Nader campaign has to be prepared to flood the web sites and letters pages of the Nader knockers with timely and sharp ripostes. It needs a system to cull the critical notices, analyze and answer them. Cleaning up the political system, like cleaning out a cellar, is a dirty job.
Pete Karman is a contributing editor to In These Times.