President Nader? No chance, but he could still ruin it all for Gore

As champion of the little guy he humbled General Motors. But now St Ralph's left-wing iconoclasm could help put a Republican in the White House
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Some things in the USA never change. Autumns are gorgeous, the rich and glamorous New York Yankees win the World Series, and their least likely supporter, Ralph Nader, is making a general nuisance of himself for the powers-that-be. The monkish, obsessive ways of Nader the eternal underdog may place him at total variance with the latest brash baseball dynasty from the Big Apple; but as with General Motors, much of corporate America, and the US government for more than three decades, they are causing Al Gore no end of grief.

Some things in the USA never change. Autumns are gorgeous, the rich and glamorous New York Yankees win the World Series, and their least likely supporter, Ralph Nader, is making a general nuisance of himself for the powers-that-be. The monkish, obsessive ways of Nader the eternal underdog may place him at total variance with the latest brash baseball dynasty from the Big Apple; but as with General Motors, much of corporate America, and the US government for more than three decades, they are causing Al Gore no end of grief.

The Vice-President criss-crosses the country on Air Force Two with all the trappings of power the White House can provide. Nader, as leader of the Green Party, travels on commercial aircraft, with a couple of aides at most. But for Gore, this strange and driven man has assumed the proportions of a nightmare: in a neck-and-neck election, he could siphon off enough votes in a handful of states to hand the presidency to George W Bush. And the incorruptible champion of the consumer doesn't give a damn.

Nader is an outsider, and the system hates him. He may be worth $3.8m, but he ploughs most of what he earns into his consumer groups, and still lives alone in a rented studio flat in downtown Washington, living on about $25,000 a year. Decades of dirt-digging by his foes have turned up nothing to knock St Ralph off his pedestal, as he forces his complacent, bloated country to look at itself through an unfamiliar moral prism. And the establishment, especially the liberal establishment which embraces Gore, cannot abide it.

A pompously ferocious New York Times leader the other day fell little short of accusing Nader of treachery against democracy, as it denounced "a wrecking-ball candidacy and an ego run amok" and branding his "wilful prankishness" a "disservice to the electorate".

And yes, there is a touch of the ego trip in Ralph's latest adventure. Even some former "Nader's Raiders", the activists who fought with him in the glory days of the Sixties and Seventies, now urge him to desist, to avoid letting in the greater evil that is Bush. Plans have been hatched whereby Nader sympathisers could trade votes, laying off in states which he could tip to Bush in return for an extra one in a state where Gore is winning by a mile or has no chance.

A man more inclined to compromise would go along, happy to tolerate tactical voting as long as he achieved the 5 per cent nationally that would entitle the Green Party to at least $12m of matching funds from the federal government next time around. But not Nader. The zealot in him refuses, and issues a call to arms of its own. Both parties' pipers have similar corporate and special interest paymasters, he says. "No longer can the people rely on the Democrats to protect them from a Republican extremist takeover, since neither party has an interest in energizing citizens to defend themselves and their country's future. The fears of frightened liberals about new parties stems from a repressed estimation of their own abilities - a far cry from the steel of the civil-rights movement."

Today's anti-globalisation activism in some ways is yesterday's civil rights. And it is Nader, almost 15 years older than either of them, who has the greater appeal to a swath of the young, with his environmental credentials, dour idealism and transparent sincerity, his tirades against globalisation and all its works. If the protesters at last year's WTO summit in Seattle had a patron saint, it was Nader. Roll back 40 years and St Ralph would have been on the barricades himself, as uncompromising as in his dismissal now of Al Gore. Daily he is asked if he wants to destroy the Democrat's chances of winning. "No," he replies, "only Al Gore can defeat Al Gore. What's Gore worth if he can't knock off a bumbling governor with a terrible record in Texas?"

But this is a subtly different man from the Nader who caught the US's imagination when Lyndon Johnson was President and General Motors was making a ropey little coupé called the Chevrolet Corvair, which Nader singled out in his celebrated 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed. The apology and damages he extracted from a humbled GM made him a cult hero. Like Thatcherism, "Naderism" entered the language as shorthand for a new consumer-rights movement that struck a chord throughout the industrialised world. In 1971 he was rated the sixth most popular figure in the US, and Life readers voted him one of the 100 most influential Americans of the century. Nader was a champion of the little man - armed not only with words but the lawyer's scalpel mind he acquired at Princeton and Harvard. An Ivy League education is about the only thing he shares with Bush and Gore.

Otherwise the three presidential contenders could hardly differ more. Nader is no scion of a political dynasty but the son of Lebanese immigrants who ran a bakery and restaurant in a small Connecticut town. Nadra and Rose Bouziane Nader were remarkable in their emphasis on the duties of a citizen in an industrial democracy.

The decade after Unsafe at Any Speed was the Nader heyday, marked by a host of new public-interest organisations and by notable successes in improving food processing standards, tightening pollution laws and curbing industrial hazards. The hub of everything was Nader's Center for Responsive Law, populated by the brilliant young lawyers that an adoring media swiftly dubbed "Nader's Raiders". It was an unmatched source, not merely of quotes but of sourceable, hard- hitting news stories, most of them at the expense of corporate America, which, then as now, Nader believed had hijacked the political system for its own ends. In 1972 George McGovern even toyed with the idea of making him his vice-presidential candidate against Nixon.

Today's Nader can sound exactly like yesterday's Pat Buchanan, that erstwhile 1990s scourge of the establishment from the right. His jeremiads against free trade, and against a political class in clandestine conspiracy with big business to do down the little guy are pure Buchanan. His jokes, though, are trademark Nader, with a slightly bitter, old trooper flavour. "They say I'm too inexperienced, but I know more about the government than anyone: there's not a cabinet department I haven't sued."

Nader won't, of course, carry a single state on Tuesday. Moreover, given the arm-twisting of his supporters by a desperate Gore camp, it will be remarkable if he gets his 5 per cent. But in a deeper sense, it doesn't matter. Sainthood has already overtaken him. That dark, haunted face stares out from the pantheon of 20th-century American originals who bucked the trend, alongside, say, J K Galbraith and Muhammad Ali. Unlike them, Nader was never very loveable. But he makes Americans feel better for knowing that someone like him is in their midst. His imprint on the US is indelible. And who knows, his hour might come again - not thanks to anything he achieves in this election but when today's rampant economy weakens as it surely will, when the little guy starts getting hurt again and the dark environmental prophecies that Nader has made down the years start coming true.

It's not very cheering. But cheerfulness was never his stock in trade. The funny thing is that, unlike most of humankind scrambling along in the rat race, Ralph Nader is happy doing what he does.

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