Headlines fade, but the great ascetic battles on

MISSING PERSON; No 44: Ralph Nader
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Washington - It seems to happen every four years, round about this time. A presidential election is in the offing, and somehow, somewhere, Ralph Nader is in the action. Four years ago, he was a write-in candidate in New Hampshire. Now the California Greens party wants him on the ballot for 1996. Nader's reaction has been typical. No campaign contributions please, "But I welcome civic energy ... to make more usable our democratic processes." In short the same old Holy Ralph, the Great Incorruptible, always thinking of others.

Measured by headlines alone, Ralph Nader is a fading force. In the land of consumption, America's most famous champion of consumers' rights is old news. In a prurient talk-show age, he stands out like a monk in a topless bar, a semi-vegetarian living in a small Washington apartment, without a car and without wife or children. Not having a family was a deliberate choice, the scourge of General Motors once said in a TV interview with David Frost: "If you want to deal with these corporate abuses, you have to give up things." These days, self-restraint and austerity don't make good copy.

In truth though, Ralph Nader has moved not so much out of the news, as beyond it. Amazingly, the eternal agitator has turned 61, and the book which bestowed celebrity upon him, that withering critique of GM's Chevrolet Corvair in particular and American cars in general, called Unsafe at Any Speed, appeared as long ago as 1965. Arguably, his clout is waning. His vain opposition to the 1993 Nafta free-trade agreement made him look a Luddite. Equally unavailing were his warnings about the highway carnage that will follow the scrapping of the national 55mph speed limit. Privately Bill Clinton agreed - but went ahead last week and signed the bill anyway.

Nothing however can alter his status as an American institution, a listed national monument as familiar and unremarked upon as Muhammad Ali or the Statue of Liberty. By 2001 at the latest, Mr Clinton will no longer be President. But well into the next millennium Ralph Nader - gaunter, perhaps even more ascetic, and certainly no less driven - will be tormenting America's congressional and corporate establishment.

And his impact will endure even longer. Nader may have no biological heirs, but his legacy will lie in the score of citizens' bodies he has founded, the droves of idealistic Nader's Raiders he attracted to Washington in the late 60s and 70s, and the thousands of subsequent citizen activists for whom he is scarcely less than a saint. The very names of the organisations sum up a career: the Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington (his umbrella organisation a couple of blocks from the White House), Public Interest Research Groups, or Pirgs, busy in 26 states, Congress Watch, the Disability Rights Center, the National Insurance Consumer Organisation and dozens more.

Love him or loathe him (or simply think him dotty), Nader has changed a country's psyche as few others in times of peace. If Americans smoke less, eat better, drive safer and less wasteful cars, and worry about pollution, it is largely thanks to him. The lobbies, the special-interest groups, the sheer civic awareness which have transformed the dynamics of public life in the US over the past 25 years - all are in part his work. Life Magazine once called Nader one of the 100 most influential Americans of the century. That may be an understatement. He will never be President. But maybe the California Greens are on to something.

Rupert Cornwell