Unsafe On Any Ballot (2004)

By Christopher Hitchens
Vanity Fair, May 2004

Democrats are furious that Ralph Nader, whose last presidential bid helped put George W. Bush in office, is running again. Equally dismaying, the author finds, is Nader’s backing from a crackpot group with ties to Pat Buchanan, Lyndon LaRouche, and Louis Farrakhan

For me, it was all over as soon as it began. The day after he announced himself as a candidate for president on Meet the Press, Ralph Nader held a press conference at which he said, “I think this may be the only candidacy in our memory that is opposed overwhelmingly by people who agree with us on the issues.”

Hold it right there, Ralph. First, don’t you realize that politicians who start to refer to themselves in the plural, as in the royal “we,” are often manifesting an alarming symptom? (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher started to employ this distressing locution shortly before the members of her own Cabinet began to stir nervously and finally decided to call for the men in white coats.) Second, if by “we” and “us” you really meant to say yourself and your allies in this enterprise, then you should not complain if it’s pointed out who those allies actually turn out to be. Third, by stating that your campaign is “opposed overwhelmingly by people who agree with us on the issues,” do you mean to imply the corollary, which is that you will appeal to those who don’t agree with you on the issues?

Nader’s answer to that third question, astonishingly enough, does appear to be in the affirmative, since he had told Tim Russert just the day before that he expected to reap votes from “conservatives who are furious with Bush over the deficit,” as well as “liberal Republicans who see their party taken away from them.” The job of reconciling these opposed factions of the G.O.P will be hard enough for Bush himself. But the idea that either group would rally to a Nader banner, this year or any other, is a non sequitur of hallucinatory proportions.

The psychedelic effect is only intensified when one examines the forces that might allow Nader to speak in the plural. A short while before announcing his candidacy, he had been the featured attraction at a conference of third-party “independents” in Bedford, New Hampshire. The word “independent” can conceal more than it reveals, as anyone with any savvy in American “alternative” politics can tell you, but in this case it only barely masked the influence of Fred Newman, Lenora Fulani, and the former New Alliance Party (NAP), whose latest front organized the New Hampshire hootenanny.

Not to mince words, the Newman-Fulani group is a fascistic zombie cult outfit, based on the eternal principle that it is a finer and nobler thing for the members to transfer their liquid assets to the leadership. It’s where you would turn when you had exhausted all the possibilities of a better life with Lyndon LaRouche, or Jim Jones, or any of the other alliterative crackpot or quasi-redemptive formations (K.K.K., A.A.…).

The Newman-Fulani faction is protean and sinister in one way, and pathetically obvious and transparent in another. In New York City, for example, it sometimes calls itself the Independence Party, which also controlled the rump and letterhead of the Reform Party—Ross Perot’s gift to American pluralism. Indeed, Lenora Fulani, a black woman who, like her mentor Fred Newman, professes to be a shrink of some sort, was a prominent co-chair of Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party candidacy in 2000. That must have made a soothing change from being a Louis Farrakhan fan in her two presidential election bids.

“Try anything once” would seem to be the motto here. And now she’s endorsing Ralph Nader. “I think it’s pretty cool,” she breathes. “I think Nader is a distinguished independent and he needs to be supported.” A fabulous detail about Fulani, incidentally, is the hold that she seems to exert on the cast of The Sopranos. Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior, is a regular at the All Stars Project, co-founded by Fulani and Newman, which puts on Newman’s unwatchable dramas, and has taken along other members of the team, including James Gandolfini, for photo ops. Analyze that, if you dare.

Am I asserting guilt by association here? After all, a candidate needn’t necessarily be judged by his disciples. And at “third party” events in previous campaigns there was certainly a fair sprinkling of people with propeller beanies, the fillings in their teeth wired for instant Martian dial up access. (You get these people at mainstream gatherings, also; be in no doubt of it.) No, the difference in this case is that the Newman-Fulani cult more or less is the Nader campaign. Through its network of shell organizations and front groups, and given its batteries of living dead petition drive robot artists, it has arrived at the point where it can at least guarantee ballot access in many, many states. All you have to do is agree to run on its ballot line.

Even Michael Bloomberg, princeling of opportunists, was willing to take out this Newman-Fulani insurance in his campaign for mayor. This, you may say, is partly the fault of restrictive ballot access laws, riveted into place by the Democratic-Republican duopoly in many jurisdictions—an offense to the spirit and letter of the United States Constitution.

But Nader kept people guessing, in a rather irritating way, about whether he would run at all or whether he might deign again to accept the Green Party nomination (which he has suddenly decided he won’t anymore). So, having come down from his Sinai, he finds it’s the loonies or nothing. Is this politics? And if it is, is it clean politics? Does it “empower” the average voter, who is so often taken for a ride by the party machines, or does it empower clusters of well financed, marginal nut bags with whom, behind closed doors, the party machines can and do frequently make deals?

Nothing is more difficult to write than a “more in sorrow than in anger” letter. Sentimentality swirls around your feet like a swamp, tempting you to become even more moist and runny yourself. But if this were an open letter to Ralph Nader, it would begin by being genuinely soft.

We don’t have enough heroes. (We have replaced them with “role models” and don’t even know what we have lost.) We do not have many candidates of whom it could be said that, if they were caught on video seeming to accept a bribe or kickback, we would automatically assume that the video had been faked. Washington, as a community, and Washington, as a federal city, would be a very much worse place without Ralph Nader.

He stood up against the rotten bureaucracy and mayoralty of the town itself, while unsettling the folks who live on Capitol Hill. Some of the story is known by everyone, including people who have never heard Nader’s name, the exploding car that the manufacturers lied about; the lead in the water; the non-regulation of the meat and mining industries.

It really wouldn’t be too much to say that there are many people now living who would be dead without Ralph. It certainly wouldn’t be too much to say that successive generations of reforming lawyers and legislators got their start and their continuing encouragement from him.

In writing, about him, therefore, one need not declare an interest. “Sea-green incorruptible” was. Carlyle’s sardonic description of Robespierre, but it recurs to my mind as an almost frighteningly apt phrase, in this case.

Why frightening? Well, I first met Nader 22 years ago, when he took me to lunch on my arrival as a columnist in Washington. We had what I thought was a great time, and he later telephoned to say that he was worried, about my smoking. He would, he said with perfect gravity, pay me the oddly exact figure of four and a half thousand dollars, and cover any therapy bills I might incur, if I would quit the habit and thus save myself for the nation (or The Nation, as he may possibly have thought of it).

On every occasion that we have met since, he has renewed this offer, adjusted for inflation and other variables. I once really needed the money, and considered calling him up and claiming to have sworn off, before realizing that the very idea of exploiting his innocence and concern was profane. Of course, there is something paternalistic in such a gesture (if he could be the father I never had, I could be among the many, many children that he never had). Indeed, his whole crusade for greater “safety” and regulation could be described as paternal in character.

And a slight secret about Ralph Nader is the extent of his conservatism. The last time I saw him up close, he was the guest at Grover Norquist’s now famous “Wednesday Morning” gathering, where Washington’s disparate conservative groups meet—by invitation only, and off the record—under one ceiling. He gave them a sincere talking-to, pointing out that their favorite system—free market capitalism—was undermining their professedly favorite values. I remember particularly how he listed the businessmen who make money by piping cable porn into hotel rooms. (He rolled this out again on Meet the Press.)

Nader was the only serious candidate in the last presidential election who had favored the impeachment, on moral and ethical grounds, of Bill Clinton. When asked about his stand on gay and transgender rights and all that, he responds gruffly that he isn’t much interested in “gonadal politics.”

He has often made a united front with conservatives like Norquist, and even more right-wing individuals like Paul Weyrich, on matters such as term limits and congressional pay raises. When I asked Grover about Ralph’s prospects of attracting Republicans, incidentally, he told me that he thought a Nader campaign just might appeal to some of the former Buchanan wing—anti-trade and anti-interventionist (not to forget anti-immigrant). So Nader and Buchanan might as well run for each other’s votes, or skip all that and just take in each other’s washing.

Nader’s puritanism and austerity—he lives in a rooming house with a shared pay phone in the hall and doesn’t own a car—have been his shield since 1966, when the clever people at General Motors admitted to putting private dicks on their most scathing critic.

Nader was followed, and his friends were questioned, on the assumption that an unmarried guy of Lebanese parentage must be up to something. But no: no drinks and no drugs and no carnality and no terrorism. Nader testified, a congressional subcommittee saw Bobby Kennedy trashing G.M.’s president, and an all-American star was born, one who rejected the affluent part of the American Dream.

Ralph could have gone on being an uneasy conscience for Washington, as he was all through the Nixon and Carter and Reagan years (after all, you don’t need to campaign for office to do that), but he seems finally to have found a temptation he cannot resist.

By running for president in 2000 and accidentally changing history, he has at last imbibed a draft of something addictive. Someone should tell him that the next bender will bring diminishing returns. In 2000, no matter how much he claimed to be above such distinctions, Nader clearly ran from the left. He also repudiated one of the center left’s favorite mantras, concerning the “lesser evil,” scornfully pointing out that this meant giving in to evil without a fight.

In most of his speeches he maintained that he didn’t care which of the two main candidates won, because it made no difference. But when pressed, he would sometimes try to have this both ways, saying that his candidacy energized liberal Democrats and even helped get out their vote. His less conspicuously intellectual supporters, such as Michael Moore, assured the faithful crowds that Bush couldn’t get elected anyway, so there was no need to worry.

At that point, a certain intellectual corruption crept in. You must accept the logical and probable consequences of what you propose. Nader could not quite be honest and admit that, given the national arithmetic, he was very much more likely to help Bush than Gore. There are 10 toss-up states, with 106 electoral votes among them (and everybody now knows about the electoral college). They are Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.

Once you understand the arithmetic, you cannot really claim that any consequences are unintended. For example, we have it on Gore’s own word that if he had been elected, Saddam Hussein would still be in power.

Nader is currently the only recognizable candidate who wants the United States to withdraw from Iraq. This discrepancy is not exactly a detail. It is, in fact, too big a contradiction to be explained away. But could it explain why Nader this time seems to be running from the right? He is spouting the rhetoric of social and fiscal conservatism, and pitching for allegedly disillusioned Republicans who would have nothing to be disillusioned about if he hadn’t helped squeak their man past the post in the first place.

The NAP could also probably be described as a right-wing force even if, as befitted a party run by a couple of shrinks, it suffered from chronic schizophrenia. It began as a Maoist splinter group and mutated through LaRoucheism to Buchananism. Guru Fred Newman characterizes Jews as “storm troopers,” and Fulani calls them “mass murderers of people of color,” positions which have a nice, demented ring to them.

Nader seems, to his credit, a touch sensitive on the point. When Doug Ireland, one of the country’s toughest and brightest radical columnists (and a two-time Nader endorser), called attention to the unholy alliance he got a call from Ralph, who shouted at him for being “a McCarthyite bully” and repeatedly asked, about Newman, “Has he committed any crime?”

I had better luck when Ralph called me back late one night and nearly persuaded me to argue against myself. It’s a pleasure to debate with him. But he told me, when I asked about the NAP, that “I never saw Fulani at the meeting,” which I suppose could be technically true as long as he was looking away. (She was a prominent member of the platform committee.)

He maintained that the Newmanites were no different, in principle, than, say, the Mountain Party in West Virginia: “They’re recognized as ‘on the ballot’ by the Federal Election Commission, so you can ‘jump on.’” He said that the Green Party wasn’t going to decide until its June convention, and that it still might vote not to campaign in swing states, so there was no purpose in delaying.

In the very rational and seductive tone of voice that he can bring to bear, Ralph insisted that there is no bad time at which to challenge the gerrymandering of one party districts, the fixing and front loading of primaries, the rigging of party conventions, and the exclusion of third-party candidates from the “presidential debates.” The liberal intellectuals who take these deformities for granted and then turn on him are, as he put it, “incarnate autocrats.”

And whose fault is Gore’s defeat? “He slipped on 18 banana peels, of which I was only one. Anyway, he won the election, didn’t he?” This is quite funny and also quite shrewd, as regards Democratic self pity, but it shows again that tendency to have everything both ways. “I’m going to take more votes from Bush this time—no doubt about it.” (By the way, at least one exit poll suggests that this was true in 2000, if only in New Hampshire.)

But on the other hand, and only moments later, he says, “I’ll show Kerry how to take Bush down; we’ll be a free consulting firm for the Democrats; be our guest—take our issues.”

Since one of the main “issues” is the pressing need to demolish the Democratic Party, my head began to swim a little, and I told him as much.

He made a friendly inquiry, renewing his smoke-ending offer. We chatted about a heroic Israeli dissident we had both known. He recommended a good comrade of his who was deeply involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. There are not enough people like Nader running for office, even at the local level, let alone the national one. I hung up with a truly bad case of the blues.

When Nader says “corporate” he really means corporate, and not just Halliburton. When he says that politics should not be a “zero-sum” game, he articulates a truth. When he says that Americans ought to be able to vote “No,” rather than being compelled to say “Yes,” he asserts something morally important.

But when he proposes to help elect a corporate Democrat by outbidding a conservative Republican, he is building a bridge from the middle of the river, and ends up not by combating the many absurdities of our electoral system but rather by illustrating them.

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