How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President
By Ralph Nader
St. Martin's 383pp -- $24.95
What's an iconoclastic, grass-roots political activist doing running for President against the bland and business-beholden candidates from the two major parties, anyway? That's the question Green Party candidate Ralph Nader keeps asking in Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President, his diary-like account of the 2000 Presidential campaign. Nader marvels at the irony of it all--an honest man trying to operate in a system that seems to reward political mendacity.
If you enjoy Nader, you'll like Crashing the Party--and if not, you'll wear your teeth out gnashing them. The book is much like the man himself: often brilliant, filled with clever phrases and scathing put-downs, and even funny. The debates were "an interminable tedium of platitudinous dittos," he says. Nader can also be dismissive, a technophobe, and a scold. A fearsome debater, he wields a huge storehouse of knowledge and exhibits a high energy level. But you don't get the sense that he spends lots of time dithering over his own opinions. All this comes through in the book.
Not that Nader isn't thoughtful. He's just busy. He has authored or co-written 17 books, and he has either founded or helped establish 50 organizations, from the Center for Auto Safety to groups advocating clean water, nursing-home reform, and consumer rights. You can look them up in the book's ample appendix.
So why run? Former supporters such as Gloria Steinem, Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and Reverend Jesse Jackson pressured Nader to drop out, he writes. They and the media fretted that Nader would be stealing votes that were rightfully Al Gore's. Replies the unapologetic Nader: "Isn't that what candidates try to do to one another--take votes? Would they ever ask a startup company whether it is worried about taking sales away from two dominant competitors? We're trying to build a new progressive politics in this countryAl Gore blew it. He had every advantage over Bush, a bumbling Texas governor with a terrible record easily contradicting his rhetoric." In reality, insists Nader, there's too little difference between the parties to justify perpetuating the myth of real choice.
Nader found the odds stacked against him. The televised candidate debates were "the Khyber Pass to the electorate." But these were closed to minor parties by rules requiring a 15% standing in selected public opinion polls. The polls were sponsored by the major media, which, in turn, withheld news coverage of minor party candidates because their poll numbers were low. "So the media gives the debate commission a monopoly, and the circle is complete," Nader observes.
Nader's book is a good read but not without flaws. There are too many mentions of his supporters and too many descriptions of the then-we-went-there-and-did-this variety. But he often draws larger points--attacking the use of taxpayer funds to build sports stadiums in New England, for example. Indeed, such insights were the best part of his crusade. Nader raised the quality of the overall campaign, informed the public, and may even have sparked some reform. Whatever you think of his candidacy, we can only hope he keeps it up. By Paul Magnusson