Outside magazine, July 1996
Of all the comebacks by 1970s icons in recent years--from John Travolta to Tom Snyder--none has been more unlikely than the resurrection of Ralph Nader. The past 15 years have not been kind to the consumer-rights crusader nicknamed Saint Ralph. During the Reagan-Bush years and the Gingrich "revolution," nobody in Washington wanted to hear his harping about corporate abuses and government accountability. But suddenly, Nader is back. The same automakers that fought his proposal for mandatory airbags are now turning the safety devices into selling points, and even Bob Dole can be heard grousing about the excesses of big business.
Bill Clinton is paying especially close attention to Nader, but not by choice. Nader is the presidential candidate of the Green Party, a pro-environment movement that had an anemic start in the United States in the early eighties but has since become a political player of sorts in several key states. California has the most weight to throw around--its Green Party claims 80,000 registered voters--and it's a state that Clinton desperately needs for reelection. As far-fetched as it seems, some in the White House are concerned that if Nader's greenspeak entices enough would-be Clinton voters in November, you can chalk up California to Dole. As the presidential race heads into the homestretch, Outside caught up with Nader in Chicago during a brief stop on his low-, low- budget campaign trail.
Is Saint Ralph really serious about becoming President Ralph, the leader of the Free World, the most powerful man on the planet?
No. The purpose of this campaign is not an electoral vote count. It's to broaden the political debate to include an examination of the immense and diverse role of multinational corporate power on our political, economic, and cultural institutions. It's to encourage young people to get into the process and build a political movement for the future. It goes way beyond November.
Let's talk about November. You've called the contest between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Yes. Basically, their similarities--in terms of their obeisance to corporate power and the takeover of the political government by the corporate government--are far greater than their differences.
But one issue in which Clinton and Dole have important differences is the environment.
Maybe Al Gore and Bob Dole have important differences. But as far as Clinton and his administration are concerned, the record is pretty weak. The work of the EPA has mostly ground to a halt, and Clinton went along with Gingrich and Dole's notorious timber salvaging amendment, jeopardizing our national forests. And when it comes to nuclear power or the auto industry, Clinton remains like Bush and Reagan--on his knees.
You've got the ear of America's voters. What would be the environmental agenda of a Nader White House?
The technology for energy efficiency has proven itself over and over again but still is not pervasive throughout our economy, and it should be. It would make our economy more efficient and more environmentally benign. There should be a national conversion to solar energy over the next quarter-century. The technology is now in place to exploit solar power on a widespread basis, and the costs continue to go down. Also, solar is not competing against fossil fuels on a level playing field. We spent more in one day during the Persian Gulf War than the federal government spent on solar energy research and development in the entire 1980s. Instead of squandering tax dollars protecting the oil industry's interests, the U.S. government could be buying more solar photovoltaics and thus lowering the unit cost.
OK. What does the rest of your environmental platform include?
There should be renewable energy technologies based on hydrogen, as well as a major expansion of modern mass-transit systems--both of which would lead to cleaner air and ease our dependence on foreign oil. I would slash federal funding for nuclear energy, ban hazardous waste incineration, phase out chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper, call for a mandatory reduction in the use of toxic chemicals in the workplace and the outside environment, and end taxpayer subsidies for the most polluting industries, like timber and mining.
You don't strike me as a guy whose relationship with the environment is exactly up close and personal. Do you ever get out there for some good old-fashioned communing with nature?
Well, I like to hike near Georgian Bay in Canada when I can find the time.
Any revelations out there on the trail?
Of course. For instance, I can't imagine anything more majestic than standing beneath the giant redwoods of California. The mix of sunlight and moisture and dew--there's poetry in that.
There's no love lost between you and Steve Forbes, thanks to a nasty story about you in his magazine a few years back. Fess up: It must give you more than a little pleasure that Forbes, after dishing out more than $30 million, is a mere also-ran in this election, while you, having spent under a thousand, so you say, are still something of a key player.
Steve Forbes typically misread the public. We figured out that he paid $400,000 for every delegate--the most expensive political buy in history. Forbes is in touch with the greed of big corporations but not the needs of the American people. So, yes, there's a glee in seeing him fail. He deserved to fail.
Ross Perot appears ready to make another run at the White House. You share his views on key issues such as trade protectionism. A Perot-Nader ticket in 1996 would be a strange one, but is it out of the question?
It's absolutely out of the question. But I will say this about Ross Perot: His campaign in 1992 helped to democratize American politics. He got more than 19 million votes--proof that you can effectively challenge the two-party system.
You criticize Forbes for trying to buy his way into the White House but praise Perot for doing the same thing? What gives?
They used the same means but for different ends. I think Perot wants real reform of the campaign finance system. If you have to choose between the two, it's not hard.
The Dole-Gingrich crew must have warm, fuzzy feelings about you right now. After all, if Clinton loses California, Dole is likely to be the next president. Are you prepared to be singularly responsible for that?
I'm prepared to try to help start a progressive political movement. If that's your priority, you don't say, 'Well, I'm not going to do that, because I might take some votes away from some of the very politicians that this movement should displace. Otherwise, what political party would ever have gotten under way in history?
I'm Bill Clinton. Tell me what I have to do to gain Ralph Nader's endorsement--or at least his withdrawal from the 1996 race.
There's nothing you could do, unless maybe if you became the candidate for the Green Party and abided by its agenda. In other words, this campaign isn't a bargaining chip.
Let's suppose that by some miracle you do win the election. You don't own a car and rarely drive one. Would you be the first president to ride a bicycle to Capitol Hill to take the oath of office?
Competing on city streets against heavy motor vehicle traffic is not fair for a bike rider. I'd walk.
Miles Harvey cowrote "The Outside Canon" (May). His book reviews appear every month.