Driven to Distract: An Interview with Ralph Nader

Boston Phoenix | July 28, 2004
Ralph Nader on ‘viral liberals,’ the GOP’s help in getting him on state ballots, and the impossibility of Democratic Party reform

RALPH NADER. Ralph. Nader. What can be said about him that hasn’t already been said? Consumer advocate turned Green Party presidential candidate. Widely blamed for hoovering just enough votes from Al Gore in Florida and elsewhere to have handed the election to George W. Bush. Running for president again despite unprecedented pleas from former fans to stay out of the race. Regularly polls at four percent while John Kerry and George W. Bush poll evenly in the mid 40s. Could, many fear, tip the balance just enough to send Bush back to the White House. Makes Democrats insanely angry. Indeed, he wants credentials for the DNC, but the Dems won’t let him in.

In a sit-down interview last week, the independent presidential candidate discussed all this and more with the Phoenix. The bottom line? It’s a free society and he’ll run for president if he wants to. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview. (The full transcript was published on our Web site Monday, July 26; visit

Q: Did you ever consider seeking the Democratic nomination instead of running as an independent?

A: No.

Q: Why not?

A: You can’t reform a garbage can when you’re inside it. You can’t clean a garbage can when you’re inside it. There’s no elbow room, as [Ohio congressman] Dennis Kucinich has found out, for any internal reform. This party was capable once of internal reform. It is now so corporatized that it’s incapable of internal reform.

Q: When Kucinich was talking about his decision to endorse Kerry, his words were: “John Kerry can win because there is a place within the Democratic Party for everyone, including those who may be thinking of supporting Ralph Nader. If there is room for me in the party and in the Kerry-Edwards campaign, there is certainly room for Ralph and his supporters.” What do you think of that statement?

A: First of all, that’s very adroit words by Dennis. He does want to get re-elected this fall, and he does need the Democratic Party’s support, so he’s coming into the fold. But there are millions of Americans who aren’t in that kind of bind who want to vote their conscience, and for once want to vote for candidates who have, are, and will support their finest interests.

Q: I spoke with Howard Zinn earlier today about your candidacy, and here’s what he had to say: “I don’t believe that people in uncertain states should vote for Nader or any third-party candidate. I think in contested states, people should vote for Kerry — not because Kerry’s the ideal candidate, and in spite of Kerry’s position on the war — simply because Bush is the most dangerous president that we have had in the last century-plus. It’s important to get Bush and his very, very warlike and anti-democratic group out of the White House and Kerry in. With Kerry in, we have at least a small step forward toward a change in policy. With Bush, we’re back where we are today, only with even more authority given to him by a win in the election.” What do you think of that reasoning?

A: I think Kerry will take those voters for granted and continue being the lapdog — as all recent presidents have been — of the military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned us against in his farewell address. I mean, it isn’t really Kerry or Bush. They’re the puppets. It’s the major puppeteers, which are the Lockheed Martins and the Raytheons and the Boeings, and all the other corporations that are strategically planning our economy and our politics and our genetic future and our childhood and our environment and our education and our workplace and our consumption patterns. You see, most radicals like Howard Zinn really think that, residually, there is some elbow room for elected officials in Washington. That was true years ago; it is far less true now than at any time in American history

The corporations in Washington, first they put their executives in high positions regardless of which party’s in power. You know who goes in as the secretary of the Treasury, into the Department of Defense, the Food and Drug Administration, and so on. Then they have nine thousand political-action committees pumping, one dinner after another, money into the members of Congress. And then they have 25,000 full-time lobbyists connected with their dealerships and insurance agencies and so on all over the country, with the mass media, right? So why do we think that in the conditions of that gigantic corporate straitjacket in Washington, DC, that John Kerry is going to be able to break out, when for 18 years he’s been part of that system?

Q: Can you envision any circumstances that would prompt you to withdraw from the race?

A: No, not at all. I mean, I would ask them to withdraw before I would withdraw.

Q: How many states are you assured of getting on the ballot in?

A: We’ll get into over 40 states. All the deadlines are coming due in the next two months.

Q: What if, hypothetically speaking, Kerry offered to appoint you attorney general if he was elected?

A: I would say, “Don’t try anything like that, John, because you’re wasting your time.” We’re looking for deeds, not for words, not for payoffs. We’re looking for deeds.

Q: Is it safe to say that you can’t envision a scenario in which you would cost — and I understand your objection to the terminology — can you not envision a scenario in which you would cost Kerry the election?

A: The only scenario is if everybody voted, and you had a tight drum. But when you’ve got 100 million people not voting? And they’re not scrambling for those votes? And let’s say we’re getting six, seven, eight, nine, two, whatever million votes? And you’ve got 100 million? It’s absurd.

Q: Much has been written of late about the assistance your campaign has received from Republicans like former House Republican leader Dick Armey’s political-action committee.

A: All talk, no results. Except what they tried to pull off in Michigan [the Michigan state Republican Party submitted approximately 40,000 signatures to get Nader on the presidential ballot as an independent candidate], which we’re not accepting, because we’re on the Reform Party ticket.

Q: So if someone like Richard Egan, Bush’s lead fundraiser here, donates thousands of dollars to your campaign, doesn’t that at least provide fodder for the people who don’t want you to run? Can you see why that would make them think the Republicans view Ralph Nader as a pawn?

A: Except that the Democrats raised hundreds of millions of dollars from Republican fat cats, and the Republicans raised hundreds of millions from Democratic fat cats over a decade, because they both play both sides of the aisle. They’re hedging their bets, you see? Twenty-five percent of our vote last time would’ve voted for Bush, according to the exit polls. Ten percent or less of our big donors are coming from the Republicans. I don’t even know who Egan is. I’m going to give him a call. He might be someone who just believes in civil liberties.

Q: I think he’s a big Bush guy, so —

A: No, he is. But you know Jeno Paulucci [a Minnesota packaged-foods magnate]? We worked with him years ago on the Mesabi Iron Range disaster [in which iron-ore mines were shut down for having polluted the area and thousands of workers lost their jobs]. He’s given money to Bush. But he wants more voices and choices.

Q: You’ve accused the Democratic Party chairman, Terry McAuliffe, of sanctioning dirty tricks aimed at keeping you off the ballot in key battleground states.

A: Right.

Q: And you’ve warned John Kerry that he risks, as you put it, a “mini-Watergate” if these efforts continue. Are you considering legal action against the Democratic Party or the Kerry campaign?

A: If it continues, and they cross the legal line, and we’re seeing just the tip of the iceberg — because my experience is, when you see what we already see, it’s a lot of meetings, strategies, this, that, they’re harassing our signature gatherers in a coordinated way in West Virginia — we will preserve our legal remedies.

Q: For many people who worry that your candidacy might help bring about a Republican victory, your determination to press on suggests an intransigence and an inability to critically assess the impact of your own actions. Is that an unfair characterization?

A: Of course. I’m a fighter for justice. I’m the underdog candidate for the tens of millions of American underdogs who are being pushed around, disrespected, harmed, defrauded, laid off arbitrarily, and otherwise marginalized from the political scene. You see, the same people who would make that comment that you just communicated would be horrified if they heard anybody in the 19th century say that to the women’s-suffrage party, to the abolition party, to the labor party, to the populist-progressive party. And to show their hypocrisy, let me pose a question in return to the pro-choice constituency in the United States. If both parties were adamantly against choice, how many seconds would it take for the pro-choice people to form a third party? Tick tock, tick tock.... What I’m trying to do is put these viral liberals, as we call them, up against the wall to face themselves.

Q: I want to make sure I understand the genesis of “viral liberal.” “Viral liberal” because ..?

A: Viral liberal means that when you are Anybody But Bush, no matter if you’re a PhD or a working stiff, the brain closes down. And no other strategies, tactics, no other variables, no other arguments come into play whatsoever. And it also means you make no demands on your least-worst candidate. And it also means when you buy into the least worst, both parties are going to get worse every four years. Why? Because the only pull is the corporate pull in one direction. That’s why we call them viral. Because when a virus strains through a lot of people, it has the same effect.

Q: Just to return to that last question: if you had to convince skeptics that you can critically assess what you do, could you cite one major mistake or misstep that you made — say, in the last decade?

A: Who, me?

Q: Yes.

A: All kinds! I mean, that’s why we lose. My biggest error was that I proposed, when the planes were being hijacked to Cuba, the FAA toughen cockpit doors and latches 30-some years ago. The airlines didn’t want to spend a few thousand bucks per plane, and the rest is history.

Q: But that’s a good idea that you had that other people didn’t heed.

A: I’m talking about failures. Mistakes?

Q: Something that you would do differently if you could rewind the clock.

A: Well, I mean, give me the context. What do you want? Politically? Personally?

Q: Let’s say politically.

A: Well, yeah! You make hundreds of mistakes in politics. For example, I would have gone more for county-level organization and less giving interviews to cable TV in Washington, because that’s the way you develop a core of volunteers who spread the word. Another way: I would have developed a bigger way of raising funds earlier in 2000. We were very late to the Internet.

Q: So are we going to see you at the DNC, or are you keeping your distance?

A: Well, I’m asking Terry McAuliffe to give me a pass. We joked about it a few months ago. I’m not joking now. So we formally asked him today. I don’t want to crash the party.

Adam Reilly can be reached at

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