Enron? Nader Is Glad You Asked
Why, yes, Ralph Nader would be delighted to discuss the Enron scandal. But don't expect the once and possibly future presidential candidate to do so with a straight face. "I hate to say 'I told you so,'" he begins, barely cloaking his glee over what could be the greatest corporate scandal in the lifetime of America's greatest corporate critic. "But"--and now the 67-year-old consumer activist pauses with an unexpectedly theatrical flair--"I told you so!"
With that, Nader rips into the issue that official Washington is struggling to wrap its spin around. "Enron is our engine for reform," he says, sounding almost as optimistic as the Harvard Law School grad who hitchhiked to Washington in the 1960s with the notion that he could force the auto industry to make safer cars. After years of warning about the dangers inherent in a system that permits corporate political action committees to buy government favors in the form of deregulation, lax regulatory oversight and economic globalization, suddenly Nader can point to the Enron mess as Exhibit A. "Enron is the supermarket of corporate crime for our time," he announces. "It has embarrassed the hell out of the business community. It has raised questions about accounting practices. Investor confidence is severely shaken. The investment bankers are quaking. The lobbyists are scared. The politicians are scrambling to explain why they took those checks from [Enron chief] Ken Lay. I could talk about this from now until 2004."
Even if he still gets the cold shoulder from Washington Republicans angered by his penchant for calling Bush campaign contributors "criminals" and Washington Democrats who believe his renegade 2000 presidential race ushered the criminal coddlers into the White House, America seems to be listening to what Nader is saying now. Since the Enron scandal broke, the man who argues that he was "not silent, but silenced" after the end of his 2000 presidential campaign has gotten quite a hearing. Nader has appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, ABC's This Week and PBS's Firing Line. He even stirred it up one morning on Fox News Channel's Fox and Friends. Nader, who as a presidential candidate held a press conference to which no press came, showed up at the National Press Club in January to pitch a "corporate decency" proposal--a traditional Naderite stew of more regulation for auditors, independent trustees for pension plans and restoration of rights for investors to sue corporations--and was greeted by ten television cameras and four dozen reporters. Nader's life these days is a city-to-city rush from television studio to newspaper editorial board to talk-radio show to crowded auditorium. Theresa Amato, who managed Nader's Green Party candidacy and now heads an outgrowth of it called Citizen Works, admits, "There's been so much press demand. I wish we'd had this during the campaign."
For Nader, who has written an unrepentant recollection of his candidacy, Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender, a January book tour that one critic suggested should be billed as "coming soon to a small independent bookstore near you" has turned into a rollicking tour of the country that gave him a mere 2.7 percent of the presidential vote in 2000--and, depending on one's analysis of the vote patterns, the dubious distinction of handing Al Gore's presidency to George W. Bush. "He's a rock star," said Bob Maull, owner of 23rd Avenue Books, a Portland bookstore that had to move Nader's reading to a nearby auditorium, and still turned away 400 people. "I have a hard time thinking of any other political figure at this point who would draw this kind of crowd, especially the young people."
Up the West Coast, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly--an unusually harsh critic of Nader as a self-absorbed political dilettante--welcomed the consumer activist with an admission that "just as this column was ready to get rough on Ralph Nader, who hits town today to promote a self-celebratory book on his 2000 presidential campaign, along came twin reminders of why America needs a burr-in-the-saddle corporate critic." After reflecting on how Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill described the Enron mess as an example of "the genius of capitalism" and George W. Bush referred to Enron's CEO as "Kenny Boy," Connelly acknowledged the unavoidable reality that "Enron's collapse has renewed Nader." While only a handful of Congressional Democrats are speaking to him, while his requests to testify before Congressional committees seldom get a response and while it is never hard to find a commentator like Joe Klein ready to dismiss him as "a sour and unrelenting demagogue," Nader is packing crowds into book signings and "People Have the Power" rallies. One $10-a-ticket event on January 26 in Austin, Texas, drew 5,000 people and reunited the supposed persona non grata of American politics with Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, Jackson Browne and Patti Smith. "America is starting to understand what Ralph has been trying to tell them all these years," says Smith, the most loyal of Nader's superrally compatriots. "People don't trust Washington, but they trust Ralph Nader."
Her point is well taken. As Democrats in Washington scramble to make the case that they were less in hock to Enron than the GOP--noting the corporation's contributions favored Republicans by a 3-to-1 ratio--Nader declares "a pox on both their houses." He announced in Portland, "The prospect of reform is eviscerated because of both parties' sticky hands. That is what is so disgusting. The Democrats can't really go after this scandal because so many of them look like hypocrites. They took as much money as they could get from Enron, and they keep raising money from corporate PACs."