How Ralph Nader Changed America

How Ralph Nader Changed America

On the 50th anniversary of Unsafe at Any Speed, a look at how his work launched the consumer-rights, corporate-accountability, and other citizen movements.


“Patriotism is not a short and frenzied burst of emotion but the long and studied dedication of a lifetime.”
Adlai Stevenson

The Boy From Winsted

It’s 1938, and Rose Nader is taking her four young children for a visit back to the family’s homeland of Lebanon. They’re in line to meet an archbishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the city of Zahle. But when it’s 4-year-old Ralph’s turn to kiss the archbishop’s ring, he refuses. “I don’t have to kiss your ring—I’m an American!” he announces. The unruffled archbishop looks down, pats Ralph’s short black hair, and says, “A lot of ideas are going to come from this boy’s head.”

Ralph Nader grew up in Winsted, Connecticut, a Capraesque town of 10,000 nestled 26 miles northwest of Hartford in the Berkshires. His father, who arrived in the United States at age 19 with $20 in his pocket, saved enough to buy a two-story, 10-room white clapboard house, as well as a building in town that became the Highland Arms, the Nader family restaurant, where all four of his children worked.

Nathra Nader served food with a side of civics, as the restaurant became a sort of town square where his views were as strong as the coffee. “When I went by the Statue of Liberty,” he told one Nader biographer, “I took it seriously.” Early on, he and Rose spotted unusual things about their son. When Ralph came home late from school around age 8, Rose asked him where he’d been. “In court,” Ralph replied. “I like to listen to the arguments.” At 14, he was carrying home armfuls of the Congressional Record, which he read from start to finish. “You have a very good storage space,” Rose told him, touching his forehead. “You should fill it up and take it out when you need it.”

Ralph was a newspaper boy for the Winsted Register Citizen, played sandlot ball for hours on end with, among others, classmate David Halberstam, read biographies about turn-of-the-century muckrakers, and especially enjoyed working the cash register at the restaurant, where he could pick the brains of customers.

Tall and thin, with an angular face and deep-set eyes, the shy student left Winsted for Princeton in 1951. Ralph was attracted by the university’s beautiful open-stack library, where he read an average of one book a day outside of his required course work. Once, he escorted Norman Thomas (Princeton, 1905) back from a lecture. “What was your greatest achievement?” Ralph asked of the famous socialist and six-time presidential candidate. “Having the Democrats steal my agenda,” Thomas replied.

Then came Harvard Law School. “From day one I laughed at the game—to prepare corporate lawyers,” Nader recalled. “If anyone fell off the bandwagon and became a lawyer for the poor, it was viewed as a random event.… They made minds sharp by making them narrow.” Bored by his courses, Nader was periodically and mysteriously absent for days on end, hitchhiking around the country and researching Native American rights, migrant workers, the status of Puerto Rico. He also started reading about automobile safety after seeing car crashes during his travels. He wrote and published articles on all of these topics as a writer and, for a time, editor of the Harvard Law Record.

In the five years after law school, Nader continued his intellectual journey, traveling to the Soviet Union and Latin America, writing dispatches for The Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic, scoring interviews with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959 and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1963.

Mr. Nader Goes to Washington

While so many young activists and professionals were drawn to Washington and civil rights during the Kennedy years, the 29-year-old Nader hitched from Hartford to DC in 1963 with a knapsack and a reservation at the YMCA, intent on working on what he called “body rights.”

He got a job consulting for an assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy administration with an unusual talent for policy and language, as well as an interest in highway safety. In fact, Daniel Patrick Moynihan had written one of the first magazine articles on the subject in late April 1959—coincidentally, two weeks after Nader’s own groundbreaking piece in The Nation, “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy.”

Continuing the original research that he began as a law student, Nader received a $3,000 advance from a small New York publisher and had a near-finished manuscript in mid-1964 when he left the only copy in a cab. He then rewrote it from scratch.

I asked Ralph decades later, “So, how’d you feel when you first realized you had left it behind?”

Sighing at the memory, he replied: “Empty.”

“Did you consider not rewriting it?”

“Never. I wouldn’t give GM the satisfaction.”

Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile was published in November 1965. In it, Nader argued that the reason for most car crashes wasn’t “the nut behind the wheel but the nut in the wheel” and that serious injuries were caused by “the second collision” of riders with interiors—that is, by cars designed for style, not safety.

In early 1966, while working as an unpaid adviser to Senator Abe Ribicoff on projected auto-safety hearings, Nader came to suspect that he was being followed. Friends and allies scoffed, but then The Washington Post and The New Republic documented that GM had indeed hired a detective agency to, as the lead agent admitted, “check out [Nader’s] life and current activities to determine what makes him tick…his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, his boys, etc.”

The rest unspooled like the screenplay for a Hollywood thriller. Senator Ribicoff chaired a hearing into the matter, putting under oath James Roche, the chief executive of GM, a company with larger gross sales than most countries’ GNPs. Roche immediately apologized: Yes, someone in his company had hired a detective agency, ostensibly to investigate whether Nader was soliciting Corvair owners to sue GM. But not to smear this critic, of course.

Then it was Nader’s turn, and he proved to be a natural—calm, fluent, occasionally humorous, “a machine gun with facts,” in one journalist’s phrase. “I am responsible for my actions, but who is responsible for those of General Motors?” he solemnly wondered, gaining everyone’s complete attention. “An individual’s capital is basically his integrity. He can lose it only once. A corporation can lose its integrity many times and not be affected.”

When Carl Curtis, a bumptious GOP senator from Nebraska, implied that the witness’s main goal was “to sell books,” an annoyed Senator Robert Kennedy interrupted to coax Ralph to answer. “Why are you doing all of this?” he asked. “Because I happen to have a scale of priorities that leads me to engage in the prevention of cruelty to humans,” Nader replied, “my motives are constantly inquired into.” His shoulders hunched, his voice rising, his dark eyebrows arched in emphasis, he concluded: “Is it wrong to talk about defective cars, diseased meats, corporate cheating? Is it really distasteful that a person cares enough about issues like these to dedicate his life to changing them?”

By the next morning—after saturation TV, radio, and print coverage—Nader was perhaps the leading real-life example of David slaying Goliath. Unsafe became a bestseller, and it’s now listed by the Library of Congress as one of the 88 “books that shaped America.”

Within only five months, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, a bill creating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Over the next 50 years, the NHTSA’s design standards, recalls, and general auto-safety-related measures would reduce the rate of deaths per mile driven by nearly 80 percent, saving—according to a new analysis for this article by the Center for Auto Safety—more than 3.5 million lives.

As if planning for this once-in-a-million moment his whole life, Nader quickly expanded into other consumer and democracy issues, rather than simply stay in the auto-safety lane. And so the modern consumer movement was born, with one man’s strategic decision to hire, over time, thousands of “Raiders” to work more on cars… and nuclear power, pipeline safety, food and drug safety, airline safety, water and air pollution, antitrust enforcement, corporate governance and shareholder democracy, clean energy, tax reform, income and wealth inequality, campaign-finance reform, pension rights, old-age homes, occupational hazards, healthcare, smoking, freedom-of-information laws, multinationals, the Educational Testing Service, veterans’ affairs, land management, whistleblowing, trade policy, insurance, procurement—a seemingly endless list of vital issues with profound, real-world consequences.

Ralph and Me

In early 1969, Nader convinced me to turn down an offer to be an intern in the office of New York City Mayor John Lindsay (or else I might have ended up a New York pol!) and instead join him in Washington. He suggested two areas of concentration: the institutional power of DC lawyers, and antitrust and regulatory law enforcement. Done. My dance card for the following decade was now largely full.

I’m not exactly sure why we clicked so well or came to trust each other so much. I found his brainy analyses and ironic humor hard to resist, and then there’s the personal warmth that few outsiders see. When my wife, Deni, was pregnant in 1979, Ralph would invariably begin phone conversations by announcing “Baby Watch!” and then dispense some information he’d come across about pre- or postnatal care. Our daily midnight calls for 10 years provided the greatest public education of my professional life. In those talks, it was as if we were just two peers shooting the breeze—which we weren’t. But that was part of Ralph’s common touch; he seemed to treat everyone, from waitresses to presidents, pretty much the same, like customers at the Highland Arms.

Beyond chemistry was synergy: He had big ideas, and I tried to implement them. Let’s do the first citizen critique ever of federal antitrust law enforcement. Okeydokey—500 interviews and 1,200 report pages later, I became the go-to expert on a subject that until then had been monopolized by the antitrust bar and corporate executives.

“So, what’s he like?” I was commonly asked, the assumption being that at night Ralph ripped off his mask of virtue to reveal some kind of reptilian alien. But he was the embodiment of the cliché “what you see is what you get.” Ralph was a walking encyclopedia and a consistent, persistent advocate, so comfortable in his own skin that he wore it all the time. “He has a unity of personality seldom found,” wrote biographer Charles McCarry, “except in children or historical figures.”

There was no “theory of everything” that controlled our work in the 1960s and ’70s, no Little Red Book as our touchstone. But like the dots in a pointillist painting that together form a discernible image, a philosophy of government and business emerged out of our hundreds of books, columns, reports, testimonies, and speeches. Often called “consumerism,” it combined private-sector investment and efficiency with government regulation and disclosure.

Free-market fundamentalists conveniently ignore how “laissez isn’t always fair” because of consumer ignorance, business fraud, and monopoly practices. That’s when lawmakers, reflecting a democratic consensus, should change the rules in one of three ways: first, by government prohibition (for example, of racial discrimination in hiring); second, by government-mandated floors of behavior (this much pollution but no more); third, by government-required disclosure (tar and nicotine content listed on cigarette packages). Because of hidden hazards that individual consumers can’t discern or avoid—think of industrial pollution, dangerous cars, cribs that kill—health and safety standards are essential. Voluntary virtue won’t cut it in a profit-driven economy. And it’s far better to build guard rails at the top of cliffs rather than locate ambulances below.

Over the period from when I left Harvard Law School in 1970 to when I left Ralph in 1980, I juggled various assignments. Most fun was getting him on to host Saturday Night Live, where he powered through his “cold open” despite the air bag hidden in his shirt that failed to inflate as planned when he was hugged by a female cast member (you had to be there). Among the most important was the Congress Project: “Nader’s Biggest Raid,” in the estimation of Time magazine. It emerged from Ralph’s worries about the tightening grip that big business had on elections and laws. So in November 1971, he announced “probably the most comprehensive and detailed study of Congress since its establishment.” It was an audacious effort, with 1,000 volunteers and 50 full-time Raiders researching and writing profiles of 484 members of Congress, plus book-length reports on six major committees. Running it were two of his most trusted aides, Joan Claybrook and Bob Fellmeth.

Then Oscar Dystel, head of Bantam Books, suggested that we publish a book based on all the research to “make Congress readable.” So Ralph conscripted journalist Jim Fallows, environmentalist David Zwick, and me to write it in just seven weeks. Who Runs Congress? came out in October 1972. As David Bollier, a historian of the consumer movement, pointed out: “The book took off like a rocket. Who Runs Congress? was…#1 [on the New York Times best-seller list] for the month of November 1972. Eventually going through four different editions and print runs of more than one million copies, it remains the best-selling book ever written on Congress…. There is no question that Who Runs Congress? helped change the climate of public opinion toward Congress and Congress’s own perception of itself.” And it led to the creation of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, first run by Claybrook and then by me.

Nader on the Road

The 1980s proved very challenging for Ralph. Politically, the corporate counteroffensive against consumer rights and the popular movements of the 1960s found its man in former GE pitchman Ronald Reagan.

At the same time, Congress began to weary of someone many members saw as an annoying Old Testament prophet. And the media, too, moved on. “My approach is not in fashion,” Nader said mid-decade, “but a non-adversarial approach means abdication.” He said later that “the Post and Times don’t pay attention and therefore the networks don’t pick us up. You’ve got to come at them with a national outcry.”

So Ralph switched gears. He organized locally, pressured Washington from outside Washington, won an important statewide insurance initiative in California, wrote more books, and began putting the pieces in place for an American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted [see “Ralph Nader, the Nation’s Curator,” at].

In 2002, he went to Cuba for 15 hours of conversations with Fidel Castro about Ralph’s ideas for a Cuban economy between socialism and capitalism as well as his plan for the two countries to exchange what each had in abundance—US technology and Cuban doctors, respectively. Castro agreed to the exchange, but the Bush administration nixed it. Perhaps the biggest success in this post-1980 era was the result of Ralph’s original advocacy, when the NHTSA finally agreed in 1984 to require air bags in all new 1989 cars. If there’s one perfect example of “big government” intervening in an imperfect marketplace to save lives, this is probably it.

Of course, Nader attracted the most attention with his four presidential campaigns, which led to the worst of all possible worlds: Most Republicans loathe him because he’s regarded as an anti-business liberal; many Democrats loathe him for supposedly electing George W. Bush in 2000, although scholarly studies split on his final impact. As the New York public advocate and ranking elected Democrat in the city, I supported Al Gore that year. But given how much has been written about Nader’s campaigns, readers who want to learn more about his 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 races can look to the book (coming out in May 2016) from which this article is adapted, or see Barry Burden’s 2005 scholarly analysis in American Politics Research, “Ralph Nader’s Campaign Strategy in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election.”

After his presidential detours, Nader returned to more familiar ground: traveling, conferencing, lecturing, writing. He continues to bang out a column a week and spends more time in his Winsted family home writing books very different from those he supervised in earlier years, publishing five between 2011 and 2015. One, The Seventeen Traditions, is a lyrical, almost poetic paean to the family values of the Naders of Connecticut. Then there’s his mammoth work of “political fiction” and “utopian realism” titled “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” It’s an extended parable using real, named billionaires as characters, who decide to pool their wealth to change America.

Nader now appears so rarely on national TV, including cable shows, that when he went on MSNBC’s Hardball recently, the irrepressibly exuberant host Chris Matthews (himself a former Nader’s Raider) couldn’t stop remarking, “Wow, Ralph Nader—it’s really you! You’re really here!” Given the reluctance of hosts and bookers to reach out to him, Nader tries to reach out directly to citizens via social media, writing a column for The Huffington Post, tweeting daily, and hosting a weekly radio show and podcast.

In other words, there’s no quit in this guy—no acknowledgment, privately or publicly, of any Lion in Winter phase, no hint that ostracism has dampened his optimism. On the phone at 81, he sounds just the way he sounded at 41. When Harrison Wellford asked him in March after a reunion dinner of Raiders what he was doing later that night, Ralph replied, “Going home to edit. I love staying up all night reading a report.” His stamina and resilience are due to a rare mental architecture that shakes off a defeat like a great pitcher who’s just thrown a home-run ball but has to focus on the next batter.

For all his decades of relentless consistency, Ralph is also a bundle of seeming contradictions. He’s both of Winsted and of the world, grounded in small-town virtues but with great intellectual and political sophistication. He is personally humble, yet stunningly audacious in his public ambitions. He’s an American radical who works within the system to change it.

The Ledger of a Life

It seems likely that the civil-rights, women’s-rights, environmental, and gay-rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s would have grown and prevailed eventually even without the eloquence of King, Steinem, Carson, or Milk, all of whom amplified and organized voices of dissent. But if there had been no Ralph Nader, there probably would not have been a consumer-rights and corporate-accountability movement, or at least nothing remotely resembling the hundreds of organizations, laws, and books that have sprung from his initiatives.

While there’s still resentment among liberals over the 2000 presidential race, there’s also a growing consensus about Nader’s historic impact on our approach to markets and democracy. Former vice president Walter Mondale has called him “a man without parallel in American history.” Liberal essayist Michael Kinsley argued that “no living American is responsible for more concrete improvements” in our society. His four biographers—Hays Gorey, Robert Buckhorn, Charles McCarry, and Justin Martin—regard him to varying degrees as “an American original” (a phrase of Ribicoff’s), like Hearst, Ruth, Presley, Salinger, Brando, Dylan, Baldwin, and Ali. We know it when we see it, as James Lipton said of Brando: “that combination of talent and training” that creates something different, that changes the way we see and act in the world, the way Dick Fosbury did with the high jump, not feet-first but head-first. On issue after issue, year after year, Ralph dives in head-first.

In 1996, The Atlantic listed the 100 most influential figures in American history. Nader was among them, one of only three still living (along with Bill Gates and James Watson). That inspired me to recently and mischievously ask a well-known author on a book tour his opinion of who, outside of electoral politics, has had a comparable impact on as many issues over time as Citizen Nader. After no pause for reflection and with no self-consciousness, Ralph answered: “Benjamin Franklin. Look what he did, from creating the Postal Service and volunteer fire departments to starting public libraries and, of course, his Almanac. Then there are his scientific inventions—did you know that he was a member of the Royal Society of London?”

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