If only Candidate Nader were Citizen Nader. That’s what I kept thinking as I listened Monday evening to his speech delivered in the citadel of America’s establishment–the Council on Foreign Relations. When Nader castigated Bush for committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” by misleading the nation into a war “based on false pretenses,” it may have been the truest thing ever uttered in the mahogany-paneled chambers of the CFR.
But while the message is strong; the medium is wrong. As The Nation has repeatedly said, America’s consumer rights crusader got the important thing wrong when he decided to run for President this year.
At the Council, the mood was as if an exotic animal had loped into the building. Nader was greeted sourly by some, apprehensively by others, warily by many. A few leading Democratic Party fundraisers had come to check out his current message. Former Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson sat in the front row–and seemed to welcome Nader’s nod to Sorenson’s recent book which includes a section on America’s unmet needs. The crowd of about 150 people included affluent investment bankers, lawyers and assorted journalists and foundation types.
Peter Osnos–publisher of Public Affairs Books–introduced the speaker with a quip about how few people have enjoyed Nader’s “political durability.” He mentioned three others–“there’s Fidel Castro, Bob Dylan and Jesse Jackson.” And to put it candidly, Osnos said, “lately Nader has been driving many of his admirers nuts.”
It wasn’t only his admirers who looked like they’d been driven nuts. At times, it was as if the elaborately framed portraits of former Council chieftains like David Rockefeller were rattling on the wall as Nader issued a ringing call for Bush’s impeachment.
In his speech, “Waging Peace, Advancing Justice, Promoting Security & the Civic Displacement of Corporate Globalization,” (or as he joked, “how to twist the tail of the cosmos in 20 easy minutes”), Nader criticized the phony handover of sovereignty scheduled for June 30th and called on the White House to set a date to end its military and corporate occupation of Iraq.
In the Q & A period, Nader was grilled by several people about why he’s running in a year in which the stakes are so high. Wouldn’t he be a spoiler, as he was in 2000? (Readers of this space know his answer.) Nader’s response that he could gain support among Republican and conversative voters disgusted with this administration was met with palpable skepticism. And, stubborn as ever, Nader didn’t bend on his message that on the fundamental issues that affect the future of our democracy, the differences between the two parties are still virtually indistinguishable.
“Yes, the parties are polarized on social issues and access to civil justice and rights, but both parties have sold our politics to the highest bidder and are unwilling to challenge sovereignty of corporations over people. The rhetoric is different; the reality is not.” That comment elicited a slight hissing in the room. Later Nader said, somewhat contemptuously: “We’ve been completely abandoned by liberals.”
Nader’s speech netted a story in the New York Times, which focused on Nader’s call to impeach Bush. But there were a few other tidbits:
* Nader thought it was hopeful that there was “increasing rebellion among retired foreign policy and intelligence officials,” and that “this war was waged against the considered opinion of so many of them.”
* Nader consciously attempted to cloak himself in President Eisenhower’s legacy by drawing a connection between his speech and the General’s classic speech warning of the military-industrial complex. Any talk of cutting our bloated military budget is more taboo today than it was twenty years ago, Nader rightly observed. (He referred the crowd to the work of Columbia professor Seymour Melman.)
* The “drive to war” represented the “fragility of our democratic institutions. The “lack of any deliberative process by the US Congress, the lack of an investigative process by the media–which clicked their heels” is a “severe scar on our democratic process.”
* The Founding Fathers, Nader said, “did not want the declaration of war put in the hands of one man.”
* “The last war that Congress declared was the War on Poverty.” If our institutions of government had worked, we might have avoided this quagmire, he argued.
* We have a messianic militarist as a President; and our re-engagement with the world is hindered because Bush talks like “an out-of-control West Texas sheriff” and has a flagrant disregard for the rule of law and for our constitution,” Nader stated.
* Saddam was the US’s dictator. The US supported him as a bulwark against Communists, Nader stated, and we averted our eyes to his atrocitieswhen it suited our strategic needs. “The economic sanctions imposedon Iraq were a clear violation of international law and contributedto the deaths of thousands of children.”
* He decried the Administration’s exploitation of fear since 9/11: “To say that President Bush has exaggerated the threat of Al-Qaeda is to trip into a political hornets’ nest.” But it is time to raise the “impertinent question” about whether we’ve seen a vast exaggeration of the threat of terrorism” for the purpose of fulfilling the GOP’s agenda. “Chill the other party; chill dissent; distract attention from domestic necessities and from the fact that a lot of corporations who are pouring money into Bush’s private kitty get a lot of contracts; and Bush maintained his position in the polls–until recently.”
* Citing William James, Nader made the case for why “we need very, very strenuously the moral equivalent of war.” We need a humanitarian foreign policy, he argued. It should be a “shame on our conscience that we can’t find billions to pursue the goals of alleviating hunger, poverty, that we can’t find the money to take on the greatest assault of WMD that is heading our way: tuberculosis, pandemics heading from China which will take hundreds of thousands of lives here, millions there.”
* Nader has finally woken up to the possibilities of the internet, quipping that “Other than the use of the internet, presidential politics hasn’t had an innovation since TV makeup.”
* He believes that he will be on as many state ballots as in 2000.
* Asked about the veepstakes, he followed up on what he said on ABC This Week. “I think Kerry should pick Gephardt or Edwards. Either would help him. They’re both good on their feet, have their own constituencies, and are already vetted.”
* Called on people to support the work of Citizens’ Debate Commission to challenge the two party corporate control of the debates. (Do it at least as an antidote to insomnia, he urged, prompting some laughter in the hall.)
* He spoke little about his recent meeting with Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, but did say that when he asked Kerry how he would push through his energy independence policies,in the face of oil and gas and other energy lobbies, Kerry told him, “Just let me get in the White House and I’ll use the bully pulpit.” “I told him I just didn’t think that was a sufficient answer.”
The applause at the end was wary and light. Nader may have been invited into the citadel but he was not welcome for long. On the sidewalk outside, a lone Green Party member was leafleting. I didn’t see anyone taking.