This past summer, I wrote in this space about the historical limits of third-party presidential candidacies–the failure not only of such candidates to get a significant percent of the vote, but also of their parties to build on their moment in the sun. Within minutes, the magazine was deluged with protest e-mails from Nader fans. Even my father wrote in to put in a last hurrah for Henry Wallace and his 2 percent in 1948. In a particularly nutty syndicated column, Alexander Cockburn implied that I had been contacted by the Gore campaign in order to "bully" leftists into staying with the Dems. All this high drama, even though I did not urge people to vote for Gore or say I was planning to do so myself! What I did point out was that Nader and the Greens ought to acknowledge that there are (still!) some real differences between the parties and to explain more persuasively why the risk of a Bush win–to choice, the Supreme Court, affirmative action–was worth taking.
All these issues flared up again in early September, when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Patricia Ireland, head of NOW, had "lashed out" at Nader for neglecting feminist issues. Next day, Nader fired back: "I have been fighting for women's rights before Patricia Ireland knew the term"–and I'm old enough to be your father, little missy! he didn't add. Nader mentioned credit discrimination, unnecessary operations and auto-dealer ripoffs as issues pioneered by him and ignored by feminists. Wrong: NOW led the fight against sex discrimination in credit back in the seventies. Unnecessary surgery–hysterectomies, caesareans, mastectomies–has been a continuing preoccupation of women's health groups. And to suggest that organizations fighting antichoicers and father's rights-ers, rape, domestic violence, harassment, bias at school and job, in Social Security and the courts, should focus instead on auto-dealer ripoffs… well, let's see: legal abortion, cheaper car, Violence Against Women Act, cheaper car–where would you place your limited resources?
I was all set to write a column (another column!) about Nader's tone-deafness to feminism. Why, when you consider how courtly he is to the right–Pat Buchanan, Bill Bennett, even Phyllis Schlafly–can't the man show a little respect? When I reached Nader by phone, though, I have to say he was much more nuanced than I expected, not to mention livelier and more amusing. He waved away both Ireland's remarks and his own as journalist Carla Marinucci's doing–"She likes to ask you a provoking question when she knows you're in a hurry." He acknowledged that, yes, "Bush is worse than Gore on some issues–on abortion and gun control for instance, their differences are real, not rhetorical." He defended his feminist record ("I've done a lot more than I get credit for") and rather plaintively wondered, "Why do we hassle each other with these little differences when basically we're on the same page?" before launching into a description of a particularly grotesque episode of the Howard Stern show, involving a single mother being spanked with two dead fish. "Why don't women go after him? I wrote to NOW about this!" I wouldn't say Nader is particularly well-informed about what feminists are up to (attacking misogynous pop culture, including Stern, is a perennial enthusiasm–NOW has a huge media activism section), but I didn't hear in his conversation the note of white-male irredentism and cultural conservatism masquerading as "class politics" I hear from some of his supporters.