Ralph Nader has been the victim of more playa' hatin' than just about any figure in contemporary American politics. Merely whispering his name is enough to elicit hisses of derision across the political spectrum.
The Right hates Mr. Nader because his decades of activism have emboldened ordinary citizens to challenge the prerogative of big business to profit at the expense of the American consumer.
Many on the Left resent him because they believe his perennial presidential quests siphon votes from the Democratic candidate. Though he's never received more than 2.74 percent of the popular vote, liberals continue to blame him for making the Bush presidency possible instead of blaming the U.S. Supreme Court for stopping the Florida recount in 2000.
For the last decade, Mr. Nader has been portrayed as a pill by the popular press -- a humorless, Quixotic figure doomed to eternal political isolation thanks to his uncompromising devotion to principle.
Nation columnist Eric Alterman and filmmaker Michael Moore, a former supporter, have slapped Mr. Nader around for repeatedly playing "spoiler" and risking a repeat of 2000. Glancing over back columns, I'm ashamed to say I did my share of Nader-bashing during the 2004 presidential election, too.
In an Oct. 15, 2004, column, I applauded a Commonwealth Court judge's decision to knock Mr. Nader off the Pennsylvania ballot.
While conceding that Ralph Nader was the candidate who truly reflected my values on the issues, the headline of my Feb. 24, 2004, column lacked any sense of nuance: "Principled vote for Nader isn't what this nation needs."
In retrospect, it was easier to scapegoat Mr. Nader than to question the values of a so-called progressive political party that would nominate candidates as beholden to corporate interests as the incumbent we were desperately trying to unseat.
Mr. Nader says without equivocation what millions of people believe in their hearts but are afraid to vote for when the polls open. Even folks who don't like him acknowledge his honesty and concede the value of his critique of our thoroughly corrupt political process. It is easier to fault him for occasional lapses in decorum and political correctness than his political positions, which are solid and irrefutable.
It doesn't make any sense to get mad at those who exercise their franchise by voting for the candidate they sincerely believe in -- like Ralph Nader -- instead of settling for one of the major party candidates who will say anything during a campaign, but disappoint us at the first opportunity once elected to office. At least the Nader voter can look in the mirror the day after the polls close without feeling mad or embarrassed.
Earlier this week, Ralph Nader delivered a stirring call to civic engagement to an overflow crowd at Point Park University. Nobody opens a speech titled "The Mega Corporate Destruction of Capitalism and Democracy" with a humorous anecdote. Instead of going for laughs, Mr. Nader got down to the business of inspiring the next generation of potential activists and troublemakers by highlighting his own experience as a young law student, taking on the automobile industry and spurring unprecedented reforms and design changes that have saved thousands of lives.
"All social justice movements start with one or a few people without power," he said surveying the crowd of mostly university students and faculty. "The difference between us and [Rosa Parks, Mother Jones, etc.] is that they didn't make excuses."
Mr. Nader credited his parents for cultivating the skepticism that has made him the bane of corporate and political power. "My father used to say: 'Ralph, what did you learn in school today? Did you learn how to believe, or did you learn how to think?'"
After the speech, Mr. Nader dined with several faculty from the School of Arts and Sciences and the Global Cultural Studies program in the university's presidential suite.
An unusually robust 75-year-old, Mr. Nader is Lincoln tall, but not particularly lanky. He has a big appetite and eats with his mouth full like a real American. He also has a very dry sense of humor and laughs easily and generously. He reminded me of the droll Arthur Dietrich character played by Steve Landesberg on the sitcom "Barney Miller."
He playfully badgered Point Park University President Paul Hennigan to follow through with plans to create a course or program devoted to civic engagement. Though he shows no signs of slowing down, he knows he's not immortal. Mr. Nader is eager to see another generation step to the plate.
Asked if he had ruled out another run for president, Mr. Nader laughed. It was too early to tell, even for him.
Tony Norman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1631.