Ralph Nader is to blame. It's that simple. I'm not talking about the election of 2000, when his candidacy was enough to hand the presidency to George W. Bush and all that has followed. I’m talking about when Nader went AWOL as the nation’s consumer conscience.
In the space of a week, three U.S. flights have been diverted because of passenger disturbances over reclining seats. Would this have happened if Nader of old were on the case?
In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, Nader was the nation’s bulwark against corporate excess. He may have gotten it wrong -- as many have claimed -- about the safety of the Corvair, the rear-engine compact car, manufactured by the Chevrolet division of General Motors, that was to have rivaled the Volkswagen Beetle. No matter. Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, launched him as the consumer's knight in shining armor.
For nearly a decade, we felt that Nader was on our side and that such big, faceless monsters as insurance companies, banks, airlines, consumer-credit outfits and appliance manufacturers could be brought to heal by invoking the one name that would strike fear, trembling and rectitude into the hearts of the titans of corporate America: Nader.
It was a halcyon time for those who wanted, like actor Peter Finch in the 1976 film Network, to shout, and be heard, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!”
Nader was a figure of mythical omnipotence. You didn’t have to take your troubles with a faulty car or broken contract to Nader, you simply had to threaten; the words “cc Ralph Nader” at the bottom of a letter were enough. Corporations quaked, the earth moved, and restitution was forthcoming.
We delighted in learning little details about Nader the aesthete, who lived in one room somewhere in Washington, had no creature comforts, partners, or trappings, but always wore a suit. People happily believed he slept in it, ready to rush to court to slay a dragon of corporate excess.
Journalists loved Nader. We learned that he kept a secret office in the venerable National Press Building in Washington and would sneak up to the National Press Club on the 13th floor to peruse the press releases, which were then displayed near the elevators. One presumed he was looking for evidence of consumer abuse in false corporate claims.
The Vietnam War was raging, and the nation was divided on every issue except the wonder of the man who was called “consumer advocate.” The nation had never had one before and we loved it.
Oh, yes, love is not too strong a word. We went to bed at night knowing that if the mattress wasn't what had been promised by the Divine Mattress Company, Nader would fix it.
Jimmy Carter promised that when he was elected president, he would have a direct telephone line to St. Nader. That was the zenith of Nader’s consumer-advocacy power.
But Nader and his acolytes, known as Nader’s Raiders, had already begun to pursue broader political aims and to embrace the extreme reaches of the environmental movement. Nader, our beloved consumer advocate, saintly and virtuous, was becoming a partisan -- a partisan of the left.
It was an extreme blow for those who had followed along behind Nader’s standard because we believed that he was the unsullied, virtuous supporter of the individual against the institution. The voice that could be heard when, as often, politics had failed.
Over the years, I had battles with Nader. We argued most especially over nuclear power and a raft of related energy issues. I and the late physicist Ralph Lapp, together with the great mathematician Hans Bethe, put together a group of 24 Nobel laureates to support nuclear. Nader assembled 36 Nobel laureates against, and won the argument on numbers. He has always been a tough customer.
Poor Ralph. He had it all – and so did we -- when he fought for the common man against the common enemy: those who stole our money or shortchanged us.
Deep in my heart, I think he is to blame for high bank fees, pay-day loans, tiny aircraft seats, high Amtrak fares, and that corporations won’t speak to us – they have machines do that. Ralph, it could have been so different if you had just stayed at your post.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.