Miles to Go

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Ralph Nader still gets hate mail. Strangers stop him to dress him down. Friends and associates who supported him eight years ago have moved on. Worse, people who revered him for decades of advocacy on behalf of a zillion good causes -- from auto safety to environmental protection to the Freedom of Information Act -- curse his name.

Nader still pays a price for running for president in the contested election of 2000. But for Nader's candidacy, say many critics, Al Gore would have been president and history would be different. For this, many won't forget or forgive Nader. But he thinks they're wrong and when the subject comes up, he sometimes offers three grumpy words: "Get over it!"

Then again, Nader didn't get to be Nader without a pilgrim's belief in the righteousness of his mission, which is nothing less than the transformation of the federal government into an instrument of "progressive" thought and action. He believes Democrats and Republicans have ignored him and his issues for years.

So at 74, shunned and marginalized, he's running for president for the fifth time.

"It's the rational approach," he declares. "If you're locked out of the governmental system, if you can't get a hearing, and I can't, you go to the electoral system. What's my alternative? Should I go to Monterey and watch the whales?"

Not him. On a recent Friday evening, he's standing in a Unitarian church pulpit across the street from Harvard (his law school alma mater), addressing a Nader-for-president rally. Only it isn't much of a rally. About 200 people, mostly young, fill about half the church. This has to be disappointing, given that Cambridge is among the places most likely to embrace a brainy iconoclast such as Nader. The next day, in Providence, R.I., it's worse; about 25 people gather in a downtown bookstore to hear him.

Nader doesn't seem to mind. In both places, he offers the same intense discourse -- a college lecture more than a campaign speech -- about what's wrong with democracy circa 2008.

His basic themes, even some catchphrases, echo those of his four previous campaigns: Corporations have rigged the political system, thwarting the popular will (on universal health care, an Iraq pullout, a "living wage"). Democrats are as beholden to big business and their contributions as Republicans are. Washington is "corporate-occupied territory" administered by a "two-party elected dictatorship." Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama are but the major parties' latest "corporate candidates."

Several Nader bromides ("Where was the Democratic rebellion against the stolen election? Where was the rebellion against Bush's tax cuts, the war, the Patriot Act, against his Supreme Court nominees?") elicit polite applause in Cambridge. Nader's praise of Canada's public health system -- "We have so much to learn from Canada, before we take it over" -- draws rare laughter.

Nader is too professorial to really rouse his audience. When he starts hammering "the bloated, wasteful and corrupt military budget," a young woman lays her head on a friend's shoulder and closes her eyes, as if to nap. When Nader discusses the need for single-payer health insurance, an older woman dozes.

Afterward, Nader walks the town's darkened streets, blabbing about the perniciousness of corporate influence. He's a familiar figure -- the stooped, Lincolnesque frame (he is 6-3), the dark eyes and rumpled suit-- yet he invites few "isn't that?" looks from passersby.

Nader doesn't seem to notice that he's barely noticed. Later, sitting in a hotel lobby and talking animatedly, he seems distracted rather than pleased by the occasional interruptions of admirers. When an aide relays a young woman's request to stop for a picture, Nader has had enough. "No!" he snaps, walking away. "It's always 'one more'!"

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