Shambling toward the New Jerusalem, traipsing through the apocalypse, marching as to war; these secular crusaders, these latter-day saints of puritanism, these American dreamers, these Holy Rollers of liberal rationalism we've known for 15 years as Nader's Raiders have gathered here at the Shoreham Hotel, more than 1,000 of them, corduroyed and underjoyed, whining and dining, to discuss the present danger, which is to say life itself.
It's nominally a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Public Citizen -- a group Ralph Nader founded to "empower" American citizens, as he likes to say, on issues ranging through nuclear power, unsafe drugs, utility bills, congressional accountability, ethics of lawyers' advertising, toxic substances, freedom of information and so on.
But it's also alumni weekend, pep rally and a caucus trying to palaver itself toward one voice in the wilderness America has become for them with the election of Ronald Reagan.
"I think we have all slipped into the habit of seeing our political concerns as a semi-secretarial, part-time activity," scolds John Kenneth Galbraith, emeritus Harvard economist, from the dais he shares with Mayor Marion Barry, journalist I.F. Stone, civil rights leader James Farmer, futurist Hazel Henderson, and, of course, Nader himself.
"We need psychologically to realize we are in an age of issues that call for an overpowering commitment."
James Farmer immediately adds, in his massive old-time oratorical baritone, which seems to be full of exclamation points: "The question! is how to gain! the! motivation! I know that Reaganism will provide! the motivation we need to get involved!"
And I.F. Stone, the goblin whose outrages have provoked joy in the hearts of generations of liberals, is cautious: "I think we're all feeling very pessimistic, but there's a change around the corner."
And in the audience, Studs Terkel, Chicago journalist and chronicler of the working man, is telling someone that "there's something blowing in the wind." And Marion Barry says, "Some of us have forgotten how to struggle."
Ralph Nader listens and listens. At 47, with most of his life invested in loping from speech to library to hearing to courtroom to federal agency in the public interest, Ralph Nader has yet to forget; has yet to feel the urge to "take some time to smell the roses," as the fast-lane types say. If fund raising hasn't quite kept up with inflation since the halcyon middle-'70s, the Nader operations are bigger and more widespread than ever, "and I've got the statistics on that, I can get you the figures," he'll promise. The war goes on: pollutions, institutions, restitutions.
He has yet, in fact, to move out of his famous $90-a-month room in a rooming house. (Has the Smithsonian made a bid on it yet?) And he is still gawky, up there listening to all this whistling in the dark, still the too-tall kid with big feet. With Princeton and Harvard Law School a million years behind him he is still ferociously intense and beguilingly casual, a contradiction that generates an expectation of irony and understatement, a pungent ease, the know-better, feet-on-the-desk joy of a college student who has just realized that not only doesn't his professor know anything, but that he's paying his salary, too.
Ralph Nader is still the bright, middle-aged hope of the thousand-and-some people who've watched a right-wing ex-actor usurp the charisma of backpack liberals.
If Ralph Nader is worried, he doesn't show it. When it comes time for his big speech of the day, he eschews all dramatics by introducing himself, and instead of arousing the frenzy that's within the reach of a few phrases, he delivers a lecture on the separation of ownership and control (i.e. corporations, public lands, airwaves, etc.). He gets a tepid and thoughtful round of applause.
And as he walks down the hotel hallways to the room where a luncheon is to be held, he is nearly invisible, just a skinny 47-year-old guy with big shoulders and a little head, shuffling along with his arm wrapped around the stack of papers he carries with him like a charm, a talisman.
"More is going on with public-interest activism than ever," he's insisting to an interviewer.
Then why the perception that Nader has faded, lost power?
"The corporate side has enormously increased its lobbying power -- the political action committees, the computer systems linking corporations with all their dealers, and the threat they have now that they'll close their factories if they don't get everything they want from the government."
Of course, it's also easy to point out that Nader was getting a lot of what he wanted from the government during the Carter administration. Alan Morrison, head of Nader's litigation unit, says that back then, the corporations were suing the government because of overregulation, while now, the Nader people are back to suing the corporations. Just like the good old days of Ralph v. General Motors, and the landmark book, "Unsafe at Any Speed."
The good old days. But how to rouse that old visceral enthusiasm that would elevate the consumer movement beyond petition and litigation?
Crushing with the crowd into the luncheon room, Nader gets a don't-you-realize? tone in his voice:
"This will come out of crisis! Reagan is going to breed the biggest resurgence in nonpartisan citizen activism in history! "
At the Friday lunch, three old Nader hands, who have now moved into public interest projects of their own, stage a surprise roast of Nader. It is a back-burner roast at best, given a subject so thrifty that he made all his staff use both sides of legal pads, that he fought against copying machines and electric typewriters; given a man who tore his former aide Joan Claybrook apart in the media for a "failure of nerve" after she became head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under Carter; given a man who not only hosted Saturday Night Live but was roasted on the Dean Martin show. He is not without a sense of humor, despite the image of grim sanctimony some of his staff may project -- he even did a study of humor and satire, once, in law school.
Donald K. Ross, head of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a Nader spinoff, says: "I told him he couldn't run for president because he'd never be able to do the job if he was personally signing three billion paychecks every week." Says Mark Green, a former aide who made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1980: "People say he isn't interested in women, but he was overheard talking in his sleep. He was saying women's names . . . Joan of Arc, Madame Curie, Roseanne Roseannadanna a character on "Saturday Night Live" ."
Concluding the luncheon, Green says: "Each year for the last 12 years I've read an article about his power waning, and here we are. I'd like to quote from Marshal Foch, the commander of the French army at the Battle of the Marne. In a dispatch he sent back from the front lines he wrote: 'My center has collapsed, my right flank is weakening. Situation excellent. I am attacking.' "
At the "Corporate Power Debate" on Saturday afternoon, a corporate lawyer named Ed Rockefeller (no relation to the Rockefellers) has the whole Regency Room enthralled.
Moderator Phil Donahue, the talk-show host, waves his hands around as if he's telling moving men where he wants the lamps placed. The whole audience is hissing Rockefeller and muttering about his stupidity, but they're fascinated, these people who have had implicit moral suasion on their side for so long, with Rockefeller's chutzpah, when he says things like "American corporate productivity makes it possible for us all to be here today instead of working."
He keeps it up until Mark Green is on his feet with a question, and Donahue right behind him with: "Aren't you worried about fewer and fewer people controlling more wealth?"
Rockefeller says: "On my list of anxieties, that one would be low."
It's a question of style -- what's surprising, possibly even alarming to some people, is that Rockefeller's bemused ease in the face of what had seemed to be conventional wisdoms and virtues, would still exist after all these years. By now, you might have guessed from the vantage point of, say, 1969, his type was supposed to be nothing but a set of dinosaur tracks.
The facts. Everything is the facts.
At the banquet Saturday night, Nader says: "We try to stay very specific and have the principles emanate from the facts, rather than the reverse."
It is pointed out to him later that the facts v. principles debate is one that has animated Western philosophy, in one way or another, in set-tos from Aristotle v. Plato to Franciscans v. Dominicans to Nominalists v. Realists. Does Ralph have a comment on this curiosity?
"The model is the auto safety stuff we did," he says. "You see the accidents . . . "
The banquet, toastmastered by Steve Allen, is a lassitudinous affair whose audience, for all of Nader's fame, contains not one representative or senator. It's a sea of earnest but anonymous faces, except for Allen, and, on the dais, for reasons not readily apparent except for name recognition, Ed Asner and Robert "Rossi" Walden of television's "Lou Grant" show. As Allen points out, most of the speech-making seems to consist of everybody introducing everybody else.
When Ralph finally gets behind the lectern, he delivers yet another ramble, winding up with "The risks keep multiplying. Now I'll turn this over to Steve Allen."
He gets 19 seconds of applause.
Before the weekend, it had been announced that the banquet was a $1,000-a-plate affair. The Nader group claims not to know how many plates were sold, offering only to give a total fund-raising figure at the end of the year. The joke at the tables is: "Try and find someone who paid $1,000."
It may be the only $1,000-a-plate dinner in history prefaced by the following announcement by the host: "There will be no smoking in this room."
Neil McBride, former Nader Raider, has flown up from his legal-aid firm in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to be part of this anniversary.
He says: "When I was flying up here they had some overbooking on the plane. You remember that case when Ralph sued United Airlines about that? Anyway, they say: 'Anybody who wants to fly three hours later gets $150.' So I stood up, and I realized that Ralph Nader was paying my way up here with that $150. But since the deregulation we pushed for, I couldn't fly direct, I had to get to Knoxville on this little commuter plane with about 10 seats in it . . . "
"We have a convention that doesn't fit the mold," says Nader after it's all over. "We didn't want stars, we didn't want a lot of elected officials to come."
On the low-key speeches: "That kind of euphoria, those foot-stomping speeches aren't worth anything. I can give a motivation speech with the best of them. But I don't want them going away euphoric, I want them going away saying 'This CUB Citizens Utility Board thing is fantastic.' "
It's the old dream of the common man, the religion of populism, the triumph of common sense, a fine, gray, puritan civility to things. Is it possible that the medium Ralph Nader has worked in all these years is just as big a message as the message itself?