Henry James nailed Ralph Nader in his 1886 novel, "The Bostonians." James called the character Miss Birdseye.

"She always dressed in the same way: she wore a loose black jacket, with deep pockets, which were stuffed with papers. . . .She belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatever. (Yet she) knew less about her fellow- creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements. . . . No one had an idea how she lived; whenever money was given her she gave it away. . . . There was a legend that an Hungarian had once possessed himself of her affections, (but) it was open to grave doubt that she could have entertained a sentiment so personal. She was in love . . . only with causes. . . ."

Nader, my former employer, is actually quite warm and funny in person. Nevertheless, his is the classic zealot's world view, paranoid and humorless, and his vision of the ideal society -- regulations for all contingencies of life, warning labels on every French fry, and a citizenry on hair-trigger alert for violations of its personal space -- is not one many others would care to share with him.

But reasonable people don't move the world. On the 20th anniversary of "Unsafe at Any Speed," his tract against dangerous automobiles, no living American is responsible for more concrete improvements in the society we actually do inhabit than Ralph Nader.

Tens of thousands of Americans would be dead today, possibly including you, if Nader hadn't singlehandedly invented the issue of auto safety. His long campaign for mandatory air bags may bore most people and enrage a few. But would even these people prefer pre-Nader cars without seat belts, padded dashboards, collapsible steering wheels and shatter-resistant glass? On matters ranging from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the Freedom of Information Act (just two of his monuments), Nader stands accused -- sometimes justly -- of going "too far." But without the people who go too far, we wouldn't go far enough.

I wonder how many conservative businessmen, even, would care to return to the days when anyone could light up a cigarette next to you on a long airplane flight, and when an airline could overbook and bump you with no explanation or compensation. No-smoking sections and airline bumping rules -- minor bits of Naderism -- seemed like quixotic obsessions when first proposed. Now they are taken for granted.

Like James's Miss Birdseye, Nader knows little of ordinary human appetites. This gives him his fanatic's strength of purpose. But it also sometimes leads him astray. The pleasure of a hot dog means noth the nitrites. If everyone lived like Ralph Nader, we could dispense with nuclear power and not worry about replacing the energy. In this world of sinners, though, not everyone wants to live on raw vegetables and set the thermostat at 60. Intelligent public policy requires trade-offs that the fanatic is ill- equipped and undisposed to make.

Nader's other great weakness as a reformer is that he's a prisoner of the legal mind set. He believes in the infinite power of lawyers to achieve both bad and good. "The ultimate goal of this movement," says a recent Nader press release, "is to give all citizens more rights and remedies for resolving their grievances and for achieving a better society." But it's open to doubt, to say the least, whether the better society is one where all grievances are thought of as a matter of legal rights and remedies, to be enforced by lawyers and judges.

These days Ralph Nader is something less than a colossus bestriding American society but still something more than another colorful Washington character. He still wears those awful suits and lives in that same studio apartment. Some cynics think the asceticism is an act. And it's true that his story about wearing shoes bought at the Army PX in 1959 is wearing as thin as those shoes must be. But if a good marketing sense were a bar to canonization, there would be few saints.

His narrow lapels, pointy shoes and skinny ties are now the height of fashion, offering some hope that the day will come when his clothes will be out again and his politics will be back.

For 20 years Washington has been wondering: Where's the catch? Will he sell out for money, or will he run for office? Those are the normal options. But Ralph Nader is not a normal person. Operating on the mental fringe where self-abnegation blurs into self-obsession, Ralph is living proof that there isn't much difference between a fanatic and a saint. I'll bet you Mother Teresa is impossible to deal with too.