Note: This was originally written longhand while airborne on May 9, 2008.
I’ve just seen Ralph Nader in person for the third time.
The first time was in college, 1983 or so. He filled an auditorium at Arizona State University. I went with my friend Colleen – part of my effort to make her “more political.”
Nader encouraged the college audience to cultivate the habit of being politically engaged. “For one thing,” he said, “right now you are at the peak of your idealism.”
He was something of a role model – almost a Gandhi type figure. He lived simply and engaged the world with passion, character, and strategic brilliance. He was a hero to my friend Denise, who was inspired by Nader to become a do-gooder lawyer .
The second time I saw Nader was a couple of years later, in 1985. He spoke at Arvada United Methodist Church in Colorado, at the invitation of Reverend Earl Hanna. I don’t recall anything from his speech. (It wasn’t a sermon, per se – not on a Sunday or during religious services.) However, his appearance served to deepen my admiration for Rev. Hanna.
(If I ever run for public office, Rev. Hanna would be my religious liability: My theological mentor who saw me courting atheism in my early 20’s, and did nothing to stop me.)
More than 20 years later, Nader has squandered his legacy in the minds of many. He’s a saint to few, and a pariah to many these days. He’s running for president again, against the stigma that he was the spoiler who, in 2000, handed the election George W Bush. On the issues, I probably agree with Nader as much as any other candidate in this election – including those who have dropped out. Where I disagree is in the logic of his strategy; the part that concludes “…therefore I must run for president.” His career as non-president has been remarkably effective in bringing about positive change in the face of entrenched interests. What – if not ego – would force him to the conclusion again and again that he should be president?
Today, in spite of his candidacy, he still lives simply, avoids extravagances, and still flies standard fare.
I know this because I’m sitting on a Southwest Airlines flight right now, and Nader is sitting eight rows ahead of me, seat 1C. Okay, it’s a bulkhead seat, but its certainly not first class.
As I was boarding, the woman in seat 1A was already bending his ear about some particular injustice. Nader was leaning toward her, actively listening. I could have reached out and touched him – or given him a well-deserved thunk on the head, but I let the opportunity go.