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Nader Returning to Vogue but His Focus Is Now on 'Empowerment'

November 09, 1989|RACHEL POWELL | REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Ralph Nader sits in a car, the mode of transport that catapulted him to fame as a consumer advocate nearly 25 years ago, reading newspapers and grumbling about the wrongs he feels government and big business are heaping on the people.

Almost every news story contains a potential outrage.

"Look at that," he says disgustedly, pointing to an article about elderly people facing higher medical costs. "That's a shame."

Nader is being interviewed in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car en route to a television appearance, just two contacts with the media in a busy day.

It seems that his public influence, which peaked during the activist 1960s and 1970s but waned during the Reagan years, is on the rise again.

Now 55, he is the first to admit that a quarter century seems a long time to keep tilting against the windmills of corporate greed and unresponsive government. But he remains as tenacious as he was in 1965, when his book, "Unsafe At Any Speed," trumpeted the supposed dangers of the Chevrolet Corvair.

Perhaps his only complaint is that it now takes him a bit longer to keep up with a flood of information.

"Newspapers used to be smaller," he says with a sigh as he tries to skim through four newspapers at once. "Now, it takes me 15, 16 hours a week to keep up."

His return to vogue appears to coincide with a revival of interest in public health issues ranging from environmental protection to healthful foods and effective medicines.

Nader says he has shifted his tactics somewhat. Instead of concentrating on single issues like auto safety, he envisions building a nationwide consumer coalition with broad enough support to cover a wide range of issues at once.

"The issues of the '90s are citizen empowerment issues," he says. "That is, giving people the tools to change their substantive ends. Whether it's recycling or environment or consumer, they have to have certain common tools.

"These aren't glamorous, but without them, its like being without free speech."

"Citizen empowerment" was the focus of a recent 20th reunion of a group of Nader proteges, dubbed "Nader's Raiders," who first won their spurs battling the Federal Trade Commission over misleading advertising in 1969.

The Raiders, then mostly eager law students, were drawn into public-interest law and consumer advocacy by Nader. Now, some of them run their own consumer advocacy organizations.

That pleases their mentor, who says the consumer movement must both expand and better define its purposes.

If the old crusader is setting larger goals, however, his flinty style and legendary tenacity have changed little. The headline on a 1989 magazine cover story on him is identical to one published in 1977: "Why Isn't This Man Smiling?"

"Because he's Ralph Nader," says the 1989 story.

Nader still works out of the small, paper-choked Center for Responsive Law in Washington, D.C. He lives nearby in a studio apartment--still apparently as frugal as the image of monklike simplicity he projected in his early days when foes tried to dig up dirt on him and found none.

He declines to discuss such matters but reports have it that he lives on $250 a week and donates the proceeds from speeches and articles to consumer causes.

He has never married.

Aren't the sheer number of wrongs that must be righted just too much for him sometimes? Nader shrugs in response.

He has always targeted his issues well. The Corvair book led to the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Acts, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in September, 1967. Nader claims the federal highway safety standards that the laws created have saved over 200,000 lives in the past 20 years.

Throughout the 1970s, he fought and won passage of laws like the Freedom of Information Act in 1974, and helped bring about creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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