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Where to From Here? : Ralph Nader, king of the activists, is still going strong. So what does he want now? He says the Democratic and Republican parties are fossils, and he wants consumers to take control of the political agenda.

November 25, 1994|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The November midterm elections might signify a major watershed to most social analysts, but not to Ralph Nader.

"It's probably the most vapid issue list in years," he says of the national campaigns. "It just shows you the voters are not organized to shape the agenda."

Partisan battles don't interest him since he considers both political parties to be fossils. "Just remember they have no membership, they have no grass-roots--it's all electronic combat--raising money, writing checks and putting these absolutely ridiculous 30-second ads on TV."

In conversation, Nader, a towering 6 feet, 4 inches, is soft-spoken, but he's as intense as any politician.

He arrives at a neighborhood bookstore/coffeehouse (a Nader hangout he dubs "democracy center") for an interview loaded with supplemental reading--a Harvard Business Review essay on "Economics and the Oval Office," a flyer for his "Civics for Democracy Textbook" and other Nader-issued materials, all feeding into his overriding goal: to see consumers shaping the political agenda.

"Look at all we own as people, but don't control," he says. "We own the public airways, we own $4 trillion of pension funds, trillions of dollars in savings deposits and mutual insurance assets, all the public lands in America.

"These are enormous wealth, but we don't grow up saying, 'Gee, we own this together.' All we think about is owning a car, or a house."

Sipping cranberry juice and eating an oatmeal cookie (he is a semi-vegetarian), he discusses the gaps in the '94 campaign rhetoric.

Not only had health care disappeared from the national agenda, he notes, the candidates campaigning on the "crime issue" were talking about street crime, ignoring the kind of corporate crime Nader wants to hear critiqued: "The looting of pension funds, the bank debacle, occupational hazards, consumer frauds--these are all taboo campaign issues.

"I think commercialism is more rampant today than any time in our history," he says. "It's attacking our other value systems--our health and our safety."

At 60, Ralph Nader, the founder of modern consumerism, remains a full-time activist. Heading the Center for Study of Responsive Law, a few blocks up 16th Street from the White House, he reads, speaks, writes and travels nonstop.

"He's had an enormous influence historically," says Steve Brobeck, a consumer historian and director of the Consumer Federation of America. "He occupies a special place, both as a symbol and, frankly, a celebrity. No one else in the consumer movement would be thought of as a guest on 'Saturday Night Live,' but he was."

As the crusader who built his David-and-Goliath career taking on major corporations--automobiles, airlines, insurance--Nader is accustomed to being simultaneously loved and maligned, and often accused of grandstanding.

"He doesn't represent consumers--he just represents consumers who want a handout," charged insurance lawyer George Bernstein during a particularly bitter debate several years ago over insurance regulation.

And Nader sometimes finds himself fighting lonely battles. He was the only major witness last summer to oppose the nomination of Stephen G. Breyer to the Supreme Court, saying Breyer's opinions showed a pro-business, anti-consumer bent.

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Nader attributes his passion for activism to his father, a Lebanese immigrant who ran a restaurant in Winstead, Conn., and imbued his son with the importance of civic responsibility in a democracy.

"What did you learn in school today?" his father would ask. "Did you learn how to believe? Did you learn how to think?" Nader was reading the Congressional Record by 14, and his list of heroes ranges from Pericles to Thomas Jefferson and such muckrakers as Upton Sinclair and journalist Ida Tarbell.

He selects an anecdote from his youth. As a Princeton undergraduate, Nader questioned the spraying of the pesticide DDT on campus. "The groundskeepers would spray it on with huge hoses--we'd even wipe it off our faces it was so thick. The next morning there would be dead birds on the sidewalk."

Nader made the connection, but when he approached the editors of the Princeton newspaper with the story, he was brushed off.

"They told me that we had brilliant biology professors and chemists at Princeton and if there was a connection between DDT and the birds' deaths, they would know about it.

"That was one of the best lessons I had at Princeton."

"You know what he's done for us? He has raised our expectations," says Nader protege Harvey Rosenfield, head of California's Proposition 103 Enforcement Project. "People trust that man because they know he's not for sale."

Nader began to earn that reputation 30 years ago, when he was catapulted into the national spotlight as a young Harvard law graduate whose stinging book "Unsafe at Any Speed" challenged the safety of the Chevrolet Corvair and American cars in general.

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