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The real Ralph Nader


Pam Fleischaker March 29th, 2007

In the Sixties, I inherited my dad's Chevrolet Corvair and drove it all over Austin, Texas. My younger sister then drove it till it died somewhere between Waco, Texas, and Dallas. We had fun with that...

In the Sixties, I inherited my dad's Chevrolet Corvair and drove it all over Austin, Texas. My younger sister then drove it till it died somewhere between Waco, Texas, and Dallas. We had fun with that little car until we read in Ralph Nader's groundbreaking book that it was "Unsafe at Any Speed."
 
The book of that title, published in 1965, set the American auto industry on its ear by claiming that General Motors' Corvair had multiple, unsafe design flaws. It also asserted that the industry's road safety credo " the three E's of engineering, enforcement and education " was a distraction from the problems of vehicle safety and reflected the industry's political interference in addressing safety features.
 
GM went after Nader as if he were a terrorist in the making, hiring private detectives to tap his phones and women to try to trap him in manufactured sex scandals. Nothing worked, and Nader, then a little-known public interest lawyer, successfully sued GM for invasion of privacy. Studies came out defending and debunking the Corvair criticism, but Nader won the debate in the court of public opinion.
 
Hearings on auto safety began in the Congress, the Corvair's image was irreparably damaged and Nader's profession as a dogged and relentless consumer advocate was launched.
 
This monkish man's extraordinary career, his broad-spanning influence and his ascetic life are all documented in the film "An Unreasonable Man," showing 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at the downtown Oklahoma City Museum of Art's Noble Theater.
 
Like many in the Sixties and Seventies who were taught to dissent, urged to stand up for the little guy and trained to advocate in the public interest, Nader was my hero.
 
I applauded his tenacity, intelligence and focus as teams of thousands of young, fresh-faced Nader's Raiders formed research and public advocacy groups across America.
 
But many of Nader's former allies and detractors believe he was overtaken by megalomania when he ran for president in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and that his recent work to promote a multiparty political system in America is self-serving. Are his political forays enactments of his belief that America's two-party system is broken, each nothing more than an extension of corporate America? Or is it all about Nader's own ambition?
 
Was he the spoiler whose votes denied Al Gore the presidency in 2004 and brought George W. Bush to power? What motivates this man who has lots of money but doesn't own a car and apparently has no personal life?
 
Will Nader's legacy be his great contribution to the protection of humankind from its own excesses, or will his ventures into electoral politics undo it all?
 
"He's like a Shakespearean character," said Brian Hearn, film curator at the art museum.
 
"On and on he goes, refusing to change while the times change around him."
 
The film does a fine job examining these questions, using vintage footage, interviews with colleagues past and present, and great humor. At the showings, Nader's 2000 presidential campaign manager, Theresa Amato, and former national field director, Todd Main, will be on hand to talk about the man and answer questions.
 
The movie opens with a line from George Bernard Shaw's play "Man and Superman" and offers one perspective on this phenomenal figure in American life:
 
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
 
Fleischaker, former Oklahoma Gazette associate editor, authored "American Woman."
 
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