An encounter with Ralph Nader

I’ve interviewed a lot of semi-big shots in my day, but no one who has played the role in American history that Ralph Nader has. A new documentary on Nader’s life opens Friday (at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz) and when I heard old Ralph was amenable to interviews, I jumped at the chance.

We talked for close to half an hour about the film and his new book called “The Seventeen Traditions,” a kind of moral primer on old-fashioned American values. He didn’t stray too much from his talking points, but after the “formal” interview, we shot the breeze for a few minutes more. I was surprised when he began asking about my life — “Where did you go to school?” “How long have you been at the paper?” etc. He also warmly talked about Santa Cruz, where he was received well during the 2000 election season and pulled more than 10 percent of the presidential vote (third highest among California counties).

Nader so mystifies people because he’s given himself entirely over to his work. It’s important work to be sure, but Americans value their leisure and can’t understand a person who has no family or discernible “me” time, however much they admire him.

“An Unreasonable Man” spends almost half of the film addressing Nader’s 2000 campaign for president that many on the left claim cost Al Gore the election. Obviously, Nader cannot escape all the blame, but why the intense focus on him? Do people hound, say, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy or the now retired Sandra Day O’Connor for casting the crucial swing votes in Bush v. Gore? How about Bob Schrum, the Democratic campaign manager who has lost one campaign after another who straitjacketed Gore into a boring candidate? Or Gore for listening to him? Is Nader getting picked on?

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