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The Third Man Theme

Presidential candidate Ralph Nader expounds on Elvis, The Commercial Appeal, the FedExForum, Bill Frist, and, oh yes, the 2004 election.



photo by Jackson Baker

Though it seems clear that Democrat John Kerry wishes he would go away, independent candidate Ralph Nader is once again, as he was four years ago, a factor in the presidential race. Nader was in Memphis last week, addressing students and faculty members at Rhodes College, where the legendary consumer advocate and reformer, author of Unsafe at Any Speed and many other influential publications, dilated on his views that big corporations control both major political parties. He defended his third-man candidacy as a means of bringing government back to the people and talked up issues ranging from electoral reform to health-care to environmentalism to a higher minimum wage.

The oh-so-serious Nader also evidenced a playful streak at Rhodes, as when he lamented the apostasy this year of author/filmmaker Michael Moore, a former supporter, by playing on a Moore book title. "Hey dude, where's my buddy?" Nader asked rhetorically. And he seemed captivated by the name of our city's daily newspaper. "The Commercial Appeal: That's the most accurate name for a newspaper I've ever seen! I have to congratulate the founder."

Nader later sat down for an exclusive interview with the Flyer. What follows is an abridgment of that extensive conversation -- leaving out such nuggets as his disparagement of erstwhile Democratic insurgent Howard Dean ("I don't give Dean's rhetoric that much credence. Right now, for example, he is a fierce loyalist for Kerry and against my candidacy") and of the late President Ronald Reagan ("He demonstrated the power of words over deeds. He liked individuals, but his policies disliked humanity"). Nader ducked a question about who his vice-presidential running mate might be, but two days later he would designate for that role one Peter Camejo, a onetime Green Party presidential candidate. The choice underlined the apparent determination by Nader, the Greens' 2002 presidential nominee, to gain the party's endorsement at this weekend's national Green Party convention in Milwaukee.

FLYER: Any number of political observers note that Democrats are fiercely resisting your candidacy, while Republicans are not. Why doesn't this undermine your premise that you will take votes equally from both parties?

NADER: Because the shift has just begun. Most liberals have abandoned us -- we can attest to that -- and what's happening now is the members of the party out of power, in this case the Democrats, come back to the fold in the next cycle. That's historically what's happened. But the independents who would have voted for Bush, or the conservatives who voted for Bush, a significant number are furious with him, over the Patriot Act, over the huge deficit, over their taxes going to corporate subsidies, over what they call the sovereignty-shrinking impact of the WTO and NAFTA. They don't like Bush beating up on Taiwan and cuddling with Communist China. It's churning out there. It's hard to say how many of these people are revolting, but the fact that there is a revolt is pretty well documented, and so I think they're either going to stay home, or they're going to vote for a libertarian, or they're going to vote for my independent candidacy.

But doesn't the absence of Republican protests mean they don't see you as a threat?

Right now, they don't. You see, they're looking at the polls right now, but in the last two weeks, three major polls show that I'm either taking more from Bush than Kerry, or it's a wash. That's a CNN poll, a Zogby poll, and I think an ABC poll. So the shift -- you know, it's five months until the election.

Gore supporters say you cost them Florida and New Hampshire. Guilty or not guilty?

Well, first of all, none of us are guilty, if we have equal rights to run for election. We're all trying to get votes from one another, so why do they give a second-class citizenship to a third party? Second, and this is something the press constantly makes a mistake on: The exit polls in New Hampshire showed that I took more Republican votes than Democrat votes. And that's not surprising, because, two-and-a-half months ago, there's a poll from New Hampshire which had me at 8 percent. That was made up of 4 percent of Democrats' votes, 9 percent of Republicans', and 11 percent of independents'. So they're completely wrong, even on their assumptions in New Hampshire.

In Florida, look at the bias. A quarter of a million Democrats in Florida voted for Bush. About 25,000 net Democrats voted for me. So who should they be worried about? Why are they always blaming the Green Party? Because they want it all for themselves. They don't want any competition. They don't want competition to grow in future years.

"The Commercial Appeal: That's the most accurate name for a newspaper I've ever seen.! I have to congratulate the founder."

How are you doing in the polls?

We're coming in at 5, 6, and 7 percent. The last one came out with 7. We're doing better than in 2000. My theory is, we're doing better than 2000 even though we're being abandoned by the liberal Democrats who supported us in 2000. So who's making up the difference and more? More and more, we're getting this anecdotal evidence, plus there are a couple of polls that are saying that a lot of people who voted for Bush in 2000 are furious with him.

First of all, I want to defeat Bush. That's one of the principal reasons I'm running. And I think a two-front approach is better, because, look, I can raise issues and take apart the Bush administration in ways Kerry would never do. Because the Democrats would be too cautious, too indentured to the same commercial interests, or too unimaginative. And that'll become clear when you compare Web sites, for instance.

Like: Is Bush being hammered by Kerry on being soft on corporate crime? Is he being hammered on the war in Iraq and the need to withdraw? Is he being hammered for what he's doing to ignore a living wage in this country? Is he being hammered that Bush is anti-union and supports union-busting companies? And is he being hammered that WTO and NAFTA are just not working; they're resulting in the export of huge industries and jobs from the U.S.?

The Democrats have been losing for the last 10 years to the worst of the Republican Party. Why should we trust that they're going to win this time, when they haven't changed any of their game plan, and they're still dialing for the same dollars? Now, if Bush self-destructs, it doesn't matter. But assuming he doesn't self-destruct, I don't trust the Democrats to be able to beat him on their own.

What did you think of Kerry's efforts to recruit John McCain as his running mate?

It's easy to say it would have been a winning ticket. But, you know, sometimes the vice presidents fade. And then it's all about the presidential candidate. And then to see McCain in his subdued situation would lead to the press probing differences about pro-life, pro-choice -- you did this, you did that. So for weeks, the Kerry-McCain ticket would have been pursued by "Well, you voted this way, Kerry voted that way. Why are you buckling under?" And McCain doesn't have that kind of temperament to be a me-too person. And that's why he's smart to have said no. The better choice would be John Edwards. That's the majority preference by the Democrats in recent polls. He's been vetted. He has a very good five-minute speech on the "two Americas," and he can help them in the South. I think the main problem with Kerry is, "Will John Edwards outshine him?" Because Kerry isn't as good a speaker.

Edwards was impressive rhetorically. His Senate career was unimpressive. Even on his principal issue of civil justice, he never took any leadership. Which is sad. I think he made a mistake running this time. It was a little too early, unless he becomes vice president.

Did any of the Democratic candidates really impress you?

Well, I think [Rep. Dennis] Kucinich has a 30-year track record. It's not rhetoric. And I worked with him when he was mayor of Cleveland, taking on the corporate barons, and he's got a very good platform, and it's not rhetoric.

Would you have run if he were the nominee?

Probably not. But I would have waited to see if he would have moderated or changed in his positions. You know, once you get up there, they start coming in on you.

Do you agree with Eric Alterman, whose book, What Liberal Media?, argues that the media either parrot the conservative line or don't resist it?

Yes. First of all, the publishers of the newspapers are overwhelmingly Republican, as are the owners of TV stations. The columnists are overwhelmingly dominated by conservatives -- George Will, etc. The Sunday talk shows are overwhelmingly dominated by conservatives. What they call liberal is Morton Kondracke. And extreme right-wingers have radio programs. There are no extreme left-wingers who have radio programs.

And they say, "Well, it's because the audience likes it." Nonsense. Conservative talk-show hosts attack government, which doesn't advertise. Liberal talk-show hosts tweak corporations, who do advertise. That's the big difference in radio. You go after, as a radio talk-show host, car dealers in a certain metropolitan area, and they've been known to pull their ads off. That's a lot of money. So once you go into consumer fraud, you go into corporate crime, you go into living wage, you're going to alienate a lot of the advertisers. The right-wing broadcasters say, "Well, we're just better at it. We've got a sense of humor. We're market-driven." Well, sure! You ever see Limbaugh go after corporations?

What about the liberal "antidote," Air America?

It's already collapsing. It first started out with grants, and the grantors apparently didn't fulfill all their grants. They didn't have enough money for a transition period. And, second, they're trying to mimic the style of the conservatives. Over-talking, shouting, being outrageous. That's not going to make it. And, seriously, the radio talk-show audience has already been screened out. It's overwhelmingly conservative. And so they have to get new listeners. It's hard.

You're best known for your anticorporate positions. What are some of your positions on the so-called social issues?

I'm against capital punishment. First of all, it doesn't deter [crime]. Second, it discriminates against the poor. Third, it kills innocent people. Fourth, a life sentence is cheaper, actually, than prosecuting a capital case. On abortion, I'm pro-choice. I don't think the government should tell a woman either to have children or not to have children. On gay rights, full equality. Marriage is what's complicated, because the state laws use the word "marriage" as the predicate for certain joint rights. Now, if they were revised and just used the word "marriage" for a man and a woman and used the words "civil union" for gays and lesbians, the linguistic barrier would disappear. More people would be for civil union than for gay marriage. And the important thing is not the word "marriage." The important thing is equal rights. So I think the Republicans are readying a major visibility for that issue to swing the five open Senate seats in the South.

Some "moral-majority" Republican voters will tell you privately that they might vote Democratic if it weren't for the social issues. Your thoughts?

That's exactly my point. The moment the Democrats took the economic issues off the table, starting about 20 or 25 years ago, when they started dialing for dollars, they left a vacuum. And the Republicans moved in with these social issues. If the Democrats used a living wage, serious health-care, cracking down on drug-price gouging, the need to pour money into public works ... Who's against public works? If they stood up for labor, in terms of union rights, and so on, they would fill this vacuum. A few months ago, Senator Imhof of Oklahoma was asked, "Why do Republicans keep wining?" He said, "It's simple: God, gays, and guns."

So the Democrats did it to themselves.

Where will you be percentage-wise on November 2nd?

Clairvoyant I'm not. We're trying for a three-way race, which means we've got to break 10 percent and break into 14, 15. And then the media becomes more daily [in coverage]. The important thing is daily media.

Do you have a ghost of a chance?

Yes. Oh, yeah. If I get on the debates, and the polls show 14 or 15 percent, and [I get] daily media on the debates, you've got a three-way race.

Is there a realistic chance of getting into the debates?

On the old debate commission, probably not, because they control the deck. But the new debate commission may be making connections with one or two networks, radio talk-show syndicates, whatever. There's a possibility.

Does it bother you when Democrats call you a spoiler?

The more I hear that, the more I know the Democrats are decadent and the more need there is to go after them and make them shape up or ship out, because they have eight million voters deserting them every four years, 35 percent of labor-union members deserting them. And what are they worried about? The fraction of that that is going to the Green Party.

They're very decadent. They don't change their game plan. They lose and lose at the local, state, and national level. California has a Republican governor, New York has a Republican governor. Connecticut, Massachusetts. There are city mayors that are Republican. They've lost the House and the Senate. They've lost more state legislatures. They lost an election they won in 2000 -- the presidential outcome. [laughs] So the more they scapegoat and lie, the more decadent they are, the more necessary it is to form a third political force to move in on them.

Just now, there's a lot of skepticism about President Bush's reasons for going into Iraq. What do you think they were?

The real reasons were, number one, oil. That's the third-biggest oil pool in the world. I mean, can you imagine [Bush's] oil buddies? They can spend 20 years exploring around the world and they wouldn't come close to those reserves. And oil always is mixed in not just with economic greed but with geopolitical power in that whole region.

The second reason is personal. He's a messianic militarist. Somehow, deep in his psyche, he persuaded himself that he was going to be a liberator, that he was an instrument of providence, that he was following God's will. You wonder now why some of the Islamic peoples of the world think that this is a religious war or a crusade?

And, third, it politically suited him, because he saw that the more he focused on Iraq and connected it implicitly with 9/11 and the safety of the American people and terrorism, the more he went up in the polls, the more he chilled the Democratic Party, the more he stifled dissent, the more he distracted attention from the necessities here at home. It's a big plus for him to be able to distract attention from all these areas where he's weak and unpopular. And he made his corporate buddies happy with all these contracts. Halliburton, and so on.

So, if you're sitting in the Oval Office and you've got a line through the page and you say, Here are the plusses and here are the minuses [of war], they're all plusses, from his point of view. They're not in the American people's interest, but from his selfish, political, corporate, ideological, messianic, distracting point of view, it works. But the resistance in Iraq is changing this entire equation. He plunged the nation into an unconstitutional war based on a platform of bogus fabrications, deceptions, lies. And the vice president is a chronic prevaricator. It's all coming out now.

All this is beginning to sour. [People are] getting tired. Every time they see the president, it's Iraq, it's terrorism. It's "stay the course." When is he ever going to talk about all these other issues? Occupational health? Living wage? Universal health-care? Rebuilding America? It's beginning to wear thin. Let's put it this way: He peaked too early. And with increasing resistance and increasing casualties and the fact that now Iraq is a magnet for terrorism ... The fact is that, by fighting terrorism in the wrong way, he's producing more terrorists. He's turning the country against him.

So what do we do? We've got two futures for the people of Iraq. One is permanent military and corporate occupation with a puppet regime. The other is, by the end of the year, we're out of there. We're out of their oil industry, and we have installed a democratically elected regime with proper recognition of autonomy for the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. We have to stay in a phased withdrawal until the end of the year, and we phase into international peacekeeping troops. There'll be less need for them, because there won't be anything worth fighting over. What are the insurgents going to be fighting over? The U.S. announced they're out. Oh, they'll have skirmishes here and there, but if there's any chance of cooler heads prevailing among mainstream Iraqis, it's going to occur without U.S. occupation more than with it.

What about the seemingly intractable dispute between Israelis and Palestinians?

We've got huge leverage. We've supplied billions of dollars of military and economic aid to Israel. We've got a choice: If we want peace, we side with the broad and deep Israeli peace moment that draws on many influential currents -- political, military, local politics in the Israeli society. What's the accord? The two-state solution. Bush has already recognized there should be an independent Palestinian state. But it's just rhetoric. He's basically supporting Sharon all the way.

So the U.S. government has got to stand up, think for itself, stop being a puppet to the puppeteer from Tel Aviv. And basically say: This conflict is resolvable. You can live in peace together. You can have a viable Palestinian state in control of air, water, boundaries, with East Jerusalem the capital. [You offer] some compensation for lost, seized properties and dismantling the colonies. You cannot have Israeli-owned highways carving up this little West Bank with Israeli colonies. So that's the general outline of the proposal. And it's really interesting that 1,300 Israeli military combat personnel have signed a pledge that they will not fight in the West Bank or Gaza, beyond the 1967 borders. And in that pledge they said that the colonies have, in effect, to be evacuated. n


After our interview, Nader had a scheduled stop in Little Rock. But, first, he did what so many visitors to Memphis before him have done. He toured Graceland! He described his reaction to this and other local subjects via cell phone from his car.

ELVIS: Graceland was very impressive. They certainly have the artifacts there. Elvis was very generous. He gave to charities and he never deducted because he wanted it all to be his charity. And all the gold and platinum records. And his downstairs living quarters. You know, most shrines are not as full of people!

I liked his music, like almost everyone else. He was a standard for bringing joy to millions of Americans. I want to set the standard for bringing justice to millions of Americans. He helped a lot of people individually, caring for children. You asked him for help, and he would give. Obviously, he was a man of the people. Glory to the people. Justice to the people. It makes a nice couplet for the quality of living.

SEN. BILL FRIST: I'm very much against his cruel support of legislation that would tie the hands of state judges and juries in serious medical malpractice cases. It would limit in a variety of ways how much a brain-damaged child or a quadriplegic teenager or an adult who was [victimized] by a bad doctor -- how much they could get for their pain and suffering. So it's really quite amazing how relentless he's been in trying to allow bad doctors to escape their full responsibility in a court of law.

THE FEDEXFORUM: That has soaked up a quarter of a billion dollars, while Memphis schools, clinics, the drinking water system, public transit, and many other public works deteriorate for lack of repair money. It's going on in ballparks all over the country. It's one of the most egregious forms of corporate welfare: taxpayer giveaways to billion-dollar professional sports franchises while cities cannot meet the legitimate needs of its people -- including amateur recreation facilities for youngsters and adults. The taxpayers are forced to turn into spectators rather than participants. It was not put to a referendum when it should have been. It's like that in city after city -- although there's growing resistance to it, and it's not going to be that easy in the future for sports teams to freeload on the taxpayers' backs.

As president I'd put all public contracts online: city, county, state, and federal government. The Office of Management and Budget has agreed with us on principle. I'm committed. When it comes to sports appeals, the proposal should be put online, so the people can have an input and examine it before the vote. There should be a forum with plenty of time for taxpayers to examine the issue.

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