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Ralph Nader reconsidered.

Among the individuals in our age who has most put himself or' the line is Ralph Nader. This piece appeared in 1985.

I remember that day, in a law school dorm, that I happened upon a Playboy interview with this Nader fellow. The magazine dubbed him the "zealous consumer crusader," but it was the crusader rather than the consumer part that lit the fire. Here was a man who lived in a rooming house, owned no car, and kept his material wants to a minimum so he could do the work he really cared about. The pictures on the opening spread showed him in varying degrees of discomfort, as though defying the feel-good aura of the magazine. "Is it so implausible, so distasteful," Nader said, "that a man would believe deeply enough in his work to dedicate his life to it?"

It was Nader's commitment to the old-fashioned virtues of individual hard work, thrift, and civic responsibility that put him right at the geological fault line between profession and practice in American ]ife-between the values a Reagan kitchen cabinet member might profess and the values his company spreads through its advertising. If this could seem a specter in the nation's boardrooms, it was also unsettling in Washington, where commitment is expected to remain within polite limits and where many people see no inconsistency between aspiring for a six-figure salary on the one hand and social values that include a cleaner environment or helping the poor on the other. Nader was saying that there was an individual price to be paid and ordered his own life accordingly.

It was enough to make people squirm a bit, and reporters were not exceptions. Granted, Nader's unconventional manner, and frugalities such as buying 12 pairs of shoes and four dozen socks at the PX before leaving the Army, understandably arouse curiosity. But reporters have tended to dismiss Nader's habits as eccentricities and have been reluctant to come to grips with the values that inform them.

I've always suspected that one of the things that so unhinges Nader's corporate critics is how much closer his own life is to the rags-to-riches American archetype than are their own. Here's a man who came to Washington with nothing and built a movement by dint of his own diligence and persistence and who has maintained complete independence of thought and action. Compare that to a James Roche, the GM chairman who had to apologize to Nader for the company's spying on him. Roche had joined GM at age 21 and stayed with the company all his life. Which one was the Andrew Carnegie, the builder and originator, and which one was the Khrushchev or Chernenko working his way up the bureaucratic ranks? Nader can even sound like the individualists of the bygone era. 'Almost every significant breakthrough," he once told an audience, "has come from the spark, the drive, the initiative of one person. You must believe this."
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Title Annotation:Putting Yourself on the Line
Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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