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Joan Claybrook.

If Ralph Nader is the father of the modern public interest movement, Joan Claybrook is the movement's mother. As president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, Claybrook oversees research, litigation, and lobbying to promote not only consumer protection and product safety but also campaign finance reform, redress of corporate abuses, and citizens' rights.

Claybrook grew up in the 1940s in Baltimore. Her father, a lawyer and city council member, was a strong advocate for public housing, legal services for the poor, and racial integration. Claybrook's first political experience was walking around Baltimore wearing a sandwich board for her dad's campaign. Later, she remembers sitting in his council meetings and watching one of his colleagues sleep through the proceedings. He would set an alarm clock to wake himself up when it was time to go home. "I learned about the good and the bad of the legislative process very early on," she says.

Claybrook graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore in 1959 and became one of a handful of women in her generation to rise to a high-level position in the federal government. After college she worked at the Social Security Administration, preparing reports for President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. In 1965, she was chosen as an American Political Science Association Congressional fellow and went to work on Capitol Hill, where she helped draft the first major piece of auto safety legislation to pass Congress.

Shortly after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Claybrook met "this extremely shy young man," Ralph Nader, who had just written Unsafe at Any Speed, the book that prompted a massive change in consumer protection laws, started the consumer-advocacy movement, and propelled General Motors to send spies after Nader in a desperate effort to discredit him. Claybrook became close friends with Nader, sharing information with him as she worked for Representative James MacKay, Democrat of Georgia, and Senator Walter Mondale, Democrat of Minnesota, to help draft the auto safety law. The new law created the National Traffic Safety Bureau, and Claybrook went to work for that agency in 1966. Somehow, she also found time to attend Georgetown Law School at night. In 1970, she went to work for Nader. She created Public Citizen's lobbying arm, Congress Watch, in 1973, to push for legislation on health, safety, and consumer protection. She left Public Citizen temporarily, from 1977 to 1981, to become the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter.

Claybrook co-authored two books, Retreat From Safety: Reagan's Attack on America's Health (Pantheon, 1984) and Freedom From Harm: The Civilizing Influence of Health, Safety, and Environmental Regulations (Public Citizen, 1986). She is also a famously good cook, hosting large dinners for friends and relatives in her home near the National Cathedral in Washington. She has four nephews, whom she has taken on trips all over the world.

I spoke with Claybrook in the nineteenth-century, red brick building in Dupont Circle that Public Citizen owns. We sat in the conference room under a crystal chandelier, sipping coffee and talking about Ralph Nader, the rise of the public interest movement, and Claybrook's continuing war on corporate power, which, she says, "is the greatest threat to our democracy."

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a consumer advocate?

Joan Claybrook: I didn't think I was going to be a consumer advocate until after I met Ralph Nader. I was working for a freshman member of Congress, Jim MacKay of Atlanta, Georgia, whose seat had been created when the one-man-one-vote Supreme Court decision came down in 1962.

He had just read Ralph Nader's book, and he lived in the suburbs, where a lot of kids were killed in car crashes. So he asked me to call Ralph and get him to come down and see us. So I did. And this extremely shy young man walked in. Ralph has a shyness to him anyway, but he was really shy then. Mr. MacKay, who was very talkative and jovial, talked for about forty-five minutes and then looked at his watch and said, "Oh, my goodness! I've got to go to a meeting." So he said, "Well, tell me what you think." Ralph talked for about three minutes, and then he had to leave. I said we'd call him again. And we did, because we wanted to introduce a bill on auto safety.

Q: What happened with the bill?

Claybrook: It was a fascinating, fascinating experience. The auto industry hired an investigator to follow Ralph because they were furious about what he'd done. They looked for dirt. And Ralph discovered that they were doing this, and went to his Senator, Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut, and they blew the whistle on General Motors. They made the president of G.M. come down and apologize in a public hearing attended by 1,000 people. It was in the largest room in the Capitol, the caucus room in the Senate. It was jammed.

So I saw the development of an idea, and then the development of legislation. I learned how to draft the legislation and how to take it through the legislative process from hearings to the law. That's what I've done the rest of my life. I got enthralled by that process.

Q: I hear you've been called the Dragon Lady. What do you think of that?

Claybrook: That name is very old. That name was given to me by the auto industry back in 1966. They said that I appeared to be very reasonable and charming, but in fact I was cutting their heart out behind the scenes.

Q: Did you think it was sexist?

Claybrook: Oh, it was. But on the other hand, when your opponents give you names it's often because they're afraid of you. They think you've done a good job. So I thought it was kind of a compliment, actually. The name came out of the World War II era--the Japanese voices that were used to seduce the soldiers into thinking that the Japanese position was correct. So that's why I was the Dragon Lady.

Q: You were the siren of consumer protection?

Claybrook: [Laughs.] That's right. I think having someone call me the Dragon Lady didn't faze me at all because my family had prepared me, in a way. My father was very involved in politics. On my mother's side--her ancestor had signed the Declaration of Independence.

Q: She was a Daughter of the American Revolution?

Claybrook: Yeah, she was a D.A.R. But she shunned all that stuff. She always talked about how one of her ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence, therefore she could be an advocate of anything she wanted to be, and she was going to be outspoken about things. And so that's sort of the tradition in which I grew up.

Q: Did your parents admire your rabble-rousing?

Claybrook: Well, when I was eleven years old, my father took me to picket the Lyric Theater, which is the opera house and theater in Baltimore, because Marian Anderson was not allowed to sing there, since she was black.

Q: And it was the D.A.R. that kept her out, right?

Claybrook: That's right. And so I had grown up with the whole concept of citizen action--though we didn't call it that then--as being very potent and important in a democratic society. It was very much a part of my life.

When I was in college, I wrote my thesis on a guy named John Wilkes. I was asked by my professor to choose an interesting person to write about. John Wilkes was a rabble-rouser in eighteenth-century England under George III. I don't know what led me to him, but I was fascinated with his independent, no-holds-barred, do-whatever-you-want-to-do personality. He was furious because there was garbage in the Thames, and poor people didn't get fed, and so on, and so he had to figure out a way of communicating it. He got the idea of putting these great big placards all over the buildings in London. That was his advocacy. It drove George III crazy because he couldn't go anyplace without seeing them everywhere. And so he banished Wilkes from England.

In 1967 or '68, when I was thinking about going to law school, I wrote to my former professor and I said, "The most interesting thing has happened to me. I've met John Wilkes all over again, and his name is Ralph Nader. He has no resources, he just has an idea, and he lobbies everybody until the idea takes hold. It's a fascinating thing." And so there was some place in the back of my head where that idea of being an advocate existed.

Q: So you went to work for Ralph.

Claybrook: Yes, in 1970 I first worked for the Public Interest Research Group, which he was just forming. He was able to form that because he had sued General Motors for invasion of privacy, and he had settled with them for a very large amount of money, and that was what funded the U.S.-PIRG. All of these different pieces, in his mind, were coming together. He was formulating them and acting on them.

We didn't know from one moment to the next what new idea would pop up and how we'd go about trying to accomplish it. But we felt if we wanted to do it badly enough, we could. And he was open to that and encouraged it. It was really the most exhilarating experience.

Q: I was interested in your point in Freedom From Harm that there's a long history of this sort of advocacy for consumer protection. And yet a lot of people identify with big business and oppose meddling government intervention. You criticized the Reagan Administration for this ideology. Where are things now?

Claybrook: The period of 1966 to 1976 was in many ways the golden era of consumer protection and environmental protection, too. More laws were passed--whether it was the auto safety law or poison protection or the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or the Clean Water Act, or the Toxic Chemical Control Act--and big businesses decided they had to respond. One of their themes which has never varied is attacking big government. It really works. Because people in their daily lives run into bureaucratic problems in one place or another, whether it's their veteran's program or the Social Security program, or local government. They have a sympathy against bureaucracy. So they picked a theme that worked and still works.

I would say the comeback of the corporations with their money has been extraordinary. Ronald Reagan and the Gingrich House of Representatives gave huge boosts to these incredibly negative forces in our society. And corporations have taken full advantage of that. Their money is everyplace. There have to be some limits placed on that for a democratic society to survive.

Q: Do you think the movie A Civil Action will help change the public perception that big business is good and the citizens and trial lawyers who file liability suits are bad?

Claybrook: Yes, I think it might. People don't realize the disparity between the trial lawyers and the teams of lawyers hired by the corporations. Ken Starr, for example, represents General Motors in the courts of appeal on certain cases. So they hire the best lawyers they can find, who they think have the most influence in the courts, to argue their cases. When you're an individual trial lawyer, you may be going up against Ken Start, and often it's one trial lawyer, or maybe a trial lawyer and a paralegal, up against seven lawyers on the other side. So it's not as though they don't already have a huge advantage. The place where they lose these cases is on the facts.

Q: The book A Civil Action really made you feel the injustice to the families that were poisoned by the W.R. Grace Company and Beatrice, and how much the law allowed the companies to slip out of their responsibility.

Claybrook: Yes, well, I was very involved in that, actually. I'm on the board of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, and Jan Schlichtmann, who was the lawyer who brought the case, was a member of Trial Lawyers, so I knew him quite well. He came to Trial Lawyers and asked if they would help with the case, so I saw it in its rawest form, and I saw him as he was about to go bankrupt.

Q: Did you think the book was an accurate portrayal of him and of the case?

Claybrook: Yes, I did.

Q: The Wall Street Journal editorial page often accuses you of being in the pocket of the trial lawyers. What's your budget and how much do they give you?

Claybrook: Ah, yes. Well, our budget is about $10 million a year. We get about 2 percent of that from individual contributions from individual trial lawyers. We take no money from any trade association, either business or government. And so the Trial Lawyers Association does not give us money. The Wall Street Journal had been giving us a hard time, and I wrote them a very long letter about this three years ago. I think we've laid that charge to rest.

Q: What about the fundamental conflict between libertarian values and what people view as a paternalistic government? Can't the same argument be made about helmet laws and seatbelt laws that's made about decriminalizing drugs--that the government ought to get out of our lives?

Claybrook: I think it's fact-based. That is, if the facts show that government involvement saves lives or reduces injury, then I think it's justified. Take the Supreme Court decision on motorcycle helmets. The libertarian perspective was presented, and the Supreme Court essentially said that there was a substantial government interest in the public welfare. If people didn't have brain injuries, they didn't have to go on the public dole, and they didn't have to get unemployment compensation and hospital benefits and so on.

Now I don't look at it purely economically, by any means. I think that there's a much larger interest, actually, which is whether or not people can pursue happiness, to use words in some of our most famous documents. And it's hard to pursue happiness when you're brain-damaged. And the question is, is there a way of avoiding that that's simple and easy? I think when you look at the facts, helmets work. They save lives, they save family trauma, and they save costs. Why not use them?

Q: What's the difference between that argument and the argument for prohibition of alcohol?

Claybrook: It's a matter of how far you go. Prohibition didn't work. We did try it. It was probably worth the try. So then you say, well, this one didn't work, we'll go on to something else. You set an alcohol limit, so that people won't be drunk on the highway. We don't generally pass legislation that goes to great extremes. And regulators don't do extremist things.

Q: What about drugs? Isn't it extreme to fill up the prisons with nonviolent drug offenders? Would you support decriminalization?

Claybrook: I have to say that Public Citizen has not taken a position on that. But I do think that the reason the prisons have filled up is there's a different drug on the marketplace that poor people have more access to--crack. And there are mandatory sentencing guidelines, which we have taken a position against. The judges have no discretion. I believe that both for alcohol and for drugs, if our society allows those products to be sold which we know to be extremely harmful to people, that there ought to be rehabilitation facilities all over the nation that would be funded with the alcohol tax, or a drug tax, so people who do become addicted have a way to come back into society, without having to go to jail.

Q: What about litigiousness in general? In my hometown there was an effort to sweep away playground equipment that might harm kids, including stuff that seemed pretty benign, because there was a conceivable prospect of a lawsuit. Do you think it's true that fear of liability is making our lives worse?

Claybrook: Basically, no. I don't think it's true. The fact is, playgrounds were often made with a cement base. So if a kid fell off a jungle gym or a swing, they were going to get brain-damaged. So there were some lawsuits that were brought to force a change in the design of playgrounds. And that is a very positive result.

Companies have been very, very successful on two themes. One is that the individual ought to be responsible. The second theme is that big corporations act responsibly, they're upstanding citizens, and if people get into trouble with their products, it's because they were careless. And if you try to put controls on that product, then they're going to go out of business and then we're not going to have a good economy and jobs. And all those propositions are false, in my view.

Most regulation on the books comes after years of hearings, deaths, injuries, harm, begging and pleading to get people in power to do the right thing.

In the case of liability suits, a company that manufactures a faulty product finally gets sued, and they get into a neutral forum, the courts, where they have to behave and answer the judge, and the decisions are made by a jury of citizens who luckily, unlike legislators, don't get lobbied and don't get campaign money. It's really the finest role of the citizen to be a juror. And juries make decisions that just infuriate the companies. The reason companies want to have the laws limit their liability is because they don't want to live up to the societal standard that is represented by a jury.

Q: In terms of the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics, do you think the Republicans are worse than the Democrats, or do you think the two parties are the same?

Claybrook: I think the two parties are both bad. I think if I look at George Mitchell [the former Democrat Majority Leader] versus Trent Lott [the Republican Majority Leader], George Mitchell didn't take the same kinds of positions based on somebody coming in and giving him a pile of money that Trent Lott does. Trent Lott, for example, opposed the .08 blood-alcohol-level bill last year, which would have defined what is a drunk driver at .08 rather than 1.0. Apparently the alcohol guys couldn't get anyone else in the Senate to do it, so Trent Lott himself became their advocate.

He's also the guy who worked with the car dealers and the insurance industry, and it's his bill that redefines what's a salvage car, and puts more lemons on the market. So he gets into this minutiae--these smaller issues that are very particularized and very lucrative in terms of the amount of money you can get from special interests.

I think the Republicans in power and the leadership committee chairs seem to be more aggressive about demanding money and much more willing to put their name on things that the vast majority of the public would disagree with. They're just designed for the special interests, to give them some payback. I certainly think that's happened in Democratic years. But it just seems to be more disgusting now, the way it's so pervasive.

Q: I have to ask you the obvious question about the Lewinsky scandal. Was it a serious matter?

Claybrook: I think it was a serious matter. I think it's disgusting and outrageous what he did. But I also feel Ken Starr has abused his authority enormously. We at Public Citizen helped draft the original Independent Counsel Act. We thought it had enough controls in it. Ken Start has violated just about every precept in that statute--mainly that it would be an independent counsel. I don't think he is. He's a political ideologue. And I think the American public sees through this. They see this as a political attack.

Q: How did Public Citizen get involved in the Independent Counsel Act?

Claybrook: We were very involved in the whole Watergate process. We actually sued over the firing of Archibald Cox, under the regulations of the Justice Department. It was established in principle that you could not fire an independent counsel. And then we were involved in the statute that made the independent counsel separate from the Justice Department.

Q: Would you do things differently now, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal?

Claybrook: One of our ideas at the moment is to have a random selection of judges to make the appointment, so you couldn't have a panel of conservative ideologues appointing a conservative ideologue. And I would have a heavy burden for an extension of authority to investigate new areas.

I think investigating the President's personal life is really beyond the context of what impeachment is intended to consider. I just don't think it's relevant to performance in office. It's inappropriate. It hurts the nation. It lowers the standards of decency. But I think that Starr has done that, too, and even more so.

Q: What about Al Gore? Do you know him? And what's your view of him?

Claybrook: Yes, I do know Al Gore. I've known him since he was a member of the House, and I've lobbied him on many occasions. He certainly was one of the most important members of the House and Senate who worked on regulatory issues. And he was terrific. Gore held a hearing in 1982 when he was a member of the House on the cutback of the auto safety regulations. It was a really important hearing because it was the first attempt by the Reagan Administration to cut back on health and safety regulation. And he challenged them from A to Z. He's a very, very good interrogator. He is really tough. As Vice President he was generally good, although he got involved in this Reinventing Government business which I think has had some unintended negative consequences. Most recently, in 1998, he agreed to sign on to [Democratic Senator from Michigan Carl] Levin's regulatory rollback, which really upsets us. And I don't know why he did that.

Q: A lot of environmentalists are very disappointed in Gore's record. If he became President, would he be good for consumers and for the environment?

Claybrook: I have to tell you that six years ago I thought he'd be really good. Today I don't know. I have big questions in my mind about whether he would. He's very much adopted the Clinton perspective that everything can be compromised. And I think there are certain things, principles, that you can't compromise. So we're very nervous about him.

Q: Do you think in politics today it would be possible to hold to fundamental public interest principles?

Claybrook: Absolutely! Absolutely! And this Administration has done this from time to time. When there was a bill up dealing with food safety--it was the clean meat bill--it finally passed and went to the President. They weren't going to have a signing ceremony, and then they looked at a public opinion poll and it was like, my God, 98 percent of the public wanted it. So then they had a big signing ceremony. And then about six months ago the President started a big food-safety initiative.

If they would only read their public opinion polls, which they read on everything else, they would know that the public wants safer cars, better fuel economy. They know about the clean environment--they don't have to be told that. But they could win with the public on any one of these issues if they would take them on.

The question is whether they would hurt their campaign contributors. And that is, at bottom, what is destroying our society. Huge amounts of money are being used now, in these political campaigns. They've become the essential competitive edge for a political campaign, and they are completely destroying the public policy positions that these guys should take.

Q: So that raises the question of what's possible.

Claybrook: Right. But I think that at the Presidential level, because there's public funding of the Presidential campaign, that they have a tremendous capacity to do the right thing. Even with the current, corrupt system, I don't think all of your soft money would be cut off [if you supported consumer issues]. Most of it comes from extraordinarily rich individuals. Some comes from labor. Some comes from industries. But not that much. If you're talking about raising money as a member of Congress to run, you've got to take PAC money all over the place, and that's where it's really, really hard.

Q: So you think Gore could run in 2000, taking serious, activist, pro-environment, pro-consumer stands, piss off some contributors, but keep enough that he could stay competitive with a Republican opponent?

Claybrook: Yes. And I think he would completely undermine his Republican opponent, substantively, in the public's eye. I think he could completely get him on that. You look at John McCain [Republican of Arizona], for example. John McCain is a conservative Republican. He's head of the Commerce Committee, which deals with more industries than almost any other committee. Yet he takes a positive position on auto safety. He was our savior on the auto safety bill this past year, on testing women and children with air bags. If McCain can support us, why can't Al Gore?

Representative Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from New York, is certainly in a much tougher position than Al Gore, because he's in the House, dominated by the conservative corporatists who run that place. Yet he takes a very high-profile, leadership role in defending the environment. So why can't Al Gore?

Q: You were criticized rather harshly when the research came out showing air bags inflated with such force they have actually killed small women and children. The Wall Street Journal editorial page suggested you knew about it when you were in charge of coming up with an airbag safety standard under the Carter Administration, but you didn't want to admit it was an argument against using air bags.

Claybrook: Well, The Wall Street Journal editorial page is a bunch of rightwing nuts. But even the news section of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post carried articles when this first started happening saying it was my fault. The auto industry P.R. guys had lobbied them, saying I knew this was going to happen and I didn't tell anybody. Those are lies. I knew there was a problem, and so did the auto industry. I recommended changes. The auto industry didn't use those recommendations.

In 1969, General Motors actually testified in a public hearing that they were worried about this problem. But then they found a remedy. And the cars they manufactured in 1974 incorporated that remedy--dual-inflation air bags. So it never occurred to me, when we issued the air-bag standard in 1977, that we had to do anything unique.

Then, in 1978, the president of General Motors told me they had problems with piglets they were testing as surrogates for children. I suppose it was partly a way of trying to stop the standard. So I was pretty irritated about it. They had dealt with this before. But I said that we would launch a major research effort. We came out with a report and said to them: There's a certain way of folding the bag that makes it less aggressive when it inflates, and you should have dual-inflation air bags, and you should top-mount it so it doesn't hit people.

So the companies knew. They knew better. They didn't put the right designs in their cars. They put them facing straight at you, instead of top-mounted, and they didn't have dual-inflation air bags. And so I was shocked, totally shocked, when these children started getting killed.

The companies went to Capitol Hill and accused me of being at fault. Of course, I responded and got out all the old documents which I had--I never lose my files, they're all up in the attic. And we persuaded a Republican Senate to have a standard that required testing for women and children, and to have it done by date certain. It's the first time anything like that level of detail for a standard has passed. So we won that one, I think, beautifully.

Q: Are you optimistic that there are more big battles to be won, even in this political climate?

Claybrook: See, I don't look at it as "this political climate." I look at it as the political climate for today and the future. I look at the battles we've won over the years, and we've just won so many things. So I think that there are extremely controversial issues, but if we do our homework and if we organize and if we get the word out to the public in an effective way, I think we can win.

I think we can win on almost any issue we work on--meaning we at Public Citizen, as well as other public interest organizations--because the vast majority of the American public wants us to win on these issues.

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Title Annotation:consumer advocate
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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