Ralph Nader: The Fortune interview

February 6, 2014, 5:35 PM UTC

As a young man, Ralph Nader made automobile safety a civic calling and in turn became the father of the modern consumer-rights movement. He litigated, agitated, and testified about food safety, tobacco regulation, congressional ethics, and clean air and water. Later on he ran for President five times — enraging liberals ever after, because many think his candidacy in the historic close election of 2000 tilted the outcome in favor of George W. Bush over Al Gore. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Nader has thus done the remarkable — becoming both beloved and despised, often by the same folks. But few doubt his iconic status as a “public citizen” who has shaped the contemporary regulatory state. In 2006 a panel of a dozen historians included him on the list of the top 100 influential figures in American history.

MORE: Ralph Nader at 80: The life of a professional disruptor

As a founder of scores of civic organizations, Nader continues to crusade on an array of issues: universal health care, the minimum wage, tax reform, obesity, and the absence of NO LEFT TURN signs in his neighborhood in downtown Washington. Nearing 80, he recently sat down with Fortune’s David A. Kaplan to discuss the long arc of his career. In a series of conversations, Nader reflected on what he called the avarice of “multinational global” corporatism, the bane of technology, and the failure of progressive politics. Animated, wistful, witty, and unrepentant, he talked about Albert Einstein and Ansel Adams, his ownership of more than $1 million of Cisco stock, what drove him to an early interest in cars, why he was at the White House wedding of Richard Nixon’s eldest daughter — and how, no, he’s not responsible for Bush’s victory in 2000. Edited excerpts:

Fortune: The first car I remember was my mother’s Corvair convertible. We always drove with the windows slightly open. You could smell exhaust inside.

Nader: [Laughs.] They were recalled for that finally!

We take safety standards for granted. Your radicalism way back then almost seems quaint now.

Recalls, safety belts — that’s the success. On the other hand, if they ever tried to roll them back, taking them for granted is not the best popular form of resistance. The last 15, 20 years have been very quiet in consumer progress.

On cars or in general?

Almost everything. Consumers have been neglected in insurance, credit, banking, food, energy, housing.

What do you think about Elizabeth Warren?

What’s not to like? She’s smart and articulate and relentless. She came forward at a time when the financialization of the economy was at a peak, when making money from money was out of control. I don’t know how she’s going to fit in the Senate — they can wear you down.

Do you talk to her?

Maybe three times in the last seven months.

You see her as a protégée?

She’s a major factor in her own right. Twenty years ago when we were against redlining and going after the banks, she was at Harvard and she came to our attention because she spoke up. Not many law professors speak up.

Would you support her as a presidential candidate?

If she wants to run, she’ll certainly get some nice words from me.

Would you support Hillary?


I’m just checking. How would Warren do as a candidate?

She comes over emotionally very well to people. I mean, Bernie Sanders may scare people because he gets so florid. People say to me, “One thing I like about your outrageous speeches is you don’t shout. You have a mellow voice.” If you don’t have the right voice, it doesn’t matter what you say.

How about a Sanders presidency?

I think he’s going to run in the primary. I think he’s so frustrated.

I‘m struck by your observation that Sanders is an anachronism.

By today’s standards, not by 1912 standards. We don’t have a properly emotive population. You talk to thousands of students and you tell them the worst things that are happening — they just look at you. I’m told it’s because they see all the worst things on video. So you then ask, “Okay, what makes you angry?” It’s like no one’s ever asked — apart from personally.

What’s their answer?

You can arouse today’s college students with ethnic, racial, and gender slurs. But if you try to arouse them with the conditions these slurs are associated with, like conditions in the ghettos, it’s very difficult. It’s so hard just motivating anybody to show up anymore.

Why is that?

Total addiction to screens.

The Arab Spring must have impressed you.

Yeah. In dictatorships, it’s a first-stage prerequisite. But then look what happened. Once they got to the square, they weren’t organized to follow up.

But they got to the square.

Here, it wouldn’t work. I could put out a call and you couldn’t get 50 people down on Capitol Hill on any issue. Today on a college campus if you want to get students to attend a lecture by an outsider, if you don’t give them free pizza, forget it.

That’s the secret?

Just recently at the Harvard Law School, we had several hours with the most distinguished citizen-advocates in the country — on pensions, education, corporate crime. I had to introduce them over the crunching of pizza.

Is it the times we live in or maybe people don’t come because they’re boycotting you after the presidential election of 2000?

No, no. That’s ancient history. It’s a new generation. If you say “Watergate” or “Vietnam,” that’s like the Peloponnesian War.

Are you not a hero anymore?

Well, indirectly. If you get shut out of the media, they don’t see you.


Why do you think you became “Ralph Nader”?

It’s a function of my boyhood. I couldn’t stand bullies. And when I see someone being totally tortured, beaten up in the movies, I actually cry — 12 Years a Slave, even Norma Rae. I can’t stop myself.

That empathy — or outrage — has never left you?

Paul Weyrich once said he’s never seen someone with such persistent outrage. [Laughs.] I read three newspapers a day, and I say, “Oh, my God! I’ve got to do something about this.” I cut out 115 articles a day.

What got you interested in automotive safety specifically?

When I was a student I was hitchhiking huge miles, and truck drivers picking me up would come to a crash. We’d be the first there. I also had friends during high school and college who were crippled or killed in crashes. So when I went to Harvard Law School, I wrote a paper for a medical-legal seminar. That became Unsafe at Any Speed. Every time there was a crash, they blamed the driver — asleep at the wheel, drunk, whatever. I questioned that. Then I saw human-factors literature on driver-highway-vehicle interactions.

Where was that literature?

Auto-safety research funded by the Pentagon in the ’50s, because they were losing more airmen to crashes on the highway here than in Korea. The minute I learned you could survive crashes, I became very angry.

Did you think there would be an audience for Unsafe at Any Speed?

I’d persuaded myself everybody uses cars and everybody has a story of a crash. However, we know the old story, “I’m going to go to a publisher and write a bestseller on the New York Yankees because there are 2½ million Yankee fans.” It doesn’t work that way.

Did the auto industry ever try to co-opt you?

One time I get a call from a Chevy dealer in Texas. He says, “We’re having a day for the new Corvair model, and we’ll pay you to come down and autograph them.” I told him, “I may come down to autograph the tombstones of the dead people killed by these Corvairs.”

Why were you a hitchhiker?

To save money. And it was more interesting. I’d go to California to work during the summer in food services at Yosemite National Park.

You got to meet Ansel Adams?

When I first got to Yosemite late one night and without a tent, I just slept on his porch without knowing it, and the next morning he woke me up and served me breakfast. It was just sheer luck.


Oh, yeah, it’s great! There’s a more fabulous story I can tell you. I’m a student at Princeton. They didn’t let you have cars unless you were a senior. With one exception — when you’re bringing furniture into your room when your family’s in town.

So you did have a car once upon a time!

That’s right. I’m a sophomore. It’s 1953. I’m driving out of the dorm to Nassau Street and there’s a guy in what seemed to be his pajamas walking right by. I had to hit the brakes. It’s Albert Einstein! You know how he used to dress.

You still don’t own a car, right?


What kind of car do you get driven around in?

Now, you know, everyone has seatbelts, but I won’t go into a real small one. The guy who’s picking me up later better not have his Mini Cooper.

Are you the worst guy in the world to be in a car with?

You do point out things like bad visibility design, like on some of the Toyota Priuses.

What do you think of the driverless car?

I can’t buy into it. Do you think you feel better with a robot at the wheel?


Why did you wind up at Princeton?

I fell in love with the library and the precept system, where you’d go to a lecture and then have two precepts each week with nine or 10 students.

The eating clubs and the class stratification didn’t bother you?

High school, prep school — that was the division. It didn’t bother me because I was aware of it from the beginning. We had the Prospect Club, which had the rebels. We were the 5% of the class that stayed up all night arguing politics, writing poetry. Nothing to do with ethnicity. Maybe one African American, two Hispanics. Usually Hispanics at Ivy League schools were children of South American dictators.

Do you still retain connections to Princeton?

Yes. Our class is considered the greatest of the century because of what we started. At a mini-reunion [in D.C.] in 1990, I asked, “Jeez, why don’t we make something out of our class? We’ve got all this talent.” So we started a group called Princeton Prodigy ’55. One of its main jobs was to place Princeton students in internships and postgraduate fellowships in citizen-action groups all over the country — not charity, not soup kitchens, but systemic action.

Did it work?

We placed more people than the placement office. It’s now called the Princeton Alumni Corps. The Class of ’93 made a few dollars in Silicon Valley and bought us a big mansion for our headquarters in Princeton.


Did you ever meet Steve Jobs?


I’d have thought he might have been a fellow traveler.

Yes, but if I had under contract 900,000 serfs in China, I wouldn’t want to meet me.

Do Nader’s Raiders still exist?

Only in history. It’s too bad, because it was our best mnemonic device.

Why did the name disappear?

Many thought it personalized things too much.

When were the last of the Raiders?

Around 1973. You know who coined the phrase? Bill Greider when he was with the Washington Post. He saw them up testifying in Congress against the FTC. One was the guy who married Tricia Nixon: Ed Cox. You can’t believe how radical he was then.

Weren’t you at the Cox-Nixon wedding in the White House Rose Garden [in 1971]?

I was. I’ll never forget meeting President Nixon on the receiving line. He said, “Oh, Raider’s Naders!” And I was going to say, “No, Nixon’s Richards!”

But, alas, you didn’t.

And then he said, “You know, we were talking about you this morning when our toaster broke down.” He was awkward forever.

I hope it’s not rude to mention that some of your most determined critics from the 2000 election told me you have the same initials as Richard Nixon.

I prefer to relate to “registered nurse.”


You still have no email address or cellphone?

No. The reason is that there’s no time. By the time you finish going through your emails, phone calls, it’s time for lunch.

Laptop, PC, iPad?

Never touch them. I still have an Underwood typewriter. In thunderstorms, when the electricity goes out, I’m the only one working.

How do people, you know, reach you?

They can call my office. There’s always someone answering, 24 hours a day. No voicemail, though.

When you’re waiting for a flight, how do you make use of your time?

No better way than to use your own imagination and think. I like the William Blake story. He was at a social gathering and someone came up to him and said, “Mr. Blake, with whom are you living?” He said, “I’m living with my imagination.”

How do you feel about Amazon, founded by another Princetonian?

I’m not a customer. But unfortunately when I want something, my colleagues use it.


Have you ever revisited the subject of Florida 2000 with Al Gore?

Yes. He doesn’t buy I cost him the election. He just dismisses it, like, “What are you talking about? There are too many factors involved.” He was big that way. He wasn’t petty.

One could argue the election was a tie and the outcome was an accident.

I’m the Democratic Party’s guilt complex.

Guilt complex?

Not quite the right word, but you know when someone is wayward for opportunistic reasons and someone else says, “This is what you’re supposed to be all about,” there’s a resentment factor.

Any regrets about running in 2000?

No, for many reasons, starting with that the day after there was an AP poll without me in it, and Bush still won.

If you accepted the premise that your votes in Florida largely came from would-be Gore voters, wouldn’t you feel bad?

Except what if the Supreme Court had let the recount continue? Retroactive clairvoyance is easy. Once you get to so many sine qua nons, latching on to one that happens to be anthropomorphic becomes discriminatory. Why not ask why Gore lost his home state of Tennessee? I call it political bigotry: If you believe we all have an equal right to run, we’re trying to get votes from each other, which means we’re all spoilers or no one is a spoiler.

I accept that “causation” can be a tricky business. What I’m asking, though, is, to the extent you acknowledge a Bush presidency and a Gore presidency would have been different, do you regret any role in siphoning votes that might’ve been decisive for Gore?

Except that I didn’t have that role. My favorite cartoon back then was a guy holding a sign saying A VOTE FOR NADER IS A VOTE FOR BUSH, and it shows Bush saying, “Oh, great, I’m going to vote for Nader.”

Let me ask it differently: In 1999, if you asked people about Ralph Nader, they’d talk about the father of the modern consumer movement, the “public citizen.” They now sometimes lead with the 2000 election. Isn’t that upsetting?

It’s heavily from the liberal intelligentsia.

Your latter-day friends.

They all have the “least-worst” virus: No matter how bad Democrats get, as long as they’re not as bad as Republicans, you go least-worst. But that destroys your bargaining power because the least-worst Democrat running knows you’re not going to abandon him … My concern is not Democrat or Republican. My concern is the tens of thousands of people who die from air pollution, occupational disease, in penury, stripped of their livelihood while they work their hands to the bone — all the things I’ve been working on.

That’s the paradox of third political parties in the U.S.

Right, but look at the progressive history of America. Third parties played a “push” role — the Liberty Party, the Women’s Party, the Populist Party. They never won, but sooner or later most of their priorities were adopted. Little did I know liberals weren’t tactically smart enough to use my candidacy.

Does the name Don Quixote ring a bell?

I’ve always been for wind power.

Is that kind of your legacy?

All these laws we’ve gotten passed, all the groups we started, hundreds of litigations won — there’s a large awareness that one individual can make a difference.

Sounds as if you’re proud of that legacy.

It’s 1% of what I could have done.

Given the frustration, then, how do you keep on persisting?

You insulate yourself from becoming jaded. It’s what I call the civic personality. A lot of people can have it. You keep improving. You slip, you fall, you pick yourself up. You get better at it.

There are many who would say that at 80 you ought to be fishing.

I never get tired. I don’t know where that comes from, but it’s a very valuable civic asset. We don’t have an Academy Awards for civic heroes. That’s what I hope we have someday.


Silicon Valley has come of age in your lifetime. Notwithstanding your brief against American corporatism, is there anything there you like?

Of course. It’s destructured. They don’t have the hierarchy of the stuffed shirt. They’re allowed to make mistakes. However, they’re increasingly trivializing technology. And you see it with one trivial app after another. Like the company with one that turned down $3 billion.

You mean Snapchat.

You send messages and they disappear in seconds. In the meantime, 5 million people are dying from diarrhea and dirty water and the economy’s going to hell for 80% of the people.

Okay, but does the entrepreneurial ethos appeal to you?

I like the ethos, but I don’t like the priorities. Because what’s going on is that it’s shifting the rewards for the economy away from necessities to whims.

Aren’t apps merely giving consumers what they want?

It’s the equivalent of giving kids sugar, salt, and fat instead of nutrition.

Are you impressed by what Bill Gates is doing, post-Microsoft, in world health?

Of course.

Doesn’t his ability to do all this public good necessarily flow from the success he had at a corporation called Microsoft?

You mean, as an illegal monopolist?

Whom do you admire in the corporate sphere?

I admire Gates’ father. He’s a corporate lawyer who seriously focused on access to justice by poor people.

Warren Buffett?

He invited me out to Omaha several years ago for the big shareholder meeting. I sold one of my books.

Are you a fan, despite his being, you know, an evil corporate industrialist?

He’s a remarkable person in a lot of ways. I’m very impressed. The Wall Street crash wouldn’t have happened if he were in charge.

Are there countries you particularly admire politically?

I grew up admiring Scandinavia and Canada — the whole idea of the safety net without ballyhooing it. In this country people think that if they get anything other than salary or return on their stocks that they’re freeloaders. People fail to understand that every major industry that didn’t exist 30 years ago wouldn’t exist without government: aerospace, the Internet, biotechnology, trillions of dollars of R&D given to the Intels, Ciscos, and so on.


Weren’t you a Cisco investor?

No, I sold. Maybe a year ago. But only after I pressured them to give a dividend. That’s an untold story. They had $45 billion, and they were giving their shareholders zero. So I really hammered them on TV.

How did Cisco respond?

They started giving me these arguments like, “Oh, most of our money’s overseas. If you get rid of the repatriated taxes, we’ll come back.” I said, “Don’t give me this. You’ve been buying back billions of dollars of your stock. Where are you getting it from?” Well, now they pay a 3.6% dividend.

How much stock did you own?

Never more than 10,000 shares.

Why were you a Cisco investor — other than your deep and abiding regard for routers?

I wanted a growth stock, and this was the least problematic one for me. I didn’t want to put it into Microsoft, because it was a monopoly.

Was that the only high-tech company you had an investment in?

Yes. I did very well. But I rode it down from 80, selling at about 20. I bought it at the equivalent of 7 [taking stock splits into account]. Remember those days — split after split after split?

It was worth more than $1 million at some point?

It was. I felt good that I owned it. I connected with other shareholders. I left with having done something.

Is there not something ironic about Ralph Nader — watchdog of American corporations — investing in Cisco?

No, as long as you got your money legally. Why did I invest in Cisco? Because that’s where the money is.

What do you do with the money — are you still famously living on $5,000 a year?

About $30,000 now. And I plow back almost everything I make into our work efforts.

How big a TV do you own?

I don’t have a TV. When they said you had to switch to digital, I said, “Forget it.” When I do see the evening news, it’s so toxic, David. Trivia, entertainment.

Wasn’t that true with Huntley-Brinkley and Cronkite?

What’s different is they had more stories in the old days. Now they’ll go 10 minutes on the big disaster, floods, tsunamis. Even if it’s a snowstorm in the Rockies, they’ll have two minutes on it.

What size TV did you have?

Like this [showing hands at about 19 inches]. And it was black-and-white.


But aren’t you a baseball fan? How do you watch games?

Radio. But I don’t much listen to that either.

How many games do you attend a year?

None. I don’t go to [the Major League stadium in Washington] because I fought it — they hit the taxpayer to build it.

What about your beloved Yankee Stadium?

I fought that too.

Are you still a Yankees fan?

Unfortunately. The tradition of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio will never leave me. I have one picture on my wall — only one — in my home office: Gehrig, leaning on his bat.

Why him?

He taught me stamina. And he was dignified. I became a Yankee fan on the famous passed ball by the Dodgers in the [1941] World Series. [Nader was 7.] The Yankees were about to lose the game, but [catcher] Mickey Owen dropped a third strike. The Yankees came back and won.

Isn’t rooting for the Yankees like rooting for GM?

Here’s my confession: I fight all kinds of imperialism, but I’m still clinging to the Yankees. You can take the Yankees out of the boy … Look, people accuse me of never enjoying myself, okay? So one of the ways I enjoy myself is I’m very critical of my team.

People say you don’t smile?

I have senses of humor rarely attained by anybody in terms of irony and satire and imagination … People forgot I was on Saturday Night Live five times. [Nader hosted it once.] I was on Sesame Street; to this day, people who are now 30 and 35 say, “When I was a kid, I saw you on that.” I even did something on Superman [for a 50th-anniversary show in 1988, produced by Lorne Michaels].

Your role?

I was a safety expert warning the bad guys out to hurt Superman to look out for “fraudulent” Kryptonite.

Why did you do all these shows?

It was just another way to try to reach people.

Did your parents live to see you become Ralph Nader?

They didn’t gush, but I think they were pleased with all the work.

Do you ever wonder what it would’ve been like to be a parent yourself?

Yes. But it was a conscious choice. It was that or dealing with the corporate supremacists.

Do you think about the road not taken?

No. Because I couldn’t have done what I did.

This story is from the February 24, 2014 issue of Fortune.