Nader adopted the pose de rigueur: "My fellow Americans," he puffed for the amused reporter, "I stand before you in the mutual realization that our country is in trouble. And if you send me to the White House, I will uphold the trust that you have imposed upon me."
Then he did his best Nixon, complete with double-fisted victory signs.
Today, Ralph Nader fidgets behind a podium at the UA Law School, telling politely attentive students why, this time around, he's taking his candidacy seriously. He talks the good talk -- the quintessential Nader talk -- about jump-starting our moribund political culture, returning power to citizens, giving corporate oligarchs a run for their money. And the interest, even among these budding barristers, some of whom certainly hanker for gainful employment with those same corporate giants, seems sincere.
But Nader is obviously still paying for his 1996 campaign -- even though he spent less than $5,000 on a lackluster effort that earned him under one percent of the national vote. By most accounts, he was an apathetic, cranky candidate whose major platform appeared to be the avoidance of really running at all.
Strategically, Greens thought getting someone of Nader's stature on board was a coup, regardless of his wavering dedication. Instead, he only sparked resentment, and reinforced many peoples' image of the party as little more than disorganized, loud-mouthed amateurs.
Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, was particularly harsh. Saying Nader had "made a joke of his 1996 run," she called his current candidacy "grasping at straws.... If working on Nader's campaign is the best way progressives can spend the next eight months, it's time to hire a hearse and lie down in it."
As acting spokeswoman for the Green's nascent Arizona apparatus, Carolyn Campbell calls the '96 decision "a tactical error by the national party. They simply asked Ralph if they could put his name on the ballot, and he graciously said yes. But he didn't commit himself to doing anymore than that. It did leave some hard feelings."
In years hence, hard lessons have apparently been learned. This time things are noticeably different. Take Nader's campaign literature: a special column emphasizes that he's playing for keeps, that he's paying for a genuine campaign staff, and is aggressively stumping for himself and other Green candidates.
And the national palate has changed since 1996. Out-gunned as he was, Bill Bradley's professorial style has kicked the door wider for a guy like Nader, who today could easily be mistaken as faculty, with his wiry, graying thatch of hair, sensible shoes and blue suit jacket with a wisp of torn lining peeking from beneath the hem. At the same time, John McCain's eccentric run awakened millions of formerly silent, politically unaligned voters who may be ripe for Nader's populist message. Then, of course, there's always lingering afterquakes of the Battle of Seattle.
Besides, at 65, Nader has a bite Bradley lacked, a scandal-free career McCain can only dream about -- and the feral gaze of a perennial Beltway outsider. He's a real reformer with bona fide results, dating back to his 1960s safety-standards battles with Detroit's auto titans. From that long ago crusade he essentially forged the consumer rights movement, along with several watchdog outfits ranging from the Public Interest Research Group to the Center for Women's Policy Studies.
Nearly 40 years later, Nader is ranked by Life magazine among the most 100 influential people of the 20th century, and according to some polls, his name-recognition-level often tops that of fellow candidates Bush and Gore. With Native American activist Winona LaDuke as his running mate, Nader seems ready to re-energize the political stage.
But while Citizen Ralph continues blasting the corporate-governmental complex, Candidate Ralph faces the task of broadening his appeal to bread-and-butter voters.
Either way, he's having no difficulty staying on-message now, at least in front of the students. He starts by jabbing their profession (and his -- he totes a Harvard law degree). The legal landscape has changed, he says, adding that we've become "a more intricate society with a bolder, more aggressive corporate power block, and more indifferent corporate lawyers choking on their own billable hours."
The students are perched among the planet's luckiest one-percentile, he says, given their health, education and "ability to make a difference for justice in this world. There are people your age now whose biggest concern is that worm in their gut, and where they're going to get their next meal. There are others whose biggest concern is, can they say what they believe without getting a knock on the door by the gendarmes?"
Nader puts his railing in context. "The legal system reacts to the political system," he says. "The political system has been hijacked by corporate institutions more than I've ever seen in Washington in the last 40 years. Corporate power has insinuated itself to a point where you can say, without exaggeration, that the corporate government has taken over the political government. It has done exactly what Jefferson warned should not be done. He said representative government should counteract the excesses of the monied interests.
"In area after area, our democracy is being weakened by corporate power. They're moving to close off access to courts. They're making a mockery out of contracts...and really we can't bargain over it. We just sign on the dotted line.
"Whether it's weak labor laws that make it harder to form a trade union in the private sector in the U.S. than in any other Western country, where the labor trade union membership is down to a 60-year low.... Transcending our democratic process is the WTO and NAFTA's insistence on autocratic, secret governments. It's important to analyze some qualitative measurements -- and perhaps quantitative measurements -- as to when a democracy is believed to be declining instead of expanding.
"In the last 20 years," Nader darkly concludes, "it's definitely been declining."
He's dragging out the big, grim picture. But how does this sweeping national malaise play in Peoria? Or in Arizona, where the Greens must gather at least 13,000 valid signatures by June 29 to get their man on the ballot?
Later, shuttled in a pearl-colored Lexus SUV (luxuriously safe at darned-near any speed) to a reception sandwiched before tonight's headliner speech, the candidate reveals that his long-honed predilections still lack regional specifics. Asked about immigration, "We haven't yet developed a position on that in any detail," Nader responds. "We are of course cognizant about how U.S. policy in Mexico and Central America, of siding with the oligarchs and dictators, leads to desperate people moving north. Maybe if we fostered democratic forces, land reform and agricultural credits, we wouldn't have such a problem. Second, a lot of illegal immigration is induced by employers who want that kind of labor so they can exploit them."
Concerning Arizona's mushrooming cities, Nader says, "We've put out a 90-page report on sprawl. By reversing (real estate tax incentives) you could change the nature of real estate investment, and preserve open spaces."
On education, "I think there should be a policy that sustains the public school system," he says, "and not permit the diversion of tax monies to private and parochial schools."
As the Lexus glides to a stop, that last point leads Nader back to comfortable turf. "We should encourage but not require practical civic education," he says, "so that students learn their subject matter by working on real-life problems, and learn citizen skills and how to practice democracy, both connecting the classroom with the community."
A beautiful message delivered with dead-serious conviction -- Richard Nixon be damned.