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Will the Real Ralph Nader Please Stand Up?

Ralph Nader has been called everything from a hero to a spoiler. At 74, he’s had a well-documented career as a consumer advocate and champion of the little guy.

On Sunday, Nader announced his decision to run for President on Meet the Press.

This will be his fourth attempt. In 1992, he was a write-in candidate for President. In 1996, he ran as a Green Party candidate, getting 0.8% of the national vote. In 2000, his most successful run, he got 2.74% of the vote, including 97,488 votes in Florida. In the process, he earned the scorn of Democrats, the majority of whom believed he was responsible for Al Gore’s loss in the state by 537 votes to George W. Bush, which in turn led to eight years of Bush/Cheney, the war in Iraq and all that went with it.

Nader disputes he was responsible for Al Gore’s loss. According to CNN, Nader blames the loss on the pernicious Palm Beach butterfly ballots, Bush’s re-count strategy, Florida’s expulsion of thousands of non-ex-felons from the voter rolls, Gore’s poorly run campaign, his failure to win Tennessee and refusal to seek a state-wide recount.

That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

In 2004, the Green Party wasn’t interested in another Nader run. Among the groups whose backing he then sought was the Alliance Party, whose members were followers of a man named Newman. The results were dismal. A journalist writing in LA Weekly called the alliance, Ralph’s Dark Side.

[Newman’s] cult is the antithesis of every value Nader holds dear. A Maoist grouplet in the ’70s, the Newmanites morphed into supporters of Pat Buchanan in the ….commentator’s 2000 takeover of the Reform Party. Newman recruits and controls his followers through a brainwashing scheme baptized “social therapy,” designed to create blind allegiance to Newman. He has frequently dipped his rhetoric in the poisonous blood-libel of anti-Semitism, denouncing Jews as “storm troopers of decadent capitalism.” ….[T]o get on the ballot, Nader has allowed himself to be used as bait to lure the unsuspecting into the Newmanite orbit, where they risk being sucked into the cult. That’s a betrayal of the many young people to whom Nader is still a hero. And an acid commentary on Nader’s judgment.

That’s a far cry from where Nader began.

Born in 1934 to immigrant Lebanese parents in Connecticut where his father owned a grocery store, he went on to graduate Princeton University and in 1958, Harvard Law School. In 1959, he wrote a ground-breaking article for the Nation Magazine, “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy,” blasting the safety practices of the auto industry.

In 1965, he turned his research into a book, Unsafe at Any Speed which became a best-seller. A star was born. In his critique of U.S. auto makers, he particularly singled out General Motors for the danger posed by the Corvair. When GM hired private investigators to spy on his personal life, he sued and got a $425,000 settlement. He put the money into his next advocacy projects.

During the late 60’s and 70’s, he amassed a string of legislative accomplishments, from the Freedom of Information Act and the Clean Air Act to the creation of the Consumer Protection Agency. He lobbied for the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Wholesome Meat Act. He’s the reason we have air bags in cars. We can even thank him for filing a lawsuit that resulted in airlines having to pay a night’s lodging if you’re bumped from your flight.

In 1980, Nader shifted his focus from consumer advocacy to trade and corporate power.

Nader is quite wealthy. In 2000, he listed $1 million of stock in Cisco Systems and a net worth of almost $4 million on his financial disclosure statement. Yet he’s frugal to an extreme. Never married or having fathered children, he’s lived in the same Washington, D.C. apartment for years. He says he uses his money for his philanthropic and advocacy projects, and that since 1967, he’s donated millions to charity.

Nader insists his presidential runs are an outgrowth of his advocacy work. He likes to say there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans, that both are beholden to corporate power and that neither care about the little guy. In other words, he’s the agent of change.

In 2002, even the Nation had enough of Nader’s presidential ambitions, writing an editorial, Ralph Don’t Run.

He didn’t listen.

Now, Ralph Nader wants to run again. Why? Many claim it’s his outsize ego while his dwindling number of supporters say he’s running on principle. In a year when most young Democrats believe they have found the real agent of change in Barack Obama, his message can’t help but fall on deaf ears.

If the real Ralph Nader were to stand up now, who would he be? Sadly, given the hero he once was and the tangible improvements he made in our lives, all most people see now is a man who has become irrelevant.

Jeralyn Merritt is a criminal defense attorney in Denver, CO. She blogs at TalkLeft: the Politics of Crime.