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Ralph Nader on Why He Might Run in 2008, the Iraq War & the New Documentary “An Unreasonable Man”

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Consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader says he will decide later this year whether to run for president in 2008. Today he also looks back at his childhood and his new book, “Seventeen Traditions.” In addition, film director Henriette Mantel joins us to talk about “An Unreasonable Man.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Following one of the bloodiest weekends of the Iraq War, the Senate is set to begin debate today on a nonbinding resolution criticizing President Bush’s decision to send in more U.S. troops. Meanwhile this weekend, Democratic activists gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., for the annual Democratic National Committee winter meeting. The two-day event featured speeches and presentations by all the Democratic presidential contenders. It was the first showcase for the candidates who are already beginning to run for their party’s nomination in what’s set to become the longest primary campaign in history.

In a moment, we’ll take a look at a new documentary about a different kind of presidential candidate. The documentary has just been released. It’s called An Unreasonable Man. It’s about the longtime consumer advocate, lawyer, author and two-time presidential candidate, Ralph Nader. He is also the author of a new book about his own life titled The Seventeen Traditions. Ralph Nader joins us today from Washington, D.C. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

RALPH NADER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, before we talk about the movie and your book, I wanted to ask you about the latest news, the devastating numbers of deaths in Iraq — I think it’s a thousand believed over the last week killed — and about today’s debate on the nonbinding resolution around war.

RALPH NADER: Well, the nonbinding resolution is really a very tepid tiptoe, which will serve the purpose of getting Congress off the hook in the following weeks and months, saying, well, they did what they could do. There’s got to be much more aggressive moves by Congress, maybe reflected in Congressman Jim McGovern’s bill, which will deal with the appropriations process and protect the soldiers, as they withdraw. If we don’t withdraw on a timetable, our military and corporate occupation of Iraq, including the oil industry, the bottom will never fall out of the insurgency. In the process of withdrawing, we develop what can be called the Iraq reconciliation plan that Dal Lamagna and CODEPINK initiated with members of the Iraqi Parliament, tribal leaders and victims of torture in Amman last year. The Iraqi hierarchy is still in place. I mean, the place is in chaos in terms of explosions, but the tribal leaders, the religious leaders, the political leaders still command the kind of cohesive authority in the three distinct groups that could provide for a reconciliation plan with international peacekeepers for an interim period, while we continue hiring Iraqis for reconstruction of their devastated homeland, compliments of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Russ Feingold saying he is going to vote against the nonbinding resolution, because he doesn’t believe that it will lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq?

RALPH NADER: Well, I think he’s correct. And George W. Bush has in effect said it’s not going to affect him at all. This is outraging Republican Senator Specter from Pennsylvania. So there are other currents on Capitol Hill that may flow from this, but this is basically an escape resolution from congressional responsibility over the White House for this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning to run for president again?

RALPH NADER: Too early to say. I think we need more voices and choices. I think the speech by former Senator Mike Gravel indicates there’s going to be a wider debate in the primaries of the Democratic Party, along with Congressman Dennis Kucinich. There are lots of people in this country urging Bill Moyers to run in the Democratic primary. He would certainly give it more depth. And I hope more independent candidates and third-party candidates run. We’ve got to break this two-party elected dictatorship that’s being measured by how much money it raises.

AMY GOODMAN: You said on Wolf Blitzer’s show yesterday that if Hillary Rodham Clinton got the Democratic nomination, you would consider running?

RALPH NADER: Well, there would be more need for a broader spectrum of views by more candidates. I don’t think she has the fortitude to stand up to corporate power, whether it’s ripping off Washington by corporations or the bloated military budget or corporate crime, fraud and abuse. It has a lot of roots right in her backyard, in Wall Street, Spitzer prosecution land. I don’t think she has it. And she has this increasingly distasteful habit of pandering and flattering in her public appearances. And she panders to special interest groups that need to be given the straight truth, and she flatters people in her audience. And I think that is a sign that she thinks she’s a frontrunner and she can play cautious.

AMY GOODMAN: So if she were to win the Democratic nomination and the other candidates were to concede and drop out of the race, would you run?

RALPH NADER: Well, there would be more important need to run, but I haven’t decided. And I won’t decide until later this year.

AMY GOODMAN: What would determine it for you?

RALPH NADER: Well, that factor, one, and whether we can get enough petitioners to get on the streets to overcome the likely harassing lawsuits and attrition by the Democratic Party in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. But, basically, you can’t run a campaign like this unless you get a lot of young people who are contacting you all over the country and who want a new politics in America and who want to develop the skills for future campaigns in their own right. That’s really what we’re looking for now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go right now to the clip of the documentary that’s just come out about Ralph Nader. And when we come back from break, we’ll be joined not only by Ralph Nader, but by one of the producers of the film. It’s called An Unreasonable Man.

TODD GITLIN: One is always right, one is prefabricated in purity. This is Ralph Nader’s understanding of the world.

ERIC ALTERMAN: The man needs to go away. I think he needs to live in a different country. He’s done enough damage to this one. Let him damage somebody else’s now.

MARK GREEN: In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Ralph would be in national polls as one of the most famous admired Americans.

HENRIETTE MANTEL: People would write to him thinking that he could solve their problem. I think Ralph got more mail than The Beatles.

JOE TOM EASLEY: Ralph had decided to do six or eight teams attacking different agencies.

FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION MAN: Members of the press have referred to you as “Nader’s Raiders.”

JOE TOM EASLEY: We were going to make the country what it ought to be by working and pressing the system to work.

DAVID BOLLIER: He had built a legislative record as a private citizen that would have been the envy of any modern president.

JIM MUSSELMAN: Imagine if you got in a car and the airbag said “Ralph Nader,” or if the seat belt said “Nader,” or you look at the air and it’s cleaner and it says “Nader” on it. If people would see that on a day-to-day basis, they’d understand the effect that this guy has had on their daily life.

ERIC ALTERMAN: Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq War. Thank you, Ralph, for the tax cuts. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the environment. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution.

RALPH NADER: I do think that Al Gore cost me the election.

GENE KARPINSKI: That I used to work for that guy. I was so proud of all that, and now, every time I — you know, what’s that crazy guy up to?

RALPH NADER: Maybe if we started talking about civic globalization instead of corporate globalization, the world would move forward.

We don’t have a government of, by and for the people. We have a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, for the Duponts.

PHIL DONAHUE: They killed him for saying that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. And then the Democrats spent the next four years proving that he was right.

JIMMY CARTER: Ralph, go back to examining the rear end of automobiles.

PAT BUCHANAN: I think our democracy is a fraud. It’s a consumer fraud.

JAMES RIDGEWAY: He actually believes in the legal system, and he believes in the marketplace. He believes in all these really American things, and he’s trashed for it.

RALPH NADER: When I was 10, my father said, “Well, Ralph, what did you learn in school today? Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?”

JOE TOM EASLEY: I wouldn’t want this to hurt his legacy.

RALPH NADER: I don’t care about my personal legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpt of An Unreasonable Man. When we come back from break, the director of the film, Henriette Mantel, and Ralph Nader. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the co-director of An Unreasonable Man, Henriette Mantel. Ralph Nader still in studio with us in Washington, D.C. Henriette, why did you decide to do this film?

HENRIETTE MANTEL: We just — Steve and myself — wanted to inform people who Ralph is and what happened. I was kind of sick of all the stories going around without people being informed, as to the way the story came down, to who Ralph was all through the ’60s and ’70s and who he still is.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how you researched this film, and talk about the different views that you bring out — for example, Eric Alterman.

HENRIETTE MANTEL: Well, this film originally became what it is, because we started on a sitcom idea. We’re both comedy writers. And Steve had a development deal. And we had discussed this over the years — Ralph’s story — and we started to write it as a sitcom, but the more we interviewed people, everybody that had worked around Ralph for years and years, the more it just became obvious that we had to tell the story in documentary form, especially after 2000.

AMY GOODMAN: And the different reactions you got from people you were interviewing?

HENRIETTE MANTEL: Well, we would have loved to get more reactions of people that were, you know, adamantly spreading rumors about Ralph and everything else, but Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, my hat’s off to them, because they would go on camera and voice their opinion opposing Ralph. A lot of people would not go on camera. They just wouldn’t. Like, they would talk, you know, to us, but then when we turned on the camera, “Oh, I’m not going to be on camera.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, your reaction to the film?

RALPH NADER: Well, I react functionally to it. I think it’s a very compressed and adroit film over 40 years of activity, which really takes a lot of talent to get in there and keep people’s attention. And it’s going to inform tens of millions of younger people, certainly under 40 years. And I hope it will stimulate some of them, and some of the people who watch it in their teen years and their twenties, to say, “You know, we can improve this country and the world. What are we waiting for? Let’s stop rationalizing our own futility and get to work.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader came to prominence in the early '60s, when he began to take on powerful corporations and work with local activists on their campaigns. Let's go to another clip of the film, An Unreasonable Man.

JIM MUSSELMAN: Once I got everybody going forward on an issue, Ralph would come in and give a speech to really empower them more and say, “You guys aren’t alone here.”

DAVID BOLLIER: When the community of Poletown in Detroit was going to be condemned so that General Motors could build a new Cadillac plant there, Ralph provided direct assistance for them to physically resist the bulldozers.

JIM MUSSELMAN: In Van Nuys, there were a lot of children coming down with leukemia in a neighborhood, and a General Motors plant was there, and they put benzene in the paint, which was causing cancer and leukemia. We got them to change the way that they manufactured the paint.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of An Unreasonable Man. Ralph Nader, can you expand on that, on the early activism and your work around GM, how you started the PIRGs and your organizations?

RALPH NADER: Well, those are the days when the antiwar movement, women’s rights, civil rights movements, provided a backdrop for what we were doing. I mean, they made us look rather modest. And we were working in the environmental, worker, consumer areas. And the Congress opened its doors to hearings. There were members of Congress who actually went to Washington to represent people for a change. And Lyndon Johnson, even Nixon, were willing to sign many of those basic bills, like OSHA and EPA and auto safety, Product Safety Commission legislation.

And, obviously, after time, we realized that there needs to be thousands of young activists, so we formed these teams, not only on federal agencies to expose them and push them to higher heights of performance for folks, like the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture. We also went out into the field, and we started student public interest research groups based on student referendums at colleges and putting $4, $5, $6 check-offs on their tuition bill to support these nonprofit groups, which would be run by an elected student board of directors. So you have NYPIRG now in New York City and the rest of the state. You have MASSPIRGPIRG standing for “public interest research group” — in Massachusetts. There are about 20 of them all over the country. And over the years, they really generate a lot of civic leaders who are now working in their communities — some of them are elected to office — to strengthen our democratic society.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, at the same time that An Unreasonable Man has been released, you have a new small book out called The Seventeen Traditions, which is different from the other books that you have written. It’s very much about your family life, how you grew up in Winsted, Connecticut. Can you talk about what the 17 traditions are?

RALPH NADER: Well, there are 17 ways my mother and father raised their four children — two girls and two boys — in this factory town crossed by two rivers and highlighted by a wonderful lake in northwest Connecticut. And I call them “traditions,” because I would like to encourage other families to look into their own wisdom and insight and experience in their generation line — say, grandparents and great aunts and uncles and parents — because if those traditions are lost, they’re lost forever, and they’re not transferred to young people who often are adrift in periods of change. So, we have the tradition of learning, was the first one in the book. My mother said you have to learn to listen, and if you learn to listen, then you’ll listen and learn, something I wish George Bush was raised to do. We have a tradition of history. They would always immerse us in history at the dinner table, and we’d have books about history. So, we have stamp collections to teach us geography.

Then there are traditions of charity, traditions of business. My father had a restaurant, where they said for a nickel you got a cup of coffee and 10 minutes of politics. So it was a big restaurant with a lot of politics from the workers in the textile mills, of the jurors on the lunch break from the courtroom, and salespeople and doctors and carpenters, you name it.

Traditions like the tradition of scarcity; they never overloaded us with things so we wouldn’t appreciate them. There was a tradition of simple enjoyments, not commercial enjoyments today, like a $100 Nintendo toy. We had bicycles. We had puzzles. We had hiking in the woods and the fields, etc.

There were tradition of civics. We watched our parents, while they took us to the town meetings and the courtroom. But we watched them active in the community and absorbed that kind of family value. Civic values, they saw, were family values. And so, there were these kinds of traditions of health, for example, and teaching us to take care of ourselves. These are the traditions that raised us.

The other day, watching George W. Bush, it occurred to me that if mother raised George W. Bush, we wouldn’t be in the Iraq War at the present time.

AMY GOODMAN: Both your parents were born in Lebanon?


AMY GOODMAN: And you went back to Lebanon with your brothers and sisters when you were little? Your mother took you there for about a year?

RALPH NADER: Yes. I was about three and a half.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does that influence your worldview today?

RALPH NADER: Well, obviously, it gave us a bigger arc of concern and interest in the world. I mean, we went to the ancient ruins in Baalbek in Lebanon. We obviously were immersed in the culture there. We learned the language. We learned the lore of our background, our great great grandparents. You know, there was an oral tradition there. We learned how to ride donkeys, too.

AMY GOODMAN: The bombing of Lebanon this past summer and the Iraq War, what does your being an Arab American — how do you feel that informs your view?

RALPH NADER: Well, you don’t have to be an Arab American. You just have to be interested in understanding historical precedence. For example, Iran’s prime minister was overthrown by our country in 1953. The U.S. government under Reagan encouraged and supplied Saddam Hussein with the materials to invade Iran and slice it off for — part of it off for Iraq. We have labeled Iran an axis of evil. That has a tremendous impact, especially since we did it to Iraq and invaded them next door, has a tremendous impact on a proud Persian history. I mean, there was a time when they were the dominant force in the world, and they remember those things. And they feel humiliated.

George W. Bush came to the presidency. I think he had been abroad once or twice. He didn’t know anything about world history. And he was proud of saying he didn’t read newspapers. He was proud of his ignorance. And we’re paying the price for that. It’s not just his obsession. It’s not just his messianic militarism. It’s his profound ignorance.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, your father used to ask you, “What did you learn in school today?”

RALPH NADER: Yeah. One day I went home and in the backyard, and he said, “Ralph, what did you learn in school today? Did you learn how to believe, or did you learn how to think?”

Another event I remember in the backyard — a beautiful spring day, my parents were there with my siblings — and my mother said, “How much is a dozen eggs?” We knew all the prices, because we were restaurateurs’ children. And so, she said, “How much is a bushel of apples? How much is a pound of butter?” And then she stopped and she looked up, and she said, “Nice cool breeze, isn’t it? How much is that? What’s that sunshine worth? Look at those birds. Hear those birds singing those beautiful songs. What price should we put on that?” That really at an early age taught me that there are certain things that should be never for sale. And that’s, in our democracy, elections should never be for sale. Politicians should never be for sale. Teachers should never be for sale.

So, from those 17 traditions, I developed a linkage with the civic advocacy and things that I wrote and spoke about as an adult. And I think that people are very interested in this book, because it’s personal, it has good stories about life in New England at that time, which will resonate with parents and children in terms of their own recollections. I think people have to recollect more. They have to rebuild the solidarity of their family line in a period of great tumult and change, when they think that everything is out of control around their lives, their jobs and their children.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ralph Nader, as you were taught to question, I want to go back to the documentary, An Unreasonable Man. This was at the time when you were being shut out of the presidential debates, and it was also the time of your mega-rallies of thousands, of more than 10,000 people. It begins by talking about how the press virtually ignored your Madison Square Garden rally, which drew some 20,000 people in 2000.

JASON KAFBURY: I expected us to be on the front page of The New York Times. And we had a story, but it was buried, you know, 20 pages in. No other political person, Bush or Gore, hadn’t gotten 20,000 people to pay money to hear them speak all campaign. Ralph was the only guy doing it. And yet the establishment media froze us out.

THERESA AMATO: And the kind of coverage that we did get was all about the horse race: How are you going to affect Al Gore? From the very beginning months of the campaign, we knew in 2000 and in 2004 we would have to try to get into the presidential debates.

PHIL DONAHUE: Ralph Nader could visit every city and town in this nation personally and not reach 10 percent of the people who watch the debates.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that last speaker, Phil Donahue, and that is from An Unreasonable Man. Henriette Mantel is the co-director, writer and producer — executive producer of An Unreasonable Man. You also were Ralph’s office manager, and you’re in this film.

HENRIETTE MANTEL: Right. Yeah. The reason I’m in the film, though, is because we were practicing trying to use the camera, and then it ended up that I had said a few things. Yes. But I was his office manager. That was my first job in the real world, I guess, when I was 21.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was that like?

HENRIETTE MANTEL: It was interesting, because it was 1979 when Three Mile Island blew up, and so it was very, very, very busy there. And that’s a part of the movie that, in fact, will be on the DVD extra. So many parts, stories that we had to tell — the original version of the movie was three-and-a-half hours, and we had to get it down to about two hours, so that it could be in theaters. And the No Nukes years are a story that we told that will be on the DVD extras.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a well-known comedian now, Henriette. Why take the time out to do this?

HENRIETTE MANTEL: Because other comedians were yelling at me about Ralph, and I got sick of them. No, I just wanted to inform people as to who the Ralph I knew and why he did what he did and what he had done in the '60s and ’70s, because it felt like so many people just knew Ralph from 2000, and all these, you know, myths and rumors that weren't true about Ralph. So I just wanted to tell a story. I actually — you know, they can decide whatever they want to decide after they see the movie. I just want them to be informed as to what the story is.

RALPH NADER: And I think they saw some of the political bigotry against third-party candidates and how shallow the analysis of people like Eric Alterman were. You don’t measure the impact of one candidate against another after Election Day. It’s the dynamics in the weeks and months before. Pushing Gore more to the left to criticize big corporations actually got Gore far more votes than whatever, quote, “I took from him.” Look at that, “I took from him,” like a third-party candidate is a second-class citizen, when in the 19th century it was third parties — anti-slavery, women’s right to vote, labor, farmer — that provided the new ideas for the great social justice movements that finally one of the major parties or the other adopted. Now, that’s another benefit of the film.

I think Henriette and Steve should really be gratified, Amy, by the reviews. The reviews have almost been uniformly positive: New Yorker, New York Magazine, New York Times, Village Voice, L.A. Times. It opened in New York on 31st January, and I hope more people see it, and I hope more films are done on many leading activists in our past, like Saul Alinsky and Chavez and others, because we need to put these models, these activities in front of younger people who get very demoralized and give up too early in their lives from changing the country and world for the better.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I wanted to go back to the campaign of 2008 and campaign finance issues, because now the presidential campaign of 2008 — we have just entered 2007 — is in full swing. What does that mean for campaign finance and public financing of campaigns?

RALPH NADER: It’s going to blow it through the roof. I mean, where it is considered incredible that George W. Bush from his corporate buddies raised $140 million in '04, now the press is talking about Hillary and McCain and Giuliani raising $200 million, $300 million. If Mayor Bloomberg gets in the race — and let me tell you, they're talking about it in his circles — he’ll spend half-a-billion dollars from his own fortune, which means that the press not only deals largely with the horse race instead of the substantive issues and the records of the candidates, it deals with like a bar graph. You know, how much did Hillary raise this last week compared to McCain? It’s so rancid. It’s so disrespectful of the voters in this country. We’ve got to urge the press to wake up to its own responsibilities here and cover the substance, the necessities of the American people, the access to the electoral process by candidates, the participation of voters during the campaign in auditoriums around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Hillary Clinton has pulled out of public financing?

RALPH NADER: Oh, yeah. All the majors are going to pull out. It’s not enough for them.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts on Barack Obama?

RALPH NADER: Well, he’s got more to prove. He’s sprouting a lot of antennas of caution and concern, because when you’re a viable candidate, as he is, they don’t become bolder, they become more cautious. He’s certainly got the intellectual capacity. He was a community organizer among the poor in Chicago. He actually worked with NYPIRG for a short time in New York. But whether he has those personality and characters — characteristics that provide the definition of a real leader, speaking truth to power and really taking those solutions in our country off the shelf and putting them to work, even though the auto companies and the drug and oil companies may squeal and squawk, that is yet to be determined. But he’s got an opportunity to determine it.

AMY GOODMAN: John Edwards taking on the issue of poverty in this country and healthcare?

RALPH NADER: Yeah, very good. Very good, taking on — you know, he’s not just talking about the middle class, which Clinton and Gore always did and ignored tens of millions of poor Americans, not to mention people in the middle class falling into that category these days, as more and more people are pauperized. But he’s got a problem of fortitude, too, on some issues. He’s not that good on some foreign policy issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iraq War, he was late on. He’s got to raise the whole corporate crime fraud and abuse and the bloated military budget and the misallocation of priorities to a much higher level in his addresses.

AMY GOODMAN: Now that you have said you could run against Hillary Rodham Clinton if she gets the nomination, have her people approached you in the last 24 hours?

RALPH NADER: Oh, no. No. I mean, she’s very aloof. And when it comes to me, there’s probably even a hyperbole of aloof. She wouldn’t debate Jonathan Tasini in the New York run. He got 17 percent of the vote with no money in the primary against her. She wouldn’t debate her own Republican opponent more than once, I think, and very reluctantly. She wouldn’t debate Howie Hawkins. She wouldn’t let him on the debate, the Green Party out of Syracuse, a wonderful community organizer and a person who would have broadened the debate. She is not an example of democratic campaigning. She is a big business example of cash register campaigning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Ralph Nader, for joining us from Washington, D.C. — we’ll say “possible” presidential candidate in 2008 — and Henriette Mantel, comedian, co-director and producer with Steve Skrovan of this new film called An Unreasonable Man. She also played Alice in The Brady Bunch: The Movie. Thanks, both. Ralph Nader’s book is called The Seventeen Traditions.

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