WASHINGTON -- Although he will be on the ballot in November in about half the states, it wouldn't be quite right to say that Ralph Nader is running for president. That would suggest activity.
From a bare office, with a bare bookshelf and bare walls, that he has just moved into, the defiantly black-and-white nominee of the Green Party is waging a sort of passive-aggressive presidential campaign.
If you build it -- and if you do all the work and raise all the money and leave me alone, he told the liberal, ecologically minded Greens last year I still might not come.
Indeed, the nation's most celebrated consumer activist says he has no expectations -- or even desire -- to be president. "I have the best position of all -- full-time citizen," Nader said in an interview, his lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame slouched in a chair.
But, vowing to spend less than $5,000 (and with paltry poll numbers to prove it), he has entered into what most see as a marriage of convenience with the California-based Greens.
He has lent his name and stature to that fledgling party in exchange for a megaphone for his anti-corporate message and a stab at breaking up what he calls the "two-party duopoly" and building an alternative party.
"Corporate interests control government now, and they control more and more of everything we call America," says the 62-year-old Nader, who gained prominence 30 years ago when he took on the auto industry with his landmark book, "Unsafe at Any Speed."
He said he sees little difference between today's Democrats, embodied by the man he calls "George Ronald Clinton," and the Republicans -- all of whom, he says, are ignoring such issues as corporate tax breaks and campaign finance reform and leaving liberals and progressives like himself out in the cold.
"The Green Party will answer that 'you got nowhere to go' problem, and either the corporate Democrats are going to have to be responsive or they're going to lose more and more votes," Nader says.
Earlier this year, Democrats feared that a Nader candidacy could siphon enough votes from President Clinton to tip the balance to the Republican candidate in the most vote-rich state, California. No longer. Clinton has built a commanding lead in the state, and Nader has dropped to a meager 3 percent in polls there -- and 2 percent nationally.
Nader's laissez-faire approach -- he will not raise money or accept contributions, will not run TV ads or crisscross the country, will not even file as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission -- has provoked criticism and puzzlement, even from supporters.
"Ralph is not exactly Mr. A for effort," says Kevin Phillips, a Republican analyst who has applauded Nader's causes. "He's at risk of becoming a laughingstock. I'm bewildered by his performance. It's just impossible to see a logic here."
Others have accused the open-government champion of hypocrisy for refusing to report his campaign finances or personal income to the FEC. Candidates who spend less than $5,000 are not required to make such filings. Nader plans to spend $4,999, he says with a chuckle.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal recently lambasted "the great Oracle of Openness" for trying to keep his finances secret and expressed doubt that he could hold his expenses under $5,000. And Voter Revolt, a California group that has fought Nader on several ballot issues in the past, filed a complaint with the FEC, charging that he has already spent more than $5,000.
Nader, a gray-haired ascetic figure who has always fiercely guarded his private life, dismisses all the criticism. An opponent of the influence of money in politics and a supporter of publicly sponsored campaigns, he asserts that he is trying to provide a model of a campaign without money.
So far, he has made just one campaign trip -- to California -- and is relying almost exclusively on television, radio and newspaper interviews to get his word out.
"I've been around the country for 30 years, so a lot of people know where I stand," he says. "I'd rather campaign in a more deliberate manner, through free media and writing articles and telling Green Party supporters to rely on themselves, be more active in the local communities. That's the way you build something in the long run."
He insists that he has spent less than $1,300 so far and says he plans to campaign on the cheap -- traveling by "motor vehicle," getting low airfares and staying at the homes of friends.
And he says he has declined to file disclosure forms with the FEC not out of secrecy, but because of his long-standing commitment to privacy rights regarding personal income -- even for political candidates. While he believes the public has a right to know who's funding a campaign, he says, "It's not relevant to a no-money campaign."
David Vladeck, a longtime Nader friend and associate, says the public-interest advocate is accepting no campaign contributions because he "doesn't believe he's really running for president in the traditional sense."
Ironically, the largest expense Nader will incur, says Vladeck, is that of returning contributions that have come in unsolicited.
But even within the Green Party, there has been some disappointment with the man they nevertheless see as a hero.
"It's not just that he won't file" with the FEC, says Hank Chapot, a Green Party candidate running for a California Assembly seat. "But he won't go anywhere to campaign, he won't tell us what his plans are and he won't take a stand on a lot of issues we think are important. It's funny, Greens are anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical. At the same time, we want him to be a father figure, a leader."
But Nader has no plans to actually join the Green Party or even to run on the party's platform, which supports abortion rights lTC and same-sex marriage -- issues he has called "gonadal politics" and expressed indifference about.
"I don't want to blur the focus on the 'strengthen our democracy' issue and the focus on the global corporate powers," he says. What's more, "unlike politicians, I don't have an informed opinion on everything under the sun."
In fact, his career has remained steadfastly on an anti-corporate, consumer-interest track through the years as he has lobbied for safer cars (including air bags), water, food and drugs, and purer politics.
Part of the Nader persona that has also remained unchanged is his notoriously austere lifestyle. He has never owned a car, a house or condo. He wears schlumpy suits, watches a black-and-white TV, writes on an Underwood manual typewriter, and lunches on chili, toast and water.
"All of the mythologies of how cloistered and monkish a life Ralph lives are absolutely true," Vladeck said.
This quixotic bid for the presidency, he adds, "is odd and out of character" for someone who considers himself the consummate outsider. "But it reflects Ralph's complete and utter frustration with the two-party duopoly," Vladeck says.
Nader says he thinks the Green Party has the best chance of any alternative movement to gain momentum and break through -- but only if the supporters look to themselves, and not him, for guidance. It is why he dismisses the Reform Party, led by Ross Perot, who is ahead of him in the polls.
"That's a one-man party," he says.
But Nader applauds the billionaire for stirring the independent spirit in politics and focusing on campaign finance reform.
He is far less kind to Clinton, whom he calls "the bully coward in the bully pulpit."
For his part, Nader, who ran as a write-in candidate in the 1992 New Hampshire primaries, says he recognizes that his "civic candidacy" will have little if any impact on this presidential race. But he is looking to the future.
Still, how can he have any lasting impact with a 2 percent draw?
"It's better than zero," he concludes. "There was no Green Party in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont" before his candidacy.
And even in his own perversely minimalist way, he had to turn his gravelly voice, media smarts and crusader persona to the electoral arena when he thought American democracy was in trouble.
"The alternative is white flags," Nader says. "I've never liked white flags."
Pub Date: 9/23/96