A DYNAMO_politics exclusive: my date with Ralph Nader


A fortnight ago, I was looking forward to meeting a celebrity. I didn’t expect to become one.

What can I say? The back of my head is very photogenic.

Some context: four-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a living legend in the world of public policy. Mr. Nader is head of over 40 advocacy groups, including Knowledge Ecology International and the Center for Justice and Democracy. But Nader is arguably most famous for the work he’s done to transform the auto industry, begun when he first published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965. The book, which focused on the dangers of the Chevy Corvair, thrust automobile safety (and Mr. Nader) into the national spotlight. After surviving some unusual attacks by the auto industry, Nader made the decision to run for president, first as a write-in candidate in 1992 and later as a candidate of several parties between 1996 and 2008.

One of my friends from high school tipped me off about a Nader sighting at the Purdue Memorial Union shortly before he was about to speak. I was high-tailing to the ballroom where he was to give his presentation when I saw a graying gentleman in a conference room on one side of the hallway. Since the presentation was starting within minutes I was practically flying down the corridor to get a seat, but the image that flashed passed my eyes is one of the most memorable I’ve seen.

A titan of policy at 78 years of age.

Ralph Nader is a surprisingly tall man. As I looked to my left I saw him leaning forward, nearly folded up at the edge of his seat, talking to some University staffer like whatever he was saying was desperately important. Nader’s wrinkled face and sunken eyes clashed with his energetic movements – I’d never seen a more obvious definition of tirelessness before. He had an aura about him, too, like all the people you see on TV do in real life.

The room he was in was painted light blue, and was practically empty, save for two chairs and a table. Straight out of a painting, I swear.

“That’s incredible,” my friend exhaled as we flashed past.

I suppose I would’ve stopped to gawk if I had know about the seating situation in the ballroom. Miraculously, the occupants of the reserved seats in the front row failed to materialize. Now, there’s honor, and then there’s a gov nerd at a Ralph Nader speech.

I took one of the seats.

This turned out to be a great move. When Mr. Nader walked in, he was greeted with polite applause. My first impression was correct – Nader was old. But to my continued amazement his 78 years hung lightly on his shoulders. When he spoke, he gesticulated. When he paused, he held his gaze. When he enumerated, he leaned into the microphone. When he preached he did it with all the vigor of a man 50 years younger, and I ate it all up from six yards away.

But vigor doesn’t guarantee accuracy. While I stood for the thunderous standing ovation that accompanied the conclusion of his hour-long discourse, I had qualms. For example, Mr. Nader – perhaps understandably for the most prolific business watchdog in modern history – seemed unable to moderate his stance on corporations. To him they were dark beasts of capital, branding, and spreadsheets – creatures with negligible utility at best.

To his credit, Mr. Nader presented his ideas with great skill. As an orator he did everything right and nothing wrong; the author of my communications textbook should’ve taken a few lessons from him. But his ideas seemed a little … off? I ought to be able to come up with a better word, but when someone proposes bringing 10,000 people together to threaten congressmen to follow their orders, what other word can you use? With 10,000 people speaking at once, you’d need a committee to just to get a consensus to impose on the poor fellow – and what is congress but another word for committee?

Yes, if I were reviewing Nader’s speech like a blockbuster film, I’d have said that the dialogue was pretty good, but the story didn’t make much sense. To try to clear up some plot holes, I stood up to talk to him during the brief Q&A session following his address. When I walked to the mic, some reporter for the Purdue Exponent must have snapped a shot of the back of my head. I of course wasn’t aware, so you can image my surprise when I opened up the paper the next day to find myself next to Ralph Nader below the fold on the front page!

A clearer picture than the one in the print version of the Exponent.

Nader addressed my question on the pros and cons of big business with some remark about the need to control corporations to prevent abuse. To be honest, that platitude didn’t satisfy me one bit. But the picture of me questioning a four-time presidential candidate, a king of government policy, and a superhero of consumer advocacy on the front page of a newspaper definitely did.

Ok, fine. It’s just the back of my head in the foreground – I’m not even mentioned in the caption. I’m no celebrity at all, I know, I know!

But I can dream, can’t I?

Update: I am named in the online version of the Exponent article… but they have my school wrong. I can live with that.

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