Ralph Nader

‘I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers’ – Ralph Nader.

Ralph Nader (/ˈndər/; born February 27, 1934) is an American political activist, author, lecturer, and attorney noted for his involvement in consumer protection, environmentalism, and government reform causes. The son of Lebanese immigrants to the United States, Nader was educated at Princeton and Harvard and first came to prominence in 1965 with the publication of the bestselling book ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, a critique of the safety record of American automobile manufacturers that became known as one of the most important journalistic pieces of the 20th century. Following the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader led a group of volunteer law students — dubbed “Nader’s Raiders” — in a groundbreaking investigation of the Federal Trade Commission, leading directly to that agency’s overhaul and reform. In the 1970s, Nader leveraged his growing popularity to establish a number of advocacy and watchdog groups including the Public Interest Research Group, the Center for Auto Safety, and Public Citizen.

Nader’s activism has been directly credited with the passage of several landmark pieces of American consumer protection legislation including the Clean Water Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. He has been repeatedly named to lists of the “100 Most Influential Americans”, including those published by Life Magazine, Time Magazine, and The Atlantic, among others. He ran for President of the United States on several occasions as an independent and third-party candidate, using the campaigns to highlight under-reported issues and a perceived need for electoral reform. A two-time Nieman Fellow, Nader is the author or co-author of more than two dozen books and was the subject of a documentary film on his life and work, An Unreasonable Man, which debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

Nader was raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church. His siblings are Laura (a professor of social and cultural anthropology at U.C. Berkeley), Claire, and brother Shafeek. He has lived in Washington, DC since the 1960s, but is domiciled in Connecticut, where he is registered to vote. In addition to English, Nader also speaks Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Nader suffers from Bell’s Palsy.

Personality and character traits

Nader has been described as an “ascetic … bordering on self-righteous”. Despite access to respectable financial assets, he famously lives in a modest apartment and spends $25,000 on personal bills, conducting most of his writing on a typewriter. According to popular accounts of his personal life, he does not own a television, relies primarily on public transportation, and over a 25-year period, until 1983, exclusively wore one of a dozen pairs of shoes he had purchased at a clearance sale in 1959. His suits, which he reports he purchases at sales and outlet stores, have been the repeated subject of public scrutiny, being variously described as “wrinkled”, “rumpled”, and “styleless”. A newspaper story once described Nader as a “conscientious objector to fashion”.

Nader has never married. Karen Croft, a writer who worked for Nader in the late 1970s at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, once asked him if he had ever considered getting married, to which he reportedly responded that he had made a choice to dedicate his life to his career rather than family.

Finances

According to the mandatory financial disclosure report that he filed with the Federal Election Commission in 2000, Nader owned more than $3 million worth of stocks and mutual fund shares; his single largest holding was more than $1 million worth of stock in Cisco Systems, Inc. He also held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of shares in the Magellan Fund. Nader said he owned no car and owned no real estate directly in 2000, and said that he lived on $25,000 a year, giving most of his stock earnings to many of the over four dozen non-profit organizations he had founded.

Unsafe at Any Speed

Nader was first propelled into the national spotlight with the 1965 publication of his journalistic expose Unsafe at Any Speed. Though he had previously expressed an interest in issues of automobile safety while a law student, Unsafe at Any Speed presented a critical dissection of the automotive industry by claiming that many American automobiles were generally unsafe to operate. Nader researched case files from more than 100 lawsuits then pending against General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair to support his assertions.

The book became an immediate bestseller but also prompted a vicious backlash from General Motors (GM) who attempted to discredit Nader by tapping his phone in an attempt to uncover salacious information and, when that failed, hiring prostitutes in an attempt to catch him in a compromising situation. Nader, by then working as an unpaid consultant to the United States Senator Abe Ribicoff, reported to the senator that he suspected he was being followed. Ribicoff convened an inquiry that called GM CEO James Roche who admitted when placed under oath, that the company had hired a private detective agency to investigate Nader. Nader sued GM for an invasion of privacy, settling the case for $425,000 and using the proceeds to found the activist organization the Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

A year following the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Congress unanimously enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John William McCormack said the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was due to the “crusading spirit of one individual who believed he could do something: Ralph Nader”.

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May we meet again!

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