Imagine a world without seat belts, air bags, nutrition labels, OSHA or EPA. That was the world that greeted an unknown 29-year-old lawyer named Ralph Nader, who abandoned a conventional law practice in Hartford to move to Washington D.C. in 1963. (He hitchhiked.) Nader had written an article called “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy” several years earlier for The Nation magazine, and he had decided to turn it into a book, “Unsafe At Any Speed.” The rest, as they say, is history, and it’s well told in a fascinating new documentary about Nader called An Unreasonable Man.
Nader was the son of an restaurant owner in small-town Winsted, Connecticut, who urged his children to think for themselves. He arrived in D.C. with little more than a fierce intelligence, a Harvard law degree, a belief in democracy and a work ethic–well, let’s just say he never worried about work-life balance because he had no life. His book, when published, sold modestly until General Motors, then the world’s largest corporation, hired public detectives to spy on Nader and sent a pretty girl to a Safeway to try to lure him into an embarassing affair–a scheme that has to rank right up there in the annals of corporate stupidity. The writer James Ridgeway exposed GM, a Senate committee held hearings, CEO James Roche was forced to apologize to Nader and some years later the automaker paid him $400,000 to settle an invasion of privacy lawsuit–money that provided the startup funds for what became Nader’s vast network of public interest groups. Amazing.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Nader enjoyed one exhilarating success after another. “He had built a legislative record as a private citizen that woul have been the envy of any president,” said David Bollier, a journalist and activist.
LBJ invited him to the White House for the signing of the first-ever auto safety bill. Jimmy Carter hired Nader’s Raiders to staff a slew of government agencies. He appeared on Sesame Street and Saturday Night Life.
Long before anyone talked about CSR or sustainability or stakeholders, Nader set out to hold corporate America accountable for its actions. He laid the groundwork for the vast network of NGOs that play such a big role today in reshaping business. Anyone who doubts that one man can change the world (with lots of help, of course) should see this movie.
Of course, An Unreasonable Man chronicles Nader’s three campaigns for president, and in particular his 2000 campaign as the Green Party candidate. His critics–notably Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman–get plenty of time to attack him, often in nasty, personal terms, as a deluded and dishonest egomaniac whose legacy to America will be eight years of George Bush. That’s grossly unfair, as the rest of the film makes clear.
Its title, by the way, comes from a great quote from George Bernard Shaw:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Two personal notes. (1) Midway through the film, my very first boss–Marcy Benstock, who I worked for at the NYC Clean Air Campaign in 1973–appears. She was a Nader Raider before starting the New York group that helped stopped the Westway highway. (2) The film hasn’t opened in Washington yet, but I saw it on cable because the Independent Film Channel now distribute independent films to cable’s video-on-demand platform on the day of their theatrical release. The man behind that idea, Josh Sapan, is one of my favorite people in the entertainment biz, and I wrote about his idea for an electronic art house more than a year ago. Nice to see it come to fruition.