Then-presidential candidate Ralph Nader speaks to supporters in Waterbury, Conn., in 2008. (AP / George Ruhe)
NEW YORK— There was a time in Washington when a letter from Ralph Nader to the president or a Cabinet official might evoke not only a response but a press conference, news reports and action. Nader, with his armies of lawyers and citizen action committees behind him, could mobilize formidable forces, inside and outside government, on behalf of citizens. But with the rise of the corporate puppet Ronald Reagan, and once Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party sold out to corporate power in exchange for corporate money, electoral politics became farce, legislation and laws were turned over to lobbyists and corporate attorneys, and the citizen, whom Nader has spent his life defending, became irrelevant.
Nader still writes letters to the powerful, pounded out on his 50-year-old manual Underwood typewriter, but they are rarely answered. That he writes them, that he refuses to surrender and doggedly struggles against all odds for a restoration of American democracy and the rule of law, makes Nader one of the moral and intellectual giants of our age.
Nader’s newest book, “Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015,” a collection of letters to Barack Obama and George W. Bush (whom Nader once called “a corporation running for the presidency masquerading as a human being”), was inspired, he said, by the letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and between Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Harold Laski. In Nader’s letters the path to ruin built by corporate and imperial power is laid bare and the vision of a future freed from environmental catastrophe, corporate totalitarianism and financial exploitation and collapse is spelled out with quixotic clarity. Bush and Obama may not have read these letters, but American citizens should. True to Nader’s understanding of the vital importance of public utilities and public service, he dedicates the book to “the U.S. Postal Service, the people who make it work, and those citizens who have defended its critical role in thousands of communities throughout our country’s history starting with Benjamin Franklin.”
“Correspondence with presidents or politically elected people is the only way a citizen can connect with an elected representative, and deliver a fact,” Nader said last week when he spoke at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Union Square in New York. “If you try to do it through the press, it’ll either be blacked out, censored, filtered, ignored. If you try to do it at a fundraiser, there are no deliberative dialogues at fundraisers. If you try to do it at a rally, where the attendees are preselected, you put your hand up and ask a pointed question they’ll escort you out of the auditorium. The only way you can try to connect with your political rulers, whether it’s legislators, governors, presidents, whatever, the only way you can connect is through correspondence. And that is being shut down at an accelerated rate, especially since the onset of the Internet. It’s as if the politicians said, ‘You don’t have to write us letters, you can always tweet us, or you can always send us an email.’ Well, the White House shut down its fax machine, and has an email restriction to 2,500 characters.”
“It’s not easy to put together a book of letters and admit on the cover that they weren’t even acknowledged,” he said. “Because most people would say why would I want to minimize myself? Why would I want to admit doing this? And my answer is that when the system is so closed and self-replicating that it renders us powerless, the first step in gaining power is not to appear like we have no power. It’s not to concede our powerlessness.”
“The importance of correspondence also is extenuated by the overwhelming focus on screens, especially by the younger generation,” Nader went on. “If I was to attach an element of animism to some words in the dictionary, ‘horizon’ would say, ‘Oh me, oh my, so few people look at me these days.’ And the word ‘sidewalk’ would say, ‘Oh me, oh my, I’ve never had more people look in my direction, as these days.’ And they [members of the younger generation] are looking at screens. People spend endless time text-messaging, all the rest of it, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. They know what they’re doing through their iPhone. What they don’t know is what their iPhone is doing to them. They don’t know what the opportunity cost is, the lack of sociability, the lack of human personal connections. I don’t know any other way to start social movements of change unless people get together person to person. The Internet will tell you there’s an event. The Internet will bring you incredible information [at] … the speed of light. But it will not motivate you. With very few exceptions it does not go from virtual reality to reality. It will motivate some people to connect, but a large percentage of people don’t connect. The sidewalks are uninhabited. The city councils are full of empty seats [in the audience areas]. The courtrooms are barren, when they’re operating these days. The rallies have never been smaller.”
Nader’s dry humor is evident throughout the letters. For example, one of his letters to Obama came from “a captured” bacterium in a petri dish. “Dear President Obama, My name is E. coli O104:H4. I am being detained in a German Laboratory in Bavaria, charged with being ‘a highly virulent strain of bacteria.’ ” The E. coli points out that malaria, mycobacterium tuberculosis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) alone cause more than 3 million deaths each year. It argues that the most deadly global “terrorists” are disease-resistant bacteria and viruses. E. coli urges the president to devote far more resources to protecting citizens from epidemics rather than waging endless and futile wars in the Middle East.
Another letter is a response to a solicitation in 2014 to donate money to the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
“Dear President Bush,” Nader writes, “A few days ago I received a personalized letterfrom your Presidential Center that included a solicitation card for donations that actually provided words for my reply. They included ‘I’m honored to help tell the story of the Bush Presidency’ and ‘I’m thrilled that the Bush Institute is advancing timeless principles and practical solutions to the challenges facing our world.’ (Below were categories of ‘tax deductible contributions’ starting with $25 and going upward.)
“Did you mean the ‘timeless principles’ that drove you and Mr. Cheney to invade the country of Iraq which, contrary to your fabrications, deceptions and cover-ups, never threatened the United States? Nor could Iraq, under its dictator and his dilapidated military, threaten its far more powerful neighbors, even if the Iraqi regime wanted to do so.”
As a gift for the library’s collection, Nader enclosed in his response the book “Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions,” by Clyde Prestowitz.
The letters cover the urgent need for labor reform, the restoration of the rule of law domestically and internationally, a call to restore the quality of the nation’s drinking water, the necessity of campaign finance reform, the importance of raising the minimum wage, prosecution of corporate criminals on Wall Street, the structural violence of poverty, the need to put on trial those U.S. leaders who orchestrated our war crimes in the Middle East, the demand that Israel be sanctioned for its crimes against the Palestinians, an end to wholesale government surveillance, and the importance of empowering regulatory agencies. Nader writes the letters—given titles in the book such as “Protect Gaza,” “The Abuse of Prisoners,” “Take Labor Day Seriously” and “PardonJohn Kiriakou”—from the perspective of those who suffer from the abuses of corporate and imperial power. His outrage at what is done to the vulnerable and the weak is palpable.
He wrote President Obama on Nov. 9, 2013:
We strongly urge you to compose a letter of remorse, including an offer of compensation, to 9-year-old Nabila ur Rehman. She is a surviving grandchild of the 68-year-old Pakistani grandmother who was reduced to a grisly corpse by a drone strike you ordered last year. No claim or evidence has surfaced indicating the slain grandmother was mistaken for a jihadist or circulating among them.
The details of the apparent murder were related by the 9-year-old child recently in a congressional hearing hosted by Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL): “It was the day before Eid. My grandmother asked me to come help her outside. We were collecting okra, the vegetables. Then I saw in the sky the drone and I heard a ‘dum dum’ noise. Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream. I don’t know if it was my grandmother, but I couldn’t see her. I was very scared and all I could think of doing was just run. I kept running but I felt something in my hand. And I looked at my hand. There was blood. I tried to bandage my hand, but the blood kept coming.”
Speaking as American citizens, we are ashamed of what was done to that grandmother and granddaughter and what continues to be done to innocents. Silence would make us morally complicit in the cruelty that found expression in the grandmother’s killing. It would be no defense to echo the inelegant remark of a former secretary of defense: “[S]tuff happens.”
Playing prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner in secret to destroy individuals abroad on your say-so alone is fueling enmity against the United States that endangers us all—another example of blowback reminiscent of the birth of al-Qaeda from our participation in the disintegration of Afghanistan. Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani heroine and Nobel Peace Prize nominee [now winner], recently informed you at the White House that “drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people.”
In the same vein is a letter he sent to Obama in 2011 on Labor Day.
Dear President Obama,
Happy Labor Day! This is your third opportunity as president to go beyond your past tepid Labor Day proclamations. You could convey to 150 million workers that you stand with them by honoring your campaign pledge to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 over three years. You can add that a $9.50 minimum is still less than what workers made under the minimum wage in 1968, adjusted for inflation, when worker productivity was half of what it is today. Besides, businesses like Walmart have received windfalls year after year due to the minimum wage lagging behind inflation for decades.
Your second promise in 2008 was pushing for card check legislation—a top priority for the AFL-CIO, whose member unions helped elect you. “Give me the card check,” Rich Trumka, now AFL-CIO president, told me in 2004, “and millions of workers will organize into unions.”
I may have missed something but when was the last time you championed card check after you took your oath of office? Did you bring labor together, the way you brought big business together for their demands, and launch a public drive to overcome many of the obstructions workers now have to confront under the present corporate-driven union-busting climate?
And this letter, sent July 21, 2014.
Dear President Obama,
The moral authority to govern is an intangible, but very real, characteristic, especially in times of harsh public events. It stems significantly from one setting an example.
You have impaired that moral authority in three areas. First, were you to tell other countries not to engage in unlawful hostilities against other people, they would respond that you have used armed force and other interventions against countries and people in ways that violate our Constitution, federal statutes, the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Charter. Certainly that is what even your ally Israel would cite were you to criticize and sanction their war crimes against the people of Palestine year after year, including the use of U.S.-supplied weapons for “offensive” purposes banned by federal law.
Second, from the moment in 2008 when you opted out of the federal check-off funding of post-primary presidential campaigns and raised vastly more money from donors on Wall Street, other well-to-do donors, and the Internet, your credibility regarding campaign finance reform has been diminished. This explains in part why such reform has been low on your priorities list. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t sound very authentic.
Third, on Thursday, July 17, 2014, two tragedies occurred. The Malaysian Boeing 777 passenger plane was shot down over southeast Ukraine, and the Israeli army, with the support of the Israeli air force, commenced a ground invasion in Palestinian Gaza. That day you were conducting two fundraisers with wealthy donors outside of Washington. Rushing to adjust back to your presidential duties didn’t counter the negative imagery.
For someone who does not exactly have a Jim Farley type of personality, you certainly go to a lot of exclusive, political fundraisers all around the country. This allocation of your time is not only an unsavory distraction from your presidential responsibilities, but it comes at an opportunity cost for other types of public interest and charitable groups whose gatherings would like to hear your timely remarks. Have you or your associates ever thought of having Internet fundraisers with large numbers of people contributing smaller amounts and absorbing less of your time and that of your entourage going in and out of traffic to and from the destinations?
Unrelated to any moral authority to govern, you can, at the very least, immediately launch, with other nations, efforts to provide emergency assistance to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis presently afflicting Gazan children, women and men deprived of food, water, shelter, and medicine. They are besieged, defenseless, impoverished, and in dire circumstances.
“As has been said, democracy is not a spectator sport,” Nader wrote to Obama in 2014. “It requires a motivated citizenry, along with rights, remedies, and mechanisms that facilitate people banding together as candidates, voters, workers, taxpayers, consumers and communities. Concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few who decide for the many is the great destroyer of any society’s democratic functions. It was Justice Louis Brandeis who memorably stated that ‘we can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’ And another well-regarded jurist, Judge Learned Hand, declared, ‘If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.’ ”
“We’re being governed by corporations who are strategically planning every aspect of our lives,” Nader told the gathering in New York. “They are strategically planning our elections, our politics, our government, our media, our food, our transportation, our foreign policy, our allocation of public budgets. They’re even strategically planning our genes, and the genetic inheritance of the globe. They’re planning childhood. Childhood is exposed to direct marketing and violent programming. They are undermining and circumventing family authority, the authority of mothers and fathers over their own children, by direct and massive 24/7 marketing to 4-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 10-year-olds. And then the addictive industries move in, hooking them for a lifetime. Correspondence is the only thing left in terms of freedom, other than a spot call to a talk show host where you get in a hundred words before they pull the plug.”
“We are an advanced Third World country,” Nader said. “Not ‘we are becoming.’ We are an advanced Third World country with unsurpassed armaments and science and technology, because we want to show off to the rest of the world. But you look at the rest of our country, and 80 percent of the people are poorer today than they were in 1973. Look at the way most people live. You turn on the TV, that’s not most people. That’s the rich and famous.”
“Your generation has got to get a movement going,” he said to a young woman at the end of his talk. “Elizabeth Warren actually said, why are the students charged a higher rate [on loans] than Wall Street banks? Like 6 percent instead of virtually nothing? And she asked that question. Now you have a senator [Warren] that millions of students can rally around. The problem is that the students sign on to these contracts but the ax doesn’t fall until after they graduate. So they don’t feel it when they are able to congregate in their own auditoriums and student centers. And when they’re out there [after college], they’re scattered. Defused. Even though the Internet is supposed to be able to rally them. But I don’t give them any excuses, because they’re always bragging about the Internet, and all of their friends, and all of their links, right? They should be able to do it in 24 hours. Millions of students … are beaten down, and can’t buy a house at age 30, even though the interest rates are low, and are just frightened beyond their wits that by the time they’re 60 they’re still paying their student debt.”
I asked Nader afterward if he set aside certain periods in the day to write his letters.
“No,” he said. “My indignations are aroused any time of day or night.”