For someone who has been a longtime national figure, Ralph Nader has an unassuming manner, but at this stage of his life he may, in the mode of onetime perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen, also have a tendency to overstate his role in the scheme of things.
Both tendencies were on exhibit Friday as Nader, assisted by one traveling aide and one local helper, came to Memphis for an appearance on behalf of his latest presidential candidacy. Speaking from a portable podium set up in front of City Hall (he had been denied access to the Hall of Mayors inside), Nader began modestly enough, introducing himself to a small battery of reporters as "an independent candidate for the presidency of the United States" and, taking note of a slowly gathering storm, asking politely, "Is that noise bothering y'all?"
Soon enough, the combination of thunder and rain heavy enough for its windblown swoops to seep underneath the City Hall overhang would jeopardize the outdoor portion of the press conference. A game Nader, who had already discussed the current Wall Street crisis, "the worst meltdown since 1929," as a scourging of taxpayers and giveaway to "crooks" and condemned the "pervasive" corporate influence within the two major parties, tried for a while to work the miscreant weather into his second major theme -- Memphis' location on the New Madrid Fault.
"Apropos this thunder, Memphis is in extreme peril of a disastrous earthquake. It's not a matter of if, it's only a matter of when," Nader said, not very reassuringly. And that inevitable cataclysm would not only destroy Memphis but severely damage St. Louis. Worse: "This area has a major natural gas trunkline going all the way to New England. The resulting fire would be like nothing any other city, including Chicago, has ever seen."
Nader had gotten into his third point - relating to the Tennessee Valley Authority and purportedly untoward contracts TVA had with Bechtel and other corporations when he yielded to the pleadings of his traveling aide and finally surrendered to the raging elements, which, in every sense of the term, had begun to drown him out.
"Let's go inside," the young aide insisted. Nader sprouted a grin: "Why? Do you suppose there's a storm coming?" And, as he bundled up his papers and hurried inside City Hall, he turned to a reporter and observed, "This is almost like a Shakesperean play."
Lear, thought the reporter, following the 74-year-old Nader inside.
When the press conference resumed, in a forward corner of City Hall just inside the doors, Nader continued listing planks in his platform: solar energy, windpower, a "massive technology efficiency program for automobiles" (shades of Unsafe at Any Speed, the well-researched 1966 philippic which had made the young Nader's name), a tax policy aimed at Wall Street excesses, addictive industries, corporate crime, gambling, and pollution, "all things we'd like to diminish," and not at workers' wages.
Nader noted that he and vice-presidential running mate Matt Gonzalez of San Francisco were on the November ballots of 45 states, a fact which made them technically able to win the presidency in the Electoral College. He cited polls showing the ticket running at "5, 6, 7 percent" in various states and at 8 percent in New Mexico.
That should have qualified him for inclusion in the forthcoming series of presidential debates, he argued, and he held out hope that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg might have enough clout to arrange his inclusion in at least one of them. "He can pull it off," Nader said.
The candidate was at pains to point out that, at a time when Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain were deadlocked in Florida, a sampling of voters that included Nader cost McCain votes but not Obama. This was clearly an effort to dissociate himself from culpability in the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000.
"All he [Gore] had to do was win his home state of Tennessee and he'd be president," Nader pointed out. And, no matter how many votes he himself had won in Florida that might have gone to Gore, the fact was that the Republicans, aided by "the five politicians on the Supreme Court," had "stolen" Florida and thereby the election for Bush .
In any case, Nader's own conscience was clear. And, for all his hopefulness and determination and commitment to the serious reforms that he had begun advocating long ago in his muckraking days the basic modesty of his demeanor suggested that he realized what everybody else has in 2008. He is unlikely to pose that kind of threat or have that kind of influence this time around.
Still, he was Ralph Nader, and as the reporters left, he stayed behind for a while inside City Hall, maybe to indulge the one or two bystanders and well-wishers who recognized him and wanted some time, or maybe just waiting for the weather to change.