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My Life as Ralph Nader's Flunkie By: Charles Pekow
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Ralph Nader believes an independent candidacy should “generate more understandings and support for major new directions for our country.” His website says these new directions include “repeal of laws that obstruct trade union organization by millions of workers mired in poverty by wages that cannot meet their minimum family livelihoods.” The site prescribes “a living wage for tens of millions of workers making under $10 an hour.” But the perennial leftist candidate, whose name will appear on the presidential ballot for the third consecutive time this November, has not played by the same rules he strives to make binding for corporations and private businesses. In fact, when the minimum wage rose, he once cut back on the hours his technical staff would work. Despite the millions of dollars he commands, he historically paid his professional staff less than minimum wage. Nader, who told Business Week during the last campaign that he offers staff “unlimited sick leave,” ordered staffer George Riley to take a two-week leave of absence to work on a political campaign, refusing him to pay for the time. When I worked for Ralph Nader in 1980-81, he paid us $8,000 a year, hardly enough to get by on even then. We could scarcely afford the time to spend money, though, because Nader expected staff to work around the clock.

Before I got the job, I went through interviews with eight people on six occasions over a period of nearly two months. Before each interview, Naderites told me they’d decide my fate in a few days. But after each interview, they informed me I’d have to go through another. I barely subsisted during that time, hundreds of miles from my home with no means of support. I later discovered this was standard procedure – they’d tell people they need them in a hurry, then keep them in limbo for months.


Though Nader claims he wants to fight discrimination, he and his staff asked me my age, religion, sleeping habits, family tree, medical history and a lot of other highly personal questions in violation of District of Columbia’s employment law. In a Washington Post commentary, Sidney Wolfe, long time director of Nader’s Health Research Group complained that the government was forcing him to collect medical details on his employees that he did not want to know. This is strange, because he asked me all sorts of medical questions he had no legal right to ask about during our interview.


When I asked the personnel director about the personal tone of the interviewing, she acknowledged that her questions were “unethical” and said the working conditions are “illegal,” people are “treated unfairly” and they want to make sure those hired can take it.


I took the job because I was promised an opportunity to write a book about private mining on federal land. However, I never got to page one. Instead, Nader assigned us to dust off some uncompleted projects from years past that previous bewildered staffers had left undone. I later discovered Nader routinely hired people on one premise, then gave them something entirely different to do.


On the campaign trail, Nader condemns sexism and racism but that did not seem to affect his hiring. As my first job out of grad school, I joined an all-white, predominantly male staff of young troopers. Only those unburdened by student debt could afford the call, largely the offspring of the same corporate executives Nader rails against. During my tenure, the staff included the sons of the chairman of Mobil Oil and an Exxon manager. (The entire staff, these two industrial scions included, burst into laughter upon hearing that Ronald Reagan had been shot.) Staff routinely discarded job applications from anyone with a family.


Staff turned over rapidly. Few people could stand the hours, pay and abuse for more than a year or two. Nader founded groups to fight for everything from housing to tax reform, then lost interest in them and let them wither by not replacing people who left. Disorganized files lay stocked with uncompleted and unpublished reports. Nader also worked his employees non-stop. Once, after a magazine editor printed a few lines he did not like, Nader punished him by demanding he travel from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore to change the copy, knowing the editor had been up all night meeting his deadline.


Most of the time we did not even know what our colleagues were doing, as Nader did not conduct staff meetings or encourage communication between the many groups of his empire; for years he would not even countenance a staff directory. Though he demanded openness in government, he maintained the utmost secrecy about his own organization’s finances. The National Information Bureau, which rated charities, reported that Nader’s organizations would not provide information.


Nader did not reserve his vindictiveness for corrupt politicians and corporate conglomerates. When consulted as a former employer, he would paint former workers in the most negative way he could to get back at them for leaving. Nader’s vindictiveness routinely overcame common sense when choosing battles. Back in the 1970s, Nader fought to establish a federal Agency for Consumer Advocacy to represent consumer interests before other federal agencies. When Congress declined to enact his dream, a furious Nader sought revenge by starting a leftist muckraking newsletter called Congress Probe. It did not occur to Nader that no readership existed for such a rag. It never attracted more than about 100 subscribers before Nader folded it. Nader later devoted endless time and resources in a useless battle to stop members of Congress from giving themselves a pay raise.


He also maintained a hatred for General Motors, the subject of the expose’ that made him famous, 1965’s Unsafe at Any Speed. The spite led Nader to decimate his office 15 years later by sending five of his closest staffers to Detroit for nearly six months in a hopeless battle to prevent GM from building a factory in a residential area.


Nader also did not believe in rewarding allies. Though the International Association of Machinists supported Nader’s causes more forcefully than any other union, he constantly complained about the rent several of his groups had to pay in a machinist-owned building. When the machinists, who were losing money on the building, raised the rent, Nader’s staff tried to organize other tenants to picket union headquarters.


Those picketers were almost always paid staff, protesting the causes Nader dictated. Nader regularly used his paid organizers to turn create “public” demonstrations on the street. At one such event, Nader rabble-rouser Russell Mokhiber instructed me not to tell anyone I worked for Nader, so as to make the event appear a public outpouring, not the gathering of Naderites it really was. We were routinely summoned from our desks to grab signs to picket some association, corporation or Congressional action to protest anything from weakening air bag rules to factory construction. Shortly after an assassin gunned down John Lennon, the office protested outside National Rifle Association headquarters, passing out flyers saying the event was organized by “Citizens Against Violence,” a non-existent group made up for the occasion. So much for “transparency” and “truth in advertising”!


When I was actually at my desk (most waking hours), I was assigned to work with George Riley, a workaholic like Nader who shared Nader’s fanaticism for the “public interest.” Despite his commitment, Nader showed Riley nothing but scorn. Riley routinely arrived at the office before 8 a.m. and stayed until close to midnight, seven days a week. The harder Riley tried, the more Nader worked him and insulted him with biting sarcasm. Nader loaded Riley with more work than anyone could possibly do, than screamed at him for not doing it. More than once, Riley had to stay up almost all night to meet a sudden deadline Nader imposed on him for anything from a legal brief to a brochure. Editors often get upset when writers miss deadlines, but Ralph would blow up at Riley for not turning in an assignment the week before it was due.


For his part, Riley wore his heart on his sleeve for Nader to peck at. He dreaded the constant meetings with Nader and phone calls Ralph would make to chew him out. He could not talk back to Nader, though he constantly cursed him out behind his back. At 1 a.m. on a weekend morning, while Riley scrambled to meet a magazine deadline, Nader walked into the room and told him “you’re setting the world’s record for slowest production time.” Riley groused, “He only says those things because he knows they upset me.”


Nader called Riley at the office at 5 p.m. every Sunday, taking it for granted he’d answer. Once Nader broke of a telephone conversation at 8 p.m., saying he’d call back later. When he called back close to midnight, he said nothing new; he merely wanted to ensure Riley was working long enough.


Riley took off a year from Harvard Law School to work for Nader. When Riley prepared to reenroll, Harvard notified him it needed a letter from his employer confirming his employment and indicating his work was satisfactory. Nader told Riley to bring him the letter and he’d sign it. So Riley wrote a pro forma note saying, “George Riley has been working for me for the past year and his work has been satisfactory.” Before signing the letter, Nader inserted the word “partially” before the word “satisfactory.” This from the same man who called the Reagan administration “heartless” and “cruel.” (Harvard re-admitted Riley.)


If a project did not fly, Nader blamed it on staff and gave it to somebody else. So Riley and I knew that no matter what our better judgment told us, we could not advise Nader that a project remain undone. First, he told us to organize a small business group. Nader remained vague on what he wanted and routinely left town after giving us contradictory instructions. First, we thought we were supposed to start a small business lobby, another tool for Nader to slam big business with. Then he said he wanted a progressive business organization, welcome even to big business. Thoroughly confused, we told Nader we’d write a report on the subject.


We spent a few months researching small business issues in the wake of the Reagan election. We found even liberal businesspeople felt overwhelmed with taxes and regulation. Knowing Nader would never agree to reduce regulation, we suggested that a progressive business group could lobby to redistribute Reagan’s tax cuts so small businesses would get a bigger share. Nader responded by saying he was not interested in tax cuts. Then he finally told us what he wanted: a national laboratory where small business could test products, hardly a realistic idea. We threw up our hands.


In typical form, Nader lost interest in the idea and put us to work on another project our predecessors had left to twist in the wind. Nader demanded that we organize a “Conference on Excessive Corporate Legal Fees.” Somehow, Nader convinced himself the CEOs of the nation’s largest corporations would flock to his daylong seminar to help them fight the astronomical cost of their lawyers. It did not bother Nader that that many executives blame him for many of their legal costs because of his crusading for regulation. And neither Riley nor I knew the first thing about conference planning. To the surprise of no one but Nader, we came up with a mess.


We could find no market for the thousands of people Nader insisted would show up but he demanded we reserve the biggest ballroom we could find while simultaneously not letting us know what dates he’d be available. Each time we found a date we could rent a ballroom, Nader said he could not make it, changed his mind from yes to no, or said he’d come after an all-night flight from California. We nixed that idea for fear he’d fall asleep at the conference (as he often did during conversations). Nader, meanwhile, continually chastised us for the delays and said our alleged incompetence “annoys the sh-t out of me.”


That summer, several interns came to Washington to be paid about $70 a week to write a report for Nader. After a few weeks of research, Nader switched them to another project. They refused, so Nader stopped paying them.


But Nader would not let his ideas die, no matter how impractical. He once tried to organize a national lobby of sports enthusiasts, called Fight to Advance Nation’s Sports (FANS). The group was supposed to lobby against moves such as trades of popular players and high ticket prices. The office closed in a few months. Nader somehow did not learn from the experience and revived the notion: his office now runs a League of Fans, which thinks it can influence pro sports.


Perhaps Nader’s greatest hypocrisy, though, is his brutal anti-union actions. Publicly, Nader declares support for organized labor, pronouncing on his campaign website that “the notorious Taft-Hartley Act that makes it extremely difficult for employees to organize unions needs to be repealed.” But he viciously busted attempts of his own employees to unionize


“The day after we filed for recognition, the locks were changed. I was fired. A few days later, the other people were fired,” recalls Tim Shorrock, who edited the Multinational Monitor, a Nader magazine, in the 1980s. “They went after me in an incredibly vicious way. When they fired me, they asked me for all my boxes back,” including ones Shorrock had brought with him to the job and considered his personal property. Nader tried to have local police arrest Shorrock and sued him, a case later dropped. “It was pure harassment,” Shorrock says – the same type of high-handed pressure Nader condemns in government and business.


The press has contiually covered up Nader’s foibles. Reports periodically appeared in 2000 and this year criticizing him for hurting the Democrats’ chance of winning the White House. But though the press looked hard for any congressional vote that might have embarrassed Dick Cheney (like a vote against augmenting Head Start), it only glorifies Nader’s career. Reporters would not have had to look hard to see the seamy side. Several books detailed his shenanigans, including Me & Ralph: Is Nader Unsafe for America, a 1976 expose' by former Naderite David Sanford; and Abuse of Trust: A Report on Ralph Nader’s Network by Dan Burt, published in 1982.


And many prominent journalists who cover politics toiled for Nader in their youth know the truth but cover it up. These include Margaret Carlson of Time, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times and CNN, Dave Corn of Nation, Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive (who endorsed Nader’s last campaign), Karen Croft of Salon (who wrote a glowing profile of him stating “All of us Naderites …have the deepest respect for him”) and many others.


Even the journalism reviews (Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review and now-defunct Brill’s Content) in their quadrennial post-campaign assessment limited their coverage of Nader to echoing his complaints that he did not get enough space and time to get his message out. (Shorrock and I both spent the 2000 campaign year trying to get our message out but the mainstream media ignored us in favor of Naderite hagiography.)


And this year? We’re already hearing the same complaints from Democrats that he’s spoiling their chances. We’ll undoubtedly hear that throughout the course of the 2004 presidential campaign. But count on the media to continue lionizing Nader and his leftist agenda.

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