Born in Connecticut in 1934, Ralph Nader went on to study law and became a crusader of car-safety reform in the 1960s. In 1971 he founded the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and has continued to be an opponent of unchecked corporate power. Beginning in the 1990s, Nader entered the U.S. presidential race multiple times, with a notable run as candidate for the Green Party in the 2000 election.
A Sense of Justice
Born on February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut, Ralph Nader was the youngest of four children. His parents, Rose and Nathra, were Lebanese immigrants who owned a restaurant and bakery that became a gathering place for the small community in which they lived. At both the restaurant and the dinner table at home, politics and current events were discussed freely, and Nathra instilled in his children a sense of social justice.
Nader attended the preparatory Gilbert School in his hometown and later Princeton University, both on scholarships. In 1955, he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in East Asian studies from the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton. While there, Nader made one of his first forays into activism, trying unsuccessfully to stop the university from using the now widely banned pesticide DDT on campus trees.
After graduating from Princeton, Nader attended Harvard Law School. While there, he served as the editor of the Harvard Law Record, in which he published his first article on the automobile industry, “American Cars: Designed for Death." Nader argued that auto fatalities did not result just from driver error but from poor vehicle design as well.
Unsafe at Any Speed
After receiving his law degree with distinction in 1958, Nader served briefly in the U.S. Army before working as a freelance journalist on several continents. He returned to Connecticut in 1959, settling in Hartford, where he began to practice law. In 1961 Nader also began to teach history and government at the University of Hartford.
By 1963, however, he had grown bored with practicing law and decided to relocate to Washington, D.C., where he hoped to make more of a difference. He didn’t have to wait long. In 1964, Nader’s college article on auto safety and design caught the attention of Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel P. Moynihan, who had long been interested in automobile safety design and had written an article of his own in 1959 titled “Epidemic on the Highways.” In 1965 Moynihan hired Nader as a part-time consultant at the Labor Department. Nader subsequently wrote a background report making recommendations for federal regulation in highway safety, however, it received little attention.
After leaving the Department of Labor in May 1965, Nader proceeded to write what would become his breakout book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, published in November of that year. In this classic of muckraking journalism, Nader criticized the auto industry for putting style and power over safety, and questioned the federal government's lax attitude on regulation. In particular, Nader cited the Chevrolet Corvair as a poorly designed automobile and produced convincing evidence that a driver could lose control of the vehicle even at slow speeds. Unsafe also promoted the philosophy regarding government regulation of industry that has guided Nader's efforts ever since: Economic interests, which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology, need to be controlled.
The Auto Industry Strikes Back
General Motors (GM)—the world’s largest corporation at the time, and producer of the Chevrolet Corvair—did not take kindly to Nader’s crusade. The company sent investigators to harass Nader and make menacing phone calls to his friends and family. Private investigators spied on his activities and attempted to discredit him by allegedly luring him into compromising situations with women.
General Motors’ investigation of Nader came to light in 1966, during U.S. Senate hearings on auto safety. After repeated questioning and admonishments by committee members, GM chief James Roche publicly apologized for any alleged wrongdoing, but denied that GM had tried to trap Nader in any lurid activities. Later, Nader sued GM and won a judgement of $425,000, which he used to found the Center for Auto Safety and several other public-interest groups.
Nader’s testimony before the Senate also set in motion Congressional action on automobile safety, and in September 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This law created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees federal safety standards for automobiles and is authorized to impose recalls for unsafe vehicles. In 1967, in a throwback to Upton Sinclair, Nader also initiated a campaign that led to the passage of the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act, which imposed federal standards on slaughterhouses.
In the late 1960s and mid-1970s, Ralph Nader mobilized college students to form Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), which aided his investigations in public policy and effective government regulation. His professional associates, sometimes referred to derisively as "Nader's Raiders," published reports on a wide range of subjects, including baby food, insecticides, mercury poisoning and coal-mine safety. Nader also founded the Center for Responsive Law in 1968 and Public Citizen Inc. in 1971. Idealistic and modest, he became known among his associates for his Spartan personal habits and long working hours.
However, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan dismantled many of the government regulations that Nader helped establish. But while this blunted his effectiveness for a time, Nader continued his crusades to lower car-insurance rates in California, expose the dangers of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer and prevent limitations on consumer lawsuit rewards. Amidst these activist efforts, Nader also wrote several more books, including The Menace of Atomic Energy (1977), Who's Poisoning America (1981), Good Works (1981) and No Contest (1996).
Stepping even further into the world of politics, Nader ran for president in every election from 1992 to 2008. In all of them, he operated a no-frills campaign, accepting no corporate or taxpayer money. In 2000, claiming he could see no difference between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore, Nader ran for president as the candidate for the Green Party. The election turned out to be one of the closest in American history between the two major party candidates.
Gore ultimately lost the election, and Nader was accused of having taken support away from him in several key states, especially Florida, where Gore lost by 537 votes. Subsequent studies on the election were divided in their assessment of how influential Nader’s campaign actually was, however most political experts point to the fact that Gore lost in his home state of Tennessee, that over 250,000 Democrats in Florida voted for Bush and that it was the U.S. Supreme Court that halted the recount in Florida, allowing Bush to ultimately win the election. Ignoring the harsh criticism, Nader ran for president again in 2004 and 2008 as an independent, winning 0.38 and 0.56 percent of the popular vote, respectively.
In 2012 and 2016, Ralph Nader declined to run again for president, but said he was looking for “enlightened billionaires” to put his support behind.
However, during his period of perpetual candidacy, he wrote scores of letters to serving presidents on campaign finance reform, the minimum wage and Supreme Court nominations. He has compiled these letters into a collection titled Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001–2015. Nader claims the book sets a higher standard and tries to stimulate Americans to write letters to their representatives.
Ever consumed with his many endeavors, Nader has never married.
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