Friday, September 18, 2009 (AP)
Novel approach: Ralph Nader turns to fiction
By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
(09-18) 06:53 PDT WASHINGTON, (AP) —
Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and corporate scourge, is saying nice
things about the kind of folks you’d expect him to despise.
“Never in America have there been more super-rich people with relatively
enlightened views,” says Nader, lean and hopeful at age 75, dark eyes
aglow as he speaks at the offices of Public Citizen, the progressive
research and advocacy group he founded nearly 40 years ago.
“Not all the super-rich are craven greedhounds, dominators and bullies.
Some of them take on their counterpart greedhounds, dominators and
It’s as if Glenn Beck had found the bright side of socialism.
Nader hasn’t turned conservative and he isn’t making this stuff up,
although he is, in a way. After decades of speeches, articles, policy
papers and policy books attacking corporations and politicians, Nader has
turned to fiction.
“Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” is more than 700 pages, worthy of a
billionaire’s portfolio, and its heroes are a gang of 70-something
plutocrats, from Warren Buffett and Ted Turner to Bill Cosby and Yoko Ono,
who conspire to set off a progressive revolution.
The story begins in 2005, not long after Hurricane Katrina. A secret
gathering is convened by Buffett at a Maui mountain retreat, where 17 very
wealthy people agree to take back the country they think has been
They give speeches, write books, organize community action groups. They
infiltrate corporate boards of directors, stage demonstrations for the
environment and better wages. They start a People’s Chamber of Commerce,
advocate changing the national anthem to “America the Beautiful” and dream
up a politicized parrot, “Patriotic Polly,” that becomes a media folk
“Fiction is a way to liberate the imagination,” Nader says, “to see what
could happen if 17 billionaires and super-rich people really put their
minds to it, along with a parrot, and took on the existing business power
bloc and the politicians in Washington who serve (it).”
The super-rich name themselves “Meliorists,” believers that people can
make the world better. They persuade the elusive Warren Beatty to run
against Arnold Schwarzenegger for California governor. They conspire to
force Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to allow its workers to unionize. They push for
universal health care. They start a new political party, dedicated to
publicly financed elections. They are so quick, and clever, their foes
can’t catch up.
The masses respond. Conservative smear campaigns fail. The corporations
and the politicians retreat, powerless against the joy and fire of an
“In the real world?” asked Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The
Nation, the liberal weekly where some of Nader’s early writings appeared.
“In the real world of satire I can imagine it, but not in the other world,
the one we inhabit. But Ralph is a prophet; he has been right about so
many things the rest of us couldn’t imagine.”
“The cast seems a bit like People magazine, doesn’t it?” said
author-journalist Alexander Cockburn, who supported Nader’s 2000 and 2004
third-party presidential campaigns and has frequently published his essays
in Counterpunch, a left-wing newsletter Cockburn co-edits.
“Good luck to Ralph. God knows how he found the time to write a 700-page
novel. … But the use of billionaire’s money for anything other than
malign purposes is extremely rare, as Ralph well knows.”
Nader teases, but doesn’t kid. He believes the top can motivate the masses
and wants very much for the people mentioned in his novel to read it. He
already has some success: Early blurbs came from Beatty (“With this
utopian fantasy, he shows us how good he thinks things could be”) and from
Patti Smith, whose “People Have the Power” becomes a progressive theme
song in the book.
Messages left with Buffett and fellow Meliorist Barry Diller were not
immediately returned. Spokesmen for Ono and Turner each said their client
had yet to read the book and would have no comment.
Since the days of Karl Marx, revolutionaries have debated how much, if
any, help from the top was needed to overthrow the ruling class. Nader
thinks that the aging rich make for ideal instigators — wise and
wealthy, beyond accusations of personal ambition, people of the highest
achievement, yet also frustrated.
“They’re very demoralized as to the state of the country,” Nader says.
“They play golf and they grumble and they’ve persuaded themselves that
they’re powerless, which is absurd.”
His book includes pages of detailed policy proposals, Nader’s common
literary format, and draws upon public and personal observations. He
believes each of the super-rich included is capable of the actions taken
in his novel, citing as an example Turner’s well-documented interest in
Nader says his decision to write a novel was in part a response to the
nonfiction books he had read in recent years. The corruption of
politicians and financial institutions is diligently investigated and
revealed. But only the problems are addressed; solutions either are not
provided or are too dull to inspire.
“You can see it on TV,” he says, “when (liberal author-journalist) Bill
Greider gets on Bill Moyers, for example, and he talks about the failure
of the Federal Reserve and the Wall Street collapse and that’s all very
“And then he gets to, `Here’s one thing you can do about it. You can
re-enact the usury laws and control the skyrocketing, gouging interest
rates that fed all this speculation.’ People look the other way.”
Greider, whose books include “Come Home, America” and “The Soul of
Capitalism,” countered that he had received strong, positive reaction for
his advocacy of usury laws, which set maximum interest rates for loans.
“But I agree, in general, about what happens with exposes,” he says. “It’s
a basic complaint, that there’s not a follow-through of outrage and action
to books like mine, and to his, I might add.”
Parts of the novel are now physically impossible. The super-rich crusaders
include Paul Newman, who last year died of cancer (Nader says he was
already well into the book, and that Newman’s role was too important to
remove him from the story).
Another Meliorist is Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble Inc.,
whom Nader places in charge of organizing street rallies. The reason:
Riggio once told Nader that he had a lifelong dislike of bullies, strange
comfort for the many independent booksellers — retailers long
championed by Nader — who blame Barnes & Noble for helping to drive
them out of business.
“I’m pretty sure that’s accurate, what he feels about bullies, but it’s
still ironic,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers
Association, which represents the country’s independent stores.
“There are ironies,” Nader acknowledges. “These people are not angels. And
that’s one reason they’re so effective, because they’re not angels.”
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Nader was born in Winsted, Conn., in 1934,
and remembers that as a teenager he finished “dozens” of socially
conscious works such as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and the muckraking
of Ida Tarbell. He would read and listen to the radio, to baseball games
featuring, irony again, those ultimate underdogs, the New York Yankees.
“That’s my only Yankee imperialism,” he says. “But that was before (team
owner George) Steinbrenner. I was coming off the image and history of Babe
Ruth and my hero, Lou Gehrig … because he showed me stamina.”
His education was pinstriped: Princeton University as an undergraduate,
then Harvard Law School. In his 20s, he taught and worked as a lawyer in
Hartford, Conn., and freelanced articles, notably a 1959 piece for The
Nation in which he charged the leading automakers with caring more about
design than about safety.
Six years later, he published “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a slow seller at
first that helped launch the modern consumer movement, thanks in part to
those he attacked. General Motors, builder of the Corvair, the “sporty”
little deathtrap that was the main target of Nader’s book, assigned
private investigators to dig up dirt. The resulting publicity propelled
the book onto the best-seller lists, got Nader a personal apology from the
president of GM, and pushed Congress to pass new auto-safety laws and
“Ralph Nader became famous 40-plus years ago operating on a fairly
straightforward logic, that if you expose wrongdoing and get attention, it
will produce a political reaction,” Greider says. “And that’s what his
campaign was about, and it was successful, and helped lead to laws for
clean water, clean air and a rather long list of legislation.”
Nader said it took just months to finish the novel, “the words flying out”
of his Underwood typewriter, a process so flush that when an occasional
thunderstorm knocked out the electricity he would continue to work, by
He cites a couple of reasons for waiting until now to try fiction:
“insufficient” imagination and a stubborn belief, now worn down, that the
truth was enough, that “around the corner we’d have a breakthrough in
health care, we’d have a breakthrough in corporate accountability.” His
mind was not changed by the election of Barack Obama.
Even Utopia isn’t perfect. Of all the hurdles cleared and miracles
realized in his novel, one great leap is never considered:
Ralph Nader becoming president.
“Fiction has some boundaries,” he says with a laugh.
Copyright 2009 AP