Monday, February 25, 2008

Ralph Nader: The Political One-Car Accident

I used to admire Ralph Nader. He actually saved my life in 1966, after I read his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.

I was a semi-penniless college student driving a worn-out 1962 Chevrolet Corvair, which Nader prominently featured in his first chapter, titled “The One-Car Accident.” I had bought the car very cheaply from a gas station near campus, and, since I didn’t have much cash, the seller gladly had recorded the shady sale as “five used tires” on my gasoline credit card.

I soon realized, however, that I had an unstable beast on my hands. The engine was in the rear, which made the Corvair feel as if it were about to flip around tail-first any time I had to make fast stops or maneuver quickly in traffic. On wet or snowy roads, I drove with white knuckles and death-grips on the steering wheel, fearful that the heavy rear-end suddenly would start oscillating and whip around to the front. Until I read Nader’s book, I had no idea that the Corvair was hypersensitive to air-pressure differentials and temperature changes in its front and rear tires. And I was unaware that the car’s suspension system had serious design flaws which sometimes caused crashes.

Soon after reading Unsafe at Any Speed and surviving several near accidents, I got rid of the compact deathtrap and bought a tank: a 1958 Dodge with huge fins rising at its back and a massive engine in front. That car was as big as a parade float and fully loaded with the best Detroit steel and chrome. For as long as it lasted, I felt relatively safe at almost any speed.

So, thank you, Ralph Nader, for getting me out of that Corvair with my life and limbs intact. And now, shame on you, for screwing up the 2000 presidential election. By jumping in and stealing much-needed votes from Al Gore, you set the stage for King George and the neocons’ endless, needless war in Iraq. Double-shame on you, Mr. Nader, for stealing votes away from John Kerry in 2004, when Kerry really needed all the help he could get in his torpedoed attempt to oust Bush. And now, triple-shame on you for thinking your laudable war on corporate greed and corporate power should become the central issue in this year’s presidential race. Yes, it’s an important issue—one issue that definitely needs addressing. But it’s just one among hundreds of other pressing concerns.

You will get some votes. Many Americans are fed up with both parties and are paying scant attention to either side. And you are free to run for high office in our marvelous—and marvelously flawed—system. But you won’t win. In a really tight contest, you might siphon off just enough votes from an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket to let John McCain and his running mate slip through the back door.

Is this what you want? Do you hope historians will credit you as the man who gave us at least 12 consecutive years of conservative Republicanism and helped make the current American economy unsafe at any speed? Are you secretly happy that our once-vaunted international power and reputation have spun around into a one-car accident?

What can you offer that will help our nation heal and recover in this time of crisis? A corporate-free chicken in every pot? Two pimped-out Corvairs--on blocks--in every garage?

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