A confederacy of doers

Sam Smith, 2005 – I had never been invited to dinner by Ralph Nader before, so I figured I’d better check it out.

The hall where the drinks were being served could have been at any one of the scores of events Washington was throwing that night, but the difference soon became apparent. The difference was in the cause and the crowd. It was a confederacy of doers gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of one of the most important books of our moment in history: Unsafe at Any Speed.

It had to be a large room because Nader, after all, was the guy who introduced cloning to contemporary progress. The business of leadership, he says, is creating more leaders, not more followers and the fruits of his labor were there: people like Lowell Dodge, Joan Claybrook, Sid Wolfe, John Richard, Teresa D’Amato, Russell Mokhiber, and Carl Nash. And reporters who shared or spread Nader’s sense that the truth – whether in a Vietnam village or in a automobile factory – even if it doesn’t set you free, may at least keep you alive. Reporters like Jim Ridgeway, Bill Greider and Sy Hersh. And people who had taken the Nader idea and applied it to other things, like Linda Schade of True Vote, currently leading the fight to make elections in Maryland safe at any speed of vote count.

Auto safety seems so reasonable today, but when Nader proposed Unsafe At Any Speed to a big publisher, he replied that “Alas, I fear it would only be of interest to insurance agents.” Around that time, my wife, then assistant press secretary to Senator Gaylord Nelson, pitched a auto safety article to Parade Magazine that drew on Nader’s work. They weren’t at all interested.

The auto manufacturers, however, quickly saw the importance. Jim Ridgeway – whose coverage of Nader drew the attention of Unsafe’s eventual publisher, Richard Grossman – described in a 1966 article the industry’s reaction to the “lanky Washington attorney of 32 who recently has been getting publicity because he went after the automobile makers.” His landlady got a call to find out whether he paid his rent on time. His stockbroker was called by an investigator who claimed to be representing someone who wanted to hire Nader. The editor of a law journal for which Ralph had written was approached the same way and asked about Nader’s drinking habits. An attractive brunette approached him and said that a group of her friends were interested in foreign affairs and they wanted to get all viewpoints. Would he join them? He claimed to be from out of town. Oh that’s all right, the woman said. The meeting’s tonight. The next day, the man to whom Nader had dedicated his book, got a call from an investigator wanting to know about the activist’s sex life and left wing leanings. And later that afternoon, Nader discovered two men following him as he flew back from Philadelphia from an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show. . .

If that all seems out of another time, consider this: from the moment Nader testified to the Ribicoff committee on Capitol Hill to the time that America had new federal car safety legislation that is still saving lives took all of about six months. Try to get anything done in Washington today in six months.

But that was a time of Phil Hart and Gaylord Nelson, not Tom DeLay and Duke Cunningham. And a time of Jim Ridgeway and Sy Hersh and not of TV toy journalists who look as though their last beat had been covering themselves at a beauty parlor.

Of course, the stories are still there. Dr. Sid Wolfe is doing much the same thing with medicine that his friend once did with the auto industry. Medicine – that’s medicine, not disease – is one of our major causes of death through such things as adverse drug reactions and hospital infections.

Yet if you read the morning paper, you will get little idea of the problem other than as incidents without context, as if each bad drug was an exception to the general rule of benign health care. Perhaps even the user’s fault.

Just like, forty years go, they said about auto crashes. Until Ralph Nader came along.

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