There's little doubt in my mind that Ralph Nader will go down in history as one of the truly great Americans. The question is, how big will the asterisk be next to his name? Back in the '60s and '70s, Nader all but invented consumer advocacy, the idea that John and Jane Q. Public could single-handedly take on Big Government and Big Industry by conducting research, writing reports, filing lawsuits and holding press conferences. And some people have argued that, when it comes to proposing legislation that actually got through Congress, Nader's had more success than many presidents. Then, in 2000, the lone wolf decided to run for president himself, a quixotic campaign that, because the vote was so terribly close, may have swung the election for George Bush. And many people ' not just mainstream Democrats but former Nader supporters as well ' have never forgiven him for that. Nader's response? He ran again in 2004.
Hence, the documentary An Unreasonable Man, which takes its title from George Bernard Shaw's quote about how, because the reasonable man adapts himself to the world and the unreasonable man keeps trying to adapt the world to himself, 'all progress depends on the unreasonable man.' Whether Nader, who seems a willing participant, signed off on that quote is a question for the documentary's directors, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, who've come not to bury Nader but to praise him. That they've also given his opponents plenty of opportunity to air their grievances seems in keeping with Nader's philosophy that individual voices deserve to be heard. But oh those voices! Asked to comment on Nader's presidential bids, Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, lefties from way back, all but foam at the mouth. Alterman blames Nader for both the war in Iraq and the destruction of the Constitution.
A diptych of sorts, An Unreasonable Man is rather evenly divided between a look back at Nader's consumer-advocacy days and a free-for-all over whether he should have run for office. And the look back is as inspiring as ever, Nader emerging on the national stage as a one-man Consumer Protection Agency via his battle with General Motors over the safety of its automobiles. (Unsafe at Any Speed was the first book I ever bought with my own hard-earned cash.) GM made the mistake of trying to smear Nader, with hired women proposing various compromising positions. But Nader's personal life, to the extent he has one, is beyond reproach. And the invasion-of-privacy lawsuit settlement with GM, which came to nearly a half million dollars, wound up serving as seed money for Nader's expanding network of college-kid muckrakers, known affectionately as Nader's Raiders. The battle was on.
Seat belts, air bags, OSHA, FOIA, the Clean Air Act ' no part of American life was left untouched by Nader, who went after the automobile and pharmaceutical industries long before Michael Moore retraced his steps in a clown costume. And when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, it looked like Nader's time had come. But it didn't work out that way. When Ronald Reagan was elected, four years later, Nader's time had clearly gone. The so-called Reagan Revolution, under the banner of getting government off our backs, would systematically dismantle much of what Nader had helped build, casting him into the wilderness for the next two decades. (Bill Clinton, the documentary suggests, was no friend of Nader's causes, nor was Nader a Friend of Bill.) And by showing us how far Nader had drifted from the limelight, Mantel and Skrovan help us understand why he decided to run for president. He needed a pulpit.
Presidential campaigns are bully pulpits indeed, and whether or not Nader 'spoiled' the election, he certainly got himself heard again, which must have been intoxicating. The documentary delves deeply into the role Nader's candidacy played, the point/counterpoint approach generating more heat than light. But who would deny Nader the right to have his views aired? Well, the debate commission, for one. We're shown footage of Nader, having gotten hold of a ticket to a presidential debate he'd been deliberately excluded from, being denied entrance by a state cop who offers to escort him off the premises and/or off to jail. 'I've never been arrested,' Nader says, a shocking revelation from a man who, come to think of it, has always chosen to work within rather than against the system. That he's had such success, while holding on to his dignity, is almost ' almost ' enough to get you to shout, 'Nader in '08!