Haven't you always wondered what Ralph Nader groupies look like? I have. Nader's a sort of celebrity in the way that tofu's a sort of food, and in these effervescent days of cable exposure, all politicians -- even a serial scold -- are national personalities.
The best-kept political secret is the law of nature that dictates that all campaigns for office are fueled by sexual energy. Kennedy and Clinton didn't invent this business, they just got caught. So what is the primal vibe in the effort to get Nader on the ballot?
To scratch this itch, I went to Nader's campaign appearance last week at Estrella Mountain Community College. In addition to my nosiness about what sort of woman would throw her panties at someone named Ralph, I was also curious to see if one of the century's great vinegar pusses would recognize a pass when one came his way.
It is clear, isn't it, that I am not a huge fan of Mr. Nader?
And my distaste has nothing to do with Nader denying Al Gore the presidency. Gore was the worst sort of student council geek, a wonk who claimed to have invented the Internet. Worse, he let it be known, as if it were a good thing, that the male character in Erich Segal's two-hankie novel, Love Story, was based on Al. Gore's rightful place in history was secured by the galvanizing effect his endorsement had upon Howard Dean's campaign.
No, my antipathy for Nader is based upon bicycle helmets and personal injury lawsuits.
Nader's cultural legacy is that boys must grow up with the lame-ass idea that you can't ride a damned bicycle without a helmet.
Beginning with his breakout book Unsafe at Any Speed, a seminal critique of the automotive industry's shabby cars, Nader has pushed the idea that not only is the world a dangerous place, but that the remedy for life's slips and falls is a lawsuit.
Nader's approach is embraced by the sort of parents who have ruined, for example, Little League. If a child -- a little person is never a kid any longer -- is plunked by the pitcher, no coach or parent is permitted to say to the injured party, "Shake it off." Instead, the game is stopped. Boys are getting in touch with their tears. Coaches from both benches rush out to the batter, the ump inquires solicitously and lawyers in the stands reach for business cards while the kid does the only thing that can be done, he shakes it off.
It is with this bias that I entered the room on the junior college campus where Nader was scheduled to speak. It was filled with about 100 people, half retirees and half students. Nader did not disappoint.
"The world is not doing very well," said the would-be candidate. Seeking 14,000-plus verified signatures in Arizona in order to get on the ballot, Nader charged that the Democrats and Republicans had colluded to keep him off the ballot, that they should be indicted and convicted.
I thought 14,000 signatures is not so much, about the attendance at a good home game for the Phoenix Suns. After all, this isn't dog catcher that he aspires to; doesn't someone have to support his ideas if they are to be credible at all?
Nader alleged that the crisis no other candidate would discuss was the pandemic brewing in China, a super influenza passed from ducks to pigs to humans.
"You won't hear either party talk about this," said America's premier conspiracy theorist.
Oddly, all of Nader's data on Asian flus came from the Centers for Disease Control, a government agency that monitors epidemics, apparently in spite of efforts by John Kerry and George Bush to keep a tight lid on this brewing scandal.
Nader went on to blast interest rates on homes and all of the obstacles facing would-be homeowners at a time of the greatest home ownership in the history of the nation as a result of the lowest mortgage fees in memory.
I was beginning to think that maybe the bar for enough signatures to make the ballot should be two Suns games.
Those at my table seemed to enjoy the 70-year-old's outrage.
"I'm surprised there wasn't a greater turnout," said the gentleman on my left, Ted Silk. His wife heads the Maricopa County Green Party, and Ted allowed as how he'd worked in all of Nader's campaigns. Silk had brought with him his mother who was in a wheelchair. The suspicion that she was a product-liability case was soothed when the son disclosed she was enfeebled because she was 93.
As a parent, I am reassured that this odd fellow, who has never been engaged, married or divorced -- who has never fathered boy or girl, child or kid -- feels that his vision as a raging Mennonite represents the fulfillment of family values.
Nader is not without solutions.
"I wrote the 100 biggest corporations," said the candidate. "Dear CEO, your company was born in the USA, makes money on the backs of workers, expects subsidies and handouts . . ."
Nader explained that he wanted the corporations to "pledge allegiance to the flag."
Surprisingly, only one company agreed with Nader's suggestion. But the candidate was not discouraged. He had other ideas, too.
He explained that the key to universal health care resided in the Super Bowl. Pointing out that 100 million people watched the big game for five hours, Nader said that was a total of 500 million hours.
"Give us 500 million hours," exhorted Nader, "and we can have universal health care."
It might take a similar commitment of time to explain Nader's point, though, to be fair, no one in the audience seemed the least bit confused. In fact, once the audience was allowed to ask questions, it became apparent that candidate and crowd spoke the same crack skull gibberish.
A wild-eyed gentleman leapt to his feet and exclaimed that he was prepared to work for Nader seven days a week, 24 hours a day. But could the candidate reduce his positions to a one-page, single-spaced, front-and-back sheet?
Nader demurred, saying he did not want to be trapped into sound bites. He was not joshing. His book was available for purchase if you wished to cart home a tome as large as a Viking gas range.
Another woman demanded to know about election fraud perpetrated by electronic voting machines.
Now, any red-blooded politician would know that if a woman is even hinting that somehow, somewhere, someone actually stole an election from Ralph Nader, she is prime groupie material. But Nader went on to address the conspiracy behind paperless ballots.
Another member of the audience announced that he had a theory about AIDS.
I scanned the crowd to see if anyone rolled his or her eyes, groaned or otherwise indicated that perhaps our questioner was not tethered to planet Earth. Nope.
"I see cancer as a virus," said the speaker, who shared the shocking information that he had no scientific or medical background. "Who on your staff can I get into a solid discussion with?"
Nader urged the gentleman to contact the American Public Health Agency, and not just anyone, but the head of that group.
Our consumer advocate did not want this wowser bothering anyone on his staff.
When Terri Mansfield raised her hand, I thought, finally, here is where the sparks will ignite. An attractive middle-aged true believer, Mansfield was at the Nader appearance handing out pamphlets. She asked the candidate how he felt about creating a new cabinet-level office. She is part of the movement to establish the United States Department of Peace.
A bill, HR 1673, has been sponsored in the United States House of Representatives by Ohio's oatmeal eater, Congressman Dennis Kucinich. With 50 other vegetarians co-sponsoring this legislation, they are a mere 168 congressmen short of the total needed to put this up to a full vote of the House.
This beads-and-macramé approach to violence and bloodshed purports to "promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights . . . facilitate the development of peace summits at which parties to a conflict may gather . . . develop new programs on school violence, guns, racial or ethnic violence, violence against gays and lesbians and police community relations disputes."
I searched the group's literature and later its Web site to locate any mention of the 300,000 Iraqi men, women and children Saddam Hussein slaughtered, according to estimates by credible human rights organizations on the ground in that country. I did not find a suggestion as to what summit without weapons would have lifted his savage rule.
Nor did Mr. Nader address the record of Hussein's carnage in Iraq.
Coming out foursquare for a Department of Peace, Nader expressed puzzlement.
"I don't understand where the idea that peace is flabby comes from," said Nader. "It takes far more courage to wage peace."
Then Ralph Nader stood history on its pointy head. He claimed that a Department of Peace could have dealt with Hitler.
Nader held up the cabinet-level Department of Peace as a meaningful contrast to President Bush's war in the Middle East.
Bush went to war to bring democracy to Iraq, a vainglorious undertaking well beyond the capacity of a guy who was a college cheerleader. Here is what we now have: When Iraqi insurgents took Japanese civilians hostage, they threatened to roast them alive and then eat them.
One cannibal, one vote.
But if you didn't want war in the Middle East, the solution was simple: You shouldn't have pissed away your vote on Ralph Nader.
If Al Gore had won, there would have been no war in Iraq. There would be no Fallujah. No charred American bodies hanging from the bridge. No dead American soldiers. No dead Iraqi civilians. No hostages.
We didn't need a Department of Peace. We just needed Ralph Nader to let go of the microphone.
But if he did that, he wouldn't have a roomful of misty-eyed idealists beaming at him.
And for your information, the groupies look precisely as you imagine. Monica Lewinsky had more red gloss on her two lips than the entire roomful of the faithful combined.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 602-229-8404.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.