Crashing the Party, Ralph Nader's memoir of his 2000 presidential campaign, is one part travelogue and one part free-ranging jeremiad against anything and everything connected to contemporary American politics. This book is not about public policy; and it moves much more briskly than one might expect given the author's fact-dense style of public speaking. But like his campaign, the book is a thoroughly insider affair with good times and positive reinforcement to those who buy into Nader's message, contempt for those who don't, and little effort to bridge the ground between the two.
Nader kicks off the narrative describing his decision to mount a second presidential run, picks up speed as his effort gets underway and old friends pledge support. Then he pulls us through the manic narrative of a year-and-a-half-long, shoestring national campaign, thick with asides about this or that local polluting power plant and morality tales about sell-out, straw-man Democrats. The mood of the book is unmistakably "onward and upward with activism." And, for those inclined to be thus inspired, that mood will likely prove inspiring. For others not under the spell, however, the mix of cliché, nostalgia, and reunion will likely have a quite different effect. For them, much of the book, particularly the first half, will have the feel and cadence of one of those early '80s TV movies where the cast of some '60s-era sitcom reassembles for one last adventure. Picture a graying Gilligan flying from city to city pitching the professor, Mary Ann, and other worthies on some quixotic quest to save the Island.
Beneath the book's color, it is impossible not to recall the depth of bitterness and mutual incomprehension that separated Nader's supporters from those on the left who opposed him. So great was this gulf that a number of Nader's arguments, however powerful to his supporters, will likely read to his opponents like he is making their own case.
Consider the following passage in which Nader ridicules the mainstream media: "Reporters described the assemblage as a motley crowd with a grab bag of causes having no seeming connection to one another. What, pray tell, were they protesting that the media found so difficult to describe? Here's what: poverty in an era of great concentrated wealth; corporate welfare; globalization through the WTO, NAFTA, and the World Bank, corrupt money in politics; bloated military budgets; global warming and other ecological degradations; genetically engineered foods without labeling; Occidental Petroleum's plans to drill on the sacred homeland of the U'wa tribe in Columbia; the prison-industrial complex; the widening income gap; sweatshops; the need for mass transit; tobacco industry and its lavish $1,000-a-plate events for Blue Dog Democrats'; and the giant media conglomerates."
And you thought it was just a grab bag of causes with no connection to one another!
Readers will also recognize the essence of Nader's campaign writ large in his literary recollection of it. The book's signature emotions are self-righteousness (about Nader's cause) and contempt (for all who disagreed with it). Nader's supporters (invariably described as "thoughtful") are set against a pitiful cast of sellouts, hacks, turncoats, and cowards, which constitutes more or less everyone else on the leftward side of the political universe. To be sure, Nader and his crew were treated to no small amount of derision by Al Gore's supporters in 2000. But none of it matches Nader's intensity of denunciation, the facile opportunism of many of his political gambits, or the breezy thoughtlessness of many of his attacks.
Consider another passage. Nader describes one campaign interlude in which John Judis of The New Republic briefly traveled with him to write a story on the campaign. (Full disclosure: Judis is a friend.) Judis ended up writing a pained article critical of Nader's campaign. In return Nader treats Judis to the standard ad hominem treatment. He first blames Judis's article on the influence of Marty Peretz, TNR's perennially Gore-boosting owner. Then he blames it on Judis's jaded politics charging that Judis had "strayed from any fundamental grip on the question of corporate power in America." That's a strange criticism, though, because Judis had just written a lengthy book on pretty much exactly this topic. A small error perhaps, but a revealing one, and typical of the book.
Nader covers a lot of ground in Crashing the Party; he meets a lot of people; and he reviews a lot of issues. But now and again, when he happens on something that you know something about, it becomes apparent that he's talking out of some other part of his body than his mouth. There are chapters that even Nader's critics will find powerful, entertaining, and convincing. Whether Nader and Patrick J. Buchanan should have been included in the 2000 presidential debates is a question over which reasonable people may differ. But Nader levels a potent critique at the corporate-funded, bipartisan presidential commission which now presides over the debate process. Not only would the debate commission not allow Nader into the debates, they wouldn't even let him near them. Some of the book's most entertaining passages are those in which Nader describes the risible game of cat-and-mouse he and the commission's stooges played as the aspirant candidate tried to make his way even into one of the viewing areas to watch the debate.
In these market-friendly days, Nader's constant references to corporate this and corporate that can't help but strike a tinny note for many. But Nader's rants against the smugly self-contained Commission on Presidential Debates often ring true. And today, in the aftermath of the Enron debacle, accusations of widespread and systematic corporate wrongdoing can't be dismissed as obscurantist chatter nearly so easily. Nader's supporters will no doubt argue that these recent revelations show that we very much need the Ralph Nader who first sounded the alarm against corporate malfeasance in the 1960s and 1970s.
They're right. We do. Too bad the 21st-century Ralph Nader is the one we're stuck with.