Let's get one thing straight: Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000.
The people who voted for Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000.
Gore lost to George W. Bush by 537 votes in Florida, a state where Nader got 97,448 votes.
And there is a phenomenon to describe casting a vote you later regret: It's called what we do every four years.
Nader is completely unrepentant. He totally rejects and is insulted by the label "spoiler."
He believes he is merely exercising the right that every natural-born American has: the right to run for president.
Which is why I called him and asked him his favorite food.
He paused. Ralph Nader does not usually get questions about his favorite food.
Which, I believe, is the soft bigotry of low expectations.
"Stuffed eggplant with pignoli nuts," Nader finally told me.
Last movie you saw?
"'Michael Clayton,'" he said.
"Michael Clayton," I should point out, was a nominee this year for the best picture Oscar. It didn't win, but nobody accused it of being a spoiler.
What else does Ralph Nader do for fun? I asked.
"I used to play a lot of ping-pong," Nader replied. "I have a wicked backhand. And I was a good chess player. I did it more for the enjoyment than to crush my opponent. And I like to banter with reporters."
Banter? Actual banter? Describe some banter.
"I like to get them out of their cultural bind and ask them why they don't cover more stories and other topics outside of their box," Nader said. "Why don't they cover the military budget, for instance."
So imagine being a fly on the wall at those banter sessions.
A few years ago, when I was hiding out at Harvard at the Institute of Politics for a semester, Nader came and talked to the students in my study group and absolutely wowed them.
"You will really not get anything out of your Harvard education unless you develop a sense of social indignation," Nader told them.
Nader, who got his undergraduate degree at Princeton and a law degree at Harvard, also told the students: "When I got out of Princeton and Harvard, I felt cheated. What the hell did I learn? Don't you go through your four years of university without a passion to correct some social injustice."
So I asked Nader on the phone: What's the last novel you read?
"Upton Sinclair's 'Oil!'" Nader said. "Because of the movie."
"Oil!" published in 1927 was the inspiration for "There Will Be Blood," which also was nominated for, but did not win, the best picture Oscar this year. So maybe Nader has a thing for runners-up.
I asked him for a childhood anecdote.
"I was in the third grade and my teacher, Miss Franklin, said there was a public library near the school," Nader said. "I raised my hand and told her that it was a private memorial library and not a public library. 'Don't you counter me!' she said. And she made me sit in the dunce chair."
A dunce chair? An actual dunce chair? In the corner?
"A dunce chair in the corner," Nader said. "And she was factually wrong."
Nader turns 74 on Wednesday (but has not forgotten the name of his third-grade teacher) and remains extremely busy aside from running for president.
"I have a permanent backlog of about 30 issues," he said and added a little wistfully: "I really envy single-issue people, people who only care about the national parks, for instance."
Nader says he expects to get on the presidential ballot in at least 46 states by November, though he is not picking out new drapes for the Oval Office.
"I will have a tugboat candidacy," he said. "It will push the parties closer to the harbor of the people and away from the harbor of giant corporatism."
It looked like we were veering into serious waters, so I asked: What does Ralph Nader do for excitement?
"My life is not that exciting," Nader said.
So who says presidential candidates never tell the truth?