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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2000 / 17 Tishrei, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

Nader's American history lesson; or: Silencing Jesse Jackson -- NO ONE in the Green Party -- including its presidential candidate, Ralph Nader -- expects him to be sworn in as the next president of the United States. But Nader -- as he told me during an interview soon after he entered the race -- remembers an influential "outsider" who determinedly kept running for the presidency.

Norman Thomas campaigned for our highest office on the Socialist Party ticket in every election from 1928 to 1948. He was not an especially charismatic figure, but for many independent voters Thomas was a "conscience" candidate. He raised issues that were downplayed or entirely ignored by the major-party candidates. Norman Thomas ran to educate -- not to win.

Indeed, over all those years, he did have a considerable effect. As Webster's American Biographies reports: "His deeply felt social concerns" were reflected in specific legislative goals. And "many of his proposals -- for low-income housing, the five-day work week, minimum wage laws and the abolition of child labor -- ultimately found their way into legislation."

I thought of Norman Thomas when I heard Ralph Nader, on CNN, quote Justice Louis Brandeis of the United States Supreme Court: "We can have a democratic society or we can have a concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few. We can't have both."

That is Nader's core message, and he expects to run on it again in 2004. All he needs is 5 percent of the vote this year to get $12 million in federal matching funds four years from now. He has a good chance of reaching that goal.

Nader is worrying Gore supporters. In more and more states, there is an increasing number of registered independent voters. And among an as yet unquantified number of traditional Democrats, the Gore-Lieberman ticket has not ignited hearts and souls. Also, there are many young outsiders who, until now, have not voted in significant numbers, but do have vigorous social concerns -- as evidenced by recent demonstrations against the exploitation of Third World workers by American companies, and for economic justice here for those not enjoying the booming economy -- and they are many.

The New York Times is urgently pushing the Gore candidacy in its editorials. In one lead editorial, it sternly upbraided Nader for being a spoiler. Jesse Jackson -- who recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the president, whom he serves as a spiritual adviser -- nonetheless has bitterly attacked Nader for offering voters the liberty of another choice in the forthcoming elections.

On Aug. 20, Jackson, on his regular Sunday CNN television show, confronted Nader. Jackson was no match for that independent contender -- either in intellectual depth or in his ability to counter Nader's responses to the argument that he will seriously harm the powerless if he is the cause of Gore's defeat.

"The Democratic Party has decayed," Nader said, looking straight at the Rev. Jackson. "Even you have been marginalized."

The Democratic platform this year made that clear, as reported in the news section of the July 30 New York Times:

"Proposals supporting universal health care, a moratorium on the death penalty, punishments against corporations that pay low wages, tougher rules for international trade, and better health care for prisoners were withdrawn or overwhelmingly defeated ... also voted down was increased spending for the poor. Gore delegate Tom Hayden said the platform had failed to address the challenge of Ralph Nader."

But Jesse Jackson moved to diminish Nader on one of the Green Party candidate's special concerns. He showed a TV clip of environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. attacking Nader's candidacy as "a huge threat to the environment."

Unintimidated, Nader pointed out that in the eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration, little has been done to deal with the exposure of "low-income Americans, including minorities, to high lead-poisoning and asthma levels."

Nader told Jackson he had recently been in Hartford, Conn., where "the Democrats control the city council and the executive branch. Forty percent of the children in the inner city are afflicted with asthma. I asked the people there what the Democrats had done for them. The answer was 'nothing.'"

For once, Jesse Jackson had nothing to say.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA