by Gilles d'Aymery
"What did you learn in school today, Ralph? Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?"
—Nathra Nader (Ralph's father -- Ralph was about 10 years old)
(Swans - May 19, 2008) "Gosh, I am nervous," said Jan as we were standing in front of the Pier 5 Law Offices on Broadway (at Kearny) in San Francisco, readying ourselves to attend a fundraising event for the Nader-Gonzalez 2008 presidential campaign in which the candidates were scheduled to address a small gathering of donors before going to a much bigger "People Fighting Back" event at the Roxie Theater at 16th and Valencia in the evening of May 11, 2008. "So am I," I answered grabbing her hand and resolutely walking up the steps to the front door. Long-time readers are aware that neither of us particularly fit what could be described as an activist profile. Actually, this was a big first time. First time we attended a political event of this nature; first time we have contributed money to a presidential campaign; first time we have placed a bumper sticker on the back of our cars, proudly affirming our support for Nader-Gonzalez '08. Even though we express our views in writing and have supported Ralph Nader in both 2000 and 2004 on Swans, we tend to be the private kind, quite uncomfortable in public gatherings. So, indeed we were quite nervous, but we were very excited by the opportunity to meet the candidates.
[Begin pitch: Both Jan and I had sent a small contribution to the campaign. It's quite easy to do. You can open your checkbook, write in the amount of your own choosing up to $2,300 (or $4,600 for a couple) made to "Nader for President 2008" and mail it to P.O. Box 34103, Washington, D.C. 20043. Or, if you like plastic, you can go to a secure site where you can make a contribution on line by credit card. Try it. As said, it's quite easy. End pitch]
Having sent a contribution, our names were dutifully entered in the campaign's donor database and thus we received an e-mail invitation to attend that fundraiser at a minimum $100 donation per person. A phone number was provided to confirm our willingness to participate. "Let's go, Gilles. Let's go meet Ralph Nader," Jan said. She called, was given directions and advised that there would only be about fifteen to twenty people there, and so we went, dressed up for the occasion and wondering how Nader and Gonzalez could take the time and the effort to stop by and talk to such a small number of people and how lamentable it was that the number would be so small. What we saw, and were a part of, was a quintessential American experience in participatory democracy -- that character trait that in spite of so many attacks by the reactionary forces that dominate our political system refuses to die or be discarded altogether -- the America we love and strive for, the America of the People.
The location matched the occasion to a T. Pier 5 Law Offices is a community of sole practitioner attorneys who, according to their Web site, "have shared office space for over 40 years." They proudly fight injustice (criminal justice system, civil rights, etc.) with an "unparalleled commitment to progressive causes" (medical marijuana, environment, civil liberties...). At the top of the stairs we were greeted with a smiling "Welcome folks. The toilets are on the left. You'll find food and refreshments in the back, to the right. Ralph and Matt will soon join us."
We entered the main lobby and looked at each other in puzzlement. Here were some 70 people (by a quick head count) of all ages, dressed for the most part casually -- no Armani suits, Hermes ties, or Rolex watches in that crowd, no sir! That big room, with a handful of small working cubicles in the middle, was decorated with colorful murals, Tibetan prayer flags hanging across the ceiling, and countless photos (Abbie Hoffman, Malcolm X...) and posters (Impeach Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld; Drop Acid, Not Bombs...), framed and hung along the walls. We had driven all the way from Boonville on an empty stomach. We served ourselves with quesadillas and fresh veggies -- "help yourself, dude..." -- walked around in sheer amazement amidst a humming buzz in a bon enfant atmosphere, which abated the moment Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez showed up. Silence fell, quickly replaced by a huge round of applause.
For a few minutes, Ralph went around and greeted familiar faces and old friends, and within minutes we were in business, but I couldn't fail to remark to myself how frail he looked, an impression that a moment later, when he began speaking, was quickly dissipated. We sat in the second row of chairs, a few feet from a standing microphone where a lively dressed, long-white-haired elder made the introduction. He was the legendary civil rights attorney and famous war dissenter Tony Serra. That's the time, friends, when it dawned on me I was utterly out of my league, in the presence of towering figures that have been at the forefront of the fight for social justice for decades. I felt I was out of place and should have stayed in Boonville -- but since I was there I endeavored to make the best out of that extraordinary experience in participatory democracy and community activism.
Tony spoke sparely, welcoming us all with good humor, introduced Matt Gonzalez, and exited the stage to sound applause from the audience.
Matt dresses modestly and looks quite unassuming, but like one ought not judge a book by its cover his appearance is deceptive. Wealth is to be found elsewhere in overwhelming fashion when you look at his eyes and listen to him speak. The man exudes intelligence and a keen understanding of the dire issues our country faces. He speaks slowly, with equanimity, without much rhetorical flourishes. He speaks to the right side of the brain. He's been known for years for his quiet, almost placid demeanor. Matt took on debunking the other candidates. He talked about Obama being an establishment candidate, supporting the Energy Policy Act that gave tax breaks to energy companies and the like, voting for all war appropriations bills -- the poster boy of post-partisanship, which as always moves the entire body politics toward the right and further erodes liberal values. He also talked about Nancy Pelosi taking office on a message of change and antiwar rhetoric and subsequently voting for each and every increase in war appropriations with the constant support of the Democrats in the Senate, under the lame excuse that they did not have the votes to overcome a presidential veto. Matt was at his best when he logically took apart that lame excuse.
The Democrats keep saying that they don't have the vote to stop war appropriations for Afghanistan and Iraq -- only 50, at most 51 votes -- and therefore have to reluctantly and pragmatically accept the status quo. They then, of course, say (as they said in 2006) that things will change in 2009 when a Democrat is in the White House and they have a bigger majority in Congress. But Matt, fully cognizant of the arcane rules of the Senate, convincingly argued that all the Democrats needed was to secure 41 votes to block any legislation. Indeed, if a two-thirds majority in each house is required to overcome a presidential veto, only 41 Senate votes are needed to block a bill from being sent to the Oval Office. In other words, the wars can be defunded by 41 resolute senators. Matt throws an almost mischievous smile at the company, his sparkling eyes beaming all over the room as though he wanted to ask the assembly: So, are they really against the war? Is that the "change" that Clinton and Obama are advocating for 2009? You know the answer to these two questions. Instead he went on to introduce a man who truly needs no introduction, Ralph Nader.
Watching him get to the microphone, I thought of the plumber who two days earlier had performed some work at our place in Boonville. I had asked him about his voting intention in the fall and he had answered that it made little difference which party was in power in Congress and in the White House. Good, I thought, and proceeded to ask him, "then, why not vote for Ralph Nader?" "Who?" he replied. "Ralph Nader..." "Who is he?" he asked. Astounded, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, I only managed to say: He is an American patriot who has garnered over almost half a century a larger body of legislative accomplishments than any member of Congress has without ever being a member of Congress. He spearheaded and facilitated the passage of many legislations, like, just to cite a few, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Freedom of Information Act. He's been a consumer and people's advocate for decades, and he's running for president...the most qualified candidate in the field -- trustworthy, ethical, right on the issues, a real agent of positive change for the country as a whole...all the while having Gore Vidal's famous expression cross my mind -- The United States of Amnesia.
The moment Ralph took charge, any impression of frailty dissipated. While Matt Gonzalez speaks in monochromatic tones, Nader is like a thundering, multichromatic tenor, reaching effortlessly to both the left and right sides of the brain, able to move from one octave to the other without missing a note, speaking softly at times, rousing the crowd at others. He began where Matt had ended, contrasting their campaign (N-G) with those of the Democrats and the Republicans (D-R):
- Single Payer National Health Insurance: N-G, for -- D-R, against.
- Total US military and corporate withdrawal from Iraq: N-G, for -- D-R, against.
- Deep cuts in the military budget: N-G, for -- D-R, against.
- Crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare: N-G, for -- D-R, against.
- Solar and wind power instead of nuclear power: N-G, for -- D-R, against.
And on, and on, and on. Here and there he injected some humor, as when he told the audience that his father once asked him why capitalism would always survive, and as he would not get a satisfactory response, answered his own question: "Capitalism will always survive because socialism will always be around to save it." (Chuckles...) Or, when he related Eugene V. Debs's answer to the question, "what's your biggest regret?" According to Nader, Debs noted: " Under our Constitution, the American people can have almost everything they want... My biggest regret is they don't seem to want very much..."
He then turned the audience's attention to two topics that have been his signature issues for decades: The nefarious effects of corporate personhood, and the absolute need to see people involved in the political process. I've covered more than once the corporate takeover of America that began in the late 1800s (the last time, when I discussed the poor state of democracy in America). To put it succinctly, Corporate America literally owns the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. The People have been banished, exiled, disposed, thrown to pasture. The three branches of government have become wholly-owned subsidiaries of America's boardrooms. Less than one percent of America controls 100 percent of people's power and lives. If we do not take back control of what is legitimately ours there is no way we will ever fix America's ills. Giant corporate power and its takeover of our government is for Nader "the central political issue of our time." Corporations should not have constitutional rights, only human beings... That's when he begins talking about the people and his voice turns into a political aria -- I'd dare say Pavarotti-like. This is without any doubt his most powerful message. People matter. People count. You won't ever obtain anything without demanding it. Social justice, the improvement of the whole, won't happen if we do not fight for it. History is replete with examples of subjugation by the few for the lack of struggle by the many. People need to get involved in the name of their fore parents and for the sake of their descendents. To some people his pitch may look rather romantic and quixotic, but when you listen to him in person, you truly hear the call to arms (metaphorically speaking). You can sense that from his early days Ralph Nader gave all he could to that cause -- the People. Listening to him was not just enlightening and enriching, it was empowering -- not the Obama's "Yes we can" platitude, but the "Yes we do" certitude that Ralph Nader has epitomized forever.
He stopped and gave the floor to an old friend and long-time supporter, Gregory Kafoury, assuring the audience that he would be back for a Q & A session. Seventy people or so exploded in applause, asking for "more, Ralph, more..." More, he again assured, would come.
Gregory Kafoury, with his curly grayish hair and gregarious smile, took to the stage. He was proactive, positive, funny, serious too, and ultimately a fundraiser (notice that until that time no one had asked for money). A tort attorney in Oregon, Kafoury and his partner have jeopardized their legal practice time and again in order to support the issues that Ralph Nader has always represented. He reiterated the importance of people power, the ardent need to be united in order to advance one's agenda. He took as an example the shutting down of a nuclear power plant in Oregon that resulted from grassroots engagement in the matter. He moved on to explaining the importance of getting the right analysis of a problem if one wanted to devise the right solution. Here too, he took an example: Barack Obama. The Democratic candidate wants, he says, to end the war in Iraq, but his analysis leads to a clear and unfortunate solution. He will keep about 60,000 troops in the theater of operation and won't remove the privateers that roam that land (about 130,000). Want a real solution, asks Kafoury, ask the proper questions and make the right analysis.
Then he became a fundraiser using the auctioneering technique. We need money. What about $2,300, do I hear $2,300, is there $2,300, here, there, now? YES, here is a $2,300 donor. Give him a big round of applause. Any other $2,300? What about $2,000? Silence. What about $1,500? Silence. What about $1,000? Yes, here, and here, give them a big round of applause. What about...? I raise my hand: Can't do $1,000 but my wife and I can do $500, showing off the written check. $500, $500, here is $500. Give these folks a big round of applause. Who's next? $500 once, $500 twice....and on and on down to $100. All the while keeping smiling and taunting the audience. You guys are great. Many thanks. We cannot do it without you. Ralph will be signing a copy of The Good Fight for each donor. Here back is Ralph, to answer all your questions!!! (Huge applause.) And remember, think, demand, seek, and fight! (You can see a few pictures of the entire occasion.)
Greg has been on the record for having bluntly stated that Nader is "the only guy who's run for president who's overqualified." To listen to the Q & A session reinforced that statement. Nader is in knowledgeable control of pretty much all issues. He is a political encyclopedia with the right analysis and the proper solutions. It's truly mind-blowing -- an exceptional man, not just an unreasonable man (actually, he is quite reasonable). There is no question he left unanswered, and no question he did not answer most intelligently and clearly, from nuclear power to alternative energy, from Iraq to Israel, from our dilapidated infrastructure to our dying education system, from people activism to the duty we all have to carry the torch of our forefathers in the name of our children and grandchildren. He gets it all.
Time came to fold the event. He had to move on to the Roxie Theater and address a much larger crowd. He left the stage and sat on a couch where he began signing books. When my time came, one of Ralph's long-time operatives (if that's the proper term), Matthew Zawisky, asked me: Are you Gilles d'Aymery of Swans? Yes I am, I answered with a bit of incredulity. He turned toward Ralph and told him something like: "this guy puts out a great publication online. I've been reading it for five years...just great, Ralph, just great..." "Do you have a card?" Ralph asked, and a card I gladly offered.
Maybe Matthew overdid it a tad but I will always be grateful to him for the look and smile I garnered from Ralph Nader. That look and smile will remain engraved in my mind to the day of reckoning.
Lastly, let me comment about the recurring accusation thrown at Ralph that, yes, he's been a great consumer advocate but he has turned out to become a spoiler and, worse, keeps running out of an inflated ego. Katha Pollitt of The Nation is but one example of the shallow and mean spirited attack dogs that have barked and barked again, in the most possible demeaning way, at Ralph Nader. I'll tell you what: Watching Ralph as he goes from one place to the other (the previous day he was in Southern California; the following day he attended a meeting at Google's headquarters in Mountain View; then on to Oregon, etc.) what I saw was a man who would be quite happy to stay home and enjoy a well-deserved retirement if any politician, Democrat, Republican, or Martian, were to take on the baton of our age-old race for justice. In the absence of any positive alternative he keeps at it and tries to groom the next generation (cf. Matt Gonzalez) of the brothers and sisters who will keep fighting with our help for the benefit of all. I'd say with total tranquility and peace of mind: "Spit on the guard dogs and the naysayers. Our time will come! Our time will come!"
We left the premises of the Pier 5 Law Offices with both gratitude and a sense of regeneration. We were not alone, after all.
We drove back to the apartment to take care of the dogs, then headed out again to the Roxie Theater, which was filled with supporters, including Cindy Sheehan. We stayed only briefly, as it was getting late. It had been a long, long day (I can imagine Ralph and Matt, and all, smiling at this remark, they who had had a much longer day...), though we were reinvigorated by the passion of Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez and the notion that our vision of America does indeed still exist.
We drove back home, greeted Priam and Mestor again (our dogs), walked around the block with them so that they could do their affairs, and on to bed we went to rest.
We had a peaceful night...dreaming of our America -- dreams that are so perfectly represented by the likes of Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez.
(Note: There are two critical issues regarding the Nader-Gonzalez campaign: We need to get them on the ballot [in California alone, 158,372 valid signatures are required to gain ballot access] and we need to get them on TV and in the presidential debates. I'll address those matters in two weeks. Meantime, please do your part, send them some money, and get on their mailing list.)