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The Yoke of Men’s Opinions 

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PERHAPS THE SADDEST MOMENT of Ralph Nader’s sparsely populated press conference last Friday comes toward the end, after three of the five TV cameramen have already packed up and the few attending print and radio reporters begin staring out the eighth-floor window at the clear, rain-washed skies above Hollywood. Nader, without lifting his eyes from his notes or making any detectable effort to engage his audience, brings up the Bush administration’s failure to prepare the nation for a possible outbreak of bird flu.

“Who’s going to talk about that?” Nader asks, as journalists shoot sidelong smirks from folding chair to folding chair. “Who is going to raise that so that the other candidates will say this is a serious issue?”

No one, of course, but Nader. But, sadly, neither will anyone else be offering any serious critique of corporate control of American politics, at least not after primary season has ended and Sharpton and Kucinich have been quietly shoved off-camera. Nor should we expect the two leading candidates — who had to be shamed by Howard Dean into opposing the war and who voted for the Patriot Act and authorizing the invasion of Iraq — to articulate all that was and is wrong with Bush’s many-sided campaign against what he persists in calling “terror.” They certainly won’t suggest, as Nader did on Meet the Press, that the president should be impeached for deceiving the nation into war.

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Nader’s goal, he says, is not to steal votes, but to lead “a second-front independent campaign . . . to retire George W. Bush as president” by saying all the things the Democrats are too fearful or compromised to say. He hopes to widen the terms of what has already become a treacherously narrow debate, preserving a little elbow room for that elusive and always inconvenient creature, democracy.

Those goals are so worthy and their messenger so clueless that the bird flu bit is not just embarrassing but painful — like watching doddering uncle Don get trounced by the windmills again. Nader’s ear for the zeitgeist could keep the world in tin another three election cycles. He’s stubbornly ignoring the prevailing political climate, the tattered left’s near-hysteric rush to pragmatism and abandonment of anything so impractical as principle. If the right barely thinks it worthwhile to mock him, liberals, including many of his 2000 supporters, are tripping over themselves to take a shot at Nader.

So Nader grips the podium with both hands and tells Democrats to “relax and rejoice” about his candidacy, or at least “quit whining.” Hunched slightly and rocking on his heels, he weathers the sneering questions.

“Do you actually have any desire to be president?” a reporter asks.

“Of course,” answers Nader, unfazed.

He doesn’t pretend this is fun for him. In over an hour of remarks, I only catch him smiling once, and then just barely, after quoting Emerson and musing, “Imagine that on Chris Matthews’ show — think we could get that across?” (Matthews recently suggested to Nader that he wasn’t qualified to be president, essentially because he doesn’t own a car.)

He doesn’t try to charm anyone and doesn’t hesitate to scold. Asked if he still believes there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans, Nader snaps, “I didn’t say that. I can’t say how many times I’ve had to correct that. What I said was, there are few real differences between the two parties . . . Now with that predicate, I’ll answer your question.”

A thread of anger runs through his words. He chides reporters who “continue to quizzically question why there should be more voices, more choices, more parties in elections.” His anger is not of a petulant, road-ragey Howard Dean variety, but a depressed and exhausted, long-simmering bitterness, the frustration of a man who can’t believe he has to repeat himself one more time, who suffers under the naive faith that unvarnished facts should be enough to sway hearts. Nader’s is a cranky old American creed, dating further back than Emerson, that reason alone should be enough to prevail, that style is suspect, tact treacherous, compromise a living death.

A few minutes after the bird flu remark, when most people have stopped taking notes, a reporter asks Nader if he’ll yield to pressure and drop out of the race. “The time to drop out is when you don’t drop in,” Nader says. “Once you drop in, in my opinion, you go all the way.” And damn them if they can’t hear you.

—Ben Ehrenreich

An Rx Revolution

In Lake Forest, deepest Orange County, smack in the middle of a numbing expanse of gated, landscaped subdivisions and chain store–dotted shopping “plazas,” two improbable revolutionaries are practicing medicine in a nondescript, one-story, gray building. Nothing on the office door but the names Dr. Philip A. Denney and Dr. Robert E. Sullivan. When you’ve just set up shop as the only physicians for hundreds of miles who specialize in medical recommendations for marijuana use, you don’t want to court any more trouble than your mere existence already guarantees.

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