Three: Citizen Closeout: The Moral Imperative
Citizen groups, accustomed to some significant victories and the chance to take on the economic vested interests, were being shut out of the process, squeezed out of forums, rendered more voiceless and powerless with each year of rampaging corporatism over elections. There are various ways to illustrate this closing out of the civil society. One way to clarify the merger of business with government is to list the major departments and agencies in Washington, D.C., and simply ask who is the overwhelmingly most powerful influence over each of them. Seasoned reporters and commentators would scarcely be surprised by the following list: Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve (banks), Department of Agriculture (agribusiness), Department of Defense (military weapons companies), Department of the Interior (timber barons and the mining industry), Food and Drug Administration (food and drug companies), Occupational Safety and Health Administration, inside the Department of Labor, no less (corporate employers), General Services Administration (business vendors to the government), NASA (space industries), Federal Aviation Administration (airlines and aircraft manufacturers), and so it goes.
Of course, this has been the case for decades. The difference today is that these agencies have become more symbiotic with their clientele companies, often being led by former executives of these very industries. The difference is also that Congress is far less a countervailing force than a cheerleading crowd. The judiciary, composed of corporatist judges, is more prone to roll over on economic issues. Moreover, industry and commerce have become far more organized, more media-aggressive, and richer at the same time that organized labor's influence had declined as an opposing force across the spectrum of public decision making. When this severe imbalance of power becomes institutionalized, the sovereignty of the people is diminished.
Still, the citizen groups plod on, as if riding a treadmill that keeps slipping further behind. They cling to dwindling hopes: the remaining progressives in Congress, a defensive court victory on the environment, a new Clinton administration in 1993, a major investigative report on national television or in a major newspaper or magazine, a push from Western Europe on global warming or genetic engineering, a successful labor-organizing drive for janitors. It has been said that hope springs eternal, but for these groups, hope has been springing many contemporary leaks. They could never imagine, if told in the 1970s, that the economy was going to double in thirty years yet the problems of energy, poverty, lack of health insurance coverage, inadequate housing, real wages, consumer debt, the savings rate, criminal justice systems, disrepair of public works, family farms, wealth inequality, trade deficits, food safety, and others would either be at a standstill or sliding backward at the beginning of the twenty-first century. All this in a period of restrained inflation, booming corporate profits, surging stock markets, massive capital accumulation (heavily from pension and trust funds), and more recently a period of federal and state government surpluses.
The historic American ideology of continual progress has received its comeuppance, along with the impression that a rising tide lifts all boats. The major political parties have not delivered on their populist responsibilities. Rather, as proxies for big business, they have become the gatekeepers who let the powerful slam the door in the face of the people.
I remember as a student reading the words of Thomas Jefferson regarding how long people should tolerate an unresponsive government. His message was that when the situation becomes intolerable, go into politics and take back the government. This was a message that I resisted, notwithstanding the urgings that I run for elected office as early as 1970. Gore Vidal, no less, wrote an article for Esquire in 1971 recommending me as a presidential candidate. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, called me when his running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, withdrew after a biased response to the disclosure that he had received electric shock treatment. McGovern asked if I would be willing to be considered for the vice presidential nomination. I thanked him but said that my role was in the citizen arena. In 1991, Carl Mayer, a New Jersey law professor, and Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive in Madison, Wisconsin, repeatedly tried to get me to enter the presidential race. Others added their concurrence. So insistent and so determined were they to start working in New Hampshire that I suggested not officially running in the state's primary but standing as a write-in candidate with a progressive set of mobilizing issues to be discussed in town-meeting formats around the state.
This, of course, did not satisfy them. Nonetheless, hoping I would move later into a real candidacy, they opened a storefront campaign office in Manchester, right next to those of the other primary candidates. Bursting with enthusiastic volunteers, most of whom had little idea of how difficult it was for voters just to get write-in ballots to mark in most precincts, they worked late into the evenings.
The general goal of the campaign was to meet with people in one assembly after another throughout the state to hear and discuss a broad prodemocracy agenda. The subjects were contained in what I called the "Concord Principles," having released them one very cold winter morning on the steps of the state office building. The principles were essentially a "new democracy toolbox" replete with election reforms, such as public funding of elections, more convenient voter registration rules, binding none-of-the-above (NOTA) lines that would cancel that election and order a new election with new candidates if NOTA won the most votes, and twelve-year congressional term limits. The principles also offered simple strategies for consumers, workers, and taxpayers to band together with membership organizations and work for universal health insurance, trade union growth, an end to corporate welfare, renewable energy, and safer food and other products, and to try to avert future perils and injustices on the horizon.
While it is hard to procure a write-in ballot in New Hampshire, it is in other ways an ideal state for this type of personal, grassroots campaigning. Local democratic traditions tend to linger longer in New Hampshire than in most other states. As it is the first primary state in the land, New Hampshire residents like to look over their candidates. It is not unusual, when asked his or her opinion of a presidential candidate, for a New Hampshire voter to answer, "I don't know yet. I've only met him twice."
New Hampshire recalls the old days of campaigning before television sound bites and inaccessible candidates. People in many small towns that are distinct .communities with large gathering halls and auditoriums expect the candidates to visit them and stay long enough for some back-and-forth exchanges. The dozens of dark-horse candidates who would be brushed off as nuisances elsewhere find New Hampshirites bemused by their single-issue efforts.
We strove to meet New Hampshirites with our town meeting-style gatherings. The turnout was impressive, and the people often stayed for three hours. Word of mouth works better in this state. The veteran political columnists Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover, who have covered so many presidential campaigns marked by massive voter indifference that they wrote a book titled Wake Us Up When It's Over, started their syndicated column on January 9, 1992, with some astonishment:
It was, in a word, extraordinary. In a state where much-courted voters have long been inured to the appeal of political candidates, most candidates are encouraged if 50 or so folks turn out to hear them.
So it was an eyebrow-raiser here the other night when upwards of five hundred New Hampshire citizens of all ages showed up to hear Ralph Nader, the nation's foremost political scold, introduce himself this way: "Hello, I'm none of the above, and I'm not running for president."
Well, why was it so extraordinary? I was amazed by the reporters' astonishment. Christine Gardner, writing in USA Today on January 27, observed: "Three weeks ago he drew 1,000 in Exeter at Phillips Exeter Academy prep school. Last month, at the University of New Hampshire, where Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton attracted 100 to a free talk, Nader pulled in 300."
Why was I attracting such assemblies and interest? First and foremost, people felt at the time, and even more so today, that they were losing control over everything that matters to them -- their jobs, their governments, their marketplace, their environment, their communities, their privacy, their ability to get their calls returned, their children. It doesn't matter where they are coming from -- right, middle, left, Republican, Democrat, Independent, blue-collar, white-collar, small business, commuters, pedestrians, carnivores or vegetarians. The complexity of modern life and the increasing remoteness of the decision makers feed this sense of powerlessness.
Politicians then have the nerve to come before the people and flatter them so as to calm them or, more often, bore them. Even the well-intentioned candidates cannot deliver on their sincere promises, because once they are in the White House or Congress, they are in a cocoon spun by thousands of corporate lobbyists.
One man leaving one of our meetings was overheard saying to a friend, "He's showing the politicians that the people can be a force to be reckoned with." Exactly. The Greek word for "people" is demos, and "democracy" means rule by the people, in contrast to "plutocracy," rule by the wealthy and powerful. If political candidates do not speak to ways that enable citizens to be more powerful individually and together to shape the future of their society and address their current grievances, what is left of their campaign other than platitudes, resolutions, and assurances that they conveniently assign to limbo, whether they win or lose the office they are seeking?
As we motored through one town after another in the fifteen or so days of the NOTA campaign, we made a point of addressing fundamental issues. Although candidates for national office readily nod at Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics is local," few ever really take a stand on the state of New Hampshire. I did, whether standing with opponents near the Seabrook nuclear power plant -- a massively expensive boondoggle that still doesn't know where to safely put its deadly piles of radioactive waste -- or speaking out against a two-hundred-ton-per-day Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Claremont that was posing pollution and financial liability nightmares.
The lesson directed to the other candidates was to campaign with the people, not parade in front of them as if they were onlookers rather than participants. Nonetheless, the Democrats and the Republicans kept track of their holy trinity of campaigning -- how much money they could raise, how many TV spots they could buy, and how many hands they could shake. Clinton specialized in looking intently and directly into people's eyes while he shook their hands, thereby breaking away from bland politicians or candidates who shake hands in a crowded room or restaurant while looking for the next person's hand to shake. This turned into a big plus for the governor of Arkansas. Thankful for small favors, people would say afterward, "He made me feel like I mattered."
Such low public expectation in 1992 was one of our campaign's themes. "You should be in charge," I would say. "You should develop your own policy recommendations, summon the candidates to your own get-togethers, invite the press to cover them, have a fully unscripted back-and-forth with the candidates, and insist on commitments. To do this, you have to spend more time knowing and acting. Give yourself a chance. You might be surprised by what happens when you and your neighbors collaborate in these ways. If you don't do it, who will? You can't have a daily democracy without daily citizenship.
One evening in February, Carl Mayer and I drove deep into the New Hampshire woods. We were en route to the tiny northern hamlet of Dixville Notch. New Hampshire primary candidates often go to this remote village because its thirty-two voters gather at midnight on Election Day to vote at the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel. Within seconds, their votes are tabulated and the results sent to the wire services to launch the presidential primary campaign. Any candidate who wins or places well receives a little early psychological lift.
A light but steady snowfall accompanied our journey and, surrounded by dense roadside tree cover, made us feel that we were moving through one of James Fenimore Cooper's "primeval forests." Earlier that night Clinton's philandering was what people wanted to talk about. Curiously, the Gennifer Flowers uproar helped Clinton attract attention. Flowers became Clinton's spotlight, and he made the most of it. I'm almost certain that he and his close associates knew it was coming, especially after they planned and then postponed a presidential run in 1988. Clinton knew how to stay on message, and nothing was going to get him to take a stand on President Bush's NAFTA proposal before Congress, or on nuclear power, or on the failing banks in New Hampshire. He evaded questions from our supporters regarding the Concord Principles, which were pretty simple ways to give people more power, more voice. (Jerry Brown became the only candidate to endorse these principles.)
For most of the Dixville Notch trip, Carl and I just enjoyed the quiet scenery and recalled some of the characters of the state's primary season. There was an old friend from Pennsylvania, Gene Stilp, who arrived late one day in Manchester, went down to the headquarters basement with a load of lumber, and emerged at dawn with some fifty giant pencils that he had fabricated to symbolize, atop motor vehicles, our write-in campaign. Soon a caravan of cars with the Andy Warhol-like artifacts assembled in front of our storefront campaign office and, to noisy hoopla, they streamed away in different directions. The festival nature of the New Hampshire primary and the amused tolerance that people brought to its events were illustrated by the circulation of the minor or "darkhorse candidates." There were sixty-three aspirants on the ballot in this category.
Actor Tom Laughlin, of Billy Jack fame, campaigned actively as a "nonpolitician" and received considerable press notice. Back again was former Senator Eugene McCarthy at seventy-five years, saying he was as "serious" as the rest and stressing his foreign policy experience. One of the nation's finest mayors, Irvine, California, Democrat Larry Agran, delivered a serious set of proposals ranging from electoral reforms, urban revitalization, citizen engagement, and shifting to domestic programs the $150 billion that was being spent each year to pay for U.S. forces in Europe and Japan. Carl and I would meet Agran on the hustings, and the way the Democratic Party treated him reflected their rejection of any opportunity for internal reform of the party.
Carl and I arrived at the Balsams in Dixville Notch just before midnight, and the next morning we were met by the Barbas, the husband-and-wife hotel managerial team with distinct personalities and views that they did not hesitate to show. Gail Barba was the chairwoman of President Bush's reelection campaign in the Notch but said that she had decided to vote for me. "It wasn't so much that I was fed up with Bush as with Congress," she said.
One reason for New Hampshirites' enthusiasm during primary season, aside from the break they get from wintry cabin fever, is their awareness that the results of their kickoff primary can launch a winner or shape the dynamics of subsequent primaries around the country. Their time slot is special, and because of that attitude, New Hampshire has surprised the nation with its major party winners time and time again. Candidates temporarily learn not to trust the polls. They learn that the voters would cheer lustily for candidates they had no intention of voting for on Primary Day. Editorial writers for the various papers single out minor candidates if one or more take a stand on an issue that the paper favors (as with Nackey Loeb, publisher of the extremely right-wing Manchester Union Leader, who praised my proposal for a binding none-of-the-above option on all ballot lines). Independents abound. The chairman of a local Bush-Quayle reelection campaign quit in late January 1992 to support me, saying; "I cannot in good conscience cast my vote for the Republican Party." The Monadnock Ledger in western New Hampshire editorially endorsed Paul Tsongas on the Democratic side and me on the Republican side. The Ledger wrote that it wanted to send a message that citizens want "real change."
Well, as it turned out on Primary Day, February 18, I received 3,054 write-in votes on the Democratic side and 3,257 on the Republican side -- almost a fifty-fifty split whose size was not as significant as its bipartisan appeal. During the day, people would come into our Manchester campaign office to complain bitterly over their inability to overcome the precincts' indifference or hostility to requests for write-in ballots.
Before I left the state, a woman whose eyes and demeanor suggested long experience with justice struggles, admonished me, saying that I should have run as a Democrat with my name printed on the ballot. "You lost a historic opportunity," she sternly remarked. Hers was not a lone voice. Many of my fellow agitators thought the same: Go all the way, express your desire to be president within the Democratic Party. I would remind them where I was coming from. Citizen movements make real changes. Informed and organized citizens can shape and direct the campaigns of politicians. They said I was dreaming, that the late twentieth century, with liberal safety nets in place, was very different from bygone eras, with their domestic turmoils and desperation. The political beast was too insulated, too fortified, and too rooted in the established interests to be changed unless you get inside it, they said. "Maybe you're right," I replied, "but in that case you need another candidate."
For 1992, the irresistible force became Bill Clinton, whose broken field running took him to victory over President George Bush and ended a twelve-year White House drought for the Democrats. In short order, Clinton defined what a "new Democrat" was like. Over the next four years, he so favorably astonished the business lobbies that the head of the National Association of Manufacturers, Jerry Jasinowski, told me after a cable television taping that we shared, "We like Clinton more and more."
And why not? The boy wonder from Arkansas pushed through the greatest surrender of local, state, and national sovereignty in U.S. history to those corporate-inspired systems of autocratic governance called NAFTA and the revised GATT's World Trade Organization. Clinton signed the megacorporate legislations involving the telecommunications and agribusiness industries, ballyhooed phony welfare reform for the poor while creating new models of corporate welfare, and undermined civil liberties in signing three criminal bills, all while losing a health insurance package in a Democrat-controlled Congress in 1994. For good measure, he further delighted the Jasinowskis of the corporate world by losing his party's congressional control and handing it over for the duration of his term to the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.
Come 1996, Clinton thought only of his reelection, for which he brought on board the switch-hitting consultant Dick Morris, fresh from advising Trent Lott, to guide him on the nuances of political hermaphroditism. For reasons that certain White House assistants told me they never could understand, Clinton was mesmerized by the irrepressible Morris, with whom he would strategize for hours at a time. There was a reason. Ever since Clinton lost his reelection run for governor of Arkansas, it seemed he was determined never again to lose an election by sticking to principles. Morris fit that resolve perfectly, with his triangulation approach -- which I understood as beating the Republicans by taking away their issues and becoming more like them. Economists call this behavior in the business world "protective imitation."
During Clinton's first term, I had no illusions about any progressive agenda other than universal health insurance, which he and Hillary botched. They overcomplicated both the process of drafting the legislation and the bill itself due to his penchant for trying to secure support of the big HMOs, the drug companies, the hospital chains, and the AMA -- or at least neutralize their opposition. In the end, the health plan collapsed of its own weight. But if I did not expect advances, neither did I envision so many retreats, such as on campaign finance reform and, especially, on corporate regulation. The White House fed these agencies sleeping pills. Clinton thought so little of the federal government's auto safety mission that he let a Reagan holdover run the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration for eight months until he found someone who shared his vision of turning that regulatory agency into a consulting firm for Detroit. Clinton, deciding against his Department of Transportation's own projections of casualties, went along with the lifting of the federal interstate speed limit for trucks and cars to 65 miles per hour (effectively 70 miles per hour without a citation). I called the Oval Office, asking for a telephone appointment to speak with him for five minutes, to try to dissuade him on safety, energy waste, and air pollution grounds. It was the only time I made such a request, and it was declined. On November 28, 1995, Clinton signed legislation that ended the 55-miles- per-hour federal speed limit that had been in place since 1974.
According to a 1998 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which was based on casualty experience after the law went into effect, thousands more Americans will die every decade on federal highways where the speed limit was lifted. The number of highway deaths was unchanged on the highways where the speed limit stayed the same.
Toward the end of Clinton's first term, I received a letter from California, signed by several prominent environmentalists, led by the great David Brower and Democratic political analyst Pat Caddell, urging me to place my name on the California presidential ballot. They were seriously upset with the Clinton-Gore nonrecord on environmental matters, and it was increasingly clear that no progressive Democrats were going to challenge Clinton -- not Jesse Jackson or Paul Wellstone or any outsider. So, on November 27, 1995, I accepted their invitation to place my name on the Green Parry ballot in California. My brief statement read: "I intend to stand with others around the country as a catalyst for the creation of a new model of electoral politics, not to run any campaign. Californians deserve a campaign that will practice taking the corrosive impact of special interest money out of politics at the same time that it preaches campaign finance reform. This effort will focus on removing such money from elections, and ending the corporate welfare and other privileges that it buys. I will not seek nor accept any campaign contributions."
The Green Party of California was, to put it mildly, a fledgling association of several really energetic people that claimed eighty thousand registered voters. Right at the outset, I made clear to them that this was not about me seeking to become president. It was about helping to focus the initiatives of growing numbers of people who want more political choices. So don't expect a traditional campaign, I told them. There will be no fund-raisers or appeals, no hoopla rallies, just opportunities for people to start the difficult process of shaping the future course of our beleaguered democracy.
My friends and associates, remembering the noncampaign in New Hampshire back in 1992, moaned about this latest political suspension zone I was entering. My corporate- fighting California buddy, Harvey Rosenfield, who overcame with my help the powerful auto insurance lobby, told reporters that while I would "draw people from all sides of the political spectrum, he's got to be out there doing it. And I don't think he gets that yet. Ralph has not given the word to everybody that he's serious." And here I thought I was going further than my civic-indentured mind ever thought possible.
Whether I was serious or not, the reporters jumped on the issue that they and the Democrats thought was very serious: Would I take enough votes away from Clinton-Gore to cost them California, their crown jewel of fifty-four electoral votes? The hawkeyed Wall Street Journal started the horse-race question on January 3, 1996, with an editorial titled "Nader vs. Clinton":
What Democrats should focus on ... is the real danger that Bill Clinton could lose vote-rich California if liberal activist Ralph Nader is a Presidential candidate.... No one can come up with a plausible Electoral College scenario that re-elects Bill Clinton without California's 54 electoral votes. A Field poll gives Mr. Nader 11% of the vote in a three-way race against Mr. Clinton and Bob Dole. Even a minimally funded Nader effort would end up with 3% to 5% ... almost all at the expense of Mr. Clinton.
When I read these words, I burst into laughter. Clinton at risk in California? Why, Bill could have his $200 haircuts on the LAX tarmac every week and not lose to Kansas Bob. Anyone who knows anything about California knows that Bob Dole doesn't fit there. From the get-go I always believed that Clinton would have little trouble with Dole, who himself seemed resigned to losing. While Dole would tell audiences \hat he had to leave the auditorium because he wanted to fly back home that night, Clinton would shake every last hand. Besides, Californians historically get cold feet for third-party candidates when they enter the voting booth.
But Bill Clinton did not share my certainty over his reelection. Again and again in the early months of 1996, Dick Morris told me, Clinton queried him about whether I could be persuaded to drop out of California. Clinton was really worried. Both his cautious political antennae and articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers raised the prospect of tipping California into Dole's column. Morris knew better. "Boss, don't worry. Nader's voters come from both Democratic and Republican voters," he told the president. Morris, quite to his credit, remembered what had happened in New Hampshire four years earlier.
Starting in February, letters began arriving from Greens in other states asking me to place my name on the· ballot. New Mexico, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Hawaii, and the number kept increasing until twenty-one states had my notarized acquiescence. C-Span started to cover my addresses at places like Haverford College and the University of Colorado at Boulder as part of their "Road to the White House" series. I did lots of talk radio shows and responded to feature reporters from around the country for interviews. But my travel was restricted because under the Federal Election Commission rules, raising and/or spending $5,000 or more made you an official candidate under a matrix of official rules, and I could not afford to cross that threshold. But by driving and finding the cheapest airfares, I did manage to visit more than a dozen states and help galvanize enthusiastic audiences around the neglected areas of health care, the trade "uber alles" agreements of NAFTA and GATT-WTO, environmental foresight, and consumer safety.
The California Nurses Association, and their tough-minded, sensitive executive director, Rose Ann De Moro, were running a statewide initiative (Proposition 216) on health insurance for all, and I campaigned with them across the state. Nurses are held in such politically high regard in our country, largely for good reasons, that joining with them was obvious. These were no ivory tower theorists or thumb-sucking columnists. Real grievances for their patients turned these nurses out into the streets to protest. Unfortunately and predictably, they were defeated at the polls by overwhelming HMO television dollars.
The Green Party nominating convention in August reminded me of an Earth Day gathering. It was held in Los Angeles, where Mike Feinstein, making his first and successful run for Santa Monica City Council, together with John Strawn and Greg Jan, were busily attending to the myriad details and a surprising number of reporters in attendance from around the world. MTV's Tabitha Soren, in particular, continued to cover the Greens. Winona LaDuke, a Harvard-trained economist, author and organizer, mother of two children, working farmer, and member of the Ojibway tribe in Minnesota, was chosen as my vice presidential running mate. At the age of thirty-six, Winona had already been chosen by Time magazine as one of the fifty forthcoming leaders in our country. She was well known among progressives at conferences and rallies around the country. A few weeks earlier, I had met with her in Minnesota and was struck by her spirited seriousness and warm sense of humor.
In an otherwise somnolent Clinton-Dole campaign, our unofficial campaign, which gave new meaning to the word "bare-bones," kept the flames of a people's politics flickering. At the time, I was busy with numerous civic projects as well as helping to start and build new citizen groups, including two involving my Princeton class of 1955 and Harvard Law School class of 1958, which mobilized "alumni for systemic justice," as we phrased it.
Come Election Night, we received just under seven hundred thousand votes, coming in fourth after Ross Perot on the Reform Party ticket. The only state where the Greens may have cost Clinton was Colorado, which went for Dole. I remember wondering whether the Democrats would get any message from this small signal on the horizon. In the months that followed, it was hard to detect any.
There was a strange letdown at the White House after Clinton's reelection. Instead of starting a new four-year term with some larger visions and objectives, he offered, in his adviser Bill Curry's words, "the politics of small gestures," often announced on Clinton's' Saturday-morning radio message. The president paid attention to the little things that linger in the beneficiaries' minds. His favorite columnist, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, was naturally pleased when Clinton sent his young son a birthday card. These recognitions poured out of the White House regularly, and their transformation into treasured mementos paid both intangible and recognizable dividends.
Bill Curry became restless and then incredulous at the absence of presidential initiative, leadership, and sense of priorities. It was too easy, he said to me, to blame a Republican- controlled Congress run by Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott for doing next to nothing. It was too easy, I replied, for Clinton to bask in the sun of a growing private economy, corporate profits, stock market surges, and declining unemployment while ignoring the grossest disparities in economic justice. Clinton, though cognitively capable, had no public philosophy, no guiding standards of what merits public enterprise. If he knew the proper lines between business and government, which he further blurred, or of what safeguards are needed when public assets are given to private companies, as with scientific and medical research results, he aid not communicate them to the public at large.
When it came time in 1996 for Clinton to decide whether he was going to renominate Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve, the decision was an automatic yes. It did not matter to Clinton that this powerful agency was controlled not only by the banking industry but by a man who still is for the abolition of the minimum wage and still maintains his antiregulatory beliefs honed as a member of Ayn Rand's inner circle forty years ago. Although Greenspan is sworn by his oath of office to enforce numerous laws that protect the financial borrowings and savings of consumers, he still has not disavowed his view that regulation "of dishonest and unscrupulous business" is "welfare statism," "illusory," and based on "armed force." One would think that Mr. Greenspan had some explaining to do about his regulatory inaction before receiving another term as chairman. Instead, Clinton, the Republicans, and all but seven Senate Democrats gave him a coronation.
Clinton's second term overlooked a cascade of concentrations of corporate power. It seemed that every Monday morning I opened the newspapers to read of one or more giant merger announcements, with no mention at all of its effects on workers, consumers, and communities. There even was no coherent antitrust policy other than approval or at times requiring minor sell-offs of dealerships and subsidiaries. It almost seemed that the widely publicized Microsoft case, brought by the Department of Justice, was a fig leaf hiding this astonishing abdication by the Clinton administration.
Clinton even signed legislation that encouraged such consolidations. The notorious Telecommunications Act of 1996 was a case in point. It was promoted by both parties as a fundamental stimulus to competition that would benefit both consumers and innovative small firms. At the White House signing ceremony, President Clinton was enthusiastic, promising that the law would bring consumers "lower prices, better quality, and greater choices in their telephone and cable systems." Listen to the Wall Street Journal's assessment five years after the act's passage:
For consumers, the competition never got started. Now, with many startup phone companies faltering or folding, it looks unlikely that it ever will. The Baby Bells and the cable TV operators have the country pretty much to themselves, enjoying lucrative monopolies in most areas.... Lacking competition, incumbent cable and phone companies have been raising prices, and they have relatively little pressure to improve shoddy service. Nobody has a sure answer for how to fix it.
Eisenhower's Republicans would have blushed at what Bill Clinton gave up to large corporations. It reached the point where it was a waste of time talking to the White House about any change of course or new direction. Before becoming Secretary of the Treasury, Clinton's Wall Street adviser in residence, Robert Rubin, became apoplectic when Labor Secretary Robert Reich spoke of corporate welfare being unfair and draining public monies from public needs.
All we were left with during our occasional meetings with White House staff were pleas to hold firm on opposing federal erosion of the civil justice system traditionally reserved for the states. Clinton and Gore never stood firm on tort law, which protects the rights of people injured by defective products, toxins, and other harms. While telling their large campaign contributors in the trial bar one thing, they were busy negotiating deals with the tortfeasors' lobby on Capitol Hill. Clinton signed eleven mini-tort deform bills into law in such areas as aircraft manufacturing and biomaterials, which gave slices of immunity to these industries, In 1998 he was willing to sign the first general federal preemption of a portion of state tort law, but a bitter dispute over the sufficiency of the corporate immunities between two industry groups left the bill languishing in a Senate ready to pass it. This was die same Bill Clinton who as presidential candidate in 1992 gave leading trial attorney Phil Corboy at a Chicago fund-raiser his patented direct eye contact and firmly said, "You'll never have to worry about me restricting tort law."
The petitions, appeals, letters, testimony, meetings with Clinton's so-called regulators, with the exception of Dr. David Kessler, head of the FDA, on tobacco matters and Arthur Levitt, chairman of the understaffed Securities and Exchange Commission, were met with veritable blank looks, interminable delays, or rejections. Again and again, the citizen groups would try, and again and again they were shut out, albeit with occasional sweet talk. The regulatory agencies were more than captives of the industries they were supposed to regulate -- they became their camouflage, material for auto, aviation, food, drug, railroad, and other industries' advertising bragging that their products met or exceeded federal safety or other standards -- standards often written by industry lawyers and immediately obsolete when they were issued twenty or thirty years ago.
Our elders used to urge us on with the words, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." So a few months after the election in 1996, we made the first of numerous attempts to sit down with Vice President Al Gore and run by him a number of significant policy initiatives. My assistant, Caroline Jonah, started what turned out to be an extraordinary process of accessing the vice president. At first his staff requested a written letter with the topics we wanted to discuss with him. Fair enough. We sent the letter and followed up with another call. Then another call. And another. Soon the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, until finally Caroline received the reply: "The vice president has no time to meet with Mr. Nader." I called him directly to see what was amiss. He called back in a few days, and I recounted our frustration with his staff giving us the runaround.
They have?" he asked, as if surprised.
"You weren't aware that they were not letting us meet?" I asked, reminding him of a constructive meeting we had in 1993 at his office. "Then can you give me a time when we can get together?"
"Well," he replied, "let's talk now."
"There are several major topics," I said, briefly listing them, "and I doubt whether you have the time or whether it is best to discuss these on the telephone. Can't we find a time to meet?" I fully expected him to agree and refer me to his scheduler.
"Well, I'll see," he said and politely ended the conversation.
That was the last I heard from AI Gore, until he began telling crowds in the closing days of his 2000 presidential campaign that a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush.
Gore's disingenuousness had become more profound over the years, in part because he had never lost an election because of it and in part because, except for a few "misspokes," he had gotten away with this sleight of mind. But Jamie Love and Act Up made sure in 1999- 2000 that he did not get away with drug industry dualism. Gore always portrayed himself as someone who had spoken truth to the medicine makers.
Unbeknownst to just about everybody was a private drama between these companies and South Africa involving Gore as a central character. Gore was the co-chair of the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission along with President Thabo Mbeki. Gore used this position to pressure Mbeki, whose parliament was considering changes in its Medicines Act that would promote competition, liberalize rules for important drugs, and encourage the greater use of generic drugs, to lower the prices of medicines. About 4 to 5 million people in South Africa were HIV-positive, and at ten to twenty thousand dollars per patient per year for the multiple AIDS drug treatment, only a very few would receive this chance to save their lives.
As documented extensively in a February 5, 1999, State Department report to Congress (available on www.cptech.org
), Gore had meetings with Mbeki, declaring that such legislation would constitute a violation of the revised GATT trade agreement and should be withdrawn. It was most demonstrably not a violation of the GATT treaty. Fronting for the U.S. drug industry, it was not easy for Gore to be credible. Without the full protection of Merck, Pfizer, and other companies' intellectual property. he and his staff argued, there would not be the billions necessary for further research and development. Gore, of course, would have seen no need to inform Mbeki that the growth in the industry's advertising and marketing expenditures is greater than the growth of their research budgets, or that many of the most significant drugs were financed through tax dollars by the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon, along with gobs of federal tax credits.
In 1998, for example, Pfizer made more than $1 billion in profits, paid no federal income tax, and· even received a $100 million refund, due to generous tax credits drug lobbyists secured from Congress. Jamie Love exposed Gore's role, and the. press responded with several articles. Meanwhile, Act Up moved into a direct voice mode, culminating in a loud interruption of Gore's carefully scripted presidential announcement from his hometown of Carthage, Tennessee. After a few similar Act Up confrontations, Gore began backing down without admitting it. Starting in 1997, I sent him three detailed letters urging him to reverse his stance and support the South African legislation (which is now law) from a standpoint of compassion, if nothing else. He assigned an aide to provide a pro forma response.
Ignorance was rarely a problem with Gore. However, after eight years of Clinton, his hide- and-go-seek games bordered on amateurism. In many ways, Al Gore is the symbol of a Democratic Party that has become too corporate.
Indeed, the corporate influences on our political parties and the media have dulled our imaginations about what the agenda should be for creating a better society.
Unfortunately, the system is not working and our democracy is at risk. The debate about what we, as a people, should do to advance justice has narrowed, and it has become more difficult for people to challenge abuses of power.
It is an important function of the electoral process to spark thoughts about what our country could be if the public interests were paramount and to encourage actions by people to reclaim our democracy.