‘I Have a Very Deep Well of Empathy’

If there were a Mount Rushmore of reform, Ralph Nader's profile would be on it. But now, at 74, he is known less as the father of the consumer and public-interest law movements than as a perennial—and controversial—presidential candidate. Many Democrats blame him for the George W. Bush presidency, arguing that, in 2000, Nader siphoned away thousands of Florida votes that would have given Al Gore a clear-cut victory there. Unapologetic and energetic, Nader sat down with NEWSWEEK's Howard Fineman last week to discuss why he is running again. Excerpts:

Fineman: Do you think personal behavior should be a test by which we measure public officials or candidates for public office?
If what [Eliot Spitzer] did … was basically something that compromised his public policies, or what he proposed or what he didn't propose, then that would move it to a much higher level. But at the present time, we're not seeing the kind of outrage vis-à-vis politicians whose behavior results in devastating consequences—economic, health and safety—to the public the way the media and others zero in on personal moral turpitude.

Don't you feel the least bit of guilt or responsibility for the fact that George W. Bush—whom you describe, essentially, as a war criminal—is president?
I think the Constitution says that we all have an equal right to run for election. And if that's so, we have an equal right to try to get votes from one another … But more important is, would Al Gore have been president if there was no Electoral College? Yes, because he won the popular vote … So, let's focus on the Electoral College and stealing elections instead of focusing on small parties who have every First Amendment right to try to run and make this country a better place to live.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have said that they want to begin pulling troops out of Iraq immediately. John McCain has said that we may have to keep troops in Mesopotamia for 100 years. Isn't that alone enough to make a lot of people who might support you, and even you, say, "Well, maybe we ought to throw our support to the Democrats"?
I don't believe Obama and Clinton, that they want to get out of Iraq and they actually will get out of Iraq … There is no way, given their behavior in the Senate, which is about all we can predict from, when they supported again and again the funding for this criminal, unconstitutional, boomer-anging war in Iraq, that they are going to, if they reach the White House, actually have a six-month—or some specific—deadline.

Is Clinton right when she says Obama's semi-antiwar candidacy, shall we say, is based on one speech that he gave in 2002?
He could have raised the issue of why George W. Bush, who thinks this is a great fight for democracy and freedom—and it's worth the sacrifice, as he's told us many times—doesn't urge Jenna and Barbara to join the armed forces, as the children of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower did.

Should Hillary be urging Chelsea to volunteer for military service?
Any time the Congress and the White House gets this country into war, there should be a statute that moves immediately to conscript all military-age, able-bodied children of members of Congress, the president and the vice president.

Are there any corporations that you think are good citizens?
Oh, yes.

How does News Corp. do?
[Rupert] Murdoch has basically commodified the news. He has basically suppressed the highest traditions of journalism, from objectivity to challenging the powers that be, and he has taken advantage of the public airwaves … and engaged in soliloquies of extraordinary abuse of people who cannot fight back.

Are they still your publisher?
I think they own HarperCollins, yeah. It's hard to escape the conglomerate web.

Is that the best part of the conglomerate web to have your books published by?
They publish anticorporate books, not just mine. So, they have a good distribution system.

It is certainly the role of reform-minded candidates to push the major parties to innovate. But isn't that only going to work if they are afraid they might lose?
My concern is not them. My concerns are the voters and giving voters a broader choice when they go to the ballot box in state after state. We, for example, want to reduce the bloated military budget, which is full of waste … They're not talking about that: McCain, Obama and Clinton.

You've done more than one life's worth of work. Why go do this at this point?
Well, you're asking a personal question. So I will give you an unusual personal answer. I have a very deep well of empathy, and I take my motivation from what I see around the country. And I'll give it to you just briefly, statistically: 47 million people who make less than $10.50 an hour—six and a half, seven, eight dollars an hour before deductions; 45 million people without health care, 18,000 of whom die every year, according to the National Academy of Sciences, because they can't afford health care; 13 million children who go to bed hungry every night; 45 million people in dire poverty; 58,000 people who die from workplace-connected diseases and trauma every year, according to [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration]; 65,000 people who can't breathe, and die because of air pollution. I mean, do I have to go on? I mean, just what more evidence is needed that each and every one of us who has an ability to improve his or her country has got to do what they have to do within the confines of the Constitution and rule of law and freedom of speech?