During our last great energy crisis, which President Carter combated in part by installing solar panels on the White House roof, a wood stove in the living quarters and proposing that goats crop the White House lawns, I had a ringside seat at a debate, televised live on the old Phil Donahue show in Chicago, between my boss of those years, John Swearingen, and Ralph Nader.
Swearingen, chairman of Standard Oil Co. of Indiana (later Amoco, then BP Amoco, finally BP), was one of the last of the great old-school oil company executives — white hair, an imposing presence with a strong commanding voice, brooking no nonsense and expressing no doubts whatsoever about the absolute rightness of the positions of his company and his industry. The American free-enterprise system was manifestly the most powerful engine of human prosperity and progress devised by the mind of man, and that was that.
Considering that the subject was primarily oil, who knew the subject as well as any human (during this period, he was frequently asked to explain the industry’s position on programs such as NBC’s “Meet the Press”), came out of the debate satisfied with his performance. But he also emerged with a new-found respect for Mr. Nader’s intellectual integrity and ability to argue his position, free from ideological cant.
“Nader’s wrongheaded on a lot of his ideas about American business,” he said. “But he has principles, and he stands by them. He’s a good man.”
Since then, the Nader focus on what he calls “corporatism,” both private and governmental, has intensified, and he’s come to believe that political alliances can be built on areas of “convergence” among those, left and right, who think that because their elected representatives are up for sale to the highest bidder, they’ve lost their political voice. In “Unstoppable,” he lists “24 areas of convergence” around which they can converge, among them auditing the budgets of federal departments and agencies, real tax reform and ending the commercialization of children.
Among the “convergers,” he includes people “who call themselves conservatives, Libertarians, liberals, progressives, Republicans, Democrats, independents, Third Partiers, capitalists, socialists, or anarchists, or any other labels free-thinking American choose for themselves.”
He treats these designations with respect, with special attention to conservatism, which “has received a bad rap over the past century, with its philosophers misused, distorted and sometimes willfully mischaracterized.” In a chapter devoted to those thinkers, he pays special tribute to the economist Ludwig von Mises, whose work is kept alive at the renowned Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Ga., under the able and active direction of Lew Rockwell.
Mr. Nader also commends the work of Murray Rothbard, Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk, and among contemporary commentators, activists and writers singles out Pat Buchanan, Ed Crane, Grover Norquist and Ben Stein.
Nor is Richard Nixon, in many ways a true “converger,” neglected: “It was President Richard Nixon who recognized Communist China, made arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union, proposed national health insurance [first drafted by Ben Stein, then killed by Sen. Kennedy] that was better than Bill Clinton’s.”
Also, for the record, before the environmental movement became a neo-romantic religious crusade and refuge for aging New Leftists, reminds us, the conservation movement “started in a big way with President Theodore Roosevelt and his fellow Republicans,” through John Muir, “right down to the Nixon administration.” In fact, it’s possible to argue that Nixon was the only green president of the modern age.
Historical excursions aside, Mr. Nader has set out on a formidable mission here — nothing less than bringing corporations and government back under effective control of their constituents, and doing so with trans-political and ideological alliances. In effect, he proposes to transform entrenched contemporary politics. Can he do it? Unlikely. But then that’s probably what they said at GM back in the 1960s.
Finally, a personal note: Ralph Nader has a special relationship with the state of Alaska, where he made a strong showing as a presidential candidate on the Green Party ticket in 2000 (the year when Al Gore lost Florida because many Democrats voted for Mr. Nader. My daughter Amanda Coyne, a highly talented journalist writing in Anchorage, came to Washington for a signing party for the splendid book she co-authored about oil, money and politics in Alaska, “Crude Awakening.” Mr. Nader was there, we talked and he praised Amanda’s writing. For my money, he’s still a good man.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley). This piece was originally published in The Washington Times and re-published here with permission.