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Ralph Nader

Consumer Crusader

One time when I was nine or ten years old, I came home from school...and my dad said to me, 'Well, Ralph, what did you learn in school today? Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?' So, I'm saying to myself, 'What's the difference between the two?'

Young Ralph Nader seated next to his older sister, Laura. Nader was born in Winsted, Connecticut and is the youngest son of Lebanese immigrants, Rose and Nathra.

Ralph Nader is America’s most renowned and effective crusader for the rights of consumers and the general public, a role that has repeatedly brought him into conflict with both business and government. Ralph Nader was born in Winsted, Connecticut to Nathra and Rose Nader, Lebanese immigrants who operated a restaurant and bakery. Nader’s dream of becoming a “people’s lawyer” was instilled in him in adolescence by his parents, who, in noisy free-for-alls, conducted family seminars on the duties of citizenship in a democracy. Mark Green, a former Nader associate, said that “when (the Naders) sat around the table growing up, it was like the Kennedys, except that the subject was not power but justice.” Following his graduation in 1951 from the Gilbert School, Nader entered the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton University. Graduating magna cum laude in 1955, with a major in government and economics, Nader enrolled in Harvard Law School. He became an editor of the Harvard Law Review, and after graduating with honors, set up a small legal practice, traveling widely. The young attorney became distressed by the indifference of American corporations to the global consequences of their actions, and he began to speak out against the abuse of corporate power.

On November 30, 1965, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile was published. The book accused automakers of failing to make cars as safe as possible by neglecting safety issues. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, requiring the adoption of new or upgraded vehicle safety standards, and creating an agency to enforce them and supervise safety recalls.

Ralph Nader first made headlines in 1965 with his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which took the auto industry to task for producing unsafe vehicles. He became an American folk hero when executives of General Motors hired private detectives to harass him and then publicly apologized before a nationally televised Senate committee hearing.

July 5, 1977: Nader with three-year-old Shelby Sutcliffe as she reacts as an airbag pops out from steering wheel of a simulator during a press conference to demonstrate safety of the restraint device. Shelby is the daughter of Lynn Sutcliffe, Counsel to the National Committee for Auto Crash Protection. Nader said a move in Congress to overturn the proposal that all cars be equipped with air bags or automobile seat belts is "doomed to defeat." (AP Images)
July 5, 1977: Nader with three-year-old Shelby Sutcliffe as she reacts as an airbag pops out from steering wheel of a simulator during a press conference to demonstrate safety of the restraint device. Shelby is the daughter of Lynn Sutcliffe, Counsel to the National Committee for Auto Crash Protection. Nader said a move in Congress to overturn the proposal that all cars be equipped with air bags or automobile seat belts is “doomed to defeat.” (AP Images)

The consumer advocate went on to create an organization of energetic young lawyers and researchers (often called “Nader’s Raiders”) who produced systematic exposés of industrial hazards, pollution, unsafe products, and governmental neglect of consumer safety laws. Nader is widely recognized as the founder of the consumers’ rights movement. He played a key role in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Freedom of Information Act and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He has continued to work for consumer safety and for the reform of the political system through his group Public Citizen.

November 3, 2000: Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader as he speaks at a campaign rally in Long Beach, California. The Democratic Party fears that Nader could be a “spoiler,” pulling enough votes from Vice President Al Gore’s constituency to put Republican candidate Governor George W. Bush in the White House.

For many years, Ralph Nader has harshly criticized the two major political parties for preserving a campaign finance system that makes them both dependent on wealthy contributors. In 1996 he appeared on the ballot in some states as the presidential candidate of the Green Party, but ran a largely symbolic campaign, making only a handful of public appearances to promote his candidacy. He made a more substantial effort in 2000, running nationwide as the candidate of the Green Party. He won nearly three million votes nationwide, close to three percent of the votes cast.

Academy members Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and Ralph Nader at the 2005 Academy Summit in New York City.

After the closest presidential election in American history, many Democrats blamed Nader for their loss of the presidency. They speculated that had Nader not entered the race, they would have won enough of Nader’s voters in either Florida or New Hampshire to shift the balance of electoral victory in their favor. Despite opposition from many of his previous supporters, Ralph Nader ran for president again as an independent candidate in 2004 and 2008.

September 2015: “Decades after Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader owns a shiny red 1963 Corvair as part of his new museum. Nader isn’t driving the classic car. He’s making an example of it. It is the centerpiece exhibit in a museum that Nader opened in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut. At the American Museum of Tort Law, the Corvair will be beside exhibits about that notorious cup of McDonald’s coffee and other important civil tort cases.”

Nader has published over a dozen books since his first, Unsafe at Any Speed. In 2009, Nader published his first novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a satirical political fantasy in which a cast of real-life characters, led by Warren Buffett, are moved to social activism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His most recent books include Animal Envy: A Fable, and Breaking Through Power, a collection of inspiring stories of citizen activism, both published in 2016.  Ralph Nader lives and maintains his offices in Washington, D.C.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1990

“There’s no ticket of admission for active citizenship. Anybody can get through that gate, and anybody can ask that basic question that gets the ball rolling.”

In 1965 Ralph Nader asked a question that shocked America. In his book Unsafe at Any Speed, he asked why thousands of Americans were being killed or injured in car accidents when the technology already existed to make our cars safer. The automobile industry resisted Nader’s suggestions furiously, but public outcry forced government and industry to apply new safety standards, and to include devices like shoulder harnesses and air bags, which have saved thousands from death or injury.

Ralph Nader didn’t stop there. His concept of full-time citizenship led him to form groups such as Public Citizen, which have exposed corporate and governmental negligence and corruption and won important new protections for Americans as citizens and consumers.

More than 50 years after he began his crusade for automobile safety, Ralph Nader continues his efforts to make government and business accountable to the people, and to make all Americans aware of their rights, and of their own power to defend them.

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What was the first big issue that you took on?

Ralph Nader: One day in the spring, at Princeton, where I went to college, I noticed there were dead birds on the pavement between the campus buildings, where very large trees were. At first I didn’t think much of it, I just said, “There’s a bluebird or a robin.” They weren’t mutilated in any way, they just were on their back, dead. And, a few days later I saw more such birds, early in the morning before the groundskeepers picked them up. I noticed that during the day, we’d be going from one classroom to another, and the groundskeepers would be spraying with huge hoses these trees. It turns out it was DDT. At the time, in the early ’50s, no one thought DDT was dangerous to anybody but insects. Well, it turned out it was dangerous right there to birds. I went down to the Daily Princetonian, the college paper, and tried to persuade them to do a story. I had one of the birds with me to show them, and they said, “Naw, there’s nothing wrong. We have some of the best science professors in the world,” they told me. “Chemistry, biology, if they had any idea it was harmful, it would be stopped.” Well it continued on for years, into the ’60s and even later. And the students would wipe some of it off their face, it would be so thick at times. But that taught me a very important lesson. One, that newspaper people can get very jaded. The editor was a senior, he had his feet on the desk, leaning back in his swivel chair, which is always a sign that curiosity might have dimmed. Second, that you might know something, like an expert chemistry professor, but if you are not interested in a problem, or if you have a dual allegiance, like perhaps you might be a consultant to one of the chemical companies that produces the pesticide, you are not going to apply what you know. You are going to be in your little, pigeon-holed specialization, and become one of the world’s experts on some tiny little item. But when it comes to applying it to a problem right where you live and work, you are not necessarily the best person to start the ball rolling. It could be someone who doesn’t have a Ph.D., someone who has a sense of curiosity, and begins to ask questions. That’s why I always say there’s no ticket of admission for active citizenship. Anybody can get through that gate, and anybody can ask that basic question that gets the ball rolling.

March 1966: Ralph Nader appears before the Senate Commerce subcommittee, which is investigating charges by Nader that he was harassed and intimidated by General Motors because of his book Unsafe at Any Speed. (Corbis)

You got out of Harvard Law school in the late ’50s. That was the era of “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” Yet General Motors became pretty important in your life. What provoked you to write Unsafe at Any Speed?

Keys to success — Perseverance

Ralph Nader: I used to hitchhike a lot, all over the country. At the time I never met anybody who hitchhiked more. I always hitchhiked, for example, from Princeton to New York, or around the East Coast, and I saw a lot of accidents. Sometimes the car I was in or the truck I was in would get there first. So it piqued my interest in it. You could see certain configurations, like the steering column rammed right back up through the roof. Of course, no one could have survived that kind of displacement of the steering column into them. When I went to Harvard Law School I became interested in the connection between legal standards for safety and automobile engineering design. At that time, it was all blamed on a “nut behind the wheel,” so-called, the driver. But I knew that the vehicle had a great deal to do with that because I had come across some Air Force-sponsored studies at medical schools. The Air Force found they were losing more men on the highways than in the Korean War — the highways in the U.S. — from traffic crashes. It began supporting research on how people can survive crashes if the immediate environment, say the vehicle around them, was crash-worthy. Padded dash panels, stronger door latches, collapsible steering columns, seat belts, shoulder harnesses, things like that. So I wrote a paper on automobile engineering design and legal liability and made recommendations. Lo and behold, the world didn’t stand up and implement them. So I started writing after I graduated from Harvard Law School. I’d write articles and I testified before the Connecticut and Massachusetts state legislatures. Nothing would happen. So I finally came to Washington. That’s when something happened. The Motor Vehicle Act of 1966, even though it was irregularly enforced — sometimes very little under Nixon and Reagan — it saved over 200,000 lives, millions of injuries prevented or reduced in severity.

How did you begin? How did you move to Washington?

Ralph Nader: It was all but the proverbial knapsack. I hitchhiked to Washington with one suitcase. I stayed overnight for three nights in the YMCA and then got a room in a boarding house. The plan simply was to build enough power in Washington, by getting to the media on the issue, columnists, getting to members of Congress to start congressional hearings to regulate the auto industry for safety. To say to the auto companies — who were wallowing in stylistic pornography over engineering integrity — those were the periods of real stagnation that was being watched very carefully by some people in Japan and Western Europe – to get them moving. To push them to produce better, safer cars. So it was a conscious effort.

December 15, 1967, Washington, D.C.: Ralph Nader speaks with author Upton Sinclair at the White House after the signing of the Wholesome Meat Act (Federal Meat Inspection Act) by President Johnson. In 1904, Sinclair covered a labor strike at Chicago’s Union Stockyards for the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason, and proposed that he spend a year in Chicago to write an exposé of the Beef Trust’s exploitation of workers. The result was Sinclair’s best-known novel, The Jungle (1906), which vividly described not only the working conditions of packinghouses but also the horrific meatpacking practices that produced the food itself. The Meat Inspection Act of 1906, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 30, 1906, prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded livestock and derived products as food, and ensured that livestock were slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions. The federal government became responsible for overseeing intrastate meat inspection and packaging when the law was amended by the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967. With the 1967 victory, Nader was less associated with just the automobile industry and soon classified as an all-around consumer advocate. (AP/Harvey Georges)

Nobody was listening to you when you got here. How did you get them to listen to you, to hear you?

Ralph Nader: First, I got a consultantship for the Department of Labor.

How do you initiate change? How do you initiate reform?

Ralph Nader: You look at what the objective should be. Let’s say you want a safety law, you want a company to do something different, curb pollution, for example. You want to try to get an inventor who has got a great way to filter water to get the marketplace to accept the invention, and you say, “Well, what has to be done?” Well, the first step is people have to be aware of the problem. If they are not aware that their drinking water is contaminated, or that their friends might have been killed because of defective car design, like an easily ruptured fuel tank, they are not going to be interested in your solution.

Ralph Nader: In the auto area, you have to get across to the public that even if it was the driver that caused the car to veer out of control and hit a tree, that doesn’t mean the car should collapse like a Japanese lantern and the steering column spear the driver. So the auto companies had a responsibility to build a crash-worthy car, and the driver had a responsibility to drive safely. So making that distinction, more and more people were able to say, you know, cars can not only prevent accidents if they have good brakes and good handling, but they can make accidents safe. In other words, like the Dodge’em Car when you were a kid. The whole idea was to crash into another car, a Dodge’em Car at the recreational park, and have a safe crash. So alright, you’ve got the problem in the minds of people, they’re hungry for a solution, you propose the solution. Well, who is going to implement it? If the marketplace doesn’t implement it, the government is a candidate to set safety standards. It’s a kind of police power for corporations. So how does the government get interested? Well, since there’s no department of auto safety, you start with the Congress. The congressional hearing usually gets good media, and leads to legislation, creating or authorizing the government to do research in auto safety and establish safety standards and recall defective cars. And that’s what I did.

Awards Council member Ralph Nader presenting the Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award to José Ramos-Horta, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace at the 2002 International Achievement Summit in Dublin.
Keys to success — Perseverance

Ralph Nader: You always have doubts because you’ve got a real powerful industry, like the auto industry. But you outfox it. See, they’re like big water-logged elephants; they can’t move quickly. They can’t make decisions quickly when they are challenged, especially when they are not used to being challenged. So you look at it as a real intellectual challenge. The tactic, the strategy, the timing, what reporters you get on your side, what editors, what members of Congress. How do you get a key member of Congress who can lever other members of Congress to do the right thing on this issue? And, it gets very complicated. And you often beat them on weekends. You see, they stop working Friday at 5:00 p.m. And it’s on weekends that you really make the difference.

And what was the reaction in the marketplace? What was the reaction of General Motors to all of this?

Ralph Nader: Well, they hired a private detective firm to tail me. And they tailed me once down to the Senate office building and were caught by the Senate police. And of course, that started the whole congressional investigation. And, the head of General Motors came down and apologized and said that of course he didn’t know about it. But it turned out that GM had hired the same detective firm to trail and put under surveillance about 25 other critics. People in the community who just criticized GM for one means or another and got a little press on it. But it was good that they did that because it really outraged some members of Congress, and helped the legislation.

Ralph Nader addresses Academy delegates and members during the 2007 Achievement Summit in Washington.
Ralph Nader addresses Academy delegates and members during the 2007 Achievement Summit in Washington.

So their idea of how to deal with this problem was to try to discredit you, and not deal with the problem.

Ralph Nader: Yeah, they were memo’d through their law firm. They hired a law firm to hire a detective agency so they’d have a buffer between them and the detective agency, and the memo from the law firm they hired, to the detective agency, was “Follow this guy. Get some dirt on him so that you can discredit him,” and therefore discredit the cause of auto safety standards.

Did you ever imagine that Unsafe at Any Speed would become a bestseller and that suddenly you would find yourself in this rather prominent place in American life?

Ralph Nader: I entertained the possibility, but I always cushioned myself either way, so that if it didn’t do well, I would not be disappointed, and I would be resilient, and find out a way to make it occur. But if it did well, I’d remember what my parents told me, which was the hardest thing is not attaining success, it’s being able to endure it.

What’s the toughest part of success? What do you have to endure?

Keys to success — Integrity

Ralph Nader: People try to turn you into celebrities, and jet-setters, and there are a lot of temptations and a lot of parties to go to, and a lot of celebrities to meet, and that takes up a lot of time. Also you can get into trouble that way, too. Second, all kinds of people want you to help them on their issues and their causes and their complaints, and if you’re everything to everybody, you can’t get anything done. You do have to specialize a little bit. One thing at a time, until you get a capability to do more things. So I got through the auto safety law, somebody came to me about natural gas pipeline safety problems, and I went into that area. Then I got more students involved, working with me, law students and undergraduate students during the summer. Then I opened up the first organization, and then started a lot of organizations, so that a lot of opportunities were opened up for young people in the ’60s and ’70s to be their own full-time citizens. Whether it deals with fire prevention, or pensions, or freedom of information lawsuits, or watching Congress, or environmental pollution control, we gave them opportunities and groups in all these areas. Food safety, drug safety.