“An Unreasonable Man,” the superb documentary on Ralph Nader, appeared on PBS on December 18. It is a substantive and very engaging portrait of Nader–and it has garnered far less attention than it deserves. It holds one’s attention for every minute of its nearly two hours. One of its most important segments lays to rest the idea of Nader as a purposeful spoiler or even an unintentional one in the 2000 elections. It may even be that Nader helped Gore. It deserves careful watching for that reason alone.
Since the documentary lets all sides speak their piece, two of Nader’s principal detractors, Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman, are given considerable time to dispense their venom. In fact, after a half hour of interviewing, the director had to beg Alterman to talk some more, getting another five minutes out of him. This has not prevented Alterman from claiming that he was not given adequate time to spew his opinions. Both Alterman and Gitlin come across as very bitter men, capable of nothing more than ad hominem attacks on Nader. It is quite a disgusting sight, enough to forever disabuse one of any trust in these fellows.
But a couple of star passages belong to Lawrence O’Donnell, best known as the director and writer of TV’s West Wing and staple liberal voice on the McLaughlin Group, a favorite of mine which we like to call “The Shouters.” But not so long ago, O’Donnell was the Democratic Chief of Staff of the United States Senate Committee on Finance from 1993 through 1995. In 1992, he was Chief of Staff of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. So he knows the ways of the Capitol and the Democratic establishment from deep inside. On a discussion of Ralph’s third party runs for president, O’Donnell had these memorable words:
“If you want to pull the party–the major party that is closest to the way you’re thinking–to what you’re thinking, YOU MUST, YOU MUST show them that you’re capable of not voting for them. If you don’t show them you’re capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you. I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn’t listen, or have to listen, to anything on the left while I was working in the Democratic Party, because the left had nowhere to go.” (Caps represent O’Donnell’s emphasis, where he raised his voice.)
This thought is certainly not new to CounterPunchers and has been articulated by Nader and others many, many times. Certainly we have all heard the comparison of Democratic progressives to the abused spouse stuck in the relationship because she with no shelter to turn to. But O’Donnell’s background gives the argument new force. In sum, Want to change the Dems? Join the Greens. Attention “Progressive” Democrats of America (“P”DA). (And similarly, if you want to change the Republicans, join the Libertarians.)
On another point, the presidential debates from which Nader was so unceremoniously excluded in 2000, O’Donnell also scored a trenchant point, saying:
“In an election in which now the Gore world wants to say, ‘Ralph Nader lost the election for us,’ I guess he must have been a factor in the election. But you said he couldn’t be in the debates because he wasn’t a factor in the election.”
Here as in so many other cases the anti-Nader Democrats get snared in their own lies until they pile up into outright contradictions.
These are a few the many great moments in “An Unreasonable Man.” For those who have not seen it, it can now be had on DVD. It deserves several watchings–there is a lot in it. And at the end of it all, Ralph Nader emerges as the smartest and most principled figure on the current political stage in the U.S.–a giant.
John V. Walsh can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com