Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Return to sender: Ralph Nader says no one responds to his letters. (John Kelly, WaPo column)

Ralph Nader was one of my boyhood heroes when  I saw and heard him speak at Georgetown University's Gaston Hal on the Feast of Saint Augustine, August 28, 1974.  Inspired me to volunteer to work for Senator Ted Kennedy the next day, 

From The Washington Post:

Return to sender: Ralph Nader says no one responds to his letters

Ralph Nader in a 2017 photo. His latest book is a collection of letters to politicians and public figures. He says most did not write back. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
5 min

I always enjoy Ralph Nader’s phone calls. At 89, the guy’s a living legend. Every day you’re not impaled on your steering wheel column, poisoned by your water or soaked by your airline, you should thank him.

And, speaking selfishly, Nader says he likes my columns about squirrels. But when he called the other day, he didn’t want to talk about squirrels. He wanted to talk about how many people don’t want to talk to Ralph Nader.

The list is long. Politicians. Bureaucrats. Corporate chiefs. Journalists. They’re all ghosting him, he said. It’s gotten so bad, it’s the topic of Nader’s latest book: “The Incommunicados,” written with Bruce Feinand published by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.

The book collects dozens of letters Nader and his activist associates sent over the past few years seeking answers from figures as varied as Nancy Pelosi and the head physician of the New York Yankees. The letters to Pelosi inquired about such things as the country’s response to covid and the impeachment of Donald Trump. The letter to the Yankees doctor, written in 2016, asked why so many baseball players were being injured. (“At last count, the Yankees have had 26 different players spend time on the [injured list] for a total of 31 different IL stints,” wrote Nader, a lifelong fan.)

What the letters have in common is that no one bothered to write back. Nader said he’s heard the same thing from other nonprofit organizations and consumer groups. It’s gotten increasingly difficult to do something that the First Amendment guarantees: petition the government.

The people whose letters are answered and their phone calls returned, Nader said, are the corporate lobbyists.

“But the civic community, they don’t give money,” he said. “They don’t have the levers of threatening to leave the district or lay off workers. And they’re shut out. There’s a huge asymmetry now between the access to members of Congress by the civic community and the access by the commercial world.”

Nader said, “The minute that email, voice mail and the internet came on, somehow people felt less of a responsibility to answer letters. In an age of information, you have far less ability to get through to people than in the time of the quill pen, the Underwood typewriter and the rotary telephone.”

Some people have soured on Ralph Nader, blaming his 2000 White House campaign for Al Gore’s defeat. And the thing about gadflies is they are … persistent. Depending on your point of view — on whether you’re watching someone else get bitten or are getting bitten yourself — this persistence can be commendable or annoying.

Toward the end of “The Incommunicados,” Nader writes: “After one hundred or more of my serious letters to George W. Bush and Barack Obama went unanswered, I compiled them into a book titled ‘Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001—2015.’”

So this is his second batch of unanswered letters. As delicately as I could, I asked Nader whether, just maybe, he was coming on too strong? Maybe people were seeing him not as a sincere, inquisitive citizen, but as a cranky old man?

“My answer is I’m trying to crank up a dialogue, two-way communication,” he said. “That is not age-related, I can assure you.”

Nader said things are just as bad for him with journalists today. The Washington Post and the New York Times? They don’t respond, either, he said. It’s not like the 1960s and 1970s, when groups like his worked hand in hand with the press.

Said Nader: “I tell editors, ‘You saw we had newsworthy facts. They were reliable. They related to peoples’ lives. We wanted to save peoples’ lives and improve their economic condition and you covered us. Why are you ashamed of your golden age? You changed the country.’”

Well, I said, here’s your platform. What are the Top 3 things Ralph Nader wishes Congress would address?

“One is corporate crime,” he said. “[Congress doesn’t] have hearings. They don’t update the criminal code. There are no criminal penalties, just civil penalties. It’s laughable.

“The second is separation of powers. Why are you giving away your constitutional authority to the White House? You’re letting them decide on wars and appropriations.”

The third, Nader said, is campaign finance reform.

At the end of his book, Nader includes an example of the way things used to be. He prints a letter he received in 1978 from Henry Ford II. In it, the chairman of the Ford Motor Co. assures Nader that modifications to the notorious Pinto and Bobcat were underway. “Parts for the modifications already are in production, and initial letters of notification are being sent to owners.”

Ford adds: “Personal attacks hardly seem to be the appropriate way to achieve the results we are all looking for. I strongly object to your charges and insinuations that the Company has acted irresponsibly in developing these improvements for earlier model Pintos and Bobcats.”

Ford doesn’t bother with a “Yours truly” or a “Sincerely,” but, hey, at least he wrote back.

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