Since the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader has fallen so far from grace it is hard to believe that in the early 1970s polls showed him to be among the most admired men in America. In 1972, George McGovern asked Nader to be his running mate; the tireless consumer advocate had name recognition, an unmatched record of fighting corporate and bureaucratic power, and—if you believe the Tom Robbins novel Still Life With Woodpecker—sex appeal.
Three decades later, the documentary An Unreasonable Man probes Nader’s life in search of the logic that propelled his controversial presidential campaign in 2000 and unrepentant run in 2004. In the process, the film surveys the vitriol Nader engenders among his critics as well as the bittersweet respect he still garners from his colleagues. The responses from one interview seem to inform the next as the film intercuts between Nader’s attackers and apologists. Journalism professor (and Mother Jones contributing writer) Todd Gitlin tears into Nader for diminishing the difference between political parties. “To conflate the two as Tweedledee and Tweedledum was politically idiotic,” Gitlin says. “It is the responsibility of a serious person not to be a fool.” Responds Phil Donahue, “Liberals killed Nader for saying there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the parties, yet the Democrats spent the next four years proving that he was right.”
The film, codirected by a former Nader aide, tacks toward Nader’s view that defensive Democrats neither vote their conscience nor formulate appealing ideas. While it is hard not to cringe at clips of John Kerry impersonating George W. Bush’s tough-on-terror talk, the filmmakers are too lenient on Nader’s unwillingness to recognize 2004’s anyone-but-Bush imperative. Incapable of admitting even the possibility that he shares some of the responsibility for Bush’s first election, Nader shows no sign that he has learned that purity ofntention provides no immunity against disaster.