It's Over, Ralph

By BARBARA EHRENREICH

The New York Times

July 18, 2004

All right, Ralph, I always knew we had issues: Me the Led Zeppelin fan, you the policy monk. Me the fervent feminist, you who once dismissed gay rights and abortion as "genital politics." But four years without even a phone call?

We had something going there once you can't deny it. Remember that sultry August night at some exotic venue like the American Political Science Association's annual convention? Coming from months campaigning by rental car from one Motel 6 to another, you looked too frail to ascend to the podium. But you were brilliant skewering the robber barons for 45 minutes with no more notes than fit on the back of an envelope.

I voted for you in, yes, Florida. I lost friends on account of you; I risked death by sporting your bumper sticker well into the reign of Bush. But you were irresistible an Old Testament prophet wandering alone in the desert, thundering about all the ways we Americans are being sickened and scammed, deluded and defrauded, by the plutocrats who've hijacked our country.

So I will admit I was hurt when you didn't call me to discuss your plans to run again this year, although none of the other former Nader loyalists I know got a phone call either. Maybe you could guess what we'd say.

Because, Ralph, a lot of sewage has passed under the bridge since 2000. Back then, Al Gore was campaigning with the furious energy of an old-growth oak. George W. Bush looked like a dumbed-down version of Gerald Ford a man who could be trusted to while away his presidency on the elliptical trainer.

Who could have guessed that within a year and a half, the genial Bush would morph into a figure invoked worldwide to scare unruly children? Or that a whole slew of candidates Dean, Kucinich, Sharpton, Moseley Braun would be preaching your vision of peace and social justice from within the Democratic Party?

You've changed too. If the first time was tragedy and I will admit now, with hindsight, that it was the second time is predictably farce. Maybe those years spent wandering in the wilderness disdained by Democrats, excluded by arcane ballot access rules have taken their toll, because there's been something grotesque about your campaign from the start, when you advised left-wing critics, in words no one knew your vocabulary included, to "relax and rejoice" in your run. This while casualties mounted in Iraq and civil liberties evaporated here.

In 2000, you could at least claim to be doing it all for the Green Party. This summer you didn't even bother to drop by its convention. You were in Portland, Ore., addressing an audience of 1,100 (you got almost 10 times as many there four years ago) that was heavily larded with conservatives eager to get you on the ballot to suck votes from John Kerry. When Howard Dean confronted you about your conservative "supporters," you lamely observed that "Republicans are human beings too."

Republicans are the least of it. You've been kissing up to the Reform Party, which ran paleo-right-winger Pat Buchanan the last time around. You've been caught dallying with the former New Alliance Party, described by Christopher Hitchens, with his customary restraint, as a "zombie cult." I loved you for your principles, not your lean hot bod, and now you've tossed them for a few more moments in the sun.

And what about that love fest with Kerry in May? You came out of your hour of face time "almost effusive" with praise, according to The Times: He's "very presidential," you said of Kerry, and unburdened by a "squeaky voice." Maybe he is all that I certainly hope so. But somehow your star-struck response made you seem more eager to get a seat at the table than to even out the portions.

So, Ralph, sit down. Pour yourself a Diet Pepsi and rejoice in the fact that post-Enron and post-Iraq war millions have absorbed your message. You're entitled to a little time out now, a few weeks on the beach catching up on back issues of The Congressional Record. Meanwhile, I've thrown my mighty weight behind Dennis Kucinich, who, unnoticed by the media, is still soldiering along on the campaign trail. In the event that he fails to get the Democratic nomination, I'll have to consider my options.

Thomas L. Friedman is on leave until October, writing a book.