Best of a distinguished, denied lot

That each of America’s last ten unsuccessful major party presidential nominees is still alive is a tribute to modern medicine. Three of them are in their 90’s; two of that trio, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, were defeated while trying to win a second term. But what sort of president might Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, and/or Walter Mondale have made? Certainly all of them possessed sufficient qualifications for the White House, or at least many as the candidate who defeated them did.

Clinton, who has devoted her entire adult life to public service, served a term as a U. S. senator from New York and later was Secretary of State, and that was after eight years as First Lady. Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2012, was by capitalist standards an unqualified success, and also served a memorable term as the Republican governor of an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

McCain, defeated by Barack Obama for the presidency in 2008, had a distinguished military career prior to returning home from Vietnam and representing Arizona in the United States Senate for thirty years (and counting). Kerry, who lost the election of 2004, has served the public in a variety of positions, including U.S. senator from Massachusetts and Secretary of State.

Gore, who won the popular vote but controversially lost the Electoral College in 2000, served his home state (Tennessee) in both Congress and the Senate prior to serving eight years as vice-president. Dole, who failed to prevent Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, spent a combined 35 years in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives representing his home state of Kansas after being wounded during World War II. Dukakis, who lost the election of 1988, was a three-term governor of Massachusetts; Mondale, swamped in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide, was only 32 when he was appointed Minnesota’s attorney general; he later represented his home state in the senate for two terms.

Save for Romney and Mrs. Clinton, all of the above-mentioned presidential nominees served with honor in the military; in fact, McCain, Dole, and Kerry were decorated for their bravery. It’s plausible any or all of these public servants would have served with honor and distinction as president. But what of another aspirant, one who sought the presidency unsuccessfully three times?

The Connecticut-born son of immigrants from Lebanon, Ralph Nader turned down a Princeton scholarship because his father felt such grants should go to students who couldn’t afford college tuition, and the Naders could. Virtually unknown when he first attracted national attention in 1965 by writing “Unsafe at any Speed,” Nader’s indictment of the American auto industry prompted General Motors to unsuccessfully attempt to discredit him by, among other things, tapping his phone and hiring prostitutes to try and lure him into compromising situations.

Aided by seven volunteer law students dubbed “Nader’s Raiders,” his courageous, brutally honest characterization of the Federal Trade Commission as ineffective and passive led to reforms that converted the agency into a proactive advocate for consumers. Later an environmental activist and vocal opponent of nuclear power, his (and his associates’) efforts convinced lawmakers to enact, among other important legislation, the Freedom of Information Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Act.

Ralph Nader turned 83 years old late last month. Still an active public interest advocate, he lives exceptionally modestly. He never married, opting to forego family in favor of a career fighting tough battles to make life better for his fellow human beings. His three presidential campaigns, considered quixotic by critics, were based on principle. He didn’t chat up potential donors, win tax breaks for big corporations, or kowtow to special interests. Paradoxically many of the people he fought for didn’t fully appreciate (or even notice) his efforts on their behalf. Even worse, most didn’t (and in many cases still don’t) realize how badly they’ve needed the sort of advocacy and protection he’s provided them with for decades.

The question of which still-living unsuccessful candidate might have made the best president is open for debate. The question of who has done the most for America is not. In his remarkable life Ralph Nader has improved the lot of his nation’s everyday citizens more than all the other distinguished also-rans combined.

Andy Young
March 5, 2017

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