June 11, 2015
In a recent column in Salon, Bill Curry wrote:
“Though a private citizen, [Ralph] Nader [has] shepherded more bills through Congress than all but a handful of American presidents. If that sounds like an outsize claim, try refuting it. His signature wins [have] included landmark laws on auto, food, consumer product and workplace safety; clean air and water; freedom of information, and consumer, citizen, worker and shareholder rights. In a century only Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson passed more major legislation.”
Since the publication, half a century ago, of Ralph’s landmark Unsafe at any Speed (by which he initiated the consumer movement, in Curry’s words, “as just one guy banging away at a typewriter”), he has been perhaps America’s foremost voice of conscience and public sobriety, a champion of working- and middle-class Americans, and the unofficial First Citizen of our republic.
When things get serious, Ralph’s who you want around. When things get weird, Ralph’s who you want around. When America cranes its head toward the bad old days of the Mad Men era, it is Ralph, as some have pointed out, who largely deserves our thanks for breaking corporations’ gray stranglehold on our media.
And then, there are the letters. For many years, Ralph has practiced the old-fashioned art of addressing important people and leaders — allies and adversaries both — in articulate, public correspondence.
Perhaps the most interesting letters Ralph has written are those he’s addressed to American presidents. Besides the deep civic engagement and vivid legal analysis for which he’s famous, these letters also showcase Ralph’s signature dry wit, prescience in envisioning America’s future, and occasional willingness to be a real oddball — as, for instance, in the letter written in the persona of an E Coli bacterium.
There’s nothing odd, though, in his decision to maintain this correspondence, despite the fact that he has never received a single letter back. As Ralph has written, there were two main motivations to his keeping up the letter-writing. ”First,” he says, “I sought a response that would result in action, such as greater presidential attention to global infectious diseases and workplace safety. Second, failing in that objective, I wanted to document this lack of two-way, substantive communication with anyone either in the White House or with appointees from executive departments and agencies.”
Seven Stories Press is proud to have collected and published Ralph’s letters to our twenty-first century presidents in Return to Sender, available through our website and in bookstores across the country. The New York Times said it “may be the first book by a prominent Washington figure announcing that the president does not listen to him.” (There is also, they conceded, “a larger point.”)
They may not have pierced the presidential bubble (though First Lady Michelle Obama did write Ralph back), but these letters nonetheless offer a timely, tough, true accounting of one of the best-loved — and, to our benefit, most heeded — voices of the American wilderness.