In the late 1960s, Ralph Nader was fresh from his own success with a best-selling book, Unsafe and Any Speed, which took the automobile industry and Congress to task about auto safety. In that fight, Nader also became embroiled in a battle with General Motors after the company hired private detectives to follow him and investigate his past, trying to discredit him as a Congressional witness and consumer spokesman. That incident, covered in a separate story, backfired on GM, with the company’s CEO apologizing to Nader during highly publicized U.S. Senate hearings. With his new national credential as a rising consumer advocate, Nader sought to expand the range of his activities beyond auto safety. By summer 1968, Nader began assembling teams of law school students to undertake investigative studies of government agencies. He had a bigger vision of what might be possible and a long list of issues that needed attention – from food safety and environmental pollution, to anti-trust enforcement and energy policy. What he needed was more Ralph Naders – though he never put it in exactly those terms. In fact, the idea may have risen by way of students themselves who wrote toNader after his auto safety notoriety. In January 1968, for example, Andrew Egendorf, a graduate of MIT who had entered Harvard Business School, wrote to Nader with a friend offering to work for him that summer if Nader would consider working with students. Whether this was the genesis of the plan, or was already something Nader was considering, is unclear. In any case, by the summer of 1968, Nader began assembling teams of law school students to undertake investigative studies of government agencies that dealt with consumer, environmental, food safety, and other issues. He would start with one agency and one team. Seven law school students were recruited to focus on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the federal agency charged with protecting consumers from shoddy products, fraudulent business practices, and deceptive advertising. The students Nader gathered to focus on the FTC were: Edward F. Cox, Yale Law School; Robert C. Fellmeth, Harvard; John E. Schulz, Yale; Judy Areen, Yale; Peter A. Bradford, Yale; Andrew Egendorf, MIT/Harvard; and William Taft IV, Harvard.Nader’s team went about the business of investigating the FTC full bore, burrowing in at the agency, interviewing its people, and digging up whatever they could find in Congress and the public record. In the summer of 1968, the Nader team gathered the material for their report, then returned to school. Later that year, during the December college break, they returned to Washington for a marathon session of writing. The full report would be released in January 1969.
But even before the official release, the Nader team had begun making waves with some of what they were finding. They had one dust up early on with FTC officials in the summer when they were conducting interviews and gathering data at the agency. In that incident, Nader team leader, John Schulz, had words with FTC chairman Paul Rand Dixon after some persistent questioning and was thrown out of Dixon’s office. Shulz had asked for a copy of a monthly FTC memo detailing complaints made to the agency. Dixon told him that the document was for FTC use only. Dixon also decreed by letter there would be no more Nader team interviews that summer, unless cleared with him.
However, Dixon’s letter made its way to Time magazine, where a story appeared on the incident in September 1968 titled, “Nader’s Neophytes.” Time also divulged some of what the Nader team was finding, indicating their study would show the FTC as a toothless watchdog, reluctant to go after big advertising offenders, and sometimes withholding reports from the public.
Edward Cox, a member of the Nader FTC team, helped generate a Wall Street Journal story in the summer of 1968 on some political dirt he discovered in his research – a purely patronage office in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was manned by a friend of FTC Chairman Dixon. As Cox would later tell this tale, recalling his stint with Nader that summer:
…A memorable event for a Washington newcomer was the impact of a Wall Street Journal article.“…I began to see how our hard work and Nader’s guidance and contacts might have an impact after all.” – Edward T. Cox My research had identified a patronage office in in Oak Ridge, Tennessee manned by a friend of Chairman Dixon’s, Judge Castro C. Geer, Jr. Judge Geer’s patron in Congress was Joe Evins, a Tennessee representative and chairman of the House subcommittee which approved the FTC’s budget. Nader told me to take the information to Jerry Landauer, one of the premier muckraking reporters in the Journal’s DC office. I will never forget the scene: Landauer, cigarette in his mouth, calling various sources to confirm the information, pounding out the story on his typewriter, and muttering genuinely sympathetic noises about poor Judge Geer who was about to get skewered by his story. This was the first major story generated by our [Nader study team] work, and I began to see how our hard work and Nader’s guidance and contacts might have an impact after all.Though the FTC was charged with protecting American consumers from deceitful and deceptive advertising and harmful and dangerous products, Nader’s team uncovered an agency that failed to detect violations and was reluctant to even use the weak enforcement powers it had. The FTC then lacked some basic enforcement powers, including the use of temporary injunctions and the ability to levy criminal penalties – and it did not seek Congressional help to obtain the statutory authority it needed to improve its powers. In mid-November 1968, Bill Greider of the Washington Post did a story featuring Nader’s FTC team, headlined: “Law Students, FTC Tangle Over Apathy,” in which he invoked his famous “Nader’s raiders” tag for the first time. Greider’s opening line in that story: “The graying members of the Federal Trade Commission, an agency founded in 1914 to protect the little guy, were confronted yesterday by Nader’s raiders, a group of modish young law students who accused the FTC of having ‘tired blood’.” The Nader team’s report, initially titled, The Consumer and the Federal Trade Commission, ran about 185 pages and was issued in January 1969. It called for a total revamping of FTC practices and its personnel, describing it a failed agency due to a combination of “cronyism, institutionalized mediocrity, endemic inaction, delay, and secrecy,” and an “iceberg of incompetence and mismanagement.” The Nader FTC study received extensive press coverage including that by Time magazine, New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. It also found support from a surprising source, as Advertising Age, a trade magazine for the industry, offered an editorial critical of the FTC’s weak enforcement. That editorial said in part: “No community is well served if its fire department habitually reaches the scene after the last spark has been extinguished.” The Nader FTC report was also published in the Congressional Record of January 22, 1969 and later that summer it was published as a book.
In Congress, during the spring and summer of 1969, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT), then chairman of the Government Reorganization Subcommittee of the Senate Government Operations Committee, was holding hearings on bills to establish an Office of Consumer Affairs. FTC issues were also covered at those hearings, with the Nader group offering testimony on their study. At one point during the hearings, Ribicoff praised the Nader FTC authors for their work, while leveling digs at the establishment press and the government: “Bureaucracy being what it is, I am fascinated by your ability to get in so deep, and get so much information. I am sure that you gentlemen are the envy of the large number of reporters here.”
FTC Chairman Paul Rand Dixon, however, described the Nader report for the Wall Street Journal as “a hysterical anti-business diatribe and a scurrilous, untruthful attack on the [FTC’s] career personnel and an arrogant demand for my resignation.” The report had indeed called for Dixon’s resignation and a complete overhaul of the agency. And by April 1969, the FTC had come to the attention of the new Nixon Administration. President Nixon urged the American Bar Association to undertake an independent investigation of the FTC, which they completed that September. The ABA’s report painted conclusions even more dismal than the Nader team had presented. Paul Rand Dixon resigned. When, under the new leadership of Casper W. Weinberger, reforms began taking place within the FTC, the New York Times announced the fact in a front-page headline on June 9, 1970: “FTC Maps Change to Aid Consumer; Major Reorganization Set by Chairman– Agency Was Nader Target.”
While the FTC study was underway, plans were made to staff up several more Nader study teams to probe other agencies. On February 10, 1969, a small ad was placed in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts under the title, “Nader’s Raiders.” The text of the ad read: “Graduate students in medicine, biology, life sciences, engineering, and law are needed this summer to work with Ralph Nader in an investigation of various government programs. Call Robert Fellmeth, 868-1593.” An avalanche of responses resulted. By that summer, more than 100 students had been recruited from thousands of applicants. In short order, several more study areas were set, generally focusing on food, agriculture, air and water pollution, and interstate commerce. By this time, Nader had also founded his Center for the Study of Responsive Law based in Washington, which would serve as the operating base for the study teams and research.Life Magazine Story. In early October 1969, a Life magazine story ran with the photograph that appears at the top of this article showing Nader on the steps of the Capitol with his legions of “Raiders.” The story, by Jack Newfield, was titled, “Nader’s Raiders: The Lone Ranger Gets a Posse.” In that piece, Nader explained to Newfield what he hoped to accomplish with his law-student swat teams, and specifically why some lawyers should work in the public interest:
“…Most lawyers are too hung up on clients. The most important thing a lawyer can do is become an advocate of powerless citizens. I am in favor of lawyers without clients. Lawyers should represent systems of justice. I want to create a new dimension to the legal profession. What we have now is democracy without citizens. No one is on the public’s side. All the lawyers are on the corporation’s side. And the bureaucrats… don’t think the government belongs to the people.
“For example, the industries, corporations and lobbyists manipulate the federal commissions and agencies. The Interstate Commerce Commission has always been a tool of the railroads, the bus lines and the trucking industry. The Department of the Interior has been easily influence by the oil and gas industries. The Department of Agriculture has been an instrument of the tobacco industry. No one represents the public interest. Lawyers are never where the needs are greatest. I hope a new generation of lawyers will begin to change that.”
During the 1969-72 period, more than a dozen “Naider Raider” study reports were launched, most of which became paperback books. Among the earliest of these were the five Nader reports that followed the FTC study: The Chemical Feast, Vanishing Air, The Interstate Commerce Omission,Water Wasteland, and Sowing the Wind. A brief look at each of these studies, as well as a few others, follows below.
The Chemical Feast
Work on the background reports that became a landmark “Nader’s Raiders” book on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began in the summer of 1968. James S. Turner, a law student at Ohio State University, would become the project director and principal author. But more than a dozen Nader-recruited researchers worked on the project over two summers, eventually distilling their findings into a 273-page book, The Chemical Feast, published as a paperback by Grossman Publishers in 1970.
As the title suggests, there was more to the nation’s food system than met the eye, and in fact, an onslaught of chemical food additives and pesticides was part of the equation, which Nader’s team uncovered in chapters with titles such as: “Cyclamates,” “Hidden Ingredients,” and “Food-Borne Disease.”
The book exposed the FDA’s lax oversight of the food industry, its corruption, and its connections with big food and drug companies. FDA appeared more concerned with protecting industry profits at the expense of public health.
“What they turned up was truly shocking,” reported Choice magazine – “evasion of law enforcement, abdication of responsibilities, bureaucratic confusion, incompetence, favoritism, and even fraud… It should prove of interest to concerned citizens of all ages.”
The major food safety laws – including the pesticide food additive and color additive laws – were sabotaged by the FDA, according to the study. “While the FDA clings to the claim that American food is better than ever,” explained The Chemical Feast’s back book cover, “the life expectancy of Americans is lower than ever and American food in general is filthier and less nutritious.”
A New York Times article in early April 1970 by reporter David E. Rosenbaum, used the following headline to describe the study: “F.D.A. Called Tool of Food Industry; Nader Unit Likens Its Rules to ‘Catalogue of Favors’.” Rosenbaum further wrote that the Nader FDA study revealed an agency “controlled by political pressures and unable and unwilling to protect the consumer.” The standards and regulations of the agency, Rosenbaum said of the report’s findings, “read like a catalog of favors to special interest groups.”
Time magazine said The Chemical Feast “may well be the most devastating critique of a U.S. government agency ever issued.” The report was first published in book form by Grossman in 1970, then reprinted three times in 1971, 1972 and 1974. In 1976, Penguin Books also published it in paperback form.
Another in the first batch of Nader reports was The Interstate Commerce Omission, a scathing review of the failings of the Interstate Commerce Commission, then a 83-year-old federal agency charged with regulating interstate commerce by rail, trucking, shipping and pipelines. The Nader study group undertaking this report was headed up by Robert Fellmeth, and his team delved deeply into the ICC’s record, sending out mail surveys, conducting more than 500 interviews, and doing detailed statistical analyses. In March 1970, they issued a 1,200-page draft report, which Time magazine called “devastating in detail.”
The essence of their report was that the ICC really didn’t regulate the 17,000 or so transport entities under its charge so much as operate a cartel on their behalf. The commission, they found, was in effect presiding over thousands of local transport monopolies, protecting inefficient carriers from competition at the expense of the public. They also found cozy relationship between the ICC and the industries they regulate, with industry trade groups also paying for meetings, food and hotel accommodations on junkets to “surface transportation meccas” such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
The Interstate Commerce Omission argued that the public good would best be served if the ICC were abolished altogether – and along with it, the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Federal Maritime Commission. All three of those entities could be replaced by a single agency, the Nader team charged, an agency that would then be able to set a coherent national transportation policy, relying less on regulation and more on markets to set rates. Doing so, they argued, would sharpen competition among companies in all forms of transport.
Vanishing AirThe release of the Nader study group report on air pollution – titled Vanishing Air – was a well-timed report, coming exactly as the public and Congress were beginning to focus on environmental issues. On April 22,1970, the first Earth Day – the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) to organize students and other citizens with teach-ins and demonstrations on behalf of action to clean up the environment – was a huge success, with more than 20 million people becoming involved in events and demonstrations across the nation. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress and the Administration of Richard Nixon were then maneuvering with proposals for needed changes to an old and outdated Clean Air Act, as urban pollution episodes – fueled largely by automobile-generated smog – had raised national concerns about public health.
The Nader study group report on air pollution came right in the middle of the growing national outcry over environmental pollution. The work of the study group had begun in 1969 led by John C. Esposito, who held degrees from Long Island and Rutgers universities as well as a law degree from Harvard. He was assisted by Larry Silverman, associate director of the project, who was a graduate of St Johns College and held a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. This Nader task force included at least ten other members, including graduate students in medicine and engineering. They set about documenting air pollution health hazards around the nation, using case studies of various cities while also focusing on the role of Congress and the outdated National Air Pollution Control Administration (NAPCA), which operated under the very weak 1967 Clean Air Act.“…NAPCA bureaucrats never had a chance,” wrote Kirkus Reviews in its account of the Vanishing Air book in 1970. “The report piles on incriminating facts, figures, and failures and devastating dismissals of NAPCA,” which the report called “a disorganized band of government officials acting out a pollution control charade.” Among key chapters in Vanishing Air were two that skewered the auto industry – titled respectively, “Twenty Years in Low Gear” and “Nothing New Under The Hood,” a devastating critique of Detroit’s failure to innovate with pollution control technology.
Other polluters targeted in the Nader study included big manufacturing and the energy industry. Congress and the political process were also hit hard, including a presumed champion of clean air, Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), whose subcommittee on pollution and federal environmental laws, the report charged, “resulted in a ‘business-as-usual’ license to pollute for countless companies across the country.” The report also charged that Senator Muskie had issued “politically expedient platitudes” rather than “real leadership.”
Borrowing a page from Rachel Carson and her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, which used an opening fictional story on pesticide health threats to introduce the urgency of her message, the Nader Study Group on Air Pollution also used this devise in Vanishing Air, including a fictional account of an atmospheric inversion in a major city that trapped pollutants endangering public health. In fact, as the paperback version of Vanishing Air came out in July 1970, a mass of stagnant air lodged itself over the eastern seaboard of the U.S., putting a meteorological lid on the entire region for several days and trapping all manner of industrial and automotive pollutants. The episode got public attention, while provoking a few editorials (see sidebar below) and several U.S. Senate speeches.
“The Great Dirty Cloud”
In July 1970, as an atmospheric inversion trapped pollutants all along the East Coast, the incident became the main topic of discussion throughout the nation and the media –including the possiblity of banning cars from urban centers. In one editorial, The New York Times wrote:
“Through the polluted haze that for days has hung over the East Coast cities from New York to Atlanta, nothing is clear but a timely warning. Urban areas are getting perilously close to the point where they have to chose between the internal combustion engine and breathable air…”
“…[W]hat has up to now been regarded as personally hysterical and economically unthinkable may yet become a reality. Until the gasoline engine can be made pollution-free or a clean substitute for it developed — eventualities at least ten years in the future — the automobile may actually have to be banned from the centers of major American cities… In the present New York crisis a prohibition on all non-essential traffic may yet have to be invoked in certain areas… “The Washington Post also used the occasion to raise questions about the smog-control timetable that was then being considered by Congress for the auto industry – a ten-year timetable proposed by the Nixon Administration and supported by the automakers. Calling the East Coast pollution cloud a “dangerous cesspool of air that now hangs over this city,” the Post said the incident “raises the immediate question of whether the public can wait the 10 years the automobile industry has said it needs to produce clean cars.” The Post, in fact, wondered, “Has an independent group thoroughly looked into this timetable to see if 10 years really is needed? Or is it a comfortable pace the industry has set for itself?” On Capitol Hill, apparently, there were a few people listening to such appeals, among them Senator Edmund Muskie. President Nixon’s pollution control package – offering a ten year timetable – was essentially industry’s proposal. Muskie, however, would cut that in half, making the deadline for achieving auto emissions standards 1975, not 1980.
Vanishing Air and the Nader Study Group on Air Pollution, meanwhile, continued to have an impact that year, helping to create the pressure for enactment of the 1970 Clean Air Act. That law, in fact, was the toughest anti-pollution measure ever approved by Congress up to that point and was signed grudgingly by Richard Nixon in December 1970, as Senator Ed Muskie in the end had proved a clean air champion and leader in the fight, setting tough 1975 goals for the automakers.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s water pollution, like air pollution, was a growing problem across the nation. In northeast Ohio, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted with oil and petrochemicals that is caught fire, and nearby Lake Erie was biologically dead. Added to these were any number of other lakes and rives across the nation that were severely polluted, among the worst rivers, for example were: the Buffalo, the Escambia, the Passaic, the Merrimack, the Rouge, the Ohio and the Houston Ship Canal. Ralph Nader had formed a student Study Group in 1969 to investigate these and other water pollution problems across the country.
David Zwick was a young Harvard law school student when Ralph Nader recruited him to begin work on water pollution. After nearly two years of study, with a team of 26 student researchers and Radcliffe co-author/editor Marcy Benstock, Zwick released the study group’s 700-page report in April 1971. The study was later published in paperback book form by Grossman Publishers under the title, Water Wasteland.
What the Nader team found was a federal water pollution control program that was “a miserable failure.” After 15 years of programs and $3.5 billion in spending dating to 1956, the level of pollution they found – except in isolated instances – had not been significantly reduced. In fact, it had grown worse. Industrial pollution , they found, was by far the major problem, eclipsing domestic sewage sources by 4-to-5 times the volume. More problematic were the 500 some new chemicals that industry was releasing into waterways, many of which were not being removed by water treatment systems.At the time, the nation’s water pollution control system was administered by Federal Water Quality Control Administration (FWQA) in the U.S. Department of the Interior, an agency then in transition to the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). FWQA and the pollution laws had given the states primary responsibility for enforcing water pollution controls. But the states yielded to industry pressures to either put off setting standards or to set them as low as possible. The result was no surprise: thousands of industrial polluters and very little prosecution. The Nader team documented numerous cases of pollution, but only rare FWQA requests for Justice Department legal action against polluters. In some localities, there were no actions at all, despite thousands of identified polluters. Nor was the Nader team optimistic about new legislation then pending in Congress; bills submitted by both the Nixon Administration and Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), calling those measures far short what was needed to clean up the nation’s waterways. David Zwick and his team had a long list of recommendations, including that individual citizens be given the right to sue industrial polluters, and that employees who inform on corporate polluters be rewarded by government and protected by law from reprisals by employers. Water Wasteland also had a key high-profile supporter: William Ruckelshaus, then administrator of the new Environmental Protection Agency. “I agree with Ralph Nader,” he said at one point. “We are in danger of creating a water wasteland if we permit to happen in the future what has happened in the past.” Ruckelshaus promised “radical changes” in water pollution law enforcement.
In October 1972, a revised Clean Water Act passed in Congress with a bipartisan majority overriding a veto by President Nixon. The new law included a “citizen suit” provision allowing citizens to initiate legal action to enforce the law when the government failed to do so. That provision — an important new tool for environmental enforcement — was soon incorporated into other environmental laws. It had been pushed by David Zwick, who also created a new organization — Clean Water Action — to implement the new law. Zwick’s co-author on Water Wasteland, Marcy Benstock, went on to her own activist glories, stopping the Westway highway project in New York City and heading up the Clean Air Campaign.
Sowing The WindBilled as the Nader report on “food safety and the chemical harvest,” Sowing the Wind was the name of the study that investigated the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It focused mostly on meat and poultry inspection, but also pesticide use and other agriculture-related topics.
This Nader study team began their work in 1969 under the direction of Harrison Wellford, one of the original raiders and also the first executive director of Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law.
Sowing the Wind found that USDA was failing to protect Americans from bad meat and dangerous chemicals. It charged that the 1967 Wholesale Meat Act – once thought to be a reform measure – had succumbed to business as usual within USDA.
The report found there was no regular monitoring for bacteriological contamination in federal meat inspections even though there were at least 30 diseases then believed to be transmitted through meat and poultry. USDA also continued to permit the use of herbicides such as 2,4,5-T, despite evidence indicating dangers to human and animal life.
Also reported in Sowing The Wind were lab and field data that raised concerns about possible birth-defects and cancers linked to the synthetic hormone DES, used to fatten cattle. USDA’s ties to big agribusiness in the meat, poultry, and pesticide industries were probed as well.At the study’s release and Washington press conference in mid-July 1971, Ralph Nader charged USDA with “lawlessness,” that the meat and poultry laws were routinely violated, and that the Secretary of Agriculture, Clifford Hardin, “doesn’t know what’s going on in his department.” Newspaper headlines across the country trumpeted the bad news. “Nader Task Force Accuses USDA of Allowing Bad Meat,” said one. Another charged: “Government Regulators Bowed To Agribusiness.” In any case, changes were soon on the way for USDA – at least for some of its responsibilities – as pesticide regulation would soon shift to the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Meanwhile, the first round of “Nader Raider” reports – and the first four or five books to result from these studies – had sold in the neighborhood of 450,000 copies or more. And there were many more reports and books to come. In fact, there were at least 17 raider reports published as books by 1972. And the money from the sales of these and forthcoming books would be plowed back into Nader’s organizations. On the backs of many of Grossman Publishers’ editions, for example, was the note: “All royalties from the sale of this book will be given to the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the organization established by Ralph Nader to conduct research into abuses of the public interest by business and government.”
More Raider Reports
By early November 1971, plans had been announced for a very ambitious “Nader Raiders” project: an investigation of the U.S. Congress — its members, its committees, and its effectiveness. In this vast undertaking, Nader would enlist the aid of some 1,000 researchers across the country. But as work on the Congress study began, other Raider reports kept coming. In November 1971, a study of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation came out – Damning The West – which concluded the Bureau of Reclamation had “outlived its usefulness” and should halt its “senseless damming of the West.” Later that month another Nader team, headed by James Phelan and Robert Pozen, both Yale law school students, issued The Company State – a report on the giant chemical company, E.I. du Pont de Nemours Co., commonly known as DuPont. That study charged that DuPont essentially ran the state of Delaware for its own narrow corporate interests over those of the general public. Jerry Cohen of the Washington Post called it “a classic work on the impact of corporate power.” Publishers Weekly said it was “well written, well organized,” and “bristling with data” — a study that portrayed “dynastic family power in a velvet glove.” Also in 1971 came The Water Lords, a Nader report by James M. Fallows and his team focusing largely on the environmental impacts of the pulp and paper industry in Savannah, Georgia. And there were others in 1971, among them: Old Age: The Last Segregation, by Claire Townsend, on the indignities and frauds practiced by nursing homes; and, The Workers, by Kenneth Lasson, which profiled nine workers in an attempt to bring the circumstances of worker lives more clearly to the general public. Among researchers on this project, for example, was Peter Lance, who spent one month each living with the families of a brick layer, a garbage collector and a policeman in Boston as part of the workers profiled in that study. For many of the Nader studies, the initial raw reports, usually longer and more detailed, were first released to the press, followed by a final, more polished paperback book for the general public, which may account for some variation in publication dates.
In September 1972, a Ralph Nader Study Group at the Center for Auto Safety released the book, Small – On Safety: The Designed in Dangers of The Volkswagen, by Lowell Dodge. Previously in 1965, when Nader did his landmark book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which skewered the Corvair, he was criticized for not looking at the Volkswagen in the same way. With Small–On Safety, he and the Center for Auto Safety did just that – and they found the VW bug and the microbus to have a range of problems. Among some of the issues they documented from court records and files at the Center of Auto Safety were the Beetle’s erratic handling, its rollover potential, and its “up-in-flames” riskiness following an accident, this due to a poorly-designed fuel system and defective gas cap. Volkswagen mounted a public relations campaign to deflect the book’s criticisms.
Another Nader report first released in 1972, was The Politics of Land, which investigated the land use game in California, highlighting in part, the role of developers and land speculators in the state. This study was headed up by Robert Fellmeth, who had already worked on two other Nader reports. A paperback version would be published a year later. Also in 1972, came The Madness Establishment, a Nader Study Group report on the National Institute of Mental Health. It was authored by Franklin D. Chu and Sharland Trotter and it found, among other things, that the Community Mental Health Centers Act had resulted in a mismanaged and ineffective bureaucracy. The Madness Establishment was issued in book form by Grossman Publishers in 1974.
By September 1972 Nader had released his study of Congress as a Bantam paperback book titled, Who Runs Congress: The President, Big Business, or You? Distilled from the work of hundreds of researchers and thousands of pages of material, a team of three Nader analysts –Mark J. Green, James Fallows, and David Zwick – wrote the final product. At the book’s release, Nader charged that Congress was giving away its powers to committee chairmen, the executive bureaucracy, and special interests. The book was well-received by critics and the American public, and Who Runs Congress? shot to No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list in October 1972, and hit No. 1 for the month of November. The book eventually went through four different editions and print runs of more than one million copies. The book remains one of the best-selling volumes written on Congress. When it first appeared, it was widely read by the incoming class of newly-elected Congressional legislators in 1974 following the Watergate crisis, including the 47 freshmen Democrats that year dubbed the “Watergate Babies.” Who Runs Congress? also helped change the climate of public opinion toward Congress and Congress’ own perception of itself.
The Monopoly Makers examined the cartel behavior of numerous industries, their collusion with federal agencies meant to regulate them, and the costly consequences for the public. Other volumes followed, including: The Closed Enterprise System, a report on antitrust enforcement by Green, Beverly C. Moore, Jr., and Bruce Wasserstein in 1972; Corporate Power in America in 1973, a collection of essays examining business abuses, edited by Nader and Green; and in 1976, Taming the Giant Corporation: How the Largest Corporations Control Our Lives, with coauthor Joel Seligman.
There were also Nader documents and reports released on how to organize and build public interest organizations at the state and local level, such as Action for A Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, by Ralph Nader and Don Ross.
The Raider LegacyThe “Nader Raider” reports of the 1969-1973 era were only the first round of many more such reports to come. In the ensuing decades, hundreds more such reports, papers, and books would be published, not only by the Nader groups – i.e., Public Citizen, Congress Watch, Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), and others – but also from consumer and environmental organizations that emerged in the 1970s and beyond as the public interest movement flourished. But the Raider style, in any case, was replicated and used as a model in spurring other investigative studies. Nader didn’t invent the technique, of course, which dates to much earlier times and writers such as Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and others. But Nader and his student teams did help revive it. The Raider reports and books became important works of investigative journalism at a time when the pre-Watergate press had become somewhat complacent. The student reports were newsworthy, drew attention, and permeated popular culture, and as shown, some became bestsellers. By the early 1970s, the Nader reports had gained the respect of the mainstream media, and were also reviewed in scientific journals and law reviews. They were taken seriously in public policy circles, their findings cited in Congressional debates, often spawning changes in legislative outcomes.
“The Powell Memo”
One measure of the effectiveness of Ralph Nader and his Raiders came in the summer of 1971. A corporate lawyer named Lewis F. Powell, Jr., would write something of a famous memo in which Nader’s work was cited as harmful. Powell at the time was with a law firm in Richmond, Virgnia, and would also represent tobacco interests on occasion at the state legislature. He was also a member of the boards of directors of 11 corporations, including tobacco giant Phillip Morris. In August 1971, Powell wrote a long memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., Director of the Education Committee for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memo’s title was, “Attack on The American Free Enterprise System.” It was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Richard Nixon to become a U.S. Supreme Court judge. The “Powell Memo,” as it later came to be known, was confidential and not available to the public at the time it was written, and did not surface until after his confirmation to the Court.At the outset of his memo Powell declared that “the American economic system is under broad attack,” and he proceeded to outline a series of steps that industry and their trade associations should take to counter the threat. Powell listed Ralph Nader as among the key threats to the system, describing him as follows: “Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader, who — thanks largely to the media — has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans.” In describing Nader, Powell cited a May 1971 Fortune magazine profile that had cast Nader as man out to get big business; a man whose passion “is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power.” Fortune found it audacious that Nader was a man who thought “that a great many corporate executives belong in prison — for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives, and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer.” And Fortune added that Nader wasn’t just referring to “fly-by-night hucksters,” but rather, “the top management of blue chip business.”
Nader was not alone among those Powell singled out for special attention in the “assault on the enterprise system.” But it was clear he did not hold in high regard the work that Nader and his associates had undertaken. So Powell set about, with his memo, to offer a detailed plan of public education, politics, and other activities to counter what he believed the activists were out to damage.
The Powell Memo would come to be regarded as something of blueprint for business and allied organizations to do battle with the perceived politics of the left. It is credited with influencing a round of corporate activism and conservative think tank capacity-building that occurred in subsequent years designed to shift public attitudes, leading to the creation of organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other similar organizations. Since Powell’s memo, business and conservative organizations have in fact, “out-Nadered Nader,” copying many of his techniques, but building even more powerful legal, fundraising, political action, and research organizations to further their agendas. And Powell himself, in his Supreme Court tenure and opinions, helped advance “corporate free speech” and corporate financial influence in elections, the latter of which many believe has put America on a perilous course.
As for the Raiders, many of them moved on to government service; to careers in politics and journalism; or to heading up activist, environmental, or community organizations. For example, by 1977, after the election of Jimmy Carter, a number of the Nader activists rose to positions within the Administration. Joan Claybrook, who ran Nader’s Public Citizen, became head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. James Fallows, now a nationally-known journalist, became head speechwriter for Carter. And Harrison Wellford, after leaving Nader in 1973 and serving as chief of staff for Senator Phil Hart, became Carter’s associate director of the Office of Management and Budget.
But years later, after Nader’s Raiders had gone on to other work and into their own professions, several offered their recollections and perspective on those earlier years in Washington. “We bought Ralph’s idea,” explained former Raider, Joe Tom Easley, describing the motivation behind the Raiders’ work during an interview for the documentary film, An Unreasonable Man. Easley by then had taught at several law schools, including the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia, and American University.
“…We were going to make the country what it ought to be,” continued Easley, “– by working and pressing the system to work. Ralph had decided to do about six or eight teams attacking different agencies… And the quality of the reports that came out was on the whole pretty high. There was never one of the Nader reports of that summer or any summer since then that was exposed as a fraud.”
Robert Fellmeth, one of the original Nader’s Raiders in 1968 who went on to become executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego and the Children’s Advocacy Institute, observed of his earlier days as a Raider:
…When you’re young, you don’t realize you’re doing something you have no business doing. How are you qualified? There are professors who should be there who have studied the agency for 20 years. What are you doing? It doesn’t even occur to you. And in fact we did write a good critique [ the FTC report] that stands the test of time. And the year after we wrote it, President Nixon asked the ABA [American Bar Association] to look at the agency. Sure enough, they came up with the same critique that we did, and it lead to some changes in the statute.
Fellmeth and other Raiders praise Nader for his vision and his “letting-us-run-with-it” style – with the Raiders doing the work and “Ralph orchestrating it from a distance,” as Fellmeth put it. “He was the kind of person who said, ‘You’re in charge of this. Here’s the mission. Do it.’ And then he’d review the final product and give you a sign off at the end.”
Harvey Rosenfield, who worked as a Raider in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Congress Watch, and later headed up a consumer watchdog group in California, explained in a similar context:
“I think that the people [Nader] attracted came principally because they wanted the opportunity to work for justice in the country, and he created an environment where you could do that. If you did it well, there was no limit to how much you could achieve. He never stood in the way of anybody. He never demanded the credit if somebody else was doing the work. He was happy to have them get as much credit as they could from the public or the news media.”
Andrew Egendorf, one of the original Raiders from 1968, went on to co-found a technology company named Symbolics.com. He offered this view of Nader and business:
…Everyone gives Nader, I think, an unfair reading. Everyone says he’s anti-business, and he wants to tear down the capitalistic system. He’s not like that at all. His view was simply that the interest of the producers ought to be to support the interest of the consumers, because the whole system is based on consumption. So why don’t we have a system that has constraints on it that require the producers interest to be aligned with the consumers interests?
The problem was that the producers were all monopolies or oligopolies, and the consumers were just all individuals with no clout at all. All he wanted to do was level the playing field, give consumers the same kind of clout as an oligopoly.
One Man’s Vision
See also at this website, “GM & Ralph Nader, 1965-1971.” For other story choices on “Politics & Culture,” “Print & Publishing,” or “Environmental History,” please visit those respective pages, or go to the Home Page for additional choices. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please help support this website with a donation. Thank you. — Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 31 March 2013
Last Update: 23 May 2016
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Nader’s Raiders, 1968-1974,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 31, 2013.
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