EXETER, N.H. — 'HELLO," he said to the crowd. "I'm none of the above, and I'm not running for president."
Then, m not going to talk about the multiple problems that are afflicting the country as much as I'll [talk] about the decreased ... power of authority of the people who have to take the brunt of these problems in their various roles as taxpayers, workers, consumers...."
Stop right there.
The lanky, sometimes bemused man standing in the shiny dark suit in front of 800 people at Exeter Academy is the legendary Captain Kirk of the consumer movement, none other than the consumate Ralph Nader, his starship idling somewhere in the parking lot, ready to beam him to the next episode.
Mr. Nader is sort-of running for president in New Hampshire, but not really. He says he is a write-in candidate, a self-confessed stand-in for "none of the above" on the ballot. He wants New Hampshire voters to indicate their dissatisfaction with all the other candidates by voting for him as "none of the above." He is on the ballot in Massachusetts, too. He says, "It's a rather humble position, stripped of all ego. People ask, 'Who are you?' I'm none of the above."
Perhaps responding to his reputation and fame, or because a lot of voters perceive the same old politics from other candidates, the crowds are coming. However his political argument strikes a listener, he unrolls his case with the deftness of Captain Kirk explaining American civics to galactic tourists.
At least 800 people, from blue-collar workers to students, listen for an hour and a half this night as he dissects the political, cultural and corporate shortcomings of the US. The crowd is unusually attentive. On a recent Friday night in Keene, 400 people packed a hall to see him. At the University of New Hampshire about 300 people paid $3 each to hear him. Earlier a free speech by a Democratic candidate, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, drew about 100 people.
Instead of offering campaign rhetoric and promises, Nader's charge is new/old, a call to citizen empowerment, a polemic for voters to rise up and take back that which he says has been lost. He doesn't offer solutions such as specific job programs or tax cuts or health care, but an unspecified vision for a people who should fully exercise their democratic rights in order to thwart a plutocracy. "We see the concentration of economic power and political power converging in common pursuits of further entren ching power and further misusing public resources across a broad spectrum of assets," he says.
On this night, Nader focuses on worker pension funds, public lands, and the public airwaves. They belong to the people, he says, but are controlled "increasingly by fewer and fewer national and global corporations whose indentured servants in Washington, D.C., do their bidding with dreary regularity."
His voice is a bit monotone at first. As he warms to his cause and finds a rapt audience, a spark flies here and there, a little humor worms its way out. Oddly enough, Republican challenger Patrick Buchanan offers a somewhat similar presence in this campaigning season: He's an erudite battler, challenging the incumbent for political as well as philosophical reasons.
The Nader message given before a crowd of the unemployed or senior citizens eager for specific health-care reform, might lead the crowd to fidget and become hostile as they did recently for Mr. Buchanan in Concord. Impatiently, a crowd of seniors yelled at Buchanan to skip the parts about foreign policy and get to his health-care proposal.
Nader might fare better because he's known to be thrifty and frugal. Just before his talk at Exeter, one of his supporters gave me a "press kit." Other candidates kits are glossy, multicolored folders crammed with position papers. Nader's was a red folder, the kind schoolchildren use to turn in their reports. On the back the still-attached price tag said 29 cents.