WASHINGTON — IN the consumer journey from the 1960s to 1994, cars have become safer, drinking water more pure, and infants' clothing nonflammable. But while there have been such profound changes in the quality of life, the man most responsible for making them happen has remained much the same.
Ralph Nader, acclaimed as the consumers' best advocate and assailed for setting off a ``litigation explosion,'' is still filing suits against corporate America and is still fighting City Hall.
During a recent interview, Mr. Nader reflected on his career. ``In the early days, the principal goal was a legal framework for consumer protection - ranging from autos to poultry controls,'' he says, leaning forward, his lean body in a trademark slump. ``Then when the agencies were set up, it became battling the agencies'' to make sure that the federal institutions established proper standards.
But much of that work was undone, Nader says, when former presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush took office. ``They pretty much closed the town on our issues.''
Meanwhile, Nader and his colleagues found new strength in grass-roots organizing. They created the National Coop Bank, started the Public Interest Research Groups that galvanized college students to take civic action, began the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, and spurred the Voter Revolt in California.
``But a lot of our efforts back then were devoted to preserve the gains we made'' before the politicians ``who froze the regulatory agencies'' came to power, Nader says. ``It taught us that there's just too much power to do nothing in the hands of the president. He can choose not to enforce the law.''
The liberal-leaning Nader was frustrated by Republican leadership, but he says he has not been impressed with the Democratic administration, either. He charges the White House with failing to develop a solution to the inadequacies and inequities in the health-care system.
``Clinton ducked the issues that need to be addressed in terms of quality health care, accountability to patients, consumers, and the financing of it,'' he says. ``How we ever developed a system that holds the president responsible for the unemployment rate but not accountable for environmental or health-care issues,'' Nader says, shaking his head.
``What we want to do in the future is to have group buyers and group complaints.... A company can cheat people in huge volumes - with telephone charges that include 30 percent and 40 percent surcharges,'' he says. ``So a class-action suit is the best way to combat this unfairness.''
Nader's detractors fault him for unfairness by loading down business with costly regulations that are passed onto the consumer in the form of higher-priced goods and services.
Is all of this White Knight activity - the drawn-out, expensive legal struggles with big business, the laws that mandate compliance with a host of costly regulations - forcing the consumer to pay for more than he gets in return?
Nader scoffs at the criticism. ``It's the best bargain consumers can get - safety and health regulations.'' In fact, he is incredulous at the suggestion that what consumer advocates have been fighting for has not been worth it. ``We've got air bags; we're getting asbestos off the markets; we're preventing lead poisoning.''
Critics accuse Nader of outright hypocrisy for taking contributions from trial lawyers. Litigators' work is plentiful, critics charge, because Nader is a nonstop agitator about bringing firms to court. All this has led to an explosion of lawsuits and attorney fees, they say.
Nader counters that there is not enough litigation. ``We file fewer suits per capita than we did in 1930,'' repeating one of the facts he often draws on. ``Law and order means using the law against disorder. Not only in the streets but in the corporate suites.''
And what of the allegations that Nader is in the pocket of trial lawyers? ``I think they're in my pocket - and they ought to do more,'' he says.
Nader continues his efforts to build a consumer-advocacy base in the form of a ``civics curriculum.'' ``In the classroom, they learn about the history of citizen action. And they learn about the skills, the tools, the mechanisms with which to affect change,'' he says.
Despite the criticism, Nader shows no sign of slowing down. ``There's a legal expression,'' he says with a smile. `` `Any wrongful act needs a remedy.' ''