Ralph Nader – bone-thin and looking only slightly older than he did 34 years ago, when his scathing indictment of the Chevrolet Corvair, Unsafe at Any Speed, was first published – is tucking into his second dessert. And he is still railing. “You will not believe this,” says Nader, his high-pitched laugh resonating through the otherwise empty Middle Eastern restaurant. (Although Nader is arguably the most outraged man in America, he projects a perennial sense of amusement, as if the sins of the government and corporate America are so egregious that the only response is laughter.) Nader is talking about his latest cause, the paucity of government funding for tuberculosis and malaria cures. “I’ve met with all of them – [Health and Human Services secretary Donna] Shalala, had dinner with [National Institutes of Health director Harold] Varmus, talked to Hillary’s people, and everyone agrees with me.” Then, his incredulity growing: “I’ve never had an issue that no one opposes and yet can’t do anything about.”

Nader celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday at a low-key Washington dinner in May. But he reached iconic status as America’s preeminent consumer advocate more than a quarter-century ago, his reputation sealed by a host of landmark achievements, including passage of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, clean air and water laws, and highway safety legislation. Since then he has expanded the number of subjects he chooses for public dissection: global trade, junk food, federal contracting policies, the inner workings of Congress. Outright failures to affect the status quo have been rare. Perhaps the biggest was a 1978 effort to organize his fellow sports fans in a crusade against bad stadium food and extortionate ticket prices. The effort flopped after two years, when it ran out of money. That same year, a nine-year battle to create a Department of Consumers, on a par with the labor and commerce departments, failed – in part, opponents complained, because Nader refused to accept any legislative compromise.

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