I would have thought Ralph Nader’s “dream of a lifetime” was to become the most powerful man in the world. After all he made three pathetically unsuccessful runs for the White House.
Ralph’s dream, like the man, is far more mundane. For decades he has been threatening to open a museum in his hometown of Winstead, Connecticut, dedicated to — are you ready for this — American tort law. Sadly, slow fund-raising and several presidential bids have hampered his progress. The other week, however, Nader announced that the Philadelphia architectural firm DPK&A is “putting final touches on the plans” and he expects the museum — located in an abandoned mill — to open in the fall 2006. “Historically, it’s a nice context because that’s where so many workers got injured, in factories around the country,” Nader told the AP. Ralph apparently cannot see the sad irony in turning a once-thriving mill that employed hundreds of local residents into a tort lawyers’ museum. And isn’t saying that workers got injured in factories a bit like soldiers got shot on battlefields or drunks got plastered in saloons? Where else are they going to get injured?
Actually most people are injured in hospitals, if you believe Nader. Ralph claims 150,000 people die annually in hospitals and clinics due to medical malpractice. That’s twice the number that die from auto accidents, fire, and crime. But Ralph’s not suggesting we shut down the hospitals, which are obviously a health hazard on the order of the various plagues that devastated Europe in Medieval times. Nor does making hospitals safer make good business sense for Ralph’s museums major donors.
So far, our contemporary P.T. Barnum has raised $2 million for the museum, most of that coming from trial lawyers. That puts him about halfway toward his goal. Much of that cost will go toward hiring the design firm Eisterhold Associates (makers of the Walt Disney Boyhood Home and Harry S. Truman Presidential Library exhibits) to create exciting non-interactive exhibits of dangerous products (i.e., Halloween costumes such as the ever popular “Invisible Pedestrian” and “Johnny Human Torch”) and a mock courtroom where famous product liability trials will be tediously re-enacted (hopefully the ones involving the old woman who spilled McDonalds coffee on her lap while driving, and the guy whose phone booth was plowed into by a drunk driver, so naturally he sued the phone booth manufacturer and the telephone company). At the trials’ conclusion huge bags of Monopoly money will be divvied up between the plaintiff and their counsel with the bulk, of course, going to the lawyers, while the sore losers wander off muttering about moving their factories to Louangphrabang.
NADER IS THE SON OF Lebanese immigrants who like most newcomers came to America in anticipation of a better life, one in which they wouldn’t have to live in constant fear religious massacres and starvation. Ralph’s father, Nathra Nader, worked at a textile mill, prospered, and became owner of a bakery and a restaurant. The Naders sent their four children to the best schools. Ralph attended Princeton and Harvard Law. Theirs was, by all accounts, an American success story (today Ralph’s net worth is more than $5 million). Only Ralph didn’t think so. Where his parents saw a land of opportunity, Ralph was more attuned to the ’60s zeitgeist. He could grow wealthy and famous (he’s been on Saturday Night Live four times) not by the sweat of his brow, but by attacking the very system that had allowed his family to prosper.
After graduating from Harvard, Ralph briefly went into private law practice in Hartford, only the anonymity of helping one client at a time scarcely appealed to him. Besides, Washington, D.C. was calling. In 1963 he packed a suitcase, hitchhiked to the capital, and opened shop as a professional whiner. Nor did it take Ralph long to find a cause. After taking lodgings at the YMCA, he once told a reporter, “I walked across the street and had a hot dog, my last.” Ralph immediately declared war on the hot dog industry and his fortune was secured. Never has anyone been so indebted to one bad wiener.
Though worth $5 million (almost all of it coming from stock in evil American corporations like Cisco Systems), Nader makes a big show of living in a relatively small Washington apartment with a black and white TV (both Forbes and the New Republic have alleged that Ralph owns secret luxury townhouses and homes), of not owning an automobile (too dangerous, apparently, except for the limos he takes on trips), and of never having fallen in love or indeed having had any fun at all (also too dangerous.) Jay Leno once asked Nader what he did for fun. Ralph’s response: “Strawberries.” Yet, the man famous for denouncing American corporate practices is often accused by former workers of running political sweatshops: “Staff turned over rapidly. Few people could stand the [long] hours, [low] pay and abuse for more than a year or two,” wrote former Nader Raider Charles Pekow.
Yes, there have been dumber ideas for museums. In fact, if you can think of a silly idea or invention, there is somewhere a museum celebrating it. I’ve actually taken a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the “Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan in Salem, Illinois. (Okay, I stumbled across it while in desperate search of a restroom.) And who will ever forget their awe-inspiring visit to the Bill Clinton Presidential Trailer in the Ozarks? Dallas is not surprisingly the proud home of The Conspiracy Museum. And after visiting Ralph’s Place you will probably want to stop by Mike Fertig’s Burnt Out Light Bulb Museum.
It’s unclear who, if anyone, will visit the Museum of American Tort Law. The left still blames Nader for “spoiling” Al Gore’s run in 2000, and the right has better things to do — like take a nap. But I for one am looking forward to the grand opening. In today’s litigious climate it will just be a matter of time before some geezer in a walker slips and falls and breaks a hip and sues the Ralph Nader’s American Tort Museum for a million bucks for loss of sexual potency. The irony will be delicious.