On election night, white and black strangers hugged in the streets as the country and the world danced and wept over the new President. The new America, suddenly free from the grips of fear that had consumed us since 9/11, was liberated from many of the ghosts of racism and racial mistrust that had dominated us for centuries.
But one national figure took a different tack. Ralph Nader, longtime presidential race gadfly, told a radio interviewer, “His choice, basically, is whether he’s going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations.” He then went to Fox News and was given numerous attempts to back away from the slur by Sheppard Smith. Smith introduced the quote and then gave Nader an out, asking, “What was that?” But at a moment of national reconciliation and joy, Nader refused to apologize or back down, and stood proudly behind his unclever use of an old, deeply racist slur.
In this country when you are unrepentantly racist, it colors everything else about you and you are reduced to the margins of society.
And with that, Ralph Nader ended his public career with a dishonorable discharge. Nader is officially the first ‘Jimmy the Greek’ of the Obama Administration. He has left the virtual building that includes American thinkers who deserve to be listened to. That racial slur (or any other) just cannot be aimed at the President of the United States, cannot be slipped into some cute political metaphor without severe consequences. In this country when you are unrepentantly racist, it colors everything else about you and you are reduced to the margins of society. No one has to pay attention to what you say about anything. Ralph Nader is now among those invisible ranks.
Like Trent Lott who went tumbling down from power after fondly reminiscing about segregation, or George Allen who lost relevance after using the obscure slur macaca, Nader is now trapped in a hall of shame that’s hard to escape. What’s needed for anyone to leave this circle of living hell is sincere and quick contrition as well as a mass of goodwill—and all this long before you put your entire leg into your mouth. We need to know your apology is sincere and your brain fart is unrepresentative of who you really are.
Both Lott and Allen apologized, but neither had enough memories of spreading goodwill to fall back on. Jesse Jackson had decades of moral leadership already banked in the public consciousness, from marching with Dr. King to negotiating the release of an American pilot being held in Syria in 1983, so he avoided the irrelevance that may have come after he called New York City “hymietown” in 1984. But Nader has refused to apologize, and no longer has such goodwill to fall back on, especially not since the tragic 2000 presidential race (which millions of Democrats still blame him for). So goodbye Ralph. It didn’t have to end this way.