What’s not to like about a novel in which Bernard Rapoport’s father is the subject of an anti-communist smear and Bernard spends his time with Yoko Ono on a mountaintop in Maui? Well, there is length. Ralph Nader’s work of political science fiction comes in at 733 pages. Nader’s literary ambition extends beyond his page-count and on to the Sisyphean challenge he creates for a group of America’s richest philanthropists: to turn the United States into an egalitarian and democratic society.
It is a project to which Rapoport—a longtime supporter of this publication and countless other forces for good—has devoted at least 60 years. To make it happen within the year in which Nader’s plot unfolds requires a lot of writing. And a lot of characters. Dickens created 989 characters. He did so over 19 works of fiction. This is Nader’s first novel, and within it the reader will find Washington Post columnists David Roader and A.E. Eon, Senate Majority Leader Tilmann Frisk, CBS news anchor Rob Shiffer, radio bloviator Bush Bimbaugh, right-wing talk show host Pawn Vanity, and anti-government lobbyist Brovar Dortwist (you get the picture).
There’s also Woody Harrelson; Public Citizen’s Joan Claybrook; Charlie Cray from the Center for Corporate Policy; the political consultant who created Paul Wellstone’s first ads; and a trial lawyer I met at a Portland, Oregon, fundraiser 10 years ago. Everybody but Bono is in this book.
The protagonists are identified by their actual names: Warren Buffett; Barry Diller; Bill Cosby; Yoko Ono; Bill Gates; George Soros; Paul Newman; Ted Turner; and Ross Perot.
Texas is overrepresented, with Perot, Rapoport and Houston trial lawyer Joe Jamail among the 17 billionaires Buffett summons to Maui, where they are challenged to pool their wealth to transform the United States.
These men and Yoko (Carly Fiorina must have been too much of a stretch) are already involved in public-policy philanthropy. Corporate political hegemony imposes limits on what they can achieve on their own. Together they can effect change on a grand scale. That’s the central conceit of Only the Rich.
Nader’s fiction isn’t divorced from reality. Gates has invested hundreds of millions in education. Soros’ Open Societies Institute focuses his philanthropy on entire nations. The late Paul Newman created a food product line and a foundation to give away the proceeds (along with some of Newman’s personal wealth). The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation has disposed of millions. (Note to the reader: Bernard and Audre Rapoport are close friends of this reviewer.)
What Nader proposes—bring together a critical mass of money and intelligence to radically transform the political and economic climate—has already happened. In 1971, two months before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, corporate lawyer Lewis F. Powell Jr. prepared an eight-page memo for members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, describing the left’s “broad attack” on “the American system of free enterprise” and outlining a response that required corporate executives to write checks and build institutions.
Gunpowder and chemical magnate John M. Olin, Colorado brewery heir Joseph Coors, and other wealthy conservatives wrote checks, endowed foundations, and funded the think tanks that prepared the ground for Ronald Reagan’s transformational presidency.
Among the “disquieting voices” destroying the free enterprise system, Powell singled out one young activist: “Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader, who—thanks largely to the media—has become a legend in his own time and an idol of most Americans.”
Powell’s memo doesn’t find its way into Only the Rich, yet Nader is obviously making a pitch to today’s enlightened superrich to repair the damage that corporate capitalists have done.
Not even 733 pages allows for character development when an author has so many characters to develop. Nader’s characters are somewhat wooden and work best when they deliver a speech Nader might have given. For example: Progressive Corp. CEO Peter Lewis’s scathing exposition of insurance industry practices that discourage consumer safety. Or Warren Beatty’s argument for tax-restoration legislation in California—delivered to an impassive Arnold Schwarzenegger shortly before Beatty files to run against him.
In his introduction, Nader admits that his novel is not a novel, but “a fictional vision that could become a new reality.” It has its novelistic moments, as when right-wing opposition researchers discover that Bernard Rapoport’s father David was a Communist, a fact Bernard has publicly celebrated for decades. The book even has moments of humor, including one corporate operative’s pathological obsession with Yoko Ono. Humor is not a quality usually associated with Nader. (This reviewer also suffers from chronic Yoko Ono fantasies, but they are far healthier that what’s described in Nader’s fiction.)
Nader’s “fictional vision” is also a call to action—as was Powell’s memo 40 years ago. It is an argument for a living wage, universal health care, publicly funded elections, shareholder say for executive pay, reform of the federal tax code, unobstructed access to the courts, cleaner energy, and adequate funding for public education.
You know, an agenda that would be passed into law in a fictitious world in which we elected a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
Former Observer Editor Lou Dubose is the nation’s leading authority on former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a fact that most people find rather sad.