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The Essential Ralph Nader

A quick guide to the author and activist’s remarkable life.

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2016 print issue as a sidebar to the feature story “‘America You Are Asleep.’” Read our complete interview with the nation’s No. 1 public-interest crusader here.


Ralph Nader.

Born: February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut.

Family Business: Highland Arms Restaurant in Winsted.

Oldest Family Rivalry: In 1955, Nader’s mother reportedly refused to let go of the hand of Senator Prescott Bush — father of George H.W., grandfather of George W. and Jeb — until he agreed to build a dry dam in Winsted (the town had been decimated by a catastrophic flood earlier that year).

Early Sacrifice: Turning down a full scholarship from Princeton University. His father said it should go to a student who couldn’t pay.

First Job After Graduate School: Serving as a cook in the U.S. Army.

Skill He Was Taught: Mandarin, as a student earning a degree in East Asian Studies.

Skill He Acquired Without Training: Hitchhiking, the mode of transportation he chose when he moved from Hartford, Connecticut, where he had opened a small law office, to Washington, D.C., to start his public service career in 1963.

Most Famous Protest While at Princeton University: Wearing a bathrobe to class, to oppose what he viewed as the conformist campus-wide outfit of khakis and a button-down.

Biggest Mistake: Forgetting the only copy of his manuscript of Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobilein the back seat of a taxi. (He re-wrote it from scratch.)

Favorite Weapon: Pie. While campaigning in San Francisco for the Green Party’s 2003 California gubernatorial candidate, Peter Camejo, Nader got pied in the face by an unidentified man. Nader threw the dessert back at his attacker.


This story first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

What He’s Done in His Free Time: Created the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, which he claims is the only law museum in the Western Hemisphere.

Comedy High Point: Inspecting blow-up sex dolls for a Saturday Night Live skit in January 1977.

Email address: N/A. But you can send snail mail to Ralph Nader, P.O. Box 19312, Washington, DC 20036

Personal Courtroom Victory: Suing General Motors after the company hired private detectives to discredit him. Nader received $425,000 and used the money to launch the Center for Study of Responsive Law.

Number of Groups He Founded or Helped Found: Over 50 (including the Center for Auto Safety, Essential Information, Public Citizen, and the Multinational Monitor).

Things We Owe Nader Some Thanks For: Seatbelts, airbags, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Freedom of Information Act, and 20 other pieces of legislation protecting consumer safety and opposing corruption.