WASHINGTON - When Gore Vidal said that the three saddest words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates, he must not have known Ralph Nader's middle name.
For now we might add this footnote: The two saddest words in the English language are: Ralph Nader.
Appearing Monday at the National Press Club to elaborate on his candidacy for president, Nader presented a weary figure against the makeshift backdrop - a faded blue curtain suspended from a rollaway rod with a stapled placard bearing his campaign logo, votenader.org.
With his elongated form, etched face and doleful eyes, Nader looked like a devotional figure at the end of the Via Dolorosa. Or a combination of Columbo and Carl Sagan with a little Billy Graham thrown in - a frumpy, hyperbolic evangelical without the sense of humor.
America's tireless superego, Nader is the perpetual scold, who rarely if barely cracks a smile. He comes closest when he is explaining why he refuses to participate in the "wealth primaries" of the two major parties. Why Howard Dean spent $10 million in Iowa, he notes. That is the joke.
Although not precisely hilarious by most Earthling standards, it is downright mirthful compared to Nader's rendering of the Litany of American Sins - from genocide to slavery to "fabricated quagmire wars."
Nader's prepared comments otherwise have the familiar rhetorical ring of "Nader's Raiders," circa 1968: "Corporatism," he intones bleakly, "has turned federal and state departments and agencies into indentured servants for taxpayer-funded subsidies, budget-busting lucrative contracts, and dwindling law and order against the widely publicized corporate crime wave.
"This resistant crime wave has looted and drained trillions of dollars from millions of workers."
In a galaxy far, far away, surely aliens are looking for their missing comrade, who speaks of people as "humans" with the distant affection of one who belongs to another species. Might have taken a wrong turn somewhere?
"The unceasing enlightenment of humankind requires sensitive humans to enlist in a marathon, not a sprint," he says in a voice more suggestive of a somnambulant stroll.
Nader beseeches humans to join him in overthrowing the Bush "regime" and in removing the "giant corporation in the White House masquerading as a human being." Again, the almost-smile tips the corners of his mouth when a reporter questions his dehumanization of President Bush.
Technically, he says (perchance with a touch of wry?), a corporation can be a human being. Raucous.
While humans are at it, Nader says they should raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, even for illegal workers; pay Alaskans for corporate damage inflicted on their environment; stop pornography and violence from being beamed to small humans; stop stereotyping minorities; and show what's going on in the stratosphere. Alas, the list is long. Two pages, in fact.
Lest anyone surmise otherwise, I am deeply grateful for Ralph Nader. The saddest man in the world is also the most persistently, if impossibly, idealistic. Who else in politics, when asked about the plight of migrant workers, can cite one of his own articles on the very subject from 1950? To fully appreciate Nader, one need only imagine the world without him.
The linchpin of his platform today is that America's biggest problem is the two political parties, which, he says, are equally indentured to corporations. At age 70, Nader offers himself as the other necessary voice, the one indebted only to humans.
He nearly is right about almost everything, of course, especially the part about "liberty, justice and happiness" for all. To the extent that utopia is desirable, Nader should rule the world. To the extent that utopia is an unlikely achievement for mere humans, he seems a sweet relic, the single surviving ember of an adolescent's epiphany.
As Nader continues answering questions, my mind wanders to thoughts of lunch and immediately I begin to feel guilty. What about all those starving children subsisting on webbed duck feet? I am suddenly ashamed of my gasoline consumption, my support of carnivores, my painted toenails. I want to slit my wrists, but then I remember all the humans who need untainted blood transfusions.
My mind wanders back to Nader as he offers a message to the other Democratic candidates and National Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe. He comes not to spoil, he said, but to expose. Ergo:
Then, showering himself with ashes, the saddest man on Earth dissolved in a poof of sparkling dust. And the humans were glad.