Joe Lieberman’s nomination to be the first Jewish Vice President is an important moment in American history. But I predict there’s something else that’s going to send a lot of us to the polls on Election Day. I’m talking about the opportunity to vote for a guy named Ralph to become the next President of the United States.
Speaking as a fellow Ralph, Ralph Nader’s run for the White House is a source of pride and a sign that our shared name may finally be receiving the mainstream acceptance it has so long lacked. For years, Ralphs have suffered not-so-subtle discrimination. Every other dog in a TV commercial is named Ralph. “To ralph” is slang for “to vomit,” as my third-grade classmates reminded me ceaselessly. The most famous Ralph in the world was a wife-abusing bus driver with a hair-trigger temper. And when Hollywood finally produced a leading man named Ralph-the actor Ralph Fiennes-we promptly learned he pronounced his name “Rafe.”
There are those who will mention Ralph Lauren as a credit to our name. I think not. The guy (who was born Ralph Lifshitz, choosing to keep the lesser of two evils) has made a fortune recycling British snob appeal, all of it undoubtedly an attempt to compensate for the fact that his parents named him Ralph.
So few babies were named Ralph in New York City in 1998 that the name didn’t even make it onto the Department of Health’s list of baby names. “Of 124,252 live births, there were fewer than 25 Ralphs,” explained John Gadd, a spokesman for the Health Department. When Ralph snuck onto the list last year with 27 mentions, it tied Orlando, Curtis, Armani and Dovid for 318th place.
My hypothesis is that the decision of Mr. Nader’s parents to call him Ralph, and the carapace that all of us who carry the name are forced to develop in order to survive, gave him the balls to stand up to General Motors and contributed to his remarkable career as perhaps the century’s greatest consumer advocate. I mean, had his mom and dad called him Michael or John, would he today be tilting at windmills, fighting corporate greed and championing campaign-finance reform? I doubt it.
As luck would have it, Ralph was coming to New York recently, so I phoned his campaign office in Washington to see whether I could tag along. Obviously, I couldn’t reveal the real reason I needed face time with the candidate-to discuss the role his first name played in the creation of his persona.
But fortunately, access to the Green Party candidate isn’t as closely guarded as it is with Al Gore or George W. Bush. The Secret Service didn’t demand my Social Security number to check against their database of Presidential assassins. Indeed, I grew nervous when a Nader press aide returned my call and asked whether I’d care to ride in the van with Ralph as he traveled between rallies in Manhattan. I really only had a couple of questions I needed to ask him, and both of them had to do with his name. Luckily, the staffer didn’t grill me about the angle of my story. “You’re just doing a piece on the, uh, campaign, right?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I readily agreed.
Just to be on the safe side, I prepped the night before, visiting the VoteNader.com Web site and checking out Ralph’s positions on things like the legalization of commercially grown hemp (he’s for it).
But when I reported as instructed to 30 Rock at 8 the following morning, I discovered my interview with Ralph wouldn’t be one-on-one, as I believed. There were at least half a dozen reporters from organizations such as the A.P., WNYC, the Daily News and The New York Times planning to spend the day with the candidate. Now I started to panic that I was going to look like a dork before my brothers and sisters in the press corps, popping questions about the name Ralph while they tried to grill him about his positions on Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. Nader was a good 45 minutes late for our rendezvous. He’d appeared on the Today Show with Matt Lauer and picked up a second interview with MSNBC. When he finally arrived-tall, gaunt and sleep-deprived-he launched into a press conference in the shadow of the G.E. Building, attacking the General Electric Corporation for polluting the Hudson River with PCB’s. This was a guy who had suffered for our sins, and I didn’t know whether I could go through with my questions, as important as they were to me.
Nonetheless, I’d gotten up at 6 a.m. and waited patiently for almost an hour, so when the press conference ended and we boarded the van for the trip to Chinatown, where Ralph was planning to join the picketing employees of the New Silver Palace Restaurant to protest unfair labor practices, I slid into the seat behind him, mustered my courage, introduced myself and placed my tape recorder under his nose.
“I was just curious whether you’ve thought of celebrating the fact that this may be the only chance to vote for a Presidential candidate named Ralph in our lifetimes?” I asked.
“Is this a tricky question?” Mr. Nader chuckled warily. “It hasn’t been on my mind.”
I had a follow-up-several of them, in fact-but we were interrupted by some young wise-guy reporter in the back of the bus. ” Democracy Now has the Presidential Debate Commission,” he stated, referring to a radio show in progress that he apparently hoped Mr. Nader would call from the van and use to challenge the commission for excluding him from the debates. But Ralph wouldn’t play ball.
“No,” he said, cutting the guy off in mid-sentence. “I’ve got to concentrate on the next move, sorry.”
The consumer advocate spent the next half hour, most of it stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, either reading up on the plight of Chinese restaurant workers or dozing. He refused to take any questions, and the reporters settled back in resigned silence. Indeed, my Ralph question was the only one he’d graced with an answer, such as it was.
While I never got to grill him further, anecdotal evidence along the campaign trail suggests the Nader campaign is catching fire-due in no small part, I believe, to the working-class allure of the name Ralph. Indeed, so confident do Nader supporters appear of their candidate’s prospects that they’ve started to use his name as a punch line. One sign spotted in the crowd said “Bore and Gush make me want to Ralph.”
As the Green Party candidate stood on the steps of Federal Hall, condemning corporate welfare after touring the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, I sidled up to a construction worker who sat a few feet away eating his lunch and applauding Nader’s attacks on the rich and powerful. To me, this fellow seemed proof positive that no barriers remained to those who bore the name Ralph.
“Would you be willing to vote for a guy named Ralph for President of the United States?” I asked, expecting an unqualified “Yes.”
He took another bite of his sandwich and chewed it thoughtfully. “As long as his Vice President is Norton,” he said.