Interview with Jonathan Rowe


June 28, 1983
Excerpt from "Focused Energy: A Study of Public Interest Advocates.”


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In the following analysis the former Nader staffer, who now writes for the Washington Monthly magazine, goes back and forth between the past and the present, praise and criticism, stating what he got out of the experience of being a public interest worker which was positive and how he distinguishes his later thinking from conventional consumer advocacy thinking. Jonathon Rowe is a reflective person who tries to be fair and open to the many sides of a controversy, yet has strong ideas of his own. His combined interviews reveal the process of reflection, re-evaluation and self-definition. There is purposefulness and poetry in his words. Jon worked in the summers for the Center as a student intern and was a lawyer at PIRG until he was transferred to Nader’s Tax Group. Colleague Anita Johnson recalled, “Someone who was particularly thought provoking was always Jonathon Rowe. He is not a person who ever volunteers information but is a man of tremendous depth. He is very deliberate and thoughtful and he writes well. I always felt I learned something from him.”

I first started in the summer of ’69 on the study of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The next summer I came back and did little follow-up projects. Then I went back for my last year of law school and I got a fellowship to go to England to study [at the London School of Economics]. I thought that I would work with Ralph that summer and then take off on my fellowship. That’s when I went to PIRG and took Sam Simon’s place. He was going into the Judge Advocate’s Corps [in the Army] then. So I did that for awhile and decided that it was more important to work for Ralph Nader than it was to go to England on a fellowship so I stayed around. The fellowship was sponsored by the DuPont family and that was the summer Ralph came out with his study of DuPont. I had tried to get an extension, to get them to delay it for a year, but they weren’t too warm to that after this study came out.

[After] I had been with Ralph about five years, it seemed like it was time to do something different. I worked with Marion Barry for two years on the D.C. City Council. I had done work at the Tax Group on issues involving D.C. Then I was approached by the Multi-State Tax Commission, some people who again I had known when I worked with Ralph. They asked me if I was interested in being their Washington representative, so I did that for two years. Then someone I met doing that started a coalition of labor and citizen groups called Citizens for Tax Justice. I did that for another two years. Then when Byron [Byron Dorgan of North Dakota] was elected, he asked me to join him. I had known him again back to the Nader days, but he had also been a very active member of the Multi-State Tax Commission. [I was with him as a writer for two years.] What qualifies me to address these issues is the fact that I have not studied economics. I took no economics in college [and] a very quick course in law school. The problem IS economics and any people who buy into that way of thinking have become part of the problem. You’re not going to find the solution to a problem within the problem; you find it from outside the problem.

I think being a part of that [Nader network]–especially in the early days….[trails off, thinking]. You know, you pitch your tent someplace and I pitched the tent of my identity on the outside rather than being on the inside. And having done that, I suppose it makes you a little bit more open to things that might challenge the main stream. The experience of a place where you establish your identity as one whose role is to prod and to evaluate is something that is more important than any particular content at any particular time. Had it not been for that, I might have come to Washington and gone to work for some agency and identified with that system and process.

When you went into that Interstate Commerce Commission back in 1969, you were a pariah. And that experience of being a pariah….[stops, remembering]. It’s also true that in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Ralph and everybody associated with him was sort of a darling of the media. It was like you were dressed in the clothing of virtue simply by being there. You just had to show up and there was a glow of virtue around you. But still….still you were outside Congress, outside these agencies. You were outside of that. And it was a different way of looking at the world. Your role was to critique rather than to justify. Most of what goes on in Washington, a good deal of it, is self-justification. The role we played there was the role of critique. Ralph provided a place where those who had or wanted to develop a critique could do so, which is a great luxury.

I guess it depends upon what you think Ralph Nader stands for. What originally attracted me to him was not any particular position on anything. It was what he was much more than what he said. He seemed to care about the things it was important to care about and to understand that in order to care effectively, you had to make a life commitment to it. You couldn’t carry the baggage of a conventional lawyer life style and do it. He understood that. Even though I was there for five years, plus two summers, I never considered myself a consumer advocate. The whole idea turns my stomach a little bit. Sure consumers need representation but the fact is we’re consuming ourselves off this earth. Somehow the critique, the awareness that is needed is to buy out of that whole consumer role and to stop accepting that role as consumer, rather than to become this army of consumers that not only wants its stuff but wants it good! I would dissent with the stereotyped view that our mission is to make the world safe for all these consumers. My mission, much more, is to question the commodity fetish. I have no desire to help to turn this country or the world into the happy playground for a bunch of consumer cultists, so that we can buy our Atari’s and our video games and our blenders free of defects and free of care.

It was a part of [Ralph’s] sense of strategy and his sense of the way the process worked that a movement had staying power only if it was organized on somebody’s economic self interest. And that it was economic interest that defined our genuine commitment to the political process. There’s a book by Mancur Olson called The Logic of Collective Action which develops that point. Now, you know, it’s a great great paradox. What Ralph is, he is so much more than a consumer advocate. In his concerns, in what he is, in the life that he leads, he is so much more. He is not a consumer. He actually lives so much of what other people talk about. He was a non-consumer before “alternative lifestyles” were a fashion. He was just a natural; he did it by instinct. He’s self sufficient. People have this view of him as stingy. In fact, he’s extremely generous.

The followers are hardly ever up to the leader. The consumer thing is something that is easy for a group of followers to grab hold of. If you’re going to have a movement, it needs to have a common denominator that many can understand. Ralph himself is interested in much more; nuclear power, for example, is a truly global issue. One of the things that sets Ralph apart is he wants to be practical. He wants to establish institutions, an institutionalized public interest movement, an institutionalized PIRG on the college campus, institutionalized consumer utility boards, an institutionalized consumer protection agency. And that’s a great insight about the way the process works. But it’s a lawyer’s insight. Wherever Ralph goes, you find more jobs for lawyers on both sides of the issue in his tracks. I don’t want this to come across as criticizing him because I still admire that man more than I can say. But I think it might be a blind spot in him.

Now, it’s starting to reach the point where [the Sixties and Seventies Nader experience is] almost like….The younger people who come in now to the office were ten years old when we did that stuff and they either haven’t heard of it or they have an awe. There’s an awe you did that, that you were there, like present at the creation. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that “Nader’s Raiders” are an epic in our history.

The [name or very word] Nader meant different things to different people. It was like a code. To some people, it made them furious. To other people, it was a symbol of hope. Ralph really played the role, at that crucial time, as a SYMBOL. You saw this much more when you got outside Washington. In Akron, Ohio and places like that when he would speak, people would come up to him afterwards. And he confirmed, he confirmed hundreds if not thousands of people, who in their own small way had tried to fight back. And who had never had someone who could confirm them, who could dignify and ennoble what they were doing. They were accustomed to be called “cranks.” One of the great services Ralph played was that dignifying and ennobling function that he served for so many people around this country, who had in their own small way tried to make the contribution that they felt needed to be made.

For a time, the “public interest” bit was golden but like most coinage it became debased and now everyone is claiming they are “public interest.” It’s a curious twist that in the reigning orthodoxy to be selfish serves the public interest, if you believe it. Therefore a group that represents Greed is a public interest group because that is their ideology. Greed is Good. That’s what makes the marketplace work. The “invisible hand” won’t work unless we lay our greed on the altar.

PP: When you made the move to Tax, did you get a choice of who was going to go where out of PIRG?

Nooo, it just sort of happened and I went with Tom Stanton. Well, let’s see, my recollection is that I got there in June and it seemed to happen in December 1971 or January 1972. So we were out of there really fast. My gosh. [He whistles, then explains his reaction] You’re bringing back stuff that I just haven’t even….It seems like another life. The physical scene: that crummy old building where we were. I just remembered packing and moving over. It was exciting to move to a new office building in downtown Washington, right across from the Treasury. All that was coming right back to me. And I was remembering the janitor in the new building and the negotiations for that office. Ted Jacobs and the shyster landlord. A whole train of reverie.

I spent almost all of my time with Nader at the Tax Reform Research Group. What you think you’re doing and what you’re really doing….I’m sure you’ve had the experience of discovering that what you thought you were doing was not what you were doing. I was in it but not of it. I never had the feeling that if I could rid the world of unfair property tax assessments that life would be that much greater for anybody. I can see now that what it really was an opportunity to begin to learn how to communicate. It was an opportunity to take something that was complicated and begin to communicate it and take the mythology out of it and take the mystery out of it [editor’s emphasis]. We put out a little newspaper which I loved.

Also for myself, it was still a time where I was trying to emerge from some….I was not fully emerged from the problems of my adolescence. It’s not as though everything I did back in those days was this rational response to a rational assessment of a national problem. A lot of it was the kicking and splashing to keep your head above your own water. I’ve sort of wondered about that because my impression was that most of the people around me had left that stuff behind them and were thinking full time about the world and the problem and how to solve the problem. They just seemed to be “out there,” rather than wrestling with something that was inward. I just wondered how much….whether the appearance was true or whether people just never talked about that dimension or that side of it. We wake up in the morning and, okay, what’s on our mind? I suppose some people just get right up and “Boy, I’m going to find out something about the FTC this morning,” rather than, “god, I wonder why I’m always so tired in the morning [laughs]. I wonder why I don’t have more energy for doing this stuff that I think is supposed to be so important.” The whole question of the way we see ourselves versus the way we are seen is one that is very….I mean, I’m always amazed when I get inklings of the way people saw me during those days. It’s like listening to someone describe a movie they went to and calling it you. I hear I was so “hard-working” and so “committed” and all. My life was really more the way I just described it.

We all have a mixture of goals which we pursue and demons which pursue us. And the demons, the demons are the nagging thought that we are lazy, we are selfish, that we’re self-indulgent. Those things chase us! They goad us. What keeps you going is a combination. It’s a combination of the goal….What’s the goal? Is the goal to have better property tax assessments? That wasn’t the goal, that was the occasion, but it was not the goal. The goal was in some, whatever way you can to make a contribution to somebody’s life being better and to make a contribution to people to WAKE UP, people to wake up and break the spell of sleep. To me, that was the goal. And I think probably in the hard times, it was the demons more than the goal. But that’s an individual thing. The messages are so close that they are pre-verbal. It’s that “I can’t be lazy,” “I can’t fail,” “I can’t be weak,” “I can’t be a coward,” “I have to…..” I can’t give up! [laughs and shrugs] It’s the Old Testament God, not the New Testament God. In many ways–and I don’t mean this as philosophy, I mean this as real, having just come through a grueling month–there is something in us that understands intuitively that there is something very valuable for us in those experiences. We just know if we hang in, that there’s something there for us. And that’s the reason we are there. Other things come into it. Loyalty comes into it. But at rock bottom, we just know that there’s something there for us to learn.

Also, Ralph was such a living example. It’d be one thing if you were working for someone who expected things of you that he didn’t do himself. But the fact is that Ralph never expected as much of anybody as he expected of himself. That sort of leadership doesn’t even have to be spoken, you just know it. And so what are you going to do? You’re going to whimper? I mean, he’s doing five times more than you are and you’re going to whimper. I was not a person who would say things; I would stew in my swamp. It was Ralph’s example, but as you know, Ralph is capable of….he can wither you. And when he does that, you do not forget it. It didn’t happen to me often but it did happen once or twice, and it shakes you. What you learn is you’re capable of a lot more than….that your own continually massaging yourself stands in the way of a whole lot because sometimes you just need someone to say, “Come off it!” And he was very good at that [chuckling silently].

PP: Have you read any of the critical books, like Sanford’s?

A little bit, but those books make me so mad that I just stay away from them. I never felt that way about Ralph. In some ways we had a….I don’t know, there was something sort of special there, I think. And I don’t know exactly what it was. He was very good to me, he was very patient with me. He was patient beyond endurance. I was very slow in getting things done, just plodding along. He saw that I was well-intentioned and he stayed with me much longer than I deserved, basically, in terms of performance. My observation was that when people felt [“put upon”] there was something wrong with the chemistry to begin with. People brought that to the situation. It was only people who came looking for a job and who wanted the Nader group to be a cuddly, supportive….who were looking for an institution who felt that. The people, like the Don Rosses and Sam Simons, WHO JUST HAD THE WORK INSIDE THEM, it wasn’t that [way]. These people who [were later critical] came looking for something that was not there. I used to hear all these stories and I couldn’t understand it. All Ralph wanted was for you to take hold of something and go with it. He didn’t want to be a boss, that’s the whole point. I was sort of a hybrid because I was there before most of the originals but I didn’t get into the PIRG thing until afterwards. [In the first summer, I was one of the “Nader’s Raiders”] I hated [that label]. I just detested that. We weren’t called that in-house. How would you like to be called a “Nader’s Raider?” It was something that people picked up on. If you have a friend in California and you say you work for Ralph Nader, “Oh, you’re a ‘Nader’s Raider.'” Also these agencies, again you’re “Nader’s Raiders.” Ralph certainly never used it. We didn’t think of ourselves as that. That was the cross you bear. There was no job title. I kind of liked the idea that I could be a journalist and investigator, that I could do so many different things.

But there was something about being a Nader’s Raider [said sing song] that was just so condescending and “cute.” Well, you would have to hear former ICC Commissioner (Virginia) Mae Brown from West Virginia, sitting in her ICC office which was decorated in flamingo whites and pinks, call you, “From the Neigh-doors, Ray-doors,” in her just dripping with condescension [voice]. You would have to hear that in order to understand what it meant to be a [drawls sarcastically] Nader’s Raider. I can’t do the accent but….”Just don’t lay that one on me,” that was my feeling. “I’ll sit here and I’ll wince and I’ll wait a few seconds while I let that go by me and then we’ll start talking.”

There was maybe a little truth in it–that we did see our role as being on the attack. Not all of us. There are people, like Carl Nash, who have always had a lot of presence and who have always had a sense of what they were about and who were not “flamers.” Those of us who were more impressionable started out with the flame and then tried to find a torch to put it on. I never felt that we were going to make the world better by reforming property taxes. It was important to work on it because it’s important to remedy injustice. That’s what life is all about and you don’t always gauge the worth of something by the momentousness of the result. You know, if we’re working for results, then we’re working for disappointment. Much of what we do is drama, its metaphor and sometimes we work on small things just because there is a principle involved there. I could identify with the principle of justice and people being treated fairly in this obscure realm of property taxation, but never once did I think that this was an issue that was of consuming importance and that the majority of people in the world would be one whit better if we had a perfect property tax system.

PP: On a typical day at PIRG, what would you and others have been working on? How can I best describe an advocate’s day?

Jon: To have accompanied me on a typical day would have been boring. There was not a lot of big scene stuff. My family and friends basically gave up on trying to figure out what I did. If you’re in advertising or if you’re a lawyer, they know what you do. Well, you’re a lawyer, but! How do you describe….? I talk on the telephone. How do you describe what you do when you put together a testimony? Well, you go to the library, you talk on the phone, you look at reports and you take a nap. The physicality of it is not where the story is. There are some things you could [show]. I wouldn’t want to romanticize it too much. Trying to get information from a government agency and being told fifteen times some other number and the building exasperation. Having something due the next day, [needing] fifteen copies and the Xerox machine breaks down at 9 P.M. Having a discussion with a Congressional assistant in which the Congressional assistant is saying, “Well, you know, we really think it’s important but politically…” and trying to argue why it’s politically a good thing. Trying to get a reporter to cover a story. Having a discussion about when to release a certain report–Friday for release on Sunday, Saturday for release on Monday. “Oh, but on Monday so and so is doing such and such.” Ralph says, “I want to know something about bank holding companies.” You go to the House Banking Committee and there’s a bookcase with glass doors and five shelves of these dull green volumes on bank holding companies. These are vignettes, but I wouldn’t want to make it a melodrama. Young public interest lawyer against the system.

There was a brief TV series about a public interest lawyer. [The] pilots were one hundred percent puke material. This cute young thing gets up in the morning and goes off to the office to take on the bad corporations. Soap opera, not even soap opera–if it were soap opera, it would have been a little more real because there would have been some humans. Just this nice public interest lawyer against the bad world. Waiting for the WATS line is a good [example of real activity]. It’s still true up there [at Nader offices]. The different groups get it for fifteen minutes. You’re on the line and just getting the information you want and the next person starts clicking. Or you’re invited to speak at a hearing. The TV lights are there for the Treasury Secretary or for so and so and then you get on last and no one’s there and everyone’s gone home. That really did happen, to Tom Stanton more than to me. Russell Long and Wilbur Mills used to do him in.

[Since the Nader days] I’ve worked in different settings and different arenas. In my own mind I’ve never felt that there’s been a break [in continuity]. The things that I’ve done since then, I’ve really had to–for wont of a better phrase–understand America. It’s one thing to be right. It’s another thing to be any good. And to be any good, you have to be able to talk to people in terms of the values that they have. You have to be able to get inside them and you have to be able to touch the things that are important to the way that they see the world. One of the great things that I’ve gained from having been [associated with Congressman Dorgan]….You know, when you work for Ralph, you don’t have to talk to that conservative businessman from some town in North Dakota. You say your thing the way you want to say it, the way that pleases you and feeds your sense of righteousness and being right. And that’s fine and that’s fine. But the test comes in being able to talk to that conservative businessman in North Dakota, in being able to speak in terms of his values, in terms of what he cares about.

One of the great things you have with Ralph is that you have the freedom of conscience, just about complete. What he gives you is the opportunity to say what needs to be said, uncut [editor’s emphasis]. But that one of the things that was lacking was an ability to get Inside America. That is something you can develop, in working in Congress, let’s say. It begins with realizing that you’re not talking with people, you’re talking at them. And that it’s one thing to get a story in the press, it’s another thing to arouse the consent. See, [long pause]….there is something about that whole Nader thing, the way it defines itself, which is somehow lacking in a sense of frontier, in a sense of arousing the imagination. It’s all this regulatory stuff. ‘Let’s have a regulation on this and let’s have a regulation on that.’

Very necessary, very necessary. But you can’t confuse the architecture with the plumbing and you cannot build a movement on the plumbing, you have to build a movement on the sense of the architecture. Yes, we need to have these safety regulations and, yes, we need this and, yes, we need that. But somehow the vision has to go above that. It’s the Reagans, as phony and fluky as their vision is, at least they are talking at a level that gets people’s blood flowing: “We’re going to be free. We’re going to get the government off our back. We’re going to produce. We’re going to DO.” And the idea of getting another regulation on something just doesn’t stir people. Somehow there’s been a failure of evocative imagination, which again, may be the Lawyer’s failure. Lots of due process. But the sense of what stirs people in a constructive and positive way is something the Nader thing just doesn’t have right now. When you’re raising money for the Kennedy Center, you don’t describe the boiler room. They’ll give money to buy the boiler but it’s not going to be because of the boiler; it’s going to be because of the VISION. And that’s where we’re falling down.

For example, when you read Thomas Paine, he was way up there. He was challenging the premises! He was going right to the core. And he stirred you. You were aroused. What we run the risk of, and what the Nader people do, is being a bunch of nannies. People get tired of being told something is bad for you. That’s what your nanny told you all the time. A lot of people get to the point of saying, “Look, I don’t want my life to be risk-free.” It’s the problem of nagging people on dangers and never getting above that to a vision. Is that my function in life to be protected from something? What’s my role? What am I supposed to DO? That’s what the Richard Vigueries and the Ronald Reagans are addressing is that innate sense that there is something for me to do and to be. That’s the great irony I haven’t figured out about Nader. He’s so active and yet so much of the message implies passivity. The Consumer Protection Agency. We are not only going to be protected but we’re going to have a bunch of lawyers out there in Washington doing it for us. I have never been able to reconcile those two things. It’s almost like a geological fault-line in the thinking.

Someone has to do it. Someone has to take care of the plumbing. But you can’t confuse that with building a movement. You build a movement like ACORN [an effective community organizing organization] builds a movement by taking stuff that anybody can understand. You don’t go down to city hall and try to finagle a slightly better regulation on boarded up houses. You take the goddamn house and you take the boards off it and you move your people in! And that’s the way you build a movement. And you don’t build a movement with lawyers. Someone has to do it but don’t tell me you’re going to build a movement with those lawyers. The public interest movement was a lawyer’s movement, for the most part. [Dave Zwick’s Clean Water Action Project is an exception] Dave has been one of the most quietly exemplary people I have known. He has not only hung in there but has really built something, has really “changed.” That’s the difference between changing laws and regulations and commas and CHANGING. Dave’s group is changing the face of things by door-to-door work, by organizing in Congressional districts–the whole electoral side that they have going.

All of us have something of a self-preoccupation in that the way a movement is sustained is by looking at what’s coming next. It’s in the nature of things that we all become a part of that, that…Life embraces all of us regardless. Even Ralph Nader in his role has become…the system absorbs him in some way. The question always is what is coming next, who is coming next, what is it going to be? Isn’t it interesting how little we have centered on the schools and education? The rest of us are going to filter out. I’ll be here for awhile and I’ll be someplace else and all the rest of them the same. The question we need to be concerned about is who and what is coming next. The PIRGS at the college campuses have maybe been the most valuable thing of all in providing a point of entry. I have seen some awfully good and effective people who got started through the PIRGS. I’m just amazed.

I don’t see myself as really having been the same as many of those other [PIRG] people. My role has evolved much more into the written word than into organizing and any of that. It just seems to have been the way my path has gone. One thing that can be said is when you work for Ralph for five years, any inclination you might have had to just sort of pull the covers over your head and “lead the good life” is….He’s a great superego. Ralph represented a kind of moral ideal, I guess. You’re supposed to be a doer. He represents that so well. That was not where my strength was; my strength was more as someone who gives words and metaphors and images to ideas, rather than as one who simply discloses facts and tries to generate action from those facts. To me words are a form of action. [Becoming an editor] just evolved.

There’s a danger of putting too much of a thought-gloss on things, because we do things and then we want it to make sense, so we take out the paintbrush and fill in all the blanks with the color that we like; so that we see a whole picture. What seems to have been brewing in me all these years was developing as a writer. [Since I took the position with Washington Monthly] I’ve had a number of people say, “That sounds just right.” For me, it was agony making…..I had definitely intended to be with Bryon longer. I felt a little bit chintzy about leaving after two years. You do reach a point where you ask, “Is this whole thing about trying to find the perfect circumstances?” The fact is that people are doing important and admirable things in many different clothings. So you start asking yourself when you’re going to stop looking for the perfect suit of clothes.

[The new job] just happened. I tend to think that when things are right they happen naturally and without contrivance or manipulation. I’ve read the Monthly for many years and I’ve thought “These people think the way I do.” [PP: Which is?] It’s hard to describe. I’d say iconoclastic, skeptical of all bureaucratic institutions, be they governmental, business, labor or the like. Believing in idealism. Believing that–to put it in what may sound naive–selfishness and grabbiness is the core disease in both politics and economics. That we have to ask questions about the scale of things, be it government or business. Conservatives think business is the pasture of light and liberals think government is the pasture of light. Humanity is humanity and we have to look at the institutions–whatever we call them–with clear eyes. I guess that we editors bring the content to the magazine and that’s the way I view it.

[The Nader model and the organizing model] see the institution as [something] we’re going to fix. It’s, in some sense, the standpoint of the engineer. One of the blind spots of the Nader movement is in thinking that these problems are all “out there.” It’s the modern day equivalent of Calvinist religion where there is the “the elect” and the “unelect.” You’re virtuous because of what you are. In the Nader rubric, if you’re a consumer, you’re virtuous. In the Marxist rubric, if you’re a worker, you’re virtuous. In another rubric, if you’re poor, you’re virtuous. Because of who you are rather than what you are. I know Ralph understands this because he lives a life of very deep self-examination and he is the kind of person that he expects others to be. But somehow a lot of that gets lost in translation and we become a bunch of self-righteous people who blame everything on somebody else. I am not accusing Ralph of being self-righteous. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do and, at that time, it was very difficult to do what needed to be done without acting in a way that could be called self-righteous. Also, we do tend to see ourselves through the mirror of the media. That is one of the mirrors in which we see ourselves and the media had certainly painted Nader and his Raiders as these white knights. It was very flattering and I’m sure that we basked in the glow. One of the difficult things about leaving Nader was leaving being able to ride coattail on Ralph Nader’s virtue.

[After a discussion of way media reacts today and coverage of the reunion] The Washington Post, and the Style section in particular, see the world in their own image and likeness. Someone is a knight in shining armor or they’re the fallen and discredited. They’re constantly picking people up and dropping them down. The Post has a very hard time in not portraying Ralph Nader as either the white knight or the fallen angel. When we first came on the scene, there was a whole network of reporters in Washington whom Ralph Nader–when he was a nobody in the National Press Building–had given stories, had spoken to at length over the telephone, had really build up a camaraderie and a sense of mission. And these reporters felt a great sense of kinship with Ralph and what he was about. In many cases he was enabling them to write the stories that they wanted to write by making the news. And then, you had a whole new group of reporters coming on, to whom Ralph Nader was the establishment. We get stuck in the way it was and we can’t see that we have become the status quo. And to these new people…..what does a reporter look to do? Looks to take on the sacred cows. It’s very understandable. It’s the reason why the social ideas from the Sixties, the government institutions and programs, that kind of programmatic liberalism no longer arouses the imagination. It’s the reason why the kids coming up today….because our frontier is their status quo. It’s not just generational. Even reporters who have been around for awhile, when someone becomes an icon, the iconoclasts come forth. To this day the investigative and truth-seeking function gets better play than the political activities. When Health Research Group does a study on some drug, it still gets national media play. Ralph as a personality and the organization as a bunch of people probably have fared less well.

Also, the other side has caught up. Back then, we were still dealing with a bunch of cigar-chewing, back-slapping corporate lobbyists; now we are dealing with slick public relations. Also the alternatives–whatever you call those at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ralph Nader–are doing much the same thing he does. Lots of other people have gotten into the research study game. So I’m not sure we can say the press has turned on Nader as much as we can say the field is more crowded and there’s simply no special sheen on….To me, one of the heroic things about Ralph is the way he has persisted. Ralph stays on the roller coaster whether it’s up or down. He doesn’t jump off. There are many things about him which bespeak his character; one of them is that he really doesn’t… coverage is not his life support system. It’s something he tries to make use of to serve important ends as he sees them, but I genuinely don’t think that Ralph’s ego feeds off media coverage.

I think there are public interest people…..There’s this whole public interest society and when they get together, they love to be oh so blasé about the interview on the Today Show that they just did, as if it’s such a hassle getting up early. Yeah–but I think the lesser people get the bigger kicks–the lesser people in terms of character, not in terms of position. You brag about it by not bragging about it. You brag about it like “Oh, getting up at five in the morning.” By putting it down, you put yourself up.

PP: Does anyone in the group now think PIRG was a waste of time? How do you stand on that? Have you changed politically?

Jon: I don’t know that I’ve moved….I’m a visceral libertarian and a social idealist at the same time. The magazine is called, well, the label is “neo-liberal.” There’s a libertarian in me and also a utopian in me. As long as you have corporate power, you need to have a public power to balance it and to check it. But that’s a very unsatisfactory and dead end situation. We tend to forget or lose sight of the fact that individuals do things, whether it’s opening up a neighborhood restaurant that becomes a hangout for people to get together and talk or whether it’s a community organization which does things. Whether it’s called voluntary activity, entrepreneurial or community work, that is really our life culture. The magazine is speaking to the people who think that greed is not enough, that we can’t just open up the gates to economic hedonism and think that the cosmos is going to make it all work out in the end. Humanity brings humaneness to life. It doesn’t happen by itself. It has to be embodied in individual activity and, when appropriate, law, government. But it does not assume, as conventional liberals do, that the law–rooted in force and coercion–is in all cases the way to achieve humaneness. In some cases it works in exactly the opposite direction. We have to ask, “Where is the use of law, that is coercion, appropriate and where is it not?” Our bias, our preference must always be toward that which is voluntary and comes from people because it’s good rather than because there is the force of law standing over them. That has to be the first choice. Sometimes, frequently, especially when we’re dealing with a hedonistic, economic animal–which is what a corporation is….You can’t expect a goat to fly and you can’t expect this hedonistic animal to be anything other than what it is and, therefore, you need to have the bars on the cage. But we must not let that become our paradigm for everything.

NO, it was not a waste of time because we cut our teeth on something tangible. We were not growing through abstract thinking about “changing the system.” We are the system and if we’re not changing, then the system doesn’t change. I would be much more forceful today in saying that the path to heaven does not lie through some consumer protection agency. I would be much more adamant in rejecting the view that life is not complete until you have your very own lawyer sticking up for your very own legal rights. I would be more questioning of that litigious view of salvation through litigation. My thinking was less developed and less conscious back then, than many of the people around me. I didn’t really have a politics or a critique. Something instinctive or intuitive just admired Ralph Nader and thought that in some way this individual was the kind of individual that people ought to be. Something about him drew me to him. I don’t defend everything that Ralph says, but I’m extremely proud to have worked with Ralph.

Profile of Jon Rowe taken from a dissertation entitled “Focused Energy: A Study of Public Interest Advocates.”

Interviews conducted by Patricia R. Powers on March 10 and June 28, 1983

(part of an ethnography, American Studies Department, University of Maryland, 1984)

Note: Although Pat Powers worked for Citizen Action Group under Don Ross in 1972 and for Public Citizen’s Fundraising office in 1973, she did not know Jonathon Rowe.
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