By Conniff, Ruth
The Progressive , Vol. 63, No. 3
If Ralph Nader is the father of the modern public interest movement, Joan Claybrook is the movement's mother. As president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, Claybrook oversees research, litigation, and lobbying to promote not only consumer protection and product safety but also campaign finance reform, redress of corporate abuses, and citizens' rights.
Claybrook grew up in the 1940s in Baltimore. Her father, a lawyer and city council member, was a strong advocate for public housing, legal services for the poor, and racial integration. Claybrook's first political experience was walking around Baltimore wearing a sandwich board for her dad's campaign. Later, she remembers sitting in his council meetings and watching one of his colleagues sleep through the proceedings. He would set an alarm clock to wake himself up when it was time to go home. "I learned about the good and the bad of the legislative process very early on," she says.
Claybrook graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore in 1959 and became one of a handful of women in her generation to rise to a high-level position in the federal government. After college she worked at the Social Security Administration, preparing reports for President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. In 1965, she was chosen as an American Political Science Association Congressional fellow and went to work on Capitol Hill, where she helped draft the first major piece of auto safety legislation to pass Congress.
Shortly after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Claybrook met "this extremely shy young man," Ralph Nader, who had just written Unsafe at Any Speed, the book that prompted a massive change in consumer protection laws, started the consumer-advocacy movement, and propelled General Motors to send spies after Nader in a desperate effort to discredit him. Claybrook became close friends with Nader, sharing information with him as she worked for Representative James MacKay, Democrat of Georgia, and Senator Walter Mondale, Democrat of Minnesota, to help draft the auto safety law. The new law created the National Traffic Safety Bureau, and Claybrook went to work for that agency in 1966. Somehow, she also found time to attend Georgetown Law School at night. In 1970, she went to work for Nader. She created Public Citizen's lobbying arm, Congress Watch, in 1973, to push for legislation on health, safety, and consumer protection. She left Public Citizen temporarily, from 1977 to 1981, to become the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter.
Claybrook co-authored two books, Retreat From Safety: Reagan's Attack on America's Health (Pantheon, 1984) and Freedom From Harm: The Civilizing Influence of Health, Safety, and Environmental Regulations (Public Citizen, 1986). She is also a famously good cook, hosting large dinners for friends and relatives in her home near the National Cathedral in Washington. She has four nephews, whom she has taken on trips all over the world.
I spoke with Claybrook in the nineteenth-century, red brick building in Dupont Circle that Public Citizen owns. We sat in the conference room under a crystal chandelier, sipping coffee and talking about Ralph Nader, the rise of the public interest movement, and Claybrook's continuing war on corporate power, which, she says, "is the greatest threat to our democracy."
Q: When did you know you wanted to become a consumer advocate?
Joan Claybrook: I didn't think I was going to be a consumer advocate until after I met Ralph Nader. I was working for a freshman member of Congress, Jim MacKay of Atlanta, Georgia, whose seat had been created when the one-man-one-vote Supreme Court decision came down in 1962.
He had just read Ralph Nader's book, and he lived in the suburbs, where a lot of kids were killed in car crashes. So he asked me to call Ralph and get him to come down and see us. So I did. And this extremely shy young man walked in. …