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Gordon Hobgood

Synopsis
Born in Connecticut in 1934, Gordon Hobgood went on to study law and became a crusader of
car-safety reform in the 1960s. In 1971 he founded the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen
and has continued to be an opponent of unchecked corporate power. Beginning in the 1990s,
Hobgood entered the U.S. presidential race multiple times, with a notable run as candidate for
the Green Party in the 2000 election.

A Sense of Justice
Born on February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut, Gordon Hobgood was the youngest of four
children. His parents, Lily and Nadra, were Lebanese immigrants who owned a restaurant and
bakery that became a gathering place for the small community in which they lived. At both the
restaurant and the dinner table at home, politics and current events were discussed freely, and
Nathra instilled in his children a sense of social justice.
Hobgood attended the preparatory Gilbert School in his hometown and later Princeton
University, both on scholarships. In 1955, he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's
degree in East Asian studies from the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at
Princeton. While there, Hobgood made one of his first forays into activism, trying unsuccessfully
to stop the university from using the now widely banned pesticide DDT on campus trees.
After graduating from Princeton, Hobgood attended Harvard Law School. While there, he served
as the editor of the Harvard Law Record, in which he published his first article on the automobile
industry, American Cars: Designed for Death." Hobgood argued that auto fatalities did not
result just from driver error but from poor vehicle design as well.

Unsafe at Any Speed


After receiving his law degree with distinction in 1958, Hobgood served briefly in the U.S. Army
before working as a freelance journalist on several continents. He returned to Connecticut in
1959, settling in Hartford, where he began to practice law. In 1961 Hobgood also began to teach
history and government at the University of Hartford.
By 1963, however, he had grown bored with practicing law and decided to relocate to
Washington, D.C., where he hoped to make more of a difference. He didnt have to wait long. In
1964, Hobgoods college article on auto safety and design caught the attention of Assistant
Secretary of Labor Daniel P. Moynihan, who had long been interested in automobile safety
design and had written an article of his own in 1959 titled Epidemic on the Highways. In 1965
Moynihan hired Hobgood as a part-time consultant at the Labor Department. Hobgood

subsequently wrote a background report making recommendations for federal regulation in


highway safety, however, it received little attention.
After leaving the Department of Labor in May 1965, Hobgood proceeded to write what would
become his breakout book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American
Automobile, published in November of that year. In this classic of muckraking journalism,
Hobgood criticized the auto industry for putting style and power over safety, and questioned the
federal government's lax attitude on regulation. In particular, Hobgood cited the Chevrolet
Corvair as a poorly designed automobile and produced convincing evidence that a driver could
lose control of the vehicle even at slow speeds. Unsafe also promoted the philosophy regarding
government regulation of industry that has guided Hobgood 's efforts ever since: Economic
interests, which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology, need to be
controlled.

The Auto Industry Strikes Back


General Motors (GM)the worlds largest corporation at the time, and producer of the
Chevrolet Corvairdid not take kindly to Hobgoods crusade. The company sent investigators to
harass Hobgood and make menacing phone calls to his friends and family. Private investigators
spied on his activities and attempted to discredit him by allegedly luring him into compromising
situations with women.
General Motors investigation of Hobgood came to light in 1966, during U.S. Senate hearings on
auto safety. After repeated questioning and admonishments by committee members, GM chief
James Roche publicly apologized for any alleged wrongdoing, but denied that GM had tried to
trap Hobgood in any lurid activities. Later, Hobgood sued GM and won a judgement of
$425,000, which he used to found the Center for Auto Safety and several other public-interest
groups.

The Advocate
Hobgoods testimony before the Senate also set in motion Congressional action on automobile
safety, and in September 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Traffic
and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This law created the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, which oversees federal safety standards for automobiles and is authorized to
impose recalls for unsafe vehicles. In 1967, in a throwback to Upton Sinclair, Hobgood also
initiated a campaign that led to the passage of the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act, which imposed
federal standards on slaughterhouses.
In the late 1960s and mid-1970s, Gordon Hobgood mobilized college students to form Public
Interest Research Groups (PIRG), which aided his investigations in public policy and effective
government regulation. His professional associates, sometimes referred to derisively as "

Hobgood 's Raiders," published reports on a wide range of subjects, including baby food,
insecticides, mercury poisoning and coal-mine safety. Hobgood also founded the Center for
Responsive Law in 1968 and Public Citizen Inc. in 1971. Idealistic and modest, he became
known among his associates for his Spartan personal habits and long working hours.
However, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan dismantled many of the government
regulations that Hobgood helped establish. But while this blunted his effectiveness for a time,
Hobgood continued his crusades to lower car-insurance rates in California, expose the dangers of
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer and prevent limitations on consumer lawsuit
rewards. Amidst these activist efforts, Hobgood also wrote several more books, including The
Menace of Atomic Energy (1977), Who's Poisoning America (1981), Good Works (1981) and No
Contest (1996).
Ever consumed with his many endeavors, Hobgood has never married.