This week a consumer advocate who I admired greatly and who often attended heavily Democratic consumer conferences—even though she had worked for Richard Nixon—died. Her name was Virginia Knauer, and I regarded her as a friend and colleague. She was appointed to the post of Office of Consumer Affairs under President Richard Nixon in 1969, filling in a slot created by Nixon’s predecessor Lyndon Johnson. I introduced her a few times when I was on panels at consumer conferences and few in the audience remembered her.
Knauer won over critics and advocated for things consumers support now but that, sadly, no Republican in Congress today would ever support: she wanted consumers to have the right to bring class-action suits, not just in state, but in federal courts; she argued for a comprehensive system of product safety standards and simpler language in product warranties.
Knauer spoke her mind with her more conservative colleagues. She insisted that the fat content of hot dogs not exceed 30 percent, rather than 33 percent. Nixon took her side because, as he told her, “I’m on a low-cholesterol diet myself!”
In her day she was regarded by Ralph Nader and Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT) as without clout or power. They were right that she couldn’t make many of the legislative changes they sought, but her use of the bully pulpit on behalf of consumers in speeches around the country—including her common refrain that “the consumer is getting fed up with shoddy material, poor quality, unsafe products, bad service, weak warranties, lack of adequate information…” was very important; indeed, this is a voice that is sorely missing in today’s in political discourse.
Ginny Knauer helped to create the Federal Consumer Information Center to distribute low-cost consumer publications, a program that goes on today and that NCL uses to get our materials out.
Knauer called herself a “pipeline to the President for consumers.” We could use more of those people today. If only our own President Obama would appoint someone to the post Ginny Knauer held! The world would be a better place for consumers.