It’s Kucinich Time!
By Scott Raab
After Downing Street
Fanfare for the common man. And for his lovely wife, Elizabeth.
The pure products of America go crazy,” wrote William Carlos Williams — antipoet of “the thing itself” — but Dr. Williams was from north Jersey, and as far as I know never strayed to Cleveland, whose own pure products long have been flame tempered, union made, and born batshit insane. So when I tell you that Dennis Kucinich is first of all a sane, sane man, and secondly, fit to be president — and thirdly: It’s Kucinich time, now, because what this blue-balled, war-thwacked nation needs is not another scleroid corporate whore but a sixty-one-year-old vegan peacemonger, poor beyond corruption and honest as spit, hauling balls big enough to both choke Dick Cheney and keep a smile like a woozy kitten’s on the love-lit face of a twenty-nine-year-old heartthrob wife; and if not now, when? and if not Dennis, who? — when I tell you this hand over heart and cheek untongued, then it behooves me also to say that I am a son of the same crooked flaming river, Cleveland-born and -bred and unashamed.
But this is another pungent river in another town — the slate-gray Piscataqua in Portsmouth, New Hampshire — on a cool May Saturday morning gravid with rain, where five hundred or so union members, families in tow, have gathered in a small park to protest a proposed $2.7 billion deal that would let Verizon spin off its rural New England landline customers to a much smaller outfit in North Carolina, saving Verizon a sweet half billion tax dollars, plus the bother of an expiring union contract, plus the cost of pensions, not to mention the messy, unprofitable matter of bringing broadband to the rubes. It’ll also hand Verizon six of the nine directors’ seats on the little company’s board — the pickpocket’s bump that bares the scam. It is, in short, the sort of humdrum money grab that makes shareholders drool and Kucinich spew lava.
He looks small as he strolls through the crowd and takes the makeshift plywood stage, standing short and thin under a blue awning, wearing a ratty tan raincoat, a twelve-year-old boy’s haircut, and a crooked grin as he lowers the microphone and barks, “Good morning!”
A few in the crowd answer, but it’s a safe bet that even they know nothing but his name, if that, and have never heard his voice. It is not the voice of a presidential hopeful — it doesn’t emit Hillary’s frozen cheer, drip Edwards’s honey, or ooze Obamanic earnestness. It’s a four-seam fastball, high and tight, buzzing straight at the ear.
“It’s great to be here with brothers and sisters of labor,” he says — Kucinich himself is a stagehands’ union member — before turning to the woman standing to his left. She is lush and lean and six feet tall, dressed in a short black jacket, a pale-gold-and-red blouse, and black pants. Her hair falls in twin auburn cascades — one over her shoulder and down her back, the other curving just beneath her bosom.
“Joining me on the stage is my wife, Elizabeth,” says Kucinich. He doesn’t mention that they met in his congressional office when she came to visit as part of a delegation from the American Monetary Institute two and a half years ago, or that they got engaged a few weeks later down at Shirley MacLaine’s spread in New Mexico, or that she boasts a graduate degree in International Conflict Analysis and a silver tongue stud, or that she is the third Mrs. Dennis Kucinich.
“It was actually more than thirty years ago,” he says, “that I first gained the experience that brings me to this stage today,” and then Kucinich tells them the nutshelled version of the Battle of Muny Light, the climax of a yearlong war that began when Dennis was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1977 at the age of thirty-one. It was a dying Rust Belt city by then, a national punch line, hapless and backward in a way that Pittsburgh and Detroit never were. That river — the Cuyahoga — had caught fire in 1969, Lake Erie stank of death, the previous mayor had set his own hair ablaze with a welding torch at a ribbon cutting, and his wife had declined a White House dinner invite so as not to miss her bowling night. What had been a boomtown for a century had shrunk to the Mistake on the Lake.
Then came Kucinich. Although he had been in city government for nearly eight years before becoming mayor, it felt like Che Guevara had ridden down from the hills to reform the land and free the peasantry. Because he was so young, his election made news all over the world — good news. Because he filled City Hall with compadres — some key staffers were in their twenties with no experience in government — it felt like revolution. And because it was Cleveland, the whole shebang was doomed.
If it hadn’t been Muny Light — Municipal Light and Power, the city-owned electric plant — it would have been something else. The men who had run corporate Cleveland for decades weren’t about to hand their power over to a bare-knuckled urban populist who believed that funding city schools and services was more vital than tax abatements for developers, who held court at Tony’s Diner on West 117th Street, not the Union Club downtown, and who called them blackmailers and con men in public. Within a year of his election, using his public firing of a police chief as an excuse, they funded a recall election that Kucinich barely survived.
But it was Muny Light that did Kucinich in. It was Muny Light that the private utility company in northeast Ohio wanted to swipe from the city, because Muny kept the rates down, killing profit. Before Kucinich took office, the deal had been sealed. All of the pillars who had long ago fled to the suburbs but still owned and bled the town as it withered and grew poor had agreed to strip Cleveland of one of its last real assets.
Then this same dinky SOB now up on the stage in his shabby raincoat, running for the White House, told ’em all — the lawyers and the bankers and the private utility company — to go pound salt.
“Lemme tell ya a little bit about myself,” he shouts at the union crowd. “And once you know about me, you’ll know why when I tell you what I intend to do about this sale, it’s the real thing. I’m the oldest of seven kids, and my parents never owned a home. We lived in twenty-one different places by the time I was seventeen, including a coupla cars. I have this vivid memory of my parents sitting at the kitchen table in one apartment on St. Clair Avenue, one of those old white metal-topped tables that when it’s chipped, there’s black underneath. I remember them sitting at this table counting the pennies to pay the utility bill.
“When I was in a room with the lead banker in Cleveland on December 15, 1978, and he was telling me that I had to sell the city-owned electric system, suddenly I was transported back in time and space to this little boy listening to and watching his parents count the pennies to pay the utility bill” — and here Kucinich’s voice softens — “I was sitting there with this banker, and I could hear the pennies dropping again — click…click…click…”
Then he reaches back and hurls the four-seamer, up and in.
“And because I remembered where I came from, I said no to the sale. I can’t be bullied, I can’t be bossed, I can’t be intimidated, and I can’t be tricked. I’m there on behalf of your families — I’m there on behalf of your jobs. I’m there — the same person who as a child listened to his parents count the pennies at the table — ”
Shouting now, Kucinich pumps his right fist up and down as the crowd cheers.
“Mom and Dad! I’m there for all the mothers and fathers who are worried about what they’re paying, who are worried about their jobs, who want to make sure that they can claim that this country still belongs to working people, still belongs to the people, and there’s someone who will stand for that principle.”
The folks who know that Dennis Kucinich cannot be elected president of the United States understand that while principle is nice, an excellent and desirable concept, practical politics is the art of the possible. Democracy requires compromise, and principle at times must yield to necessity.
Being a Clevelander, Kucinich yields to nothing. Ever. When he said no to the sale of Muny Light, the city’s banks, led by Cleveland Trust, made good on their ultimatum and refused to extend the city credit on $14 million worth of short-term notes. And by so doing, they deliberately flushed the city down the fiscal toilet and into default, which made more news around the world — awful news — and brought Dennis Kucinich’s political career to an apparent end.
But not immediately. On December 18, 1978, Mayor Kucinich, surrounded by the media, strode from City Hall to the main branch of Cleveland Trust downtown and withdrew his paltry life savings in protest. And because it was Cleveland, on the very same day, blocks away, his youngest brother, Perry Kucinich, robbed a different bank. Perry wasn’t really a criminal; he was literally insane. But it sure looked bad for Dennis.
Because it was Cleveland, though, it could’ve been worse. The local mob, for reasons that have never been clear — some say it was because Kucinich disconnected the city’s garbage-hauling contract from the Mafia — hired an out-of-state hitman to whack the mayor at a Columbus Day parade. When Kucinich got sick two days before the parade, the hit was relocated to Tony’s Diner at a later date — and after the default, when it was clear that Kucinich shortly would be out of office, it was called off altogether. Kucinich, meanwhile, on the advice of the police, had long since begun wearing a bulletproof vest, and kept a gun at home.
By saving Muny Light — it’s called Cleveland Public Power now — Kucinich wound up saving Clevelanders hundreds of millions of dollars. In return for his foresight and political courage, he got thrashed a year later, when he ran for a second term, by George Voinovich, the current U.S. senator, who summed up his ’79 campaign platform by telling The New York Times, “I like fat cats — I want as many in Cleveland as I can get.” Shattered by the loss, Kucinich limped back into the hills, unemployed and unemployable, a virtual pariah.
The union crowd knows none of this, of course. They’re cheering because, first of all, Kucinich showed up. All the Democrats zipping through New Hampshire trying to build a base for the primary were invited; only Kucinich came. They’re cheering too because Kucinich promises to hold hearings on the Verizon sale — a six-term congressman now, he chairs the Domestic Policy Subcommittee — and also to ask the FCC and SEC to look into it. And they’re cheering because, what the hell, the guy at the microphone with the hot wife and the drab raincoat is yelling and pumping his arm like Huey Long in an old newsreel.
But when the speech is finished and Kucinich and Elizabeth wind their way through the crowd and up the street — his arm around her waist, hers around his shoulders — to a Portsmouth restaurant where his campaign manager has scheduled a news conference, the place is nearly empty. There’s a photographer with an online business based entirely on photos of presidential candidates touring New Hampshire — he got Obama earlier this morning in Manchester — and two pimply young students from nearby Franklin Pierce University who’ve brought a digital videocam to interview Kucinich for their Website. That’s it.
Kucinich sits on a stool near the front window of the restaurant as the college kids line up their shot. Elizabeth smooths his hair — he has a hint of gray just by his sizable ears, and the stubborn cowlick of a 1920s street-corner newsboy — and then she levels the angle of the kids’ camera so that Dennis doesn’t look too wee.
In real life, he’s five seven, not really all that short, but his diet — no animal products of any kind: no meat, no fish, no eggs, no cheese, no milk — has thinned him to 130 pounds, and the fact that he looks decades younger than his age, combined with his buzz-saw voice and Sears wardrobe, not to mention his general level of intensity, makes him seem onscreen like a high school debater, or an embittered elf. The camera does not love him; luckily, Elizabeth does.
“So what are we doing here?” Dennis asks after the college boys depart; he’s itching to hit the road. He has another meet-and-greet at a bar up the street, and then it’s on to Portland, Maine, an hour away, for a sit-down with a grassroots impeachment group — last April, Kucinich formally filed articles of impeachment in the House against Dick Cheney — then a speech to the Maine Lawyers for Democracy, followed by a keynote address at the Maine People’s Alliance annual Rising Tide Dinner. Tomorrow morning, he’ll catch a 5:00 a.m. flight to Cleveland, where he’ll deliver a commencement address at Case Western Reserve University on Sunday afternoon.
Kucinich is running for the presidency as if he believes that he can win because he truly does. When I ask him, in the empty restaurant, if he prepped his Verizon speech, he goes gimlet-eyed and snaps, “Yeah, I prepared it — forty years in the making.” And when I ask why he didn’t close the sale and ask them for their votes, he smiles sourly.
“Because they know I’m there for them. Because I think it’s appropriate for people to know, first of all, what I’m capable of doing, to show them what I’m capable of doing. Once I’ve shown them what I’ve done, shown them what I know, shown them what I’m capable of doing, and go and do it, then their decision becomes easy. I close the sale by delivering on what I said — and nobody else can or will do that.”
I did not know Dennis Kucinich in Cleveland. I did not know anyone like Dennis Kucinich. Cleveland is divided by the Cuyahoga River into East and West sides, and even in the salad days of yore, their folk did not mix. It goes thus: white ethnics, West; Jews, Italians, and blacks, East; auto plants, West; museums, East; Drew Carey, West; Paul Newman, East. West Siders had the airport and the zoo; East Siders had the money and the money. This was true when I was born, true when I left for good in 1984, and true now.
I am from the East Side. We were Jews with no real money, but we were not poor. Kucinich is from the West Side, half Croat, half Irish. He was dirt poor and knew it. He shined shoes in barrooms to get a few coins to carry home. Nuns took pity on his clothes and scrounged up better ones for him. He lives in a real house today, but it is the same small West Side house that he bought in 1971 for $22,500. It is a miracle — and no small paean to the American dream — that Dennis Kucinich now not only sits in the House of Representatives, with a big fancy office in the Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C., but also believes that he will be elected president in 2008.
“I’m ready,” he says. “I’m ready to be president today. I can feel it. The attempt to settle the election so early is something that I think is probably tension reduction on the part of people in the media, but I’m not subject to their rules. There’s time to do this.”
We are in his Rayburn Building office. In the reception area, there’s an old black-and-white photo of the congressman in a sweater-vest and bow tie, pointing to a poster listing the three pillars of West Side civilization: polka, bowling, and kielbasa. But in his office proper, the burgundy velvet drapes are tied back with thick white cord, sunlight pours in, and the ceiling is sky-high. Here, in his slim blue suit, blue shirt, and red tie, Kucinich indeed looks ready for the Oval Office.
Still, to the extent that Kucinich is subject to the mainstream media’s rules about who matters, he hardly exists. His hour-long speech on the House floor detailing how the hydrocarbon bill being rammed down the Iraqis’ throats by the Bush administration is really a ruse to grab the vast bulk of Iraq’s oil made no news. He routinely is cropped out of debate group photos. He is almost always put at the far end of the stage and invariably ignored for long stretches. When finally called upon, he tends to yelp. He neither looks nor sounds like a man who could be cast to play the president of the United States.
And, perhaps because he is from Cleveland, he yields nothing to his opponents for the sake of unity, nicety, or sales appeal. Onstage, his scorn is plain. His opposition to the Iraq war dates to late 2002; his position is simple: no timetables or benchmarks — just stop the flow of money. He says that fellow Democrats either wish to end the war, in which case they can just stop passing appropriations bills to fund it, or they’re just playing charades by funding the war even as they moan about not having enough votes to override a veto — thereby preserving the war as an issue for 2008.
His health-care plan is even simpler: universal, essentially free care under a single-payer, government-run system — more or less how every other industrialized nation on the planet provides for people’s well-being. To Kucinich, a candidate’s plan either unseats the health-insurance companies or plows even more tax dollars into a for-profit industry that pays politicians millions of dollars to do its bidding.
The folks who know that Dennis Kucinich cannot be elected president understand that his positions on these two issues alone, while principled and in accord with what tens of millions of Americans say they want, are nonetheless reducible to the sort of sound bites — “Socialized medicine!” “Abandoning the troops!” — that would hamstring any candidate, much less one with Kucinich’s yap and look. Thus Obama, Edwards, and Clinton stand center stage at each debate and get the lion’s share of the time.
But Kucinich has a plan to raise his profile: He’s writing a book, too.
“It’s gonna be a series of stories about how throughout my life I’ve come into circumstances where everyone would say, ‘It’s too late — there’s nothin’ you can do about it,’ and I decided to get involved, and changed the outcome. There’s almost like a — not almost, there is a spiritual mechanics to this. And that’s what the book’s gonna be about.”
He nods. “Doctrine of transubstantiation,” he says. “That’s spirit into matter, okay? And then matter extends to spirit.” He slaps his hands together. “This is basic physics.”
Not on the East Side. A lot of us over there weren’t big on that whole transubstantiation thing.
“But I’m talking about it as — the church has its doctrine, and the doctrine has many different possibilities within. It’s theology, but it’s also about things seen and unseen. It’s not just a matter of faith — there are things that the physicist David Bohm writes about in Wholeness and the Implicate Order. There’s a reality” — another hand-slap — “that stands within existent reality, what’s apparent. But there’s something just behind it that holds that reality together, kind of in those interstitial spaces. There’s another reality there. The way I look at it, translating it into social action, is that that other reality is waiting to be called forward, and made, and set into motion.”
Kucinich is just warming up. Next come Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, the Apostle’s Creed — in Latin — and the “nexus where spirit infuses matter and transforms it. That’s where I live,” he says, bringing together the tips of his fingers — “there at that connect-pole.”
The air in the office is already humming with the music of the spheres when Elizabeth walks in. Kucinich nearly levitates out of his chair as he moves to kiss her hello. “You look great,” he crows.
He’s right. Great oogly-moogly, is he right. Her hair’s pulled back tight from her scalp, she’s wearing a thrift-store summer dress that she just bought — a flimsy, low-cut, flowery thing whose thin straps leave her shoulders and back bared — and she has tied some kind of scarf around her slender neck. Her clavicles alone are heart stopping. And Dennis can’t stop grinning, a schoolboy lost in love.
“I was just telling him about what I learned about how to change things,” he says. “The spiritual mechanics of it.”
A staffer opens the door to let Kucinich know that ABC Radio is on the phone for an interview.
“Elizabeth,” he says, “what time should we be getting ready to leave?”
“Well, the train’s at five past two. We’ve got to go back to the apartment and close the bags up, and I’d like to eat something, too.”
She has the good British accent, light with laughter — not the plummy, stuffy one. While Kucinich takes the call from ABC, she tells me that she sat for her last college final — in a course called Conflict Resolution in World Politics — on 9/11/01.
“I came to America for a number of reasons. One, to work on monetary reform, which is something I really feel passionately about, but really with this in my heart: that I wanted somehow to help with the healing process — for America to be integrated with the rest of the world. The second week I was in America, I met Dennis. I didn’t know his politics. I walked into his office with my boss to talk about monetary reform.”
Love at first sight?
“It was soul recognition.”
Behind her, meanwhile, on the phone, Kucinich tells ABC, “Obama, for example — he says he opposed the war from the start, yet 100 percent of the time, he votes to fund it. I don’t think the American people, by the time we get to the primaries and the caucuses, are gonna be able to square that. I think they’re gonna say, ‘Wait a minute — quit sayin’ one thing and doin’ another.’ The truth is the truth — it’s not necessary to try to recut it for the convenience of the moment.”
Truth is, I’m proud of the guy. Electable or no, homeboy’s talking presidential smack and getting laid. They probably even do it tantric style — lifting Kucinich to interstitial pleasure planes no Clevelander, East or West, has visited before.
Prowling New Hampshire — next stop, Manchester, where CNN is staging a debate at St. Anselm College — the Kucinich Kampaign Karavan, heavy with Japanese pears and watermelon chunks but light on its feet, rolls one car long, with two aides up front and Dennis and Elizabeth in the back uploading press releases from a laptop to his Website. Lunch usually means between-speech takeout from a local Asian joint, Thai much preferred.
I have seen Kucinich disappear a foil takeout basin of pad thai in five minutes flat with a white plastic fork — because he is from Cleveland, the chopsticks never leave their paper sleeve — as he simultaneously works the phone on behalf of a constituent in Cleveland needing help to get a passport expedited. And I have heard him issue instructions in painstaking detail to a fresh young intern on her way to an organic market to locate exactly the right coconut sorbet for his dessert. He may be a vegan, but he eats like a Clydesdale.
“This might be the best pad thai yet,” he says between forkfuls. “That place in Iowa is pretty good, but this may be the best.”
Where in Iowa — Des Moines?
“No, I think in Cedar Rapids.”
How long have you been a vegan?
Some kind of epiphany?
“I met someone who was a vegan, so I tried it, and it worked for me. I just decided I’d do it — and just like that, it changed everything.”
Does it give you more energy?
“Energy, clarity, health — everything.”
Elizabeth sings out to the intern about to hunt down sorbet, “Be careful that it doesn’t have any milk in it.”
“If they don’t have the sorbet,” Dennis says, “you can get some vanilla Rice Dream.”
“You like the orange one,” Elizabeth reminds him.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “And see if they have any vegan cookies. That would be great.”
Says the aide, “And get a receipt.”
“This is an exciting way to spend my first day, quite honestly,” the intern says. “I worked for a campaign four years ago and never got this sort of access.”
“And if you come back with the coconut sorbet,” Kucinich tells her, “you could end up being an ambassador.”
“I think I’d have to graduate from college,” says the intern.
“You don’t in the Bush administration.”
“Don’t forget the receipt,” says the aide.
Each of the candidates has a greenroom in the basement of St. Anselm’s hockey arena, where the debate will start in a half hour or so, but not all greenrooms are created equal. As far as I can tell — not nearly far enough, thanks to the perimeters set up by the CNN underlings, campus police, and Obama’s Secret Service detachment — Christopher Dodd’s is a nice-sized meeting room, clean and well lit, and John Edwards’s boasts a spread whose vestibule alone is nearly as large as Dodd’s room.
The Kucinich greenroom is an oversized janitor’s closet, literally a utility room, no cinder-block wall of which is free from some sort of fire standpipe, exhaust vent, or fuse box. Metal conduit runs across the gray unpainted ceiling, just above two trays of fruit and cheese and raw vegetables going limp under their plastic domes. I fear that poor Mike Gravel must be at the dim far end of the hall, asquat in a men’s-room stall marked by a placard with his name on it.
Dennis Kucinich doesn’t care about his greenroom: He lives for moments like this, when the West Side Croat with the bad haircut, the runt whose family had to pack up and split when the rent came due, gets to duke it out on national television with the anointed and the electable. His eyes are bright, his best black suit is pressed, and his white shirt is as crisp as a new twenty. Even the dimple in his tie looks ready to rumble.
“Okay,” he barks. “Where’s my ball?”
“Elizabeth had it,” says an aide.
“Your what?” she asks, sitting folded into a battered dorm-room chair beneath a fire-red alarm box, wearing a black-and-white print dress, a black jacket with a pin on the lapel that reads PEACE in large sequined letters, and a pair of open-toed pumps.
“No, I didn’t,” says Elizabeth. “You gave it to Andy. Andy, have you got the ball?”
“Andy,” Kucinich says, “where’s that ball?”
“The what?” Andy Juniewicz is a crusty West Sider, variously Dennis’s friend, press secretary, and consigliere going back to the days when they were copyboys at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, forty-plus years ago. He stays mainly behind the scenes, consulting from home, but he’ll make the occasional road trip.
“The ball. Where is it?”
“Might still be in your room,” Juniewicz tells him.
“No,” says Elizabeth. “You took it.”
“No,” says Dennis. “I gave it to ya on the way out the door. I said, ‘Take it.’ ”
Juniewicz shrugs. “We could wad up some paper,” he says. “We can play rock-paper-scissors if ya want.”
So Kucinich wads up a couple of sheets ripped from a white legal pad, and everyone in the small room stands in a ragged circle.
“Okay,” he says. “So the basic focus is the war.”
Suddenly he tosses the paper ball at Elizabeth, who snags it and hurls it at Juniewicz, who holds it for a few seconds before tossing it to another aide, who flings it at Kucinich, who’s rehearsing a line he’ll try to use during the debate when the subject of Iraq comes up.
“Let’s make this a productive evening — let’s all agree that we’re gonna bring the troops home.”
Around and around goes the paper ball as Kucinich girds himself.
“Bring the troops home, peace, stop trying to steal the Iraqis’ oil, fair trade, workers’ rights, human rights, environmental principles — end global warming and global warring. Tie those together.”
“And health care,” says Elizabeth. “Peace at home.”
“And when you say Department of Peace, include nonviolence, too.”
Kucinich nods. “Absolutely. All the way down the line. Make it a productive evening, all of you commit right now. Health care, make it a productive evening, all of you commit” — and he bangs his hand into his palm as he finishes — “right now.”
He’s ready — almost. “What I would like to do is just have a few moments with Elizabeth,” he says. “I want to start to get into my zone, if I may. But wait outside so we can do our do widzenias.”
This is Polish for “good-bye, farewell, until we meet again.” But because they are from Cleveland, they must join hands and chant it, prefaced with kishka, kishka, which, on the West Side, denotes a blood sausage.
It goes, “Kishka, kishka, do widzenia.” Repeat as necessary. Loudly. If, that is, you are from Cleveland.
And echoing down the long basement corridor swathed in mausoleum gloom, it rings almost like victory. Almost.
Blitzer. Blitzer is not from Cleveland. Blitzer hails from Buffalo. I don’t like pissing on a landsman, or on Buffalo, but Wolf Blitzer is a windbag, a smug, self-important sack of shit whose Situation Room shtick is the dreariest three hours in broadcasting history. And I say this with all due respect, both to Wolf and to professional golf.
I say this also because Wolf Blitzer is hosting the debate, and because during the first hour, only Hillary Clinton gets more time to bloviate than Blitzer. After Blitzer comes Obama, then, due mainly to his astounding incoherence, Bill Richardson, followed by Edwards and the rest of the pack; Kucinich is dead last — behind even Mike Gravel — with two and one-half minutes. Blitzer himself speaks for eight and a half, total. He asks for Obama,
Clinton, and Edwards to comment a combined twenty-six times; the other five candidates get, en masse, twenty-three shots, including six chances for Richardson to shake his jowls while making wordlike sounds.
At halftime, while the stagehands set up chairs for a good old-fashioned pretend town-hall session — with real questions! from real New Hampshirites! — Juniewicz stomps off to find someone with CNN he can bitch at. While he’s gone, another Kucinich strategist in the greenroom, a tall, goateed gent named Michael Carmichael, paints me the big picture.
“He’s going to win the nomination. He’s going to sweep the boards, and he is going to have momentum going into Super Tuesday. That is our strategy. We’re not trying to lead this campaign now on the basis of any political metric that preexists.”
Which is probably a very good thing, since by all existing political metrics, Kucinich’s presidential candidacy lives at the nexus of 2 percent and No Preference. And if Mr. Carmichael does not have Karl Rove’s firm grasp of realpolitik, he has done extensive research into alchemy, shamanism, and the use of psychoactive substances.
Juniewicz is still steaming when he returns. “I just told one of their producers, ‘This is bullshit,’ ” he says on his return. “She said, ‘Well, Wolf is trying to hurry them up.’ I told her, ‘Edwards says something, he then asks Clinton to respond, then he asks Obama to respond, then he asks Edwards to respond to what Obama said, then Hillary has to respond to what Edwards said — this is bullshit.’ ”
The second half proves even worse for Kucinich. First, Wolf tosses Dennis a schoolteacher whose husband is in Iraq — “We gotta finish the mission,” she says, “and we’re all Army-strong” — and then sucker-punches him with an Osama hypothetical: You can blow bin Laden to Allah with a Hellfire missile, but innocent civilians will be killed along with him. Do you give the order to fire, Mr. President?
Because he is from Cleveland, Kucinich won’t duck and, worse, can’t say no without throwing his own punch. “I don’t think that a president of the United States who believes in peace and wants to create peace in the world is going to be using assassination as a tool,” he begins, then adds that bin Laden “oughta be held to account in an international court of law, and so should any other person” — he means Dick Cheney — “who’s been involved in a violation of international law which has resulted in the deaths of many people.” It’s a perfectly awful answer, right or wrong.
Obama says, “I don’t believe in assassinations,” but “under existing law, including international law, when you’ve got a military target like bin Laden, you take him out.”
Then Wolf asks for a show of hands. Joe Biden protests, “It would depend on how many innocent civilians,” and Hillary squeaks, “This is one of these hypotheticals, Wolf,” but everyone raises his or her trembling hand. Except Kucinich — and maybe Mike Gravel, who might just be scratching his ear.
How’d it feel to you out there?
“Huh?” says Kucinich, back in the greenroom, looking glum.
How’d it feel?
“Cold as ice the first part. I couldn’t get in.”
Is it kosher to say, “Look, Wolf, this format is a sham”?
“It’s not out of bounds,” he says, shaking his head. “But I didn’t do it. I had three chances — three cracks at the war.”
Elizabeth takes his arm. “Shouldn’t we get to the Spin Room quite quickly?” she asks.
“Okay,” Dennis tells her. “Are we ready to go?”
The Spin Room is actually a gym, and more of the same. The anointed candidates don’t bother to show up, so the mainstream media crowds around their strategists, asking about poll numbers. Kucinich stands on the riser under his sign in his suit and tie, talking issues with stray professors and bloggers who’ve managed to score media credentials.
“I don’t know why it is,” Elizabeth says when I ask her why she thinks her man is marginalized, “but it’s just a complete and utter disservice to the American people.”
I mention that lately she’s getting more press coverage than Kucinich — which is true. In the last few days, The Tampa Tribune (“Kucinich’s Words, Wife Are Turning Heads”), ABC News (“Kucinich’s Secret Weapon”), and the Sunday Times of London (“Essex Girl Fills White House Race With Lurve”) have all introduced Elizabeth and her pierced tongue to their public.
“The way I see it is I’m really pleased that they realize that I’m alive,” she says, “and I’m glad that from that, I’ve actually had a lot of media requests that have been more serious, more substantial.”
Not tongue studs?
“Not tongue studs.”
It’s still in there?
“Of course, yeah. It’s been there for nine years.”
Can I get a quick look?
“No. You’re not getting one.”
I try a different tack. Hey, this campaign stuff must tire out a young gal, no?
“The thing is that neither Dennis nor I run from ego — we really run because we have the concerns of the American people at heart. And there needs to be somebody there who is pushing on these issues — pushing about the troops, Iraq, peace, diplomacy. And with respect to the health-care plan, Dennis has had a health-care plan since year 2000, and it’s the same plan. It is endorsed by the New Hampshire Democratic Party, 14,000 physicians, 150 union locals — everybody endorses it, but would they bring him into the debate on it? No.”
Well, since you won’t show me your tongue stud, here’s my big question: Can you describe a scenario whereby Dennis gains enough traction to become more than a fringe candidate whose only role is to push the other candidates to the left?
And Elizabeth Kucinich smiles like an angel. There is nothing silly in her smile. There is no hidden anger. No stand-by-your-man bravado. It is the smile of a creature whose origins are somewhere beyond — and I don’t mean the outskirts of London, where she grew up — and who knows something no one else knows.
“Dennis will be the next president of the United States,” she says. “Period. And I can’t wait for that day. You just watch this space — really. He’ll be there.”
If Mrs. K’s analysis sounds unreal — starry-eyed and wishful unto raving — I still prefer it to the cynicism of clubby assclowns like Blitzer. But I try, while at Saint Anselm, to glean the wisdom of CNN’s correspondent Candy Crowley, whose considerable girth is matched only by her plus-sized brain. I find her a few hours before the debate, standing by the arena in a misting rain, waiting for a golf cart to come lug her up the path to the Media Center.
I ask Candy if she can foresee a scenario whereby Kucinich gains enough traction….
“Dennis serves a very useful purpose for a certain brand of Democrat,” she says. “He pushes the other candidates — ”
Uh-oh. Candy has spotted a CNN intern and rumbles over to accost her.
“I don’t want to be a bitch,” she snarls, “but I’ve been waiting here an hour and a half for a cart.”
I don’t have the heart to tell her Blitzer zipped by earlier in a rickshaw pulled by a squadron of Saint Anselm cheerleaders.
Later, I phone MSNBC’s Philly Phoghorn, Chris Matthews, for some Dennis-traction-scenario insight. Matthews knows things. He wrote speeches for Jimmy Carter. He clipped Tip O’Neill’s cigar tips. He once ran for a House seat and lost. Four years ago, he dismissed Kucinich as a twit. Now, he’s not so sure.
“He may have found his time,” says Matthews. “He has to decide if he wants to ride the trail all the way to the end. There will be a tremendous prize — a trophy for the person who’s willing to stay in the race and debate Hillary from February to the end of the route. There is an incentive to still be in the race, just to have a lottery ticket in case something happens. Whoever’s got the ticket — if Hillary has a problem, and we can all imagine that — ” I chuckle, imagining Bill wandering that lonely trail.
“You’re laughing,” Matthews says, “and I know it, too — it’s the obvious imaginable problem, which we’ve had before. But anything can happen — and whoever’s out there on the stump and still active as a candidate might be able to be the Cinderella candidate.”
Dennis Kucinich’s home has no number anywhere to indicate its address — a leftover precaution from his days as mayor, when he had the $25,000 bull’s-eye on his back — but you can’t miss it: It’s the only house on its lower-middle-class West Side street painted a strange shade of blue — cornflower? Periwinkle?
“This is the color you get when you mix red, white, and blue,” Kucinich explains. “We were painting it on 9/11. We’re painting it again.”
Elizabeth calls down from upstairs, “We’re going to paint it white.”
“I was elected to city council from this house,” Kucinich says. “Clerk of courts. Mayor. State senator, congressman. My brother and his family lived in this house. My mom lived in this house. This is kind of a family homestead here.”
It is a small house — eighteen hundred square feet, tops. If you could find a buyer for it — this street and the streets nearby have plenty of FOR SALE signs planted on the lawns — you’d ask maybe seventy grand, and be happy to settle for sixty-five.
“It’s a nice neighborhood,” Kucinich says. “The neighbor to the right’s a mechanic. Across the street’s a mechanic. The fella just sold his home — his mom went into a nursing home. The people are nice. It’s a nice feel.”
It’s a summer Sunday morning, quiet and slow. The curtains are pulled back on the living-room bay window. The couch and chair are covered with old bedspreads. Someone’s crooning “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” from a small boom box playing softly on a low table near the window. Kucinich is right: It’s nice.
He isn’t sure.
“This is a compilation tape that Willie Nelson left,” Elizabeth calls down.
Once upon a brief time, the Boy Mayor was as famous as any country singer. Tom Snyder did a whole Tomorrow show sitting in Tony’s Diner with Kucinich, back when the Tomorrow show followed Johnny Carson on NBC, and Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers, the PBS Logorrhea Duet, still had straw between their teeth. Playboy ran its Kucinich Interview in its 1979 “Playmate of the Year” issue. He was the Man.
When Cleveland spit him out — Kucinich lost his reelection bid by more than twenty thousand votes — Hollywood took him in, in the person of Shirley MacLaine. They met at Elaine’s, in New York City, a couple of weeks after the election. Kucinich walks into the place with Jerry Brown; Shirley’s at the table behind theirs, with Bella Abzug — and boom!
“There was a recognition that went beyond the connection of the news or celebrity,” Dennis says now. “We closed down the place — and when we left, we agreed we’d talk the next day. And it started a conversation that continues to this day. Shirley introduced me to a whole different range of people, some of the biggest names, not just in show business, but in the arts, in literature, all kinds of things. She just literally opened the world to me.” Hence Willie, I guess.
It would be easier to make fun of this — hell, it would be fucking irresistible — if not for a few fairly simple truths that go deeper than where Dennis Kucinich stands on health care, Iraq, and the verities of soul recognition.
Truth number one is what happened to Kucinich after he lost the mayor’s office. Nobody in Cleveland would hire him. Nobody. Ten years in city government, a master’s from Case Western Reserve, and he couldn’t find a job. At first there were offers, says Kucinich, but those offers all were rescinded — “the business establishment effectively blackballed me,” he explains — and to make his mortgage, he had to cash in on his pension. When that was gone, he borrowed money from MacLaine to save his home.
To save his home — that’s truth number two. Let me tell you something truly ugly about Cleveland, a city I will love with all my heart until I die: It eats its own. It has, over the last forty years, so deeply internalized the worst aspects of its image — as a joke, as a shithole, as a place that anyone with any means and half a hope will leave behind — that the locals scorn anyone who hasn’t fled as a loser. And for Kucinich, this contempt was multiplied by the furious humiliation of default. To this day, the only Cleveland mayor in its history whose portrait doesn’t hang in city hall is Dennis.
Still, Dennis Kucinich clung to this homestead. And in 1993, the city announced a $146 million expansion of Muny Light, and the Plain Dealer reported that he’d been right all along. Right about scotching the 1978 sale. Right about the banks and the private utility company. Right about the city’s long-term fiscal health. Kucinich was on the beach at Shirley’s place in Malibu when the PD reporter called, but he had this home to come home to, and so he did. He came home, to Cleveland.
But the deepest truth of all is also the most simple and most plain: The mark of the boy’s poverty etched into the man’s face. It isn’t any sort of metaphor. It isn’t shame and it isn’t anger and it isn’t hunger and it isn’t need. It’s all of those — and more: the fire to make things right for those who truly suffer — and it isn’t going away.
No pity — it’s a matter of respect and gratitude. Whatever helped to make that boy grow up into this man, making fun of it means only that you never knew a kid as poor as this guy was — and that you’re too bereft of soul yourself to count your own blessings.
Elizabeth comes downstairs, and while Dennis talks, she unwraps a gift from the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists — Dennis gave the keynote speech at their recent convention — a big framed poster, signed by all of them, of a cartoon by the Plain Dealer’s Jeff Darcy, showing the Kuciniches as John and Yoko, enjoying a Lincoln bed-in as a knot of cartoonists stands outside their window singing “All We Are Saying Is Give Dennis a Chance.”
Kucinich roars. “This is really great! Isn’t that great? I don’t know where we’re gonna put it. That’s a treasure. That’s hilarious.”
Elizabeth is deadpan as she stares at the wide-mouthed, lank-haired caricature of the woman holding a tambourine.
“I think they captured me well,” she sniffs. And then — be still my heart — she giggles and flicks forth the pink slip of her tongue, and there it is — the rounded silver stud. Just a giggle, just a flash, a sliver of a second, and yet it is enough.
“We’re gonna ask ya to take a ride with us,” Kucinich says.
“How much time have you got?” asks Elizabeth. “We want to go and see his sister. It’s very rare that we get a weekend at home.”
Elizabeth drives — a new Ford Focus, cherry-red. Our first stop is a few blocks away, where we pick up Dennis’s brother Perry. The bank robber.
“Perry’s a paranoid schizophrenic,” Dennis says as we park at the curb outside Perry’s apartment building. It’s not an explanation, not a warning — it’s a flat statement of fact. Which is exactly what it is: Perry couldn’t be a nicer guy or any more nuts. He squeezes into the backseat of the Focus, next to me, and starts to show me his art, colored-pencil drawings, mainly geometric shapes.
“I like the air-conditioning,” Perry says, too loud. He’s breathing like a dray horse. “It’s comfortable. It’s nice and cool.”
Kucinich turns to him from the front seat. “What do they tell you about getting your teeth fixed? What’s the latest?”
“What?” Perry shouts.
“What’s the latest on your teeth?” Kucinich shouts back.
Perry opens wide. Not good.
We’re on I-71 southbound, heading to Medina, where Kucinich’s sister Beth lives. I note that Linndale, whose border overlaps a hundred-yard stretch of the highway, still puts a speed-trap cop right at the underpass. When we pass the Brook Park engine plant, Kucinich turns again.
“Ford is talking about closing two plants here,” he says. “The casting plant, and they’re talking about closing an engine plant as well. When you think about how they’re still sellin’ cars — and people are buying cars — why aren’t we makin’ ’em here? This is where the Democratic Party is not right on trade — they sold the American people out.”
What about a third party?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m still makin’ my effort inside this party, but I can tell you that there’s such deep disappointment — because of the war, because of health care, because of trade….”
What is it Nader calls the Dems? Corporatists?
“Ralph Nader?” Perry shouts. “I think he’s a liberal, isn’t he? Dennis was famous for goin’ to Tony’s Diner, and then Ralph Nader caught on that he was goin’ there. And then after Ralph Nader went there, they closed it.”
“Their hamburgers were good.”
“Perry,” says Dennis. “I have to defend Ralph Nader.”
“I can’t hear. What?”
“I have to defend Ralph Nader — he had nothing to do with Tony’s Diner closing.”
“Wait — I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
Kucinich turns fully around in his seat with a wolf’s grin on his face. In the rearview mirror I can see that Elizabeth is holding in her laughter.
“Ralph Nader did not close Tony’s Diner.”
“No,” says Perry in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice. “He went there once. I remember.”
“He didn’t close it, though. There’s no connection.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh. Oh, well. Must’ve been a misconception.”
“Yes,” Dennis says.
We pick up Beth at the foster home where she lives — she’s not as gone as Perry, but she ain’t right — and eat lunch at a Hunan place in Medina’s town square. Braised tofu, avocado rolls, Singapore noodles — everything’s delicious. Elizabeth allows herself a rare glass of plum wine, Kucinich has his usual hot tea, and Beth and Perry drink sodas.
As we sit digesting, I ask Kucinich the same question I asked Elizabeth at St. Anselm: Can you describe a scenario where you gain enough traction to become more than a fringe candidate?
“Sure,” Kucinich says, and he grabs a paper place mat and the pen from his shirt pocket. He turns the place mat over and writes “HC” and “40” next to the initials. Below that, “BO” and “30,” and below that, “JE” and “15.” He squares off “HC” and “BO” and their shares of the polling pie — they’re out of reach for now — and circles “JE” and his “15.” Then he draws a thick arrow piercing that circle.
“If I can get there,” he says, going over and over the arrow’s point until it touches the “1” in John Edwards’s 15 percent.
“If I can get there,” he says again.
That would take a miracle, Dennis.
He shakes his head.
“More and more, people are paying attention — they’re saying that I’m coming across very clear and direct and steady. I don’t need for somebody to re-create me. I don’t need to be prettified. I don’t need image-makers working with me. That’s not where I come from.”
“Dennis,” Perry says. “You have to come up with campaign slogans.”
“We’re workin’ on some of ’em,” says Dennis.
I offer mine: “Get A Receipt.”
Kucinich laughs. “Very funny,” he says.
“Today’s Ma’s birthday, Dennis,” says Perry.
“I know it is.”
“She woulda been seventy-eight.”
“Actually, Perry, eighty-three. She was born in ’24. Perry? She’da been eighty-three today.”
“Well,” says Elizabeth. “That’s special.”
It could be any family anywhere, but it’s not. It’s Dennis Kucinich’s family — and it’s America, where even a poor pure product of the West Side of Cleveland can grow up to be president someday, if only he believes it hard enough.
Find this article at: http://www.esquire.com/features/kucinich1107
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Dennis Kucinich Can Win by Lo (lots of polls, surveys, etc.)