[Published in The Stranger, October 10, 2007, and adapted from The Contenders, Seven Stories Press 2007. Illustration by Justin DeGarmo.]
The Long Campaign of Dennis Kucinich
Is America ready for its first vegan president?
Maybe its first woman president. Perhaps a black president. Possibly even a Latino president. And, as Chris Rock pointed out, we've got a retarded president right now. But a guy who faults a cheeseburger on two counts, the meat and the cheese? A vegan president? No fucking way. Don't be retarded.
And most certainly not this particular vegan, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich. This is a candidate who announces, on national television, that he would refuse to shoot a Hellfire missile at Osama bin Laden if given the opportunity; a guy who prattles on about the interconnectedness of humanity and his plans for creating a cabinet-level Department of Peace; a man who brags about the wonderfully low blood pressure his animal-cruelty-free diet has brought him (memo to the Kucinich campaign: Americans like their leaders carnivorous and on the verge of cardiac arrest, thank you very much—see, for example, our last two presidents: Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney).
Sure, it might be unfair, a cosmic and karmic injustice even, that Kucinich, who was more right about the Iraq war than most Democrats (and, for the record, more right than one of the meat-eating authors of this vegan-bashing profile), now has less chance of being president than U.S. troops have of stumbling across those alleged Iraqi WMDs.
But that's the way we roll here in America.
This is a country in which 41 percent of people still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. This is a country in which some people still believe that there is some sort of dignified way out of Iraq—"home with honor" is how the pollsters and strategists describe the widespread sentiment—and, delusional or not, these Americans don't see much "honor" in our troops marching out of the Middle East on the orders of a five-foot-seven, turn-the-other-cheek waif who flashes peace signs without irony and wouldn't eat a steak with the boys once they're back home.
None of this stops Kucinich, however. Long odds never have. He soldiers on (sorry, too militaristic?), making his second consecutive run at the White House, and no more likely to win this time around than in 2004—although, as he points out at every opportunity, times have changed considerably since his last go at the presidency, when he received just 1 percent of the delegate votes at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
"The American people are ready for peace and they know I was right," Kucinich said during an interview in New Hampshire in early June, after a CNN debate that gave him relatively little airtime and saw him positioned, on the stage, at the furthest left fringe of the seven other Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Because he's a peace candidate who nevertheless loves a political fight, Kucinich followed up his comments with a jab at the other Democratic contenders who supported the war. "Others," he said, in reference to Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, "were wrong."
Yeah, Hillary and John were wrong, Dennis, just like most of the American people—you know, the American people, those flag-waving meat eaters you're trying to talk into voting for you. We're guessing they don't like being reminded that they were wrong any more than your opponents do.
Kucinich, 61, has long been an "everyone else is wrong" type of guy, the type of politician who strikes a certain type of liberal as totally righteous for his unwillingness to compromise. But he strikes a lot of other liberals—a clear majority, as evidenced by his vote totals in liberal-dominated Democratic primaries—as obnoxious and inflexible to an agenda-hobbling degree. It's hard to find anyone, however, who doesn't see him as exceptionally driven.
Kucinich was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1946, to a working-class family that saw some hard times; on occasion, his family was forced to sleep in cars. He made his first attempt at public office at the age of 20, filing a petition to run for a spot on the Cleveland City Council despite the fact that he couldn't legally vote yet. The year was 1967, and at the time he was still a sophomore at Cleveland State University, working toward a degree in communications. Kucinich didn't succeed in that first run for office, but just over two years later he did, joining the city council at the age of 23. If that span of three years shows the mark of an ambitious and unrelenting personality, it was only the beginning: Three years later, Kucinich ran for Congress as a Democrat. He lost, but within two years the man who had defeated him, Republican William E. Minshall, Jr., retired. Kucinich then ran again for the seat. When he didn't get the Democratic nomination for his second attempt at Minshall's seat, Kucinich ran as an independent.
He lost. Again. A few years passed, and then, readjusting his sights, Kucinich ran for mayor of Cleveland. In that race, being the stubbornly populist son of a Cleveland truck driver played to his advantage. Kucinich won, becoming, at age 31, the youngest big-city mayor in American history up to that time, and earning himself national attention as the "Boy Mayor of Cleveland." He proceeded to make more history, not all of it the kind an ambitious young politician would hope for. Most famously, in order to keep electricity rates low in his city, Kucinich refused to sell off Cleveland's municipal power company, Muni Light, to a larger power company that was using all of its political and economic leverage to try to force a sale. Although Kucinich succeeded in his crusade against the larger power company, his victory came at a very high price. To hang on to Muni Light, Cleveland was forced to default on some of its bonds.
Because of this, under Kucinich's tenure as mayor, Cleveland became the first American city to go into financial default since the Great Depression. (And this on top of some other notorious Kucinich accomplishments: his banning of nuns from City Hall and his sacking of a well-regarded police chief via press conference on Good Friday—both of which probably contributed to his having to wear a bulletproof vest to throw out the first pitch at an Indians game in 1978.) It will not surprise, then, that it was during this time that Kucinich became tagged with his "Dennis the Menace" label—a moniker that, consciously or not, Kucinich has succeeded in keeping in circulation for nearly 30 years.
Kucinich himself has described his rocky mayoralty in Cleveland as "absolute chaos," and others have tended to agree. Due in large part to his temperament while in office, he placed seventh on an authoritative list of the 10 worst big-city mayors since 1820. While mayor, Kucinich did manage to survive a recall attempt (by 200 votes), but when reelection time came around in 1979, he was solidly defeated. He slunk off to promote a French book written about his tenure, L'Enfant Terrible de Cleveland, and told people he was working on a novelized memoir about his experience.
Then came his 15 years of wandering in the political wilderness—his time as a college lecturer; his stint as a TV reporter; his flight to Los Angeles; his trouble paying his mortgage; his friendship with the actress Shirley MacLaine and with her "spiritual facilitator," Chris Griscom, whose Light Institute, located near Santa Fe, New Mexico, listed Kucinich as a client in the 1990s, according to a Washingtonian profile from the time. That Washingtonian profile quoted the institute's marketing director as saying the Light Institute helps people "expand their consciousness" and "get in touch with their inner child," along with helping them expand the "multidimensional and multi- incarnational" aspects of their identities.
In the Washingtonian profile, Kucinich laughed off a question about whether he had come to believe in past lives, answering the query with a joke about the many public reincarnations of some politicians. What exactly Kucinich believes about reincarnation has been a source of speculation ever since his Light Institute days, but in the end, it probably doesn't matter much (except to late-night comics) whether, during his sojourn away from the campaign trail, Kucinich was a student of actual man-dies-and-comes-back-to-life-as-an-insect reincarnation, or just a student of the more run-of-the-mill into-the-wilderness-and-back political reincarnation. Something clearly worked.
In 1994, with big fundraising help from MacLaine, Kucinich began his second political life, winning a seat in the Ohio State Senate. His stock was on the rise as the passage of time vindicated him: It turned out that Kucinich's financial brinksmanship in the Muni Light affair had saved Cleveland citizens millions of dollars. In his run for state senate, his campaign posters featured a light bulb and the phrase, "Because he was right." When he ran for Congress, in 1996, his posters said, "Light up Congress." And in 1998, in a final bit of political absolution, Kucinich was honored by the Cleveland City Council for "having the courage and foresight" to hang on to Muni Light despite paying the ultimate political price at the time.
When Kucinich talks today as if he is convinced that he will be proven right eventually on every issue, and campaigns in New Hampshire and other battleground states as if "Because he was right: Iraq edition" will be a winning slogan at the presidential level, this experience can't be far from his mind.
Whether he's just reliving glory days or is actually on to something, there's no doubt that Kucinich's win in 1996 was a bona fide moment of glory: His victory in that congressional race was a high point in his march back into public life, and also something of an upset for Democrats at the national level. The seat representing Ohio's 10th District, which includes Cleveland, had been held by a Republican for two terms until Kucinich took it back.
He's now held it through five elections. That doesn't mean, however, that he's become more flexible or politically pragmatic in order to make it through six terms in the House.
"Kucinich has lots of energy, he's got a ton of ideas, and he's a little impatient with his colleagues," said Congressman Jim McDermott, who represents Seattle in the House and, like Kucinich, is considered one of the body's most liberal members. The Kucinich brand of impatience, McDermott says, is that of someone who knows he's right and has never learned to tolerate the slow pace of political change.
"He's a guy to take a risk," McDermott told us. "I take some risks myself, so I have respect for people who don't sit and wait for the pack to tell them to do something. But I think his timeline is a little short for this process. I don't disagree with an awful lot of what he's up to, but I think there are ways you might be more successful in getting it done, that's all. The suffering of fools is a talent, and not everybody suffers fools gladly. He believes they ought to move more quickly because this is only going to get worse."
McDermott's ambivalence sums up how a lot of people feel about Kucinich. Right on many issues, but his rhetoric, his personal life, and his way of getting from here to there turns people off. In polls, that's translating into disappointing finishes; a September poll in New Hampshire found Kucinich getting just 3 percent of the Democratic primary vote. And in terms of press coverage, it's keeping Kucinich in permanent afterthought status. In the spin room immediately after the New Hampshire debate, the Kucinich station, like that of fellow "fringe candidate" Mike Gravel, was completely ignored as reporters and cameramen swarmed around spokespeople for the front-runners: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. It took the personal intervention of both Kucinich and his bombshell 29-year-old wife (his third marriage) to draw a crowd, and even then it seemed that most of the attention was due to the irresistibly funny photo-op the couple offers.
Elizabeth Kucinich, the tongue-stud-wearing daughter of a lefty British family, stands six feet tall without heels and looks like a model. In the political realm, where the perception of the superficial can be everything, the sight of such a woman with her arm around the nerdy Kucinich (who is more than twice her age) tends to invite a lot of thoughts about the candidate himself, some of them flattering, but many of them unhelpful to Kucinich's presidential ambitions—thoughts about the insecurities of short men, for example, or the historical tendency of American voters to prefer the tallest guy in the presidential candidate lineup. But the sight of the couple also invites a lot of double takes, the way seeing Grace Jones with her arm around Al Gore would, and this is something the Kucinich campaign clearly knows. (At a later debate in South Carolina, when Senator Joseph Biden was asked to tell the audience what he likes best about Kucinich, he looked at Kucinich and replied, with a smirk, "Your wife.") It's also something the Kucinich campaign has learned to use to its advantage.
At the New Hampshire debate, when Elizabeth entered the spin room with Kucinich, the problem of his station being ignored was immediately solved. Elizabeth was sporting a jeweled "PEACE" brooch pinned onto her fitted black jacket, showing off perfectly manicured toes that could be seen through the straps of her sleek, black high heels and, in a nod to her potential first-lady status, wearing a string of pearls. She said nothing, and didn't have to, as the cameras snapped away and the reporters pressed closer. When Kucinich defended his eyebrow-raising debate statement that he wouldn't give the order to "take out" Osama bin Laden with a Hellfire missile ("A peaceful approach is that you don't use assassination," Kucinich told a reporter), Elizabeth nodded, wrapped one of her long arms around his waist, and squeezed him tighter to her side. When he posed for pictures with her, he couldn't wipe the huge, shit-eating grin off his face.
Their love story is quintessential Kucinich. He met her when she came to his office on Capitol Hill two years ago to discuss monetary policy as part of her then-new job with the American Monetary Institute—a job she'd taken after a stint at the House of Lords in London, some time working in one of Mother Teresa's homes for poor children in India, and studies in religion and international conflict resolution. At the time of their meeting, Elizabeth's last name was Harper, and the signature line on her e-mails included a quotation from the film Kama Sutra: "Knowing love, I shall allow all things to come and go, to be as supple as the wind and take everything that comes with great courage. My heart is as open as the sky."
Kucinich, who had been single for 20 years, and who, in 2003, had told a political forum in New Hampshire that his perfect soul mate would be "fearless in her desire for peace in the world and for universal, single-payer health care," found himself awestruck. After the meeting, he phoned a friend and exclaimed that he'd met his future wife. Elizabeth also had a love-at-first-sight moment. She later told an interviewer for the Tampa Tribune that upon meeting Kucinich, "I felt such hope for America. It made my heart sing."
Shortly after their heart-stopping monetary-policy encounter, Elizabeth sent Kucinich a business e-mail (including her Kama Sutra signature line), and the two began an exchange that led them to discover they would both be in New Mexico at the same time in the near future. They had dinner, spent a night together at Shirley MacLaine's New Mexico home, and a few days later decided to get married.
On the campaign trail, Elizabeth has been asked frequently about the height and age differences between herself and her husband, but she prefers to discuss their perfect spiritual union. As she told the London Sunday Times in May: "Can you imagine what it would be like to have real love in the White House and a true union between the masculine and the feminine?"
Uh... sure, but only if we don't have to imagine the physical contortions involved in that height differential—or the White House porters having to lift Kucinich up for a goodnight kiss.
Still, they do seem like a perfect match. In terms of loopy statements related to Kucinich, hers about their "true union between the masculine and the feminine" now rivals Kucinich's own famous statement about the universe's "starlit magic" at an international peace conference in Croatia in 2002.
"Spirit merges with matter to sanctify the universe," he explained to the conference crowd. "Matter transcends to return to spirit. The interchangeability of matter and spirit means the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe becomes the soul-light magic of the innermost life of our self."
Right. Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Kucinich. But we're not convinced that your soul-light magic is going to move voters in Iowa—and neither are those who follow every last detail of these races, even down to the appeal of the candidates' wives.
Not long ago, the New York Times Sunday Styles section devoted an entire article to the question of whether Republican Fred Thompson's beautiful, much younger wife would be viewed as a "trophy wife," and therefore become a political liability if he entered the presidential race. That this question would even be explored in the Times was a testament to the perception that Thompson was an otherwise formidable candidate. In 2004, back when John Kerry was still seen as a somewhat formidable presidential candidate, his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, merited the same type of attention for her unfiltered comments and potentially off-putting sophistication. But Elizabeth Kucinich isn't getting this kind of treatment. Hardly anyone is ruminating on whether she's viable as a general- election campaign spouse, because hardly anyone seriously believes that she and her husband will make it to the general election.
Instead, Elizabeth Kucinich is treated mainly as someone who catches the eye of people like Biden, and who doubles the comedic fodder that her husband's campaign appearances normally provide—as a joke amplifier, in other words, rather than a message amplifier.
But hey, maybe in 15 years' time, the Kuciniches will be proven correct. Maybe we'll all wake up one day and realize that matter does, in fact, transcend into spirit, and think to ourselves: You know, a true union between the masculine and the feminine is just what the White House needs.
In reality, we are far likelier to be saying that about the third and fourth terms of Bill and Hillary than about the first term of Dennis and Elizabeth. But still, you never know. Dennis Kucinich could be right again. As he constantly reminds us: It's happened before.
There is one issue that Dennis Kucinich definitely hasn't been right on, at least as far as Democratic primary voters are concerned: abortion.
He was raised Catholic, and apparently in his adulthood, even as his mind opened to New-Age notions and supposedly higher planes of awareness, he remained convinced that a woman's right to choose needed to be severely restricted. In Congress, Kucinich was well aware that this stance didn't play well with his liberal base. He didn't seem to care, but he had enough political sense to try to keep his views quiet.
In 2002, the Nation noted that one thing Kucinich wasn't mentioning on his website was his record on reproductive rights. Without much notice, he'd become a darling of the National Right to Life Committee, earning a zero percent favorable rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, and amassing a "Henry Hyde–like" anti-choice voting record. You wouldn't have known it back then from his online presence; even now, Kucinich buries reproductive rights at the bottom of the issues page on his campaign website and glosses over his past anti-choice positions this way: "Most Americans, including myself, are uncomfortable with abortions and feel there are too many of them."
But the record is clear: As a congressman, Kucinich has voted to prevent anyone but a parent from taking a teenage girl across state lines for an abortion. He has voted in favor of banning late-term abortions completely, with no exception for the health of the mother. He also voted to make it a crime, punishable by up to two years in prison, for doctors to perform late-term abortions. He opposed giving federal workers coverage for contraceptives in their health-care plans. He supported President Bush's efforts to restrict the use of U.S. family planning funds overseas. He opposed funding for stem-cell research. In 1996, he told Planned Parenthood that he did not support the substance of Roe v. Wade.
Kucinich claims to be pro-choice now, but as Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the liberal blog DailyKos, noted with disgust on his website earlier this year: "His transformation to being pro-choice happened literally overnight—a week after he announced his 2004 presidential bid. One moment he was virulently anti-choice, the next he was a staunch defender."
Kucinich says that he "evolved." But that supposed evolution involves a flip-flop on abortion even bigger than Mitt Romney's, and strikes many as insincere and politically expedient. Moulitsas, for example, might seem a natural ally of Kucinich since both opposed the Iraq war, but Moulitsas can't stomach Kucinich's stances on abortion. He's written that he now responds to Kucinich's name with one word: "Ugh."
When people tell Kucinich to his face that his chances of winning this season's Democratic nomination (much less the presidency) are slim to none, he always refuses to go along with their skepticism. In April, on Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher began his interview with Kucinich by saying: "No one considers that you're really going to win this nomination."
To which Kucinich replied: "Oh, I think I am."
Maher stammered, dumbfounded—and after a long beat of silence, there was a smattering of applause from the audience. But the effect was to make Kucinich look crazy. He doesn't really believe he's going to win, does he?
It's a trap that Kucinich is caught in as a fringe candidate running in his second long-shot race. If he concedes that he's not going to win (again), he has to explain why he's there (again). Vanity? Publicity? To make a symbolic point? Because he likes the great hotel rooms he and Elizabeth get to stay in on the campaign trail? (Well, probably not that last one, given that Kucinich had only raised about $1.1 million as of July, about 57 times less than fundraising front-runner Hillary Clinton had; in New Hampshire, they shared a room at a cheap Super 8 motel near the airport.)
On the flip side, if Kucinich pretends he's actually got a serious chance of winning, he looks, well, out of touch with reality, as he did on Bill Maher—and someone who's out of touch with reality is not what Americans, Democrats or Republicans, are looking for after eight years of George W. Bush.
On his show, Maher threw Kucinich a lifeline after telling him he had no chance. "This is what I'm getting at: If you go through your platform, it's like, universal health care, ending the drug war, getting serious about the environment, pulling out of Iraq right away—I don't know why you're the crazy one, is what I'm saying. It doesn't seem radical to me."
Why then, Maher wondered, wasn't Kucinich polling higher?
"It's only a matter of time," Kucinich replied.
It may be a matter of a very, very long time. It took Ohio 15 years to come around and realize Kucinich was right about Muni Light. It's going to take Democrats more than two election cycles to see a vegan peace candidate as electable to the presidency—if they ever do. Democratic primary voters want a winner, especially after the last two elections.
So it doesn't matter that Kucinich is in the right place on a lot of progressive issues—even, belatedly, on abortion—or that he has a lot of fans of his strident opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in his new book, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, seems to validate Kucinich's particular brand of antiwar rhetoric, writing: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil." (The week the book was published, Kucinich crowed, via press release: "I've been saying that for five years... Now, the former Fed chairman corroborates that I've been right all along.") It also doesn't matter that Kucinich has been making a lot of noise lately about impeaching Cheney, even drawing Congressman McDermott in as a cosponsor of the articles of impeachment he filed against the vice president in the House earlier this year. And, in the end, it doesn't matter that Kucinich was right about invading Iraq when other Democrats and a certain sex-advice columnist were wrong—even though, as detractors have pointed out, Kucinich did vote in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power in 1998, back before he became the unflinching "peace candidate" that he is now.
What matters is that Kucinich simply can't win, and has done nothing—in terms of fundraising, poll showings, crowd drawing, or inspiring rhetoric—to demonstrate that he can.
Still, even if it's not his first aim, he does serve one purpose in the primary race. In a party that has long chafed at the rightward tilt of its most marketable candidates, Kucinich, like Ralph Nader, helps to draw the other Democrats' rhetoric and campaign-trail promises back toward the left. Even better, unlike Nader, Kucinich disappears after the primary is over; as a successful Democratic congressman, Kucinich can't very well drop his party affiliation and run as an independent in the general election, siphoning votes away from the chosen Democratic candidate. In 2004, when he lost the race for the nomination, he quietly went back to being a congressman, and he's likely to do the same this time around.
"There are a lot of politicians who try to get to the top by compromising all the time," says Congressman McDermott, who will not be supporting Kucinich. "Dennis is going to make that real tough for the others, because they're going to be on the stage with a guy who's saying, 'Hey, what about this?' 'What about that?' 'What are you talking about?' And to the extent that he does that, he has contributed to the body politic something that needs to be there."
But the reality of politics, McDermott said, is that electoral success means compromise, and being right in the past on something like a failed war that a majority of Americans initially backed doesn't necessarily make a good platform.
To illustrate this, McDermott told of taking his staff recently to see one of his favorite statues in the U.S. Capitol. It's a likeness of Ernest Gruening, a Democratic senator from Alaska in the 1960s. McDermott's young staffers had no idea who Gruening was. Gruening, McDermott pointedly explained, was one of two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam war. Now he's a nobody.
Kucinich likes to remind everyone who will listen that he was right to vote against the Iraq war, that he is somebody because of that, that he should even be elected president because of that.
McDermott, who also voted against the Iraq war, sees it differently. "The guys who had the perspicacity to see it can't be upset by the fact that nobody gives them credit for it," he said.
Kucinich can and will be upset by this lack of credit. He seems ready to run a whole primary campaign around his need for recognition for being right on Iraq. He's run this kind of campaign in the past, to great success. But feelings about the Iraq war are not as settled in this country as feelings about the Muni Light affair are in Cleveland. A slogan like "Because he was right" might not even be enough for a political rock star like Obama this season; given that, there's not much reason to think it will put Kucinich over the top.
Maybe some day Kucinich will get the credit he feels he deserves for being among the few who were right about the Iraq war all along. Maybe someone will build a statue of him somewhere. Perhaps it will even be intended as a monument to his rightness about a disastrous war. Perhaps, then, young people will be taken occasionally to view this statue, and perhaps some wise older person will occasionally tell young people who Kucinich was and, for a brief moment, before they forget that they ever heard his name, these future voters will give Kucinich what he so desperately craves: vindication.
But odds are better that Kucinich, like Gruening, will be a nobody one day, too—and probably a lot sooner than he thinks.
This piece is adapted from a profile of Dennis Kucinich, written by Eli Sanders and Dan Savage, that will be published in November in The Contenders, a book of profiles of the Democratic presidential candidates. The book was put together by Seven Stories Press, www.sevenstories.com.