American Dreams, Lost and Found
When I finished reading John Nichols's exhilarating communiqué from California ("Kucinich Rocks the Boat," March 25), the bells began to ring. In his speech to the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, criticizing Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism, Dennis Kucinich set the crowd on its ear--one standing ovation after another. Sure, they were all liberals, but what counted was the response on the Internet. The Cleveland Congressman's e-mail box was stuffed to overflowing with 20,000-plus enthusiastic letters. Among them was the call: Kucinich for President. That's when--bingo!--I remembered my first encounter with him. It was twenty-four years ago.
At the arrival gate of the Chicago-to-Cleveland flight, a skinny kid who appeared no more than 19 or 20 reached out for my torn duffel bag. I thought he was one of those Horatio Alger heroes, whose opening line is usually "Smash your baggage, mister?" This one said, "Did you have a good flight, Studs?" I'll be damned, he was the person I had come to visit, Dennis Kucinich, the Boy Mayor of Cleveland.
He was 32 then, though he could pass as anybody's office boy. As he carried my bag through the corridors of the airport, passers-by called out, "Hello, Mr. Mayor." I was slightly discombobulated, turning around several times to make sure whom they were addressing. The following are passages from our conversation in 1978.
At his one-family bungalow, his wife makes coffee. A player piano is about the only piece of furniture that might distinguish the house from any other simply furnished home in this working-class neighborhood. "Some of my neighbors are within ten years of retirement." A photograph of Thomas Jefferson, in the shadows, hangs on the wall.
When I was young, I never dreamed of living in a house like this. We were always renters. A number of times we moved; it was because we were kicked out. It wasn't for failure to pay rent. It was because our family was big. I remember sometimes, in order to get a place, one of the kids had to be hid in the closet. We always lived above some railroad tracks.
I'm the oldest of seven. There were a lot of tough times. My father came from a family of thirteen children, my mother from a family of a dozen. Our story is an ethnic Gone With the Wind. (Laughs)
I spent all my time as a youngster coming to understand the experience of the ghetto. It was growing up tough and growing up absurd. I spent a lot of time out on the streets. That's where I got my education. I made friends with all kinds of people, black and white.
My dad's been a truck driver ever since he got out of the service as a Marine. He's gung-ho. His dream was to have all his boys in the Marines. My brother Frank served four years, two and a half in Vietnam. My brother Gary served five years, most of it in Hawaii. My father never questioned authority. His authority was the guy who ran the trucking company.
I've always been taught to respect authority, although I was more independent than the other kids my age. I was constantly getting into squabbles with teachers. I was the first person in my family, on both sides, who ever graduated from college. I love literature. My mother taught me to read when I was 3.
In the late sixties, I didn't go right from high school to college. I worked for two and a half years. When I was 17, I moved on my own and rented an apartment above the steel mills. In the same neighborhood where The Deer Hunter was filmed. The frame house I lived in overlooked the steel mills.