Two images from the campaign trail define, for me, the Dennis Kucinich phenomenon.
The first came from a mid-September Senator John Edwards Town Hall meeting in Concord, New Hampshire. The parallel movements of the Southern Senator are a powerful leitmotif in the Kucinich campaign. In the epic novel of this election, whose tragic theme is the unavoidable humiliation of the sane in a kingdom of idiots, Edwards appears as Kucinich’s foil, his Dostoyevskian opposite. For every step Kucinich takes, Edwards is seemingly there to remind him that a man cannot succeed in a world designed for children.
The Southern Senator is a kind of anti-Kucinich: tall, handsome, bubbly, seemingly not sure why he is running for President. The ideas that drive his candidacy seem like items from a sales-drive PowerPoint presentation, or frat dares; the Concord town hall deal is a good example. Edwards has pledged to hold more town halls in New Hampshire than any other candidate, 100 to be exact. (I asked an Edwards staffer if the candidate was planning on eating 100 goldfish at each of his 100 town hall meetings. He had to think about it, then said no.)
The sheer enthusiasm and youthful energy implied by the 100-meeting stunt is quite openly designed to be a central part of the Senator’s appeal. He is the Young candidate, the Hustle candidate; you’re voting for his tan and his tie flapping in the wind.
In Concord, the Edwards ground staff worked out another stunt designed to bring people into the lunchtime meeting in front of the State House: They gave away free hot dogs. The booth where the hot dogs were being given away had a sign next to it that read as follows:
Free Puppy Love Hot Dogs!
I went to the front of the line and got my hot dog. At the booth I asked the volunteers if maybe the choice of the word “puppy” wasn’t a little unfortunate.
“Why?” a twentysomething woman with a Southern accent asked.
“Well,” I said, “when I’m eating meat, I’m not sure I want to be thinking about puppies.”
She frowned and stared at me like I was crazy. “But people like puppies,” she said, seeming hurt.
Fast-forward three days. Dennis Kucinich is giving a speech in a classroom at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. It is a wide-ranging talk that is remarkable on a number of fronts. John Edwards may be the “Youth” candidate, but it is the congressman from Ohio who is at home in front of college students. It is the other candidates who too often treat even grown-ups like babies, feeding them condescending platitudes and implying at every turn that we voters are simply not mature enough to handle anything beyond a flag, a photo op and a few vacuous paeans to “jobs” and “unity” and “leadership.”
But here is Kucinich in a crowd full of 19-year-olds, explaining the intricacies of our militarized system of government and inviting his audience to join in a movement whose roots date back to Thoreau and Emerson and Gandhi. He outlines a revolutionary plan, centered in his creation of a Department of Peace, that would “make nonviolence an organizing principle of society.” He quotes from Jung, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Thomas Berry, Morris Berman. Dennis Kucinich is the only presidential candidate whose speeches need to be annotated.