Who's Afraid of Dennis Kucinich?
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.
After the speech, I went through the crowd and spoke with some of the students. The majority had signed up to volunteer immediately. But a few held back. One, 27-year-old Dave Wilmes, said that he liked Kucinich but wasn't sure he could support him.
"He's everything that I personally would want in a President," Wilmes said. "But I don't think he can do it. It's going to have to be someone like Kerry or Edwards."
"Why?" I asked.
He shrugged. "It's probably going to have to be someone who's tall," he said. "I mean, Kucinich is great, but this just isn't serious."
Welcome to the Dennis Kucinich paradox. The congressman is not serious precisely because he is serious. Because he wants his victory to mean something, he is said to not really want to win. Pundits and journalists talk a lot about Kucinich's height and his decidedly non-Hollywood looks as the main reasons he cannot be considered a contender, but on the campaign trail, it sure looks like Kucinich's chief "problem" is that when he talks, he means it.
It does not take much exposure to Dennis Kucinich to realize just how serious he really is. He says things that could never even occur to a phony. This was most forcefully demonstrated to me right at the start of an hourlong interview in a minivan on the road back to Bangor, Maine, after the candidate's appearance at an organic farmers' fair in rural Unity.
We had been talking about corporate crime, and at first Kucinich said some things that sounded very much like Howard Dean--that he was going to make prosecuting irresponsible CEOs more of a priority, etc. But then, as he sat there loudly munching Udon noodles (bought at the fair: Kucinich is a devout vegan), he suddenly stared off into the distance and added something else.
"I think rehabilitation should be part of it," he said. "We ought to rehabilitate the guy who steals his company's pension."
I looked up, surprised. "You mean like drug court?" I said. "Rehab programs after sentence? Re-education?"
He nodded. "Why not? You have to go to rehab for traffic court. Treatment for these people should be made available, if circumstances dictate that they need it." He smiled. "After, of course, an appropriate term of service to society."
I laughed. Well, that makes sense, I thought. Why does a serial speeder have to seek treatment, while the person who liquidates thousands of jobs and imperils whole economies does not? Why is a drug problem considered treatable, while a greed problem isn't? The question gets right to the heart of the fundamental prejudices of our society: You have a problem if you use drugs to dull your misery, but you don't have a problem if you're just trying to get rich by any means, legal or otherwise.
The politics of Dennis Kucinich are easy to see but hard to describe, which is why conventional journalism, comfortable only with crass idiocies, has settled on calling him a leftist and burying him in the thirteenth paragraph. But to me the best way to describe Kucinich is to say that he seems to be the only candidate who responds as an intellectually ambitious human being would to the problem of the presidency.
When you think about it--and few people do--no great thinker or leader, no Thoreau or Bertrand Russell or Martin Luther King Jr., would look at the vastly complex problem of the human condition and see as the most urgent solutions incremental numerical adjustments of the type espoused by most candidates. It is hard to imagine a Gandhi feeling passionate about a 30 percent tax credit for investment in renewable energy (Gephardt), or $66 billion for Iraq instead of $87 billion (Edwards), or a Community Oriented Policing Program ("COPS," a Kerry creature) that puts a few more cops on the streets. No, the great leader would see vast sicknesses to tend to, gross misapplications of human effort, problems rooted not in numbers but in society's emotional priorities. And his solutions upon taking a great office would be of commensurate greatness: the elimination of war, the conquest of greed, the restoration of community.
I'm not saying Kucinich is a great man. But he does think in these terms. He is clearly an intellectual who is measuring himself against history, not the other candidates. And it is this disdain for the other kind of ambition that has led observers to describe him as unserious.
The Kucinich platform is simple and unequivocal. Cancel NAFTA and the WTO. An immediate pullout from Iraq. Universal single-payer healthcare, a public program, everyone covered. His campaign literature is the size of a playing card. (The John Edwards "Real Solutions for America" pamphlet, in contrast, is sixty-four feverish pages of gibberish.) The message is a fairly recurrent theme of the campaign: The question isn't what fancy-sounding programs to devise; the question is whether you're going to take the first broad, obvious steps in the much larger fight. And the implication of the campaign, clearly understood by all Kucinich supporters, is that their man is the only one who is even engaged in the actual battle.
Therefore, you see a marked difference in the dynamic of the Kucinich campaign, as opposed to those of the other candidates. Many reporters in New Hampshire refer to the "summer camp" phenomenon on the campaign trail. "I first noticed it in 2000," said Laura Colbert of New Hampshire Public Radio. "In every campaign office, you have one older guy, and he's the counselor, followed by two dozen kids. Four years later, one of the kids is the counselor, telling stories by the campfire."
I spent some time in Manchester with some of those kids, many of whom have thought up cutesy tribal names for themselves ("Liebermaniacs" and "Deanie Babies," for example). Most were mealy college types in identically crisp white T-shirts who appeared ready to march with their candidate all the way to, perhaps, a wet T-shirt contest in Hilton Head. But it is not all that unusual to find someone who seems willing to go to his death, or the political equivalent of it, for Dennis Kucinich. These people are older and tend to have a permanent interest in politics; this is not summer camp for them.
"There's an old saying in martial arts, which is that if you fight to save your life, you die," said David Bright, the candidate's volunteer media coordinator in Maine. "You have to fight regardless of consequence."
"I'd do anything for Dennis," said Amy Hochadel, the candidate's national field coordinator, who has worked with Kucinich for years. Her eyes light up when she talks about Kucinich's efforts to save a hospital in Cleveland; he had threatened to seize it using eminent domain rather than let the insurance companies shut it down. She laughed. "I thought it was wonderful," she said. "But I remember saying to Dennis, This is great, but if we're not careful, we're going to end up owning a hospital." They see the Kucinich campaign as a referendum on the role of principle in our electoral politics.
The candidate talks gloomily about what will happen if--as appears likely, given the current polls--the vote should go the wrong way. "Unless we're motivated by principle in our voting, we walk into a mirrored echo chamber, where there's no coherence," Kucinich says. He sighs and repeats, "Where there's no coherence."
No coherence is exactly the term to describe the aftermath of the scene at Pace University, after the September Democratic debate there. Far underneath the auditorium, in the Pace gymnasium, 200 journalists are racing across the floor, circling candidates and their handlers like sharks after a shipwreck. There is pushing, shoving, shouting, people screaming at one another, and only very occasional fragmented questions about politics. At the edges of the fray you can find numerous foreign journalists shaking their heads in disbelief, stunned by the barbarity of it all. A Dutch journalist named Rik Klinkel is explaining to me how much better things are in the Netherlands.
"Over there, you don't need to do this to get to a candidate," he says. As he speaks, he winds up and makes a violent elbowing gesture. Predictably, his demonstration results in his belting an Ohio newspaper reporter right in the eye. The man falls to the ground.
"Ow, fuck!" he screams.
"Please excuse me," the European says, extending a hand. The other reporter refuses it, collects himself and runs away.
In the center of the crowd, Dennis Kucinich is taking a beating. He has just had to endure two hours of a debate hosted by Brian Williams in which candidates who ran too long were interrupted by a game-show-style bell ("Somewhere at Jeopardy! they're wondering where it went," joked Williams unfunnily about the buzzer). It was intensely painful watching Kucinich try to read off, over the repeated protests of the Jeopardy! buzzer, the list of postlayoff executive payouts at Tyco, Delta and Hewlett-Packard. "Delta laid off 17,400 workers..." Bzzz! "The executive salary of the CEO went from $2.1 million to $4.6 million..." Bzzz! "Tyco went from..." Bzzz! Bzzz! It reminded me of the death of Old Yeller. When I tried to ask Kucinich about the game-show format afterward, he waved me off, clearly pissed.
"It was fine. It was fine. Whatever," he said.
Minutes later, as he tried to escape the hall, he was assaulted by Comedy Central reporter Rob Corddry. Corddry was trying, satirically as it were, to make a joke about the total incoherence of the spin room, and he was doing so by trying to ask Kucinich a question with a mouthful of peanut butter. Kucinich didn't get it. "What are you saying?" he said, annoyed.
But Kucinich deputy Paul Costanzo leaned over to whisper in his ear that this was Comedy Central, a good opportunity, and he should play along, etc. Kucinich clued in, then raced across the room to get Corddry a glass of water, to help him with the peanut butter. By the time he returned, the joke, not that funny to begin with, was many painful minutes old. The two glumly parted soon after, like motorists who had failed to revive a run-over cat.
Soon afterward I joined the scrum around Edwards. He was turning clockwise in a crowd of hacks and expertly batting away one question after another; he looked like Rafael Palmeiro at a home-run derby. When he caught New York Times reporter Rick Lyman standing open-mouthed without a question ready, he cracked: "Hey, buddy? You just gonna stand there?"
Behind me, two female reporters cooed. "Wow," one said. "Just look at his tan!"