American Dreams, Lost and Found

American Dreams, Lost and Found

In this excerpt from his 2002 book, Studs Terkel recalls an encounter with Dennis Kucinich, “the boy-mayor of Cleveland,” and follows his political odyssey.


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.

When I was in grade school, I would scrub floors and help with janitorial duties to pay my tuition. When I got into high school, I worked as a caddy at the country club, from 1959 to ’64. I was carrying two bags. They called it workin’ doubles. Going forty-five holes a day, six days a week.

I believe in the work ethic. There’s a tremendous dignity in work, and it doesn’t matter what it is. What some consider menial, I found to be just a chance to make a living. I always tried to do the best I could at that time. Work hard, get ahead, that was my American dream.

We lived next door to black people. It was integrated. There’s a lot of poor and working ethnics who have to struggle their way into the system, who can identify with black people’s striving. I’m trying to show both that the color of the enemy is green. (Laughs) This is a city run by the Mayflower-type aristocracy. It’s as if the people here don’t even exist. Until recently. We seized the decision-making power through the ballot box. If the black movement did one thing, it created ethnic pride.

I’d ask myself why it is that with so many people trying to improve society, not that much changes. As I looked around, I saw many of the kids I grew up with trapped, not able to get as far as they would have liked. I started to wonder, What the heck is this? No matter how hard they work, they can’t get ahead. Seeing all these people working their heads off, you find out the system is rigged.

When I first started, I didn’t question the institutions. I never really put it together. I think it was the Vietnam War. I’d see that some people were profiting, while tens of thousands of Americans were dying. Friends of mine went over there, and they died. Kids I rode the bus with to school. I started to think: This is a dirty business. I’d better start to find out more about it.

I began to get into city politics. In 1967, I ran for the City Council. I was 21. I went from door to door, and I found out about people. Every campaign I’ve ever run has been door to door. I spent months just talking to people. They don’t ask for much, but they don’t get anything. They can have a problem with a streetlight that’s out, with a street that’s caved in, with a fire hydrant that’s leaking, with flooded basements, with snow that isn’t plowed.

I’ve visited tens of thousands of homes over the past years. That’s how I got my real education. Door to door.

I was elected councilman in ’69. I had just turned 23. My ward was made up of Polish, Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Slovaks, Appalachians, Puerto Ricans, blacks. It was a good cross section not only of Cleveland but of America. They worked in the mills around here. Some had lived in the neighborhood sixty years. Same homes. The churches are still here. They say masses in Polish and Slovak and Russian. They helped keep the neighborhood alive. I loved it.

People were wondering how the heck I got elected to the Council. No one believed the old councilman could ever be beaten, he was so entrenched. At first, people wondered if the banks sent me there. Or the utilities. Or some big real estate interests. All the traditional contributors who buy their candidates. I was elected on a shoestring. I financed nearly my whole campaign out of my pocket, my savings, which weren’t much. I put together a coalition of people who were disaffected and ignored.

The first thing, some of the older guys came up to me and said: “You got it made now, kid. All you have to do is take your seat and shut up. If you just listen to what we tell you, you’re gonna be a big man in this town someday.”

When I started stepping on toes, I didn’t know I was stepping on toes. I was just representing the people who sent me to the City Council. I didn’t know I was offending somebody else. I found out very quickly there were a number of special-interest groups who made city hall their private warren. There are thirty-two councilmen. Thirty-one to one was usually the score.

When I got elected mayor, just as I came to the Council, I was expected to represent the system. When I started to challenge it, the titans of Cleveland’s business community began to get surly and used their clout in the media to disparage the administration. I came to understand that big business has a feudal view of the city, and that city hall was within their fiefdom.

When I was elected mayor on November 8, 1977, it was discovered that the previous administration had misspent tens of millions of dollars of bond funds. They could not be accounted for. The city was trying to negotiate the renewal of $14 million worth of notes held in local banks. One bank talked: the Cleveland Trust Company.

I had a meeting on the day of default at 8 o’clock in the morning, with the Council president, the chairman of the board of Cleveland Trust and a local businessman, a friend of mine. The conversation turned immediately to MUNY Light. The chairman of the board of Cleveland Trust made it very clear that if I sold MUNY Light to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, he would extend credit and save the city from default. CEI’s largest shareholder is Cleveland Trust. Four members of Cleveland Trust’s board are directors of CEI. If I didn’t agree, I could not expect any help from his bank.

MUNY Light has 46,000 customers in Cleveland. MUNY Light and CEI compete in most neighborhoods, street by street, house by house. MUNY Light’s rates in the recent decades have been from 20 to 60 percent cheaper than CEI’s, but MUNY Light’s competitive advantage has depreciated over the years because of CEI’s interference in MUNY’s management.

From the moment Mr. Weir [Brock Weir, chairman of the board of CEI] told me his price, I decided that a fiscal default was better than a moral default. If I had cooperated with them and sold MUNY Light to the private utility, everyone’s electric rates would’ve automatically gone up. It would have set the stage for never-ending increases, much the same way that Fort Wayne, Indiana, is faced with that problem after relinquishing its rights to a municipal electric system.

I was hoping I was doing the right thing in holding my ground. I had to tell ’em no. I felt they were trying to sell the city down the river. They were trying to blackmail me. If I went along with the deal, they made it clear, things would be easy. Mr. Weir said he’d put together $50 million of new credit for the city. The financial problems would be solved. My term as mayor would be comfortable and the stage set for future cooperation between myself and the business community.

The media picked up the tempo. Why the heck don’t you get rid of MUNY Light? I was asked on a live TV show. I replied that MUNY Light was a false issue. It wasn’t losing money. Its troubles could be traced to CEI’s interference. I was in office a little over a year and had inherited a mess. The city had a plan to avoid default, to which five of the six banks agreed: an income-tax increase, as well as tighter control of the management of the city’s money. That’s one of the reasons I got elected. I knew I was risking my whole political career. But you gotta stand for something.

The referendum was to be on February 27. Both issues were on the ballot: the income-tax increase and the sale of MUNY Light. We organized volunteers. People went door to door, in the freezing rain and the bitter cold, subzero temperatures and big snow. We laid out the hard facts. We were facing the attempt of corporations to run the city. We gave the people a choice between a duly elected government and an un-duly elected shadow government.

We were outspent two and a half to one, but we created circumstances where people came to understand that every person can make a difference. We won both issues by about two to one. It was the first time in Cleveland’s history that we succeeded in uniting whites and blacks, poor and middle class, on economic issues. Usually, they’ve been manipulated against each other. Not this time.

My concept of the American dream? It’s not the America of IBM, ITT and Exxon. It’s the America of Paine and Jefferson and Samuel Adams. There are increasingly two Americas: the America of multinationals dictating decisions in Washington, and the America of neighborhoods and rural areas, who feel left out. I see, in the future, a cataclysm: popular forces converging on an economic elite, which feels no commitments to the needs of the people. That clash is already shaping up.

The American Revolution never really ended. It’s a continuing process. I think we’re approaching the revolution of hope. We have the country that makes it possible for people, if they’ve lost control of the government, to regain it in a peaceful way. Through the ballot box. Before I got into politics, I didn’t know whether what I was doing even mattered. Now I know. One person can make a difference. I think it’s something every person can learn. The main thing is, you can’t be afraid.

* * *

In November 1979, with just about all of Cleveland’s newspapers and television and radio stations–as well as industry–united against him, Kucinich was defeated for re-election. Fifteen years later, he began his political comeback, elected to the Ohio Senate. His key issue: expanding Cleveland’s municipal electrical system, which provided low-cost power to almost half the residents of Cleveland. In 1988, the Cleveland City Council honored him for “having the courage and foresight to refuse to sell the city’s municipal electric system.” It was the same political body that in years past outvoted him thirty-one to one.

Today, in his second term as a US Congressman from Ohio, he is chairman of the Progressive Caucus, and its spark plug. His website reads like a press release: “He combines a powerful political activism with a spiritual sense of the interconnectedness of all living things. His holistic worldview carries with it a passionate commitment to public service, peace, human rights, workers’ rights and the environment. His advocacy of a Department of Peace seeks not only to make nonviolence an organizing principle in our society, but to make war archaic.” This sounds naïve and loonily idealistic, except for one thing: He is a remarkably practical and astute politician. His Ohio track record tells you that.

It was his voice in the State Senate that caused Ohio to scrap the planned siting of a nuclear waste dump in the state. He gets things done in no small way because of his understanding of his opponents’ humanness as well as his wrongness. There is an ultraconservative congressman from a nearby state whom Kucinich describes as a “good, honest man.” I spoke to that Congressman and discovered that he admires Dennis very much. You get the idea? I think this guy can reach anyone and change seemingly unchangeable minds. (Personal note: Dennis, there’s one thing I’d like to change your mind on–your stand on a woman’s right to choose. I know, because of your background, you are of two minds on the subject. I have faith in your honesty and in your belief in the dignity of the person that you will make the right choice: pro.)

It’s more than a hunch that tells me Kucinich Is the One (if I may borrow a Nixonian slogan). I am a believer in egalitarianism, and I feel it’s high time an Ohioan had another shot at the presidency. We’ve had only three since the eminently forgettable Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.

In 1896, Ohio gave us William McKinley, with a little help from his boss, Mark Hanna. In 1908, it gave us William Howard Taft, fondly remembered as the heaviest occupant in the history of the White House. And in 1920, we were gifted with the genial, handsome, presidential-looking Warren Gamaliel Harding. Even though I was only 8 at the time, I remember it with some sense of pride because his nomination happened in my hometown, Chicago. In a smoke-filled room at the Blackstone Hotel, the Boys, blowing wondrous smoke rings from H. Upmanns, with a touch of bourbon or two to lift all spirits, boozily announced that Harding’s the one. Sure, he was as little known, say, as Dennis Kucinich, but with the leading candidates, Gen. Leonard Wood and Governor Frank Lowden in a damn deadlock, they said, What the hell, here’s a good-lookin’ guy. And we gotta get home.

Now, in the year 2002, Ohio has given us another, of a somewhat different stripe. I doubt whether he’ll ever make People magazine’s list of the most beautiful people, but the blue-collar Kucinich is the only one who can win back the blue-collar Reagan Democrats, among the other disenchanted, and the disfranchised. He talks the language they understand and, at 55, with a remarkable eloquence.

Imagine him in a televised, coast-to-coast debate with Dubya. Blood wouldn’t flow, but it would be a knockout in the first round, and we’d have an honest-to-God working-class President for the first time in our history. It’s a crazy thought, of course, but it’s quite possible, considering the roller-coaster nature of our times.

Since plagiarism is à la mode these days, let me steal the closing passage from the Rev. William Sloane Coffin’s invocation at a Yale commencement during the Vietnam War: “Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire.” I’ll add a brief benediction: Kucinich is the man to light the fire. Amen.

Postscript. Obviously, I haven’t touched on ways and means. Obviously, the big dough will not be there. But this could be the catapult for the hundreds of grassroots groups on a thousand and one issues to coalesce behind one banner. Jim Hightower has touched on that often. And Michael Moore’s book Stupid White Men is a bestseller. And there’s a whole new generation of kids, not just the students, but bewildered, lost blue-collar kids. And, strangely enough, it can be done the old-fashioned way, shoe leather and bell-ringing, as well as e-mails. It could be that exciting. Nicholas von Hoffman once observed that when people get active, they get the feeling they count. Kucinich is like Poe’s purloined letter–right there on the table as we helplessly play Inspector Clouseau goofily searching elsewhere.

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