Dennis Kucinich never doubted that millions of Americans had deep concerns about George W. Bush’s ever-expanding war on ill-defined foes abroad and on civil liberties at home. But the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair admits he underestimated the depth of the discomfort until February 17, when he delivered a speech to the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, in which he declared, “Let us pray that our country will stop this war.”
Recalling the Congressional vote authorizing the President’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks–a resolution supported by Kucinich and all but one member of Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee–the Ohioan thundered, “We did not authorize an eye for an eye. Nor did we ask that the blood of innocent people, who perished on September 11, be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in Afghanistan. We did not authorize the Administration to wage war anytime, anywhere, anyhow it pleases. We did not authorize war without end. We did not authorize a permanent war economy. Yet we are upon the threshold of a permanent war economy.”
Kucinich’s “Prayer for America” speech was interrupted by repeated standing ovations. But the real measure of the message’s resonance came as the text of the speech circulated on the Internet–where a genuine worldwide web of opposition to the Administration’s actions led to the posting of Kucinich’s words on websites (including www.thenation.com) and dispatched them via e-mail. Within days, Kucinich received 10,000-plus e-mails. Many echoed New Jerseyan Thomas Minet’s sentiments: “Since the ‘Axis of Evil’ State of the Union Address, I have been searching like Diogenes with his lantern for one honest person in Congress who would have the guts to speak out about the attack on Democracy being mounted by the Bush Administration. It has been a frustrating search indeed, and I was just about ready to give up hope when I ran across ‘A Prayer for America.’ Thank God for this man’s courage.” Others simply read, “Kucinich for President.”
For Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor who led Democratic opposition to the US bombing of Yugoslavia and proposed establishing a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, speaking out against military adventuring is not new. But he says he’s never experienced so immediate and enthusiastic a response. “We can’t print out the messages as fast as we are receiving them,” he says. “But I’ve read through a lot of them now, and they touch on the same themes: The Administration’s actions are no longer appropriate, and it is time for Congress to start asking questions. The people understand something most of Congress does not: There is nothing unpatriotic about challenging this Administration’s policies.”
Kucinich was not the first Congressmember to express concern about Bush’s plans. Lee cast her cautionary vote in September. In October, responding to reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Representative Jim McDermott criticized the speed with which the Administration had taken military action and the failure of the White House to adequately consult Congress. In December, Kucinich, McDermott and Lee joined five other House Democrats in signing a letter to Bush, written by Representative Tammy Baldwin, which noted, “We are concerned by those in your Administration and among our own ranks in the Congress who appear to be making the case for broad expansion of this military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Without presenting clear and compelling evidence that other nations were involved in the September 11 attacks, it is inappropriate to expand the conflict.” Another letter, by Representative Peter DeFazio, called on the White House to comply with the War Powers Resolution before expanding the war. In February Senator Robert Byrd said that Congress should no longer hand the President a “blank check.” Senate majority leader Tom Daschle suggested the war “will have failed” without the capture of Osama bin Laden–a statement rebuked by Republicans, who want no measure of success or failure applied to this war.
But Kucinich’s speech was a clarion call. “For most people, Kucinich’s speech represents the clearest Congressional criticism they have heard about the conduct of the war, and of the Administration’s plans to expand it. That’s enormously significant,” said Midge Miller, who helped launch Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. “Citizens look for Congressional opposition to organize around–they look for leaders to say something. When I read Kucinich’s speech, I thought, This could be a turning point.”
It has certainly been a turning point for Kucinich. Overwhelmed by invitations to speak, he says his top priority will be to work with Baldwin and others to encourage a broader Congressional debate over international priorities, Pentagon spending and the stifling of dissent. Expect battles in the House Democratic Caucus, where minority leader Dick Gephardt has been more cautious than Daschle about criticizing Bush. But Kucinich thinks more Democrats will begin to echo Senator Byrd’s challenge to blank-check military spending in a time of tight budgets. Kucinich plans to encourage grassroots activists to tell members of Congress it is not merely necessary but politically safe to challenge “the Patriot Games, the Mind Games, the War Games of an unelected President and his unelected Vice President.”
Kucinich, whose working-class district elected a conservative Republican before him, is confident Democrats from even the most competitive districts can safely join him in questioning the war. “The key,” he says, “is to recognize that there is a great deal of unity in America around some basic values: peace and security, protection of the planet, a good quality of life for themselves and for others. When people express their patriotism, they are not saying–as some would suggest–that they no longer believe in these things. There’s nothing unpatriotic about asserting human values and defending democratic principles. A lot of Americans are telling me this is the highest form of patriotism.”