One Saturday morning two years ago, Dennis Kucinich and George Forbes met at an East Side McDonald's. Forbes bought coffee. Kucinich ordered hot water and lemon.
Mike White was finally stepping aside, and Kucinich was toying with the idea of running for mayor. He wanted to know what Forbes thought of the idea. Forbes had been the president of city council during Kucinich's brief and tantrum-filled reign as mayor in the late 1970s. Once rivals, the two are now friendly.
West Side voters elected Kucinich to Congress in 1996. He hadn't campaigned on the East Side in years. Yet at McDonald's that day, Kucinich showed he could still light the room. "Everybody in the damn restaurant came up there and shook his hand and hugged him," Forbes says. "They still think he's a little boy. And he swears I set it up, but these were nothing but black people. They remember him."
East Side love notwithstanding, Kucinich decided to bypass the mayor's race. A larger executive office beckoned. "As I look back now," Forbes says, "I'm pretty sure he had this on his mind."
Kucinich wants to become the 44th President of the United States. When he filed the paperwork last month, he joined a crowded field of Democrats. Of the crop, Kucinich is the lone former mayor of a major city that went bankrupt. But only a politician with his cyborgian powers of regeneration could turn that dark day into a moment of personal triumph. The "Dennis!" yard signs and bumper stickers you see in election years are light-bulb yellow in homage to his refusal to sell the city's electric utility -- and avoid default -- a quarter-century ago.
Kucinich, we've been told countless times in the last 10 years, is no longer the craven opportunist who could only be trusted to infuriate. Who stood in front of a bank of news cameras and canned a popular police chief on Good Friday. Who banned nuns from City Hall. Who believed that you were either with him or you were Satan. Who, as a council president once said, "can tear your heart out and rip it to ribbons."
The New Dennis laid aside his shiv for a palm frond. He's now the vegan Catholic who speaks of compassion and restraint and forbearance. One of his grander notions is the creation of the cabinet-level Department of Peace. He's Jesus of Croatia, dalai lama as union steward.
Today, says former County Commissioner Tim Hagan, "He doesn't look at people who disagree with him as his enemies."
Cleveland AFL-CIO Executive Secretary John Ryan says he hears the same thing all the time: "People will say he's matured or they were wrong about Dennis."
A key to Kucinich's survival has been his ability to style himself as the champion of little people. A little man himself, the role suits him. But over his career, Kucinich has played many parts. His knack of assuming the qualities of his audience is the stuff of a National Geographic nature spread.
Addressing the Western Caucus of the Democratic National Committee last year, Kucinich opened by saying, "I love the West. In some ways, the spirit of my own politics is animated by the mythology of the West . . ." He announced his presidential candidacy in Ames, Iowa, with a pledge for "economic justice for farmers and all Americans." He greeted his brothers and sisters of the Iowa Federation of Labor as a dues-paying member of the camera operators' union.
Acting has been a constant in Kucinich's political life. As the nation gets acquainted with our spirited congressman, let us pause to consider some of his more memorable characters.
The Serial Campaigner
The Kucinich-for-President idea germinated in Los Angeles. In February 2002, the congressman addressed the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. The "nation's oldest independent liberal political organization" offered a Kucinich kind of crowd.
At the time, most Democrats were cowering before George W. Bush's poll numbers. Kucinich, however, dared to challenge the administration's increasing militarism and powers of surveillance. His speeches -- at least when he's not on the West Side -- are often slathered in the gooey mysticism he picked up in his exile years, but the ADA address, titled "A Prayer for America," had a sharp edge. It called for a nation "which has the ability to rally the support of the world . . . which stands not in pursuit of an axis of evil, but which is itself at the axis of hope and faith and peace and freedom."
The speech was met with loud ovations and later disseminated via the Internet. The Nation hailed it as a "clarion call." Studs Turkel and Helen Thomas wrote pieces praising Kucinich's courage to stand up to the Bush bullies.
Kucinich had found his voice, and he wanted to share it. He spoke in 40 cities across the country last year. By summer, the Kucinich-for-President idea was being written about seriously: Would the diminutive Ohioan be the Jesse Jackson/Jerry Brown/Ralph Nader candidate of 2004?
Of course he would.
Recall: This is a man who sought klieg lights before he was old enough to vote. In 1967, Kucinich, a college sophomore, petitioned to run for city council. (Voting age was 21 then.) He has run for office 18 times in the last 35 years. In one remarkable stretch in the early '70s, his name was on a ballot for five consecutive years.
Every politician has, at some point, imagined his or her name preceding the notes of "Hail to the Chief." A serial candidate like Kucinich, it stands to reason, has fantasized about the Oval Office more than most. "He always had a desire to be on the national scene," says Cleveland attorney Joe Tegreene, the boy mayor's 24-year-old finance director.
According to a prescient 1972 Cleveland magazine article, Kucinich was plotting a path to the White House from the moment he entered politics. "If I win this one, I can go all the way," he said about his 1967 council race.
"All the way to where?" he was asked.
"Well, you know . . ."
Yet Kucinich would have us believe that in 2003, he had to be coaxed into the spotlight. "In response to tens of thousands of e-mails and countless phone calls, letters, and personal appeals, I am moving forward to take the first step towards a candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States," his website announced.
If anything, Kucinich is behind schedule. He ran for Congress as soon as he met the pesky age requirement (25). He would have been eligible to run for President in 1984. Had his mayoralty not been such a bust, the world might have known the Reagan-Kucinich debates.
In 1995, Kucinich sounded as though he had quit the pursuit of political stardom and accepted the role of character actor. "Power is seductive," he told The Plain Dealer. "It's easy to believe your existence depends on the rush that you feel from being at the center of events. But it's an illusion. The world does go on without you."
Or maybe it doesn't.
The Pacifist at Any Price
Last month, after spending a week on the hustings in Iowa, Kucinich returned to Washington and appeared on Meet the Press. During the broadcast, host Tim Russert called the congressman on comments he made during a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Lakewood. "Why is the administration targeting Iraq? Oil," Kucinich had said.
"What do you base that on?" Russert asked.
"I base that on the fact that there is $5 trillion worth of oil above and in the ground in Iraq, that individuals involved in the administration have been involved in the oil industry, that the oil industry certainly would benefit from having the administration control Iraq, and that the fact is that, since no other case has been made to go to war against Iraq, for this nation to go to war against Iraq, oil represents the strongest incentive."
No doubt, the Bush administration is up to its ears in super unleaded. But to say no case has been made for an invasion is absurd. Serious people have made serious arguments for a strike against Iraq. Even a progressive like Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens has taken to stirring his gin-and-tonic with a saber since 9-11. Kucinich may not agree with the arguments, but the arguments have been made. In a sense, his reductionism seems no more intellectually honest than hawks questioning the patriotism of protesters. After watching the exchange, Washington Post writer Richard Cohen was led to wonder how NBC let such a "fool" in the studio.
Kucinich doesn't back down from his comments about oil, but he doesn't really stand behind them either. "I said the administration hasn't made another case, and that's true," he says. "But I didn't say it was only about oil."
If Kucinich sounds injudicious on foreign affairs, it is perhaps because he confuses pacifism with peace. Late in the conflict in Kosovo, the congressman beseeched the U.S. to "try to appeal to whatever sense of humanity remains in Slobodan Milosevic." Had the Clinton administration followed that advice, Serb forces might still be torching the countryside. Milosevic, history shows, responded to NATO bombs, not reason.
His foreign policy seems to have been grabbed from a Coke commercial. "We have to get the world community to function as a world community," Kucinich said recently. And there's a hint of fashion to his pacifism: He opposes removing Saddam Hussein from power today, but he supported such efforts in 1998, when he voted for the Iraq Liberation Act. Kucinich says the difference between then and now is that the Bush administration is preparing to wage an illegal war. "The resolution in '98 did not call for a violent intervention in Iraq," he explains. Yet in '98, the Clinton administration ordered air strikes without Security Council approval.
Kucinich also appears to contradict himself on sanctions. In 2000, he addressed a demonstration sponsored by the National Mobilization to End the Sanctions Against Iraq. Now, with war drums beating, he believes sanctions are an effective means to keep Saddam in check.
Kucinich says he has always supported "smart" sanctions and opposed conditions that have kept baby food and incubators out of the country. "There are sanctions which have had a devastating effect, particularly against the children of Iraq," he says.
But at the time of the rally in 2000, sanctions had been so liberalized, Iraq was exporting more oil than it did before the Gulf War, according to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The Patron Saint of Lost Causes
Republicans have run the House of Representatives for the length of his tenure. Minority status cramps his abilities. Asked by a Salon interviewer to list his accomplishments in Congress, Kucinich had trouble coming up with anything substantive. One triumph he thought worth mentioning was a letter he and other Democrats sent to President Clinton on the eve of World Trade Organization talks in Seattle.
Yes, six years in Congress have produced the crowning achievement of . . . a letter.
Still, at times he has managed to use his office for good. He led the effort to keep open St. Michael Hospital and Mt. Sinai Medical Center-East, which many thought hopeless. He worked to check rail traffic through Northeast Ohio neighborhoods. He was the loudest player in salvaging what could be saved of Cleveland's steel industry. "He's clearly been very effective in things in his district where a national platform coupled with local activism has mattered," says fellow Congressman Sherrod Brown (D-Lorain).
Kucinich has always had a talent for knowing where to direct his efforts. When developer Bart Wolstein battled with Parma residents over his plans for a Home Depot a few years ago, Kucinich emerged as a great friend to the neighbors. That Parma's city council botched the deal was secondary. When middle-class residents square off with a wealthy developer, Kucinich knows which side to take.
State Representative Dale Miller (D-Cleveland) was no match for Kucinich's constituent services when the two competed in the 1994 state Senate primary. Miller lost to Kucinich by 12 percentage points. "In retrospect," Miller says, "that was probably the best campaign I've ever run."
An awful lot of the time, however, Kucinich's work on behalf of the people drops below accepted levels of pandering.
A few weeks ago, he summoned reporters to his Lakewood office to announce a bill that would tax the profits of oil companies. Gas prices hovered above $1.60 a gallon, and Kucinich called it gouging. He compared the current price spike to the one that occurred before the Gulf War. "The oil companies are clearly taking advantage of the American people," he said, with a garage-door-sized American flag as his backdrop.
To be sure, domestic oil producers are for the moment benefiting from an instability premium. War has the oil market nervous. But Kucinich said nothing of the other factors contributing to high prices: dwindling reserves, a frigid winter, a strike in Venezuela, a nuclear-power shutdown in Japan.
Kucinich also said oil companies are making a killing, yet their stocks are in a slump. Share prices of Exxon Mobil, BP, and ChevronTexaco are down more than 20 percent from last spring.
All of four co-sponsors have lent support to the bill. Still, Kucinich thinks it could be a winner. "As the prices of oil continue to go up, I think members are going to start to pay more attention to a bill that will answer the concerns of their constituents." Then he modestly adds, "As in most cases, I am ahead of the issue."
The legislation was probably not designed to dazzle the Committee on Energy and Commerce, however. A former Plain Dealer copyboy, Kucinich is keen to how the media operate. On a slow-news Saturday, local TV news reporters attended the press conference in force. Kucinich's cries of gouging and interviews with irate motorists filling their tanks made for a tidy package.
Forbes says Kucinich is just being Kucinich when he chases Big Oil with a popgun. "Nobody likes him but the people," he says. "I'm sure [Senator Joe] Lieberman would love to do the same damn thing he did, but he's restricted by logic and his constituencies. Dennis doesn't have that."
Indeed, there ain't no mountain high enough, so long as Kucinich can hold a press conference at base camp. Last summer, he stood outside Jacobs Field and unveiled the Fan Protection Act, which stipulated that baseball owners air some games on free television. In the off-season, the Indians had signed an exclusive local TV deal with cable's Fox Sports.
The possibility of the Indians going all cable was public knowledge by the middle of the 2001 season. Before the deal was signed, a man of influence -- a congressman, say -- had an opportunity to call the club and express his concern for fans who couldn't afford cable. Instead, Kucinich waited a year, turned the Bob Feller statue into a soapbox, and announced legislation that had the legs of a salamander. The bill languished in committee.
Kucinich pulled a similar stunt in 1995. While a state senator, he introduced a bill that would have made it illegal to sell tickets to sporting events for more than face value. The Indians, fresh off a World Series appearance, had just sold out the 1996 season.
Never mind that Cleveland already has a scalping law. Never mind that it was the first time in baseball history a club sold out the season in advance. Never mind that Kucinich, alleged man of the people, didn't understand that scalped tickets are the only means by which Wes and Wendy West Park can spend their anniversary in club seating.
The bill died in committee. The next year, Kucinich ran for Congress.
"Let me tell you something," Forbes says. "He has a very keen sense of timing, and he has the ability to understand what it is that people want. You won't find anybody in this business who understands what it is people want from their public officials. Now, that doesn't mean they can have it, but he understands it."
Even when the Indians stank, Kucinich tried to endear himself to the ticket-buying public. While a councilman, he made a fuss when the club raised stadium parking from $1 to $2. Sheriff Gerald McFaul, then downtown's councilman, told Kucinich to get the hell out of his ward.
The Conspiracy Theorist
Persuasive in its warnings against unilateralism and incursions on liberty, Kucinich's "Prayer for America" speech did have its wacky moments. He spoke of a "great fear" enveloping Washington since the terrorist attacks of 9-11 forced the evacuation of the Capitol. He then suggested that shadowy forces were not only exploiting that horrible day, but manufacturing panic in order to impose martial law. "It continued when we had to leave the Capitol again, when a bomb scare occurred as members were pressing the CIA during a secret briefing. It occurred when we abandoned Washington when anthrax, possibly from a government lab, arrived in the mail."
CIA? Government lab? Dialing Oliver Stone . . .
Kucinich says he wanted to note the coincidence of events. "We haven't had a thorough, conclusive investigation of anthrax," he says. "And I never heard much about the bomb threat after it occurred." He adds: "What I said stands. You can take it any way you like it."
Paranoia is a longstanding Kucinich tic. As a young councilman, he complained that "Neanderthal types" in his ward wanted him dead. He packed a starter's pistol to scare muggers. He threw out the first pitch before an Indians game wearing a flak jacket.
One of the greatest conspiracies of all, of course, was perpetrated in 1978, when bankers ordered him down the gangplank of default. History has largely vindicated Kucinich's insistence that Muny Light remain a public utility, though his brattiness hadn't earned the city any leniency. The Kucinich administration was like that episode of Star Trek where the Enterprise crew encounters a colony of children who murdered their parents. City Brahmins set their phasers on kill.
If only cheesy science fiction were just a metaphor. In 2001, Kucinich introduced a bill to ban space-based weapons, which might have been written by the moonlight over Roswell, New Mexico. The bill prohibits the U.S. from using "radiation, electromagnetic, psychotronic, sonic, laser, or other energies . . . for the purpose of information war, mood management, or mind control of such populations." Among the exotic weapons Kucinich sought to bar were "chemtrails," airplane emissions that change the weather or cause rashes in schoolkids, depending on which conspiracy theory you buy.
Chemtrails were removed in a revised draft of the bill. "I'm not into that," Kucinich told The Plain Dealer recently. So who was? Kucinich was the legislation's sole author. Presumably, enemies used psychotronic energies to put the thought in his head to make him look silly.
The Closet Conservative
In 1997, Kucinich supported a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. In the days leading up to the vote, he refused to divulge his intentions. Sherrod Brown also voted for the amendment, but at least he was up front about it. "This amendment means a lot to veterans in this country who fought for the flag," Brown said. Translation: Veterans vote.
Kucinich, in contrast, played coy; then, after voting for the ban, he came up with this tortured justification: "The very constitutional protections we are guaranteed exist today because of the commitment people have to our nation as expressly symbolized by the flag."
In other words, symbols are more important than the protections themselves. By this logic, adultery is permissible so long as wedding bands are kept polished.
A year later, Kucinich was one of 31 Democrats to vote for a no-holds-barred impeachment of President Clinton. That turned out well.
But nowhere has Kucinich proved a more "regressive progressive," as The Nation put it, than on abortion.
The week he entered the presidential race, Kucinich announced that he supported a woman's right to choose. To everyone but Kucinich, the pledge contradicted his long history of opposing abortion rights. The congressman voted anti-choice on bills pertaining to RU-486, partial birth, parental consent, and a Bush gag rule on funds for family-planning organizations overseas.
But there he was in Cedar Rapids, calling for the preservation of Roe v. Wade. Kucinich explained that his thinking had "evolved." He told reporters: "It took a lot for me in the last Congress to recognize what I saw was an agenda being developed that would divide this nation."
Abortion, a wedge issue? Say it ain't so!
More likely, Kucinich saw that he couldn't be the darling of the left while voting with the National Right to Life Committee. The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt badgered Kucinich about his abortion record after her publication wrote about the "resonance" of his speech in California. Kucinich told Pollitt that he was not in favor of "criminalizing" abortion, yet the partial-birth ban he supported provided fines and jail time.
"I can't tell you I don't have anything to learn," Kucinich said meekly. He did learn that he needed NARAL's approval, apparently.
Kucinich has also been confronted with tales of Nixonian race-baiting from his political youth. While a councilman, he lent his tenacity to white Republican Ralph Perk in the 1971 mayor's race. When Perk won, Kucinich declaimed that "government is returned to the little people," as opposed to where it was with Carl Stokes at the helm. Kucinich campaign leaflets dropped in Parma ridiculed a congressional opponent for supporting the radical notion of a Martin Luther King holiday. In another literature drop, Mary Rose Oakar was depicted in the thrall of politicians on "the east side of the river." You don't need a translator to hear what he's getting at.
Kucinich claims it was "never about race" and finds such assertions "offensive" (see sidebar). Yet even fellow Democrats admit Kucinich "played the race card" and "appealed to the lowest common denominator in the white community," as former County Commissioner Tim Hagan recently put it.
Forbes seems to have a more honest understanding of what took place. "He played to his constituency, and I played to mine," he says of Kucinich. "But out of all that, I can tell you right now that he was not a racist."
He just sometimes appeals to people's lesser instincts.
The polite take on Kucinich for President is that his FDR rhetoric will enliven the discourse, keep the field honest. He's a flannel shirt among empty suits, a hard hat among $100 haircuts. If a Candidate Most Likely to Pull Union Card From Breast Pocket contest were to be held, Kucinich would win going away.
The AFL-CIO's John Ryan accompanied the congressman to Iowa and says the response was tremendous. "He certainly will be heard and will help form the debate in the next presidential election."
Sherrod Brown is glad Kucinich joined the race, too. "He's raising issues that others don't, especially on trade and on Iraq. I'm appreciative of that, because when you run for President, you have a bigger microphone than the rest of us have."
Others are not as generous. On Face the Nation, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein listed Kucinich in the "brigade of buffoons" with former Senator Carole Moseley Braun and the Reverend Al Sharpton. The New Republic called him "truly a fringe candidate."
Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, who has covered the Iowa caucuses since 1972, would be stunned if Kucinich mounted much of a challenge. "I don't think he's going to be President, and I don't know anybody who does," he says. "His is essentially a protest candidacy, and I don't expect him to do well."
In fact, Kucinich might hurt the cause. Centrists win in Iowa; liberals tend to split the vote. Yepsen is reminded of 1984, when Walter Mondale took 49 percent of the vote, and Gary Hart and George McGovern left with mud in their loafers. If Kucinich hangs, he might take attention from former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who opposes the war in Iraq and claims to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." (Dean spokeswoman Sue Allen refused to speculate on Kucinich's spoiling capabilities. "This sounds like I'm trying to be coy, but I don't know that the governor has given it five minutes of thought.")
In all likelihood, Kucinich will try to parlay his raised visibility from the presidential campaign into a run for governor or the Senate. If he does, he may encounter kissing-cousin TV host Jerry Springer, who's been shaking hands and slapping backs at Democratic Party events around the state.
Springer was elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1977, the same year Kucinich took the keys to Cleveland. Should they meet in a primary down the road, it will be hard to decide who has led the stranger public life.
Scene spoke with Kucinich the day The Plain Dealer ran a front-page story about the "divisive" politics he practiced in his early years. But Kucinich makes no apologies for previous campaigns:
Scene: "This is in The Plain Dealer today. I thought they made a pretty persuasive case that you have a history of race-baiting."
Kucinich: "I find your assessment of that offensive, and I take exception to your assessment of that."
Scene: "That what?"
Kucinich: "I take exception to your characterization."
Scene: "OK. What exactly offends you about that?"
Kucinich: "I find it offensive that you just said I have a history of race-baiting. That's offensive."
Scene: "No, I said I thought the story made a pretty persuasive case."
Kucinich: "I would take exception to that, too."
Kucinich: "I would say that any responsible journalist would try to get the whole story."
Scene: "Well, I'm asking you now."
Kucinich: "Even people who didn't agree with me would not claim that anything that I did was racially motivated."
Scene: "I think people had quotes to that effect in the paper today, that race was behind some of the tactics back then."
Kucinich: "You know what: I disagree with that. Strongly."
Scene: "Disagree with . . ."
Kucinich: "I disagree with that assessment and I disagree with that characterization. It was never about race."
Scene: "Then why do you think people are bringing it up?"
Kucinich: "Gee, I don't know. But it was never about race . . ."