Little Big Man

The totally unpresidential, but strangely appealing, campaign of Dennis Kucinich.

Valets park the cars in Sherman Oaks as the guests and their checkbooks slowly arrive. Inside the house of James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett in Babe), a B or C list of about 150 celebrities waits. Some are here looking for the Beautiful Loser, the candidate with a perfect stand on every issue who will die nobly in the arena of American politics. Some are shopping for the True Liberal, who can make a run for the money, or at least score some points in the rating system called votes. At the moment, Howard Dean is leading in the polls with up to 24 percent of the Democratic vote. The man the crowd waits to hear has 1 to 3 percent. His anti-war speeches and recent support of abortion are also costing him support in his rust-belt Cleveland congressional district.

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The summer heat of August produces faint trickles of sweat on perfect faces and perfect breasts and perfect noses. Lush coral roses anchor the patio, a blue Buddha watches over a swimming pool swept clean of leaves. Morgan Fairchild stands poised on stiletto heels; Mike Farrell of M*A*S*H fame stands arms crossed, his smooth face projecting a serious gaze. Farmer Hoggett himself looms like a tall, thin tree as he explains the moral underpinnings of veganism; Elliott Gould, already a supporter, frowns like a mortician in a black suit as he surveys the herd of potential endorsers and donors.

In the study, Dennis Kucinich calmly feeds a Los Angeles Times reporter his positions. He is five feet seven, about 135 pounds, and swaddled in a suit that looks like something grabbed off the rack at a discount store and intended for a larger man. His 56-year-old face looks boyish, his hair cropped rather than shaped. He seems a miniature candidate out of scale and out of place among the perfect bodies and faces (well, not completely out of place since Shirley MacLaine is his daughter's godmother). Finally, the wine and trays of food disappear, the crowd drifts into the rows of chairs, and Kucinich takes the podium.

At first, as he says his anti-war position "arises from a vision that views the world holistically," the audience listens listlessly as the heat bakes the yard. Then suddenly Kucinich's knuckles hit the podium like a drumroll as he says he will "cause the U.S. to work toward total nuclear disarmament.... Fear has led this country to pass a law that attacks numerous provisions of the Bill of Rights. Fear is leading this country to a kind of paralysis," and now his voice grows louder and louder and overwhelms the crowd wedged in among the roses. He shouts that he wants to "call this nation to a higher calling!" And the small man in the ill-fitting suit suddenly grows large and becomes some no-neck Teamster on a loading dock exhorting the working stiffs to the cause. The wind chimes softly toll on the perfect patio behind the perfect house with all the perfect bodies listening intently.

He ends his talk in eight minutes flat -- always he ends in eight minutes flat. He uses no notes, never falters. He never skips his points: bring the troops home now, cut the Defense budget by 15 percent, found a Department of Peace, withdraw from NAFTA and WTO, cancel the tax cut, fully fund health insurance, sign the Kyoto Accords and the land-mine treaty. And always, take back our country. He plays off the word "fear" as if it were a chord in a blues song.

He began sounding like someone in a high-school speech class, then became a union rabble-rouser, then soared into some ghostly presence of Huey Long, and now he is walking through the crowd with the smile and grace of Phil Donahue. Their eyes say this is too good to be true, too good to ever win the nomination much less the presidency. Hector Elizondo (Chicago Hope, Tortilla Soup) confides that Kucinich can't win but "he's got big cojones."

Dennis Kucinich, totally engaged, totally exact in his answers, seems somewhere else. He always seems somewhere else, some place that is hard and cold and where the roses never bloom. And he always seems alone.

"Dennis has always believed in himself more than most people around him," says Tim Hagen, a Democrat who grew up in Kucinich's ward and lost the Ohio gubernatorial election in 2002. "He's been on a crusade his whole life. He's always fashioned himself as the darling of the left. You'd have to drive a stake through his heart to get him out of the business. He has a borderline messianic point of view. There's been a constant theme in his public life -- rallying against the establishment. The only avenue for him to feel he was somebody was in political life."

HE IS THE OLDEST of seven children and was raised in Cleveland in 21 apartments, plus a few cars, by the time he was 17. His father, though a Teamster, barely got by. The children were drilled to flee when the landlord appeared since his parents often could get housing only by lying about the size of the family. Kucinich likes to recall sleeping with his family in a car in Industrial Valley, watching steel mills shoot flames into the night. He attended Catholic schools, and the belief that the world is built on a moral floor underscores all of his political utterances. When he was about 12, his parents left him and his siblings at an orphanage for five months. He is a babble of inner-city tongues: In three days raising money in Los Angeles, he used Hebrew, Croatian, Italian, and Spanish. "You just have to ride bus 84 in Cleveland," he tells me. He may be the only candidate who put himself through college, working two jobs. As Jim Trakas, Republican chairman of the Cleveland area, explains, "He has this sense that George W. Bush is exactly what he is not. Dennis Kucinich has never had an easy day in his life."

In 1977, at age 31, he was elected mayor of Cleveland by 3,000 votes, the youngest person ever to hold such office in a major American city. He ran on a platform of saving the city's struggling municipal power company. The local banks, heavily committed to the competing private utility, offered him a deal: sell the municipal system and they would make his mayoralty easy. Kucinich claims that as he sat in that meeting what he really heard in his head was a childhood memory of his parents counting pennies on a chipped porcelain table in the kitchen. He turned down the deal, the banks cut off the city's credit, and the city went into default. He also convinced a lot of voters he was an arrogant punk. He went on live television to can the police chief he'd hired, survived a recall after only nine months in office by a mere 236 votes, and had to add a bulletproof vest to his wardrobe so he could toss out the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians game. Kucinich became a one-term mayor in a city where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 8 to 1. He left office tagged as "Dennis the Menace" and labeled by one Cleveland Press columnist as a "brutal, vain, yappy, little demagogue." A panel of historians would later declare him to be the seventh worst mayor in American history. For 15 years he was a political nobody, a nobody who repeatedly tried for elected office. In 1982, he made $38, and finally, he had to move out of Ohio to earn a living. Somewhere in the lost years he failed at his second marriage (he has one daughter) and became a vegan.

Eventually, the City Council that helped destroy him admitted he was right in a public ceremony. The municipal power company was never sold and this fact has saved Cleveland residents hundreds of millions in low rates. In 1994, Kucinich rode the change in public opinion to the Ohio state Senate; two years later he made it to the U.S. House of Representatives using a lightbulb as his campaign symbol. Little glimmers of his life seep through cracks in his speeches: his parents counting pennies on the kitchen table -- clink, clink, clink -- his father dying just after retirement with his first Social Security check still uncashed in his pocket. And then there is his handshake, a bone-crushing greeting straight from a rust-belt mill.

Once in Congress, he became a leader of the Progressive Caucus, that section of the Democratic Party dismissed by the New Republic and others as the loony left. Kucinich sprouted a sense of humor -- announcing the three pillars of civilization were polka, bowling, and kielbasa, showing off his ventriloquist skills with a W.C. Fields dummy. He introduced bills on national health care, on his proposed Department of Peace, on venture capital for solar energy. But mainly, he was noted, if at all, for being a vegan. He's essentially gotten a single bill passed during his seven years in the House -- PL 105-373, which made a U.S. Information Agency television program available to the Ukrain-ian Museum and Archives in Cleveland.

Then, five months after September 11, he flew to Los Angeles to address the Southern California branch of Americans for Democratic Action. He was part of the roll call of liberal stalwarts talking to the faithful. Kucinich bounded onto the stage and then began to sing snatches of our various national songs, all refrains of liberty and freedom, as the audience sat puzzled.

Then he said, "I offer these remarks as a prayer for our country...."

The audience remained silent as if they were watching someone leap from an airplane without a parachute. Then he hit the heart of his sermon with a running riff: "How can we justify..." canceling the Bill of Rights, letting the FBI and CIA off their leashes, the war in Afghanistan, and the looming war in Iraq?

Eventually, the audience grasped what was happening -- the first prominent denunciation of the administration's policies after 9/11 -- began to applaud, and was sternly silenced by Kucinich with a sharp chop of his right hand. He rolled on with a list of how Americans had betrayed their own heritage by succumbing to a culture of fear. "The trappings of a state in siege trap us in a state of fear, ill equipped to deal with the patriot games, the mind games, the war games of an unelected president and his unelected vice president." He never smiled. His voice had the rhythm of a machine gun. He was hot but he was not warm.

And then he ended, and bounded off the stage.

Nobody could quite figure out how to spell his name, but within days he was the hot new face among the die-hards of the left. Petitions circulated on the Internet to draft him; writing in The Nation, Studs Terkel said Kucinich "Is The One." He'd been waiting for this attention since he was a boy sleeping in the car. He did a reality check with friends like Ralph Nader ("Like any politician," says Nader, "he's always thinking he could pick a higher level than his current one"), and he toured 40 cities testing the waters. And then he leaped into his boyhood dream. In February 2003, he announced his candidacy for president.

THE TABLES LINING THE SIDEWALK before the old Santa Ana Courthouse tout renewable energy and the Colombia Peace Project. The light artillery pieces of the Vietnam memorial on the lawn have their barrels stuffed with fresh flowers. A folk singer drones as the crowd of 300, all in loose, sensible, sexless clothing, awaits Kucinich. On the steps, the Weapons of Mass Destruction (placards shaped like bombs) turn out to be POOR HEALTH CARE, JOBLESSNESS, POOR EDUCATION, HUNGER. Kucinich arrives and leads the faithful in a chant of "Bring Our Troops Home Now," before Michelle Shocked sings and the Veggie and Tea House serves a buffet.

Offstage, Fernando Suarez Del Solar and Kucinich embrace. On March 27, Marine Lance Corporal Jesus Suarez died in Iraq. His father, Fernando, had earlier moved to the United States from Tijuana so that his son -- who liked to be called the Aztec Warrior -- could pursue his dream of being a Marine. Now his father has essentially abandoned his job prepping salads to advocate peace. Kucinich listens, his face as passive as a death mask. When I ask Suarez if he will consider moving back to Mexico, he looks puzzled and says, "No, my son is here." It is one of those tiny moments of reality that now and then stick a pin into the fantasy world of a presidential campaign.

Next stop is Leisure World, a gated retirement community of 18,000, and then on to the An-imal Rights National Conference -- "Animals," Kucinich says, "do not have less of a plane of existence." At a dinner, Kucinich sits next to a local mayor and yet seems absent. I know the feeling. For two days now, I've stood next to him, asked questions, and of course gotten answers -- all pols have ready answers. But I've never seen him engage in anything remotely like a conversation. Tim Hagen has in 30 years of Cleveland politics had countless one-on-one lunches with Kucinich and cannot recall a single intimate moment. He says, "There's no sense of uncertainty when he's speaking with you; it's a personality incapable of reflection. He is his own creation."

A former staffer told me, "Ask him the difference between the parts of the Medicare law, he won't have a clue." An old Democratic adversary in Cleveland said, "Ask him about the last book he's read, he'll draw a blank." None of them thought he was stupid or lazy. They were simply trying to point out that he was a political animal, someone hunting for issues and talking points, someone who, if he has an interior life, would never share it.

The Los Angeles Times runs his visit in the Calendar section. Hardball's Chris Matthews dismisses him out of hand as a twit. He's the 1 percent candidate. His net worth is less than $32,000 plus a small house in Cleveland. It doesn't get less presidential than that.

CANDIDATES WITH NO CHANCE of winning are the invisible men and women of our culture. For Kucinich in August, this means he is not Howard Dean, the official liberal lead in this movie, and so he is a pointless nuisance. True, Willie Nelson is making ads and will perform fundraising concerts with Ani Difranco, and Kucinich has raised $1 million via the Internet. But his average donor gives $77, and most Americans have never heard of him.

He's a vegan and of course, no vegan can be elected president.

He's dabbled in various spiritual venues and of course, no one sprinkled with the fairy dust of New Age beliefs can be elected president.

The United States harbors a long list of such noes.

No one who is not a Christian; who is black or brown; who is not a man; who is openly homosexual; who opposes NAFTA and the WTO; who is poor; who opposes war or wants to cut the Pentagon budget; who is short or grossly fat; who wants to increase the budget for social services; who endorses total gun control; who likes to drink, has committed adultery, or smokes dope and admits it; who has sought out psychiatric care.

No one can be elected president who has been battered enough by life to be qualified to be president.

HE'S ALWAYS BEEN RUNNING -- in the last 35 years, he's stood for office 18 times. He first tried to run for City Council as a college sophomore. As a high-school freshman, he made both the football and basketball teams though dramatically undersized and underskilled. He left home at 17, worked as a copyboy to help finance his college edu-cation, and once -- to the amazement of the newsroom -- drank 10 martinis in 27 minutes in a stunt to impress reporters. At age 20, he won election to the Cleveland City Council. His early races almost always savagely attacked his opponents and often seemed to play the race card -- one foe was castigated for supporting a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.

After his contentious single term, he was considered finished in Cleveland. He still blames the failures of his mayoralty on the monied and political establishment: "The effort to destabilize my administration was directly related to that event," he tells me, and by "event" he means his refusal to sell the municipal power company. By mid-1985, he was dipping into New Age waters at a New Mexico institute and patching together a constellation of dietary and personal beliefs. During those lean years he lived for a while at Shirley MacLaine's house in Malibu and for 21 years has owed her $20,000, a debt he is now paying down. His supporters include MacLaine; Carol Rosin, a peace activist who helped hurl LSD pioneer Timothy O'Leary's ashes into space; and Chris Griscom, the proprietor of the aforementioned institute, where one can learn about liquid enlightenment, reincarnation, and hook up with a cranial adviser. (MacLaine credits Griscom with teaching her how to talk to trees.)

In 2001, Kucinich introduced a bill to outlaw space-based weapons that featured "radiation, electromagnetic, psychotronic, sonic, laser, or other energies...for the purpose of information war, mood management, or mind control of such populations." Also to be included were "chemtrails," the vapors left by jets, which some believe change weather and cause other mischief. When called on the chemtrail inclusion, he dropped it from the bill. Kucinich insists his real background lies in the ward politics of Cleveland, the grim realities of blue-collar life, and not his friendships with various New Age figures. And in the end, Kucinich is believable about his real roots. He is fundamentally an Us Against Them guy. In his wallet he carries a '60s Topps card of Indians slugger Rocky Colavito and a fragment from Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: "Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible."

Dennis Kucinich has almost never missed a vote in Congress -- relentlessness is part of his DNA. He's far more liberal than his Cleveland constituency but keeps favor by railing against things out of his control -- added area codes, excessive train noise. His political career is studded with charges of opportunism: He was one of 31 Democrats voting to impeach Bill Clinton. He has supported a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. When the presidential bug hit him, he abandoned lifelong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, joking, "I'm more concerned about George Bush being in bed with Ken Lay."

Now he stands for president as the person who is not supposed to be heard. And he knows it. When Kucinich speaks, what rumbles beneath his logical and cogent remarks is the anger of blue-collar America at being assigned the hard toils of life and at the same time being told to shut up. His mother taught him to read at age three, and "once I knew how to read, I was off on my own." He may be sincerely committed to peace, but he lives a constant war against this sense of being discounted. Lurking within every action is his sense that someone is trying to stop him.

He's known as a micromanager, who often acts outside and against the advice of his staff. If he takes counsel from anyone, it is from fellow iconoclasts: Nader, Pat Buchanan, Arianna Huffington. And now, he seems to be positioning himself as a Nader-like figure, spokesman for a government forever in exile; or he is setting himself up for a Senate race in 2006; or he is a guy getting a national standing for his issues while playing out a long shot.

But then to ask why Dennis Kucinich is running misses the point of his life. He has always been running. He has run in 1967, 1969, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002. Not away from blight and poverty (even his enemies are struck by his absolute disinterest in money and his incorruptibility), but at power and authority. Everything else might be negotiable -- this is not.

AT AN AFL-CIO MEETING IN WATERLOO, Iowa, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Bob Graham, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards have preceded him. He is the last speaker and has a 20-minute slot before the cash bar opens. The audience is easy (one delegate holds a sign that yells "BUSH LIED"), and Kucinich tells of his union past, of sleeping in the car. He is warmly received but the questions are all skeptical: "How will you pay for health care?" "How can you be elected?" This is a crowd that will ride any horse that can beat Bush and looks at each candidate with cold eyes.

At the reception, George Stephanopoulos looks on; cameras and lights trail Kerry, Gephardt, and Dean; and finally, with endless shots in the can, they come for Kucinich. I ask him about his debt to Shirley MacLaine. He stares at a media cluster around Dean and says coldly, "Unlike most candidates, I'm not independently wealthy." As always, he races past any questions about his life, especially his 15 years in the wilderness. He seems to consider them an interruption in his life, not part of it. During that time, he wrote a book about his mayoralty but shelved it because he "was not ready." Yes, he lived at MacLaine's; yes, he went to her spiritual adviser. ("I liked the peace and quiet.") And now he has returned to the arena that feeds him.

He looks small and isolated in the room, but so do all the other candidates, even the towering and cadaverous John Kerry. For most of them, usually embedded in a purring entourage, this is clearly an uncomfortable sensation. But Kucinich seems almost serene in his marginality. He cannot in any real sense be snubbed, ignored, or ridiculed. He is immune to such blows. Simply by refusing to give in, simply by saying what conventional wisdom says should not be said, he gets what he needs.

I realize that everyone, including myself, keeps asking the wrong questions about Dennis Kucinich. It is not, What makes him think he can be president. It is not, How can you hope to be elected if you are anti-war and want to take a whack at the Defense budget. It is not, How can you win in this polarized red-and-blue country with a plan for total health care. Here is the real question: How can you stand there in silence and let these thieving rich bastards get away with it?

AT AGE NINE IN THE EARLY '70S, Jim Trakas opens the door to find Dennis Kucinich campaigning for office. After he leaves, Trakas' grandfather says, "You know, I'm going to vote for that Kucinich guy." His own son, Trakas' father, says, "Well, if you do, you're walking 16 blocks to the poll." The old man did just that. Kucinich has always had the gift of both reaching and polarizing people. It is very difficult to be around Kucinich and not like him. It is very difficult to listen to Kucinich and not be impressed by the sheer ferocity of his beliefs. And it is impossible to roll his 15 years out of office through one's hand like the beads of a rosary and not sense the annihilation they must have been for him. The kid from the wrong side of town who began running for office at age 17 can handle anything, and I mean anything, but being silenced and shunted aside.

Fifteen people wait for Dennis Kucinich at the Martin Luther King Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa. A third of them are Kucinich campaign workers. He's just been down at the Iowa State Fair, where he talked to 40 people amid a Midwestern bacchanal of fried Twinkies and corn dogs. And then it is off to the next event. It is at that moment 14 months until the election. Some of the candidates will soon fold. Some will die in the late-winter primaries. Some may linger into the spring.

Kucinich will be there until the end. Not of this election cycle -- that is simply a short-term activity. Kucinich will be there until the end of his life. He will be there because it is folklore in Cleveland that he's been talking about running for president since adolescence. He will be there because he first sensed the anti-war sentiment in this country, and Howard Dean be damned. And he will be there because beneath his checkered political career, he has a core sense of grievance about the way working people are ignored. Anyone who spent childhood watching men sit around with quarts of beer and complain about work and life knows this anger about the silence and is angry at the tacit submission to the silence.

In his freshman year of high school, Kucinich made third-string quarterback. Each day at practice, they would knock him down. He stood four feet nine and weighed 97 pounds. He would get back up. Every time.