Little Big Man

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

Photo: Bryce Duffy


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.

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.

  • Charles Bowden is a contributing writer for Mother Jones. He has written for Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, and Esquire. For more of his stories, click here.

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