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Breakfast With The Kooch

Boston — “What is this obsession with my hair?” Dennis Kucinich was on the phone Monday morning with a talk show from Cleveland, his hometown. We were in a van heading to the Boston Marriott so Kucinich could address the delegation from Hawaii, the only state where Kucinich came in as high as second during primary season. Packed into the van were a dozen people — staff, photographers, an official poet, a couple of celebrities, the founder of Soloflex, Kucinich and me. Morning radio in Cleveland, like everywhere else, is apparently not very political, and so Kucinich was yukking it up, chatting lightly about Boston, the Red Sox and, at that moment, his hair. “Hey, listen,” he responded to some question I’m curious to have heard, “I’m 57 and still have hair.”

Other than that, Kucinich was spending every available minute staying on message — and that new message was: Democratic Unity. “My value to Kerry is that I help bring the party together,” he said as the drivers threaded the convention traffic. “I bring a base of progressive Democrats who are going to go to the polls.”

Once Kucinich sets his sights on an idea, he doesn’t let up. Since officially endorsing Kerry last week, Kucinich has turned the same persistence that kept the primaries lively with an unflinching politics of social justice toward the general election and the drive to unseat Bush. “No one’s going to divide us in November,” he’ll say when asked about his fundamental differences with Kerry on key issues like the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. About the platform that his contingent failed to influence in Miami, Kucinich responded, “The party platform is a political document. The living platform is the people in the party, and we bring a progressive message to the party by uniting behind John Kerry.”

On Monday morning, Kucinich was moving at a brisk clip. His entourage couldn’t keep up. The van wasn’t getting loaded fast enough for him. It was the opening day of the convention, and Kucinich was racing across the arc of Back Bay hotels to meet with delegates and spread the good word about the value of unifying the party. Before visiting with Hawaii, Kucinich made stops to see the Washington delegation at the Radisson and the Ohio delegation at the Sheraton. There was more to follow, and it was only 9 a.m.

What Kucinich never wanted was to follow in Ralph Nader’s footsteps. “I like Nader,” he said in the van. “He’s a friend. But Nader knows government better than anyone. And he has to think of this: Is Bush going to work for automotive safety, or strengthen the SEC against corporate fraud? He ought to do what I’ve done. If there’s room in the Democratic Party for me, there’s room for him.”

The subtext of Kucinich’s candidacy all along was to bring third-party fire into the Democratic tent. Despite the fact that Kucinich’s policies put him well outside what has become the Democratic mainstream, he refused to run as an independent. “I’m a Democrat,” he’d say without hesitating. “A progressive Democrat with a social vision.” In Kucinich’s view, the variety in the open primary was an asset, and he’s clearly frustrated by the persistent questions emphasizing the divisions. “All the reporters come with their little notepads and ask about the disagreements,” he said to one of the delegations. “But we’re not going to let that get in the way of electing Kerry.”

Hey, wait — I have a little notepad. Although I hadn’t focused too much on the divisions. What I had most wanted to discuss was his ad campaign — those big, bold, black, white and red pullouts that ran in The New York Times and other papers and which remain the most effective and succinct expression by any of the Democratic candidates of the tidal currents beneath this election. “That was George Lois who came up with that,” he had said eagerly. “The New York Times went to top ad people and asked them to design campaigns for all the candidates. He drew our name from a hat and wound up endorsing us.” Lois is the man responsible for the groundbreaking cover art that put Esquire in the graphic-art vanguard in the ’60s. Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian; Warhol drowning in Campbell’s soup; “Oh My God — We Hit a Little Girl” — those were the work of Lois. And it’s in that vein that he came up with the striking typeface design and simple slogan: Fear Ends; Hope Begins. “George really knows how to reduce a complex set of ideas and emotions into a visual,” Kucinich had said.

Back out in the hall, Kucinich was surrounded by more reporters trying to get him to admit to hypocrisy by endorsing Kerry. “Yes, we disagreed,” he said. “That we know. As they say in courtrooms, ‘So stipulated.’ Let’s move on. That’s what the primaries are about. And now we’re going to take that same energy and apply it to the Kerry campaign.”

And with that he was off, down the corridor, entourage just behind, spreading the word that the party is progressive, even if it doesn’t yet know it.