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Deeper Rivers

Since September 11, many politicians have prayed for America, but only one offered a devotional accusing the government of “in effect canceling” the first and fourth amendments, warning that a “great fear” overwhelmed America‘s leaders, and opposing “war without end.”

When Representative Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Cleveland who is not a familiar face on Sunday news gab shows, offered such a “prayer for America” in February at a Los Angeles meeting of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, he became a magnet for progressives suffering post--911 blues and longing for a kick-ass leader who would bash the Bush administration, the national-security establishment and the recent expansion of federal police powers, and who also could express a left vision promoting peace, social justice, civil liberties and democracy.

Thousands of leftists across the country read Kucinich’s words on the Internet and sent him e-mails declaring, “Right on!” The response to his speech prompted talk among liberals in L.A. and elsewhere of an improbable Kucinich-for-president campaign. In The Nation magazine, a starry-eyed Studs Terkel, the well-known lefty oral historian, declared, “Kucinich Is the One.”

That‘s some speech that can do all that. (And Kucinich began it by singing portions of various patriotic anthems.) But with most elected Democrats proclaiming their support for George W. Bush’s war on terrorism at home and abroad, the competition is slim these days for a national progressive leader. For his part, Kucinich, 55, has long been an independent voice willing to cut against political fashion. The son of a truck driver and the oldest of seven children, Kucinich was a child star of Cleveland politics. He was elected to the City Council in 1969 at the age of 23, a populist eager to mix it up with the city‘s business establishment. In 1977, as the boy mayor of Cleveland, he waged a titanic struggle against the town’s financial elite. The money gang wanted him to sell off the municipal utility to balance debt-ridden books he had inherited. Kucinich refused, hoping to preserve low electricity rates. The banks called in their loans, and the city went into default. Kucinich won voter referendums on the issue and on raising income taxes to cover the city deficit. But in the face of opposition from the local barons, he was bounced from office in 1979.

Seventeen years later, he was elected to Congress, beating a Republican incumbentmillionaire-businessman. As a backbencher in the minority, Kucinich does not have much clout. But he has become chairman of the Progressive Caucus, a collection of several dozen House liberals. And he has established himself as an iconoclastic and idealistic legislator who pushes issues few others will touch. At the Web site he recently set up -- www.thespiritoffreedom.com -- Kucinich highlights three causes he‘s been chasing: establishing a Department of Peace, outlawing weapons based in space, and advocating nuclear disarmament. In Congress, he recently offered an amendment to stop Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent and apply that $187 billion to prescription-drug benefits for seniors. When Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge refused to testify before Congress but deigned to appear at an informal closed-door session, Kucinich walked out of the briefing in protest.

“I have a sense of urgency,” says Kucinich. “This is a time when world peace is at stake, when nuclear armament is occurring, when domestic needs, such as health care, are being ignored . . . I am trying to be a spokesperson. I have this sense of an unarticulated consciousness that exists in this country and that has been waiting for representation.”

His unadulterated message has registered. Not only has he been flooded by 20,000 or so e-mails, he‘s been receiving speaking invitations from across the country. In late May, for instance, he will be the keynote speaker at the Western conference meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Seattle.

Kucinich has taken positions not widely shared by his fellow elected Democrats. He is openly critical of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, saying the response to the 911 attacks ought to have been more in line with a police action than a war. The incursions of Ariel Sharon, he adds, are bound to fail because they “will create more violence against Israel.” In one break with traditional liberals, Kucinich is not pro-choice. He explains that he represents one of the most Catholic districts in the country and was raised in a Catholic setting: “I believe in the sanctity of life and that life begins at conception.” But, he adds, he has “never taken a position that Roe v. Wade should be overturned or that people should be prosecuted for abortion.” In a similar vein, last year he joined with social conservatives to lead the fight in the House for a ban on all forms of human cloning, even therapeutic cloning.

Kucinich has a spiritual -- almost New Age--ish -- side to his politics he is not afraid to show. “There is a hunger out there for a message that goes beyond traditional politics,” he says. “My philosophy has a lot to do with the potential for all of us to unfold.” For several years, Kucinich has been friends with best-selling, spirit-celebrating author Marianne Williamson, who, he says, “has a grasp of the deeper meanings of the American experience.” Regarding Kucinich, Williamson observes, “Many of us have felt so frustrated for years, because hardly anyone within mainstream politics swims the deeper river of the American psyche anymore . . . But then comes Dennis, and it’s as though he sounds a clarion call to those of us trying to reconcile our love for this country with our disdain for so much of what we have come to stand for . . . He‘s a rare combination of poetry and power.” She adds, “If he does run for president, I’ll help in any way I can.”

Is Kucinich pondering a presidential bid? He pauses -- for a long time -- before answering: “I‘m getting requests from people across the country who ask me to consider it -- some from people considered to be politically astute. But it’s a bit early to start that speculation.” As political reporters are quick to note, that‘s not a “no.”

“I’d like to see him run for president,” gushes Lila Garrett, the immediate past president of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, which provided last February‘s forum for Kucinich’s prayer. “Stranger things have happened. Look at Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. I get calls every day from people asking what they can do to support him.” If Kucinich does steer in that direction, it may be because of the encouragement flowing from the support base he has cultivated in Los Angeles, where he often speaks and raises money.

Would he have a prayer? Not since 1880 has a sitting member of the House grabbed the presidential nomination of a major party. And usually candidates need tens of millions of dollars to be competitive -- a chunk of change likely beyond Kucinich‘s reach. Still, a bid might be worth considering. Steve Cobble, a liberal political strategist, says, “There is an opening in the 2004 field for a progressive candidate who holds office, is used to organizing grassroots support rather than depending on elites, and is brave enough to lead rather than just report back on focus-group findings. He or she would rally millions of American progressive voters who currently have few political outlets for their energies.” In the past, ideologically minded long-shot candidates have seen presidential campaigns bolster their status and influence. Pat Robertson’s once-powerful Christian Coalition rose out of his 1988 presidential run, and Jesse Jackson‘s 1984 and 1988 campaigns transformed him, for a time, into the left’s chief champion.

His prayer, Kucinich says, “was intended to let people know there‘s a real threat to our Bill of Rights and Constitution.” In delivering it, Kucinich also won himself a much more prominent pulpit.


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