Dennis Kucinich Has Five Minutes for You
“I can only guarantee you five minutes.”
In the middle of a park in Sierra Madre, on an absolutely perfect fall Sunday morning, Sharon Jimenez, senior adviser on the West Coast for U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich’s campaign for president, is laying down some ground rules. We are surrounded by volunteers, who busily set up chairs, sort placards and stack fliers for the congressman’s speech and fund-raiser. Twenty feet away, at a lopsided picnic table beneath a lopsided tree, sits Kucinich, wearing a ginger-colored blazer that immediately makes me wonder how many Winnie-the-Poohs had to die to make it. With his familiar squint and little-boy haircut that always appears as if it has been combed with a hot buttered roll, he nods in response to the conclusions of a Pasadena Weekly reporter.
“I thought you were going to get me a ride-along with him to the airport,” I say to Jimenez.
“Oh, well,” she says, smiling and shrugging her massive shoulder pads.
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v. Tampa Bay Rays
TicketsFri., Jul. 14, 7:07pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. Tampa Bay Rays
TicketsFri., Jul. 14, 7:07pm
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v. Washington Nationals
TicketsTue., Jul. 18, 7:07pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. Washington Nationals
TicketsTue., Jul. 18, 7:07pm
“But I don’t have any five-minute questions,” I say, holding up my notebook. “All my questions are conversational — they’re Bill Moyer questions.”
“Like I said, I can only guarantee you five minutes,” she says, looking at her watch. “The congressman goes on in about eight minutes, and then he has to be in San Mateo for a straw poll at 2.”
Jimenez’s uncanny resemblance to the band manager and lovable curmudgeon of The Partridge Family, Rubin Kincaid, allows me the grace to forgive her persnickety manner as having less to do with me and more to do with the character that I imagine her to be playing.
“Which airport is he going to?” I ask. “LAX?”
“No, Burbank,” she says, drastically shortening even the drive time I was hoping to get.
“Burbank?” I flip through my notes, looking for short-answer questions, wondering if I’m wasting my time and trying to remember why I came in the first place.
Dennis Kucinich carries around a miniaturized copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket as if he’s a 13-year-old virgin with a condom that he hopes to use one day. It has become his trademark prop, like Bob Dole’s pen or Charlie Brown’s bag of rocks. Once you get past the initial embarrassment of pitying the metaphorical 13-year-old who believes that his orgasm is verging on the greater legitimacy of happening outside the self-aggrandized confines of masturbation — perhaps even clearing his skin and broadening his shoulders and deepening his voice into the confident baritone of whatever the political version of Barry White might be — you must admire his unabashed, dweebishly patriotic enthusiasm for what many assume to be the blueprint for American democracy, really an assemblage of Pickwickian axioms insisting, in the grandest tradition of existential absurdity, that the best way to experience freedom is through strict adherence to the claustrophobia of rules, rules that, in this case, were written down more than 220 years ago with a feather and then immediately rendered completely meaningless by myriad ever-present prejudicial hang-ups, the usurping of the government by private corporate oligarchies organized on tyrannical and virulently anti-democratic business principles, and, finally, the perpetuation of gargantuan economic and social disparities among the population.
You have to admire Kucinich, because few politicians seem to be as genuinely moved by their own political peacockery as he is. It’s charming. And then it’s as depressing as hell.
“Here we go,” Jimenez says suddenly, shooting past me in the direction of Kucinich and trailing perfume like a tuna casserole enticing a pack of cats.
“Congressman, this is Dwayne Booth from the L.A. Weekly — I promised him five minutes.” She says this last phrase in a hushed tone, as if I were from the Make a Wish Foundation and were there to ask Kucinich to grow a third nut for me in the hope that the magnanimity of the gesture might send my mucopolysaccharidosis into remission. The congressman sighs and looks at his watch.
“I know, I know,” Jimenez says, like a ventriloquist.
“All right,” Kucinich says, weakly shaking my hand, “five minutes.”
“Well, actually,” I say, sitting down with him at the crooked picnic table, both of us moving slowly like two people lowering themselves onto either end of a seesaw, “I had been promised an interview with you on your way to the airport. All my questions are pretty long-winded, and five minutes isn’t enough time.”
“Oh, well, then let’s do that,” he says, calling past me to Jimenez. “He’s going to ride with me to the airport!” I turn to see Jimenez cup her ear. “He’s going to ride with me to the airport for his interview!” he shouts. “Put him in my car.” Jimenez nods.
“All right,” he says, looking at his watch again. “We got five minutes — do you have a short question?”
“Sure,” I say, taking a second to turn on my tape recorder. “What nonpolitical source material informs your idealism?”
I smile, waiting. He doesn’t answer me. “In other words,” I try again, “a lot of your ideas seem to stress the importance of peace and humanitarianism and, certainly, you can talk about those things as political ideals, but politics doesn’t really offer the best insight into those subjects. It’s like Richard Nixon’s peace sign, for example, meant something entirely different from John Lennon’s. Most people don’t look to politics to help them sustain their understanding of humanitarianism — they usually look to art and poetry and literature and philosophy. What are your cultural reference points?”
“Well, you know,” begins Kucinich, hunching forward with the melancholy of somebody who has just been handed cotton candy and asked to knit a cake, “you can talk about the 20th century and look at the writings of Erich Fromm, the work of Carl Rogers, [Abraham] Maslow, the humanistic psychologists. You can look at the English Romantic poets from centuries ago who had a sense of the perfectibility of humankind, of our deep connection to nature, of the importance of upholding a natural world. You can come back to Walden Pond, to Thoreau, to Emerson, to their understanding of intellectual integrity and of freedom. But you could go back thousands of years, too, to the basic structure of moral law that’s reflected in the teachings of all the great religions.” He stops. I wait. He stays stopped.
“What about more-modern influences?” I say. “Are you in touch with any of the artistic or cultural movements that are contemporary; ideas and artistic trends that excite and motivate people, particularly young people, to view humanity as a whole rather than as incongruent pieces, which is more what politics tends to do? I don’t guess that all the values that inform your political identity are as antiquated or esoteric as Thoreau or the Bible — you were a product of the ’60s, right?”
“Look,” he says, “my philosophical underpinnings relate to concepts that are really timeless, that go back to 2,000 years of Christianity, thousands of years of the Hindu religion, that go to the tradition of Buddhism, to the moral teachings of Judaism, to the peaceful expressions of Islam. All of these are tributaries of a spiritual understanding that I have.”
“Well, I guess what I’m wondering is, What connection do you have with contemporary culture that isn’t politically grounded? The reason I ask is because it seems to me that most people don’t trust politicians very much. People want to interact with ideas that are hipper and deeper than those narrowly defined by politicians and the political agendas of either party. I would figure that if you wanted to build a sizable movement that inspired people to get involved with politics and to participate in democracy — to vote for you! — you’d want to offer them something that has some artistic integrity to it. Isn’t that what made the counterculture so powerful [in the middle of the last century], the fact that it was an artistic political movement?”
“Well, the social conscience of the ’60s percolated powerfully from what was called the counterculture, which actually was more than that, expressing mainstream articulations which had been suppressed.” He stops, confused by the broken crockery of his last sentence. He looks at me for some response, but I don’t know what the hell he was talking about either. He looks at his watch.
“Nixon’s silent majority,” he finally says, perhaps with a little too much authority, as though he were trying to explain the virtues of Internet pornography to an Amish family, “was actually a larger establishment unwilling to listen to what the mainstream had to say, and what the mainstream had to say was powerfully at odds with what Nixon was doing. So my analysis would be a little bit different. What I want to do right now,” he says, standing up and sending my side of the picnic table thudding into the ground, “is, I want to get started over here, then you and I can talk more in the car.”
“Oh, okay,” I say, watching him walk away. I recap my pen and close my notebook, when Jimenez appears behind me.
“Make sure you’re close when Dennis finishes,” she says, “because we’re going to move fast, and you’ll miss getting into the car with him if we can’t find you.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, “I’ll find you.”
I sit down in the grass and open my notebook to try streamlining my list of questions, while blasts of excruciating oratory emit from the stage behind me, beginning with the obligatory song sung by a child about the Earth being like a marble and humanity being like a rainbow and the future being like a bright and smiling sun, images whose crayon equivalents are studied in mental hospitals to determine the severity of a patient’s inability to cope with the real world. Then an African-American woman tells a horribly sad and horribly unsurprising story about being fucked over by the health-care industry.
The candidate is up next. Before pulling the miniaturized version of the Constitution from his pocket and waving it around like a tiny recipe book capable of transforming the republic into something that the Forefathers promised would be both yummy and nutritious if followed precisely, Kucinich recites “The Star-Spangled Banner” as if it were Keats and does five minutes on courage, providing no more insight into the subject than Bert Lahr was able to as the Cowardly Lion by asking, What makes the Hottentot so hot? and What puts the “ape” in ape-ricot?
I wonder if this is what is starting to bother me most about Kucinich’s candidacy — his willingness to name all the most pressing problems facing the world without demonstrating the ability to deepen the conversation beyond the most sophomoric pandering to the worst elements of patriotism and false hope and sentimentality. Listening to him speak, after being so moved by his reputation as a fearless David in disdainful pursuit of every despicable Goliath currently threatening our continued survival as a species, is as heartbreaking as I imagine it must have been for an audience forced to listen, for the first time, to Bob Dylan going ecclesiastic, much worse than going electric.
I think about the hardback copy of the Constitution on my shelf at home, given to me by my grandfather, who got it from his father, who got it through the Immigration Office when he came over from Ireland in 1919, and who saw it as little more than a study guide designed to help him pass a test that would qualify him to become something that he never would’ve become had he stayed in Ireland: a despised foreigner. I think about how the book never meant beans to me, partly because I never knew my great-grandfather except through stories told to me by my mother, who remembered him fondly as a foul-smelling lunatic, and partly because a book reputed to be about our rights as free citizens seemed as dull and undeserving of my attention as a book written about gravity. Gravity, I figured, like democracy, always seemed quite capable of existing without my having to contribute any thought to it whatsoever; it simply was, just as the color blue was, whether I existed or not. And just as I would never presume to have the kind of power needed to fine-tune the properties of gravity to fit my own concept of how I’d prefer physics to operate, nothing in my experience had ever given me any reason to presume that I could, or even should, attempt to fine-tune the Constitution to fit my own concept of what I believed freedom and democracy to be.
Maybe what bothers me is that I don’t see any indication so far that Kucinich would ever address any of the unflattering and lazy justifications that many Americans might have for not giving a rat’s ass about the diseased substructure of our democracy. It seems to me that he’d rather perpetuate the idea that we are being murdered as a society by dangerous men in high office as opposed to committing suicide with our own intellectual shortcomings as unimaginative people, because the latter is not an electable platform from which to jump into public office. Is he just one more example of a decent man wishing to quadruple his decency by publicly weeping over the plight of the lepers?
In the end, his love of what the country could be makes him something less than an expert on what the country is, which is perhaps the most compelling reason why nobody should ever call an idealist to fix a broken toilet; his solution might forget to consider the existence of the asshole. Like me.
Suddenly, I see the emphatic wave of Sharon Jimenez from across the park, indicating that it is time for me to chase the congressman around his car with a dirty plunger. I gather my things and hurry over to meet more members of the Kucinich posse, huddled behind the stage.
“This is Marcus, and he’ll be driving you and Dennis to the airport,” Jimenez says.
“That’s the car over there,” says Marcus, pointing past me to the parking lot. “The silver-blue one, the SUV that’s pulled in backwards.”
“I see it,” I say.
“The door should be open,” he says. “Go get into that one, because we’re ready to leave.”
“Quickly!” insists Jimenez.
Walking as fast as I can, I get to the car and reach for the side-door handle, but stop when I notice that the driver behind the wheel is a middle-aged Asian woman wearing a black pageboy haircut and a Kucinich Strength Through Peace T-shirt. I open the passenger door, startling her some, and tell her that Marcus told me to get into the silver-blue SUV so that I could interview the congressman on the way to the airport.
“Oh, okay,” she says, half her brain seeming tight as a fist and focused on the Mace in her purse.
“Well, they said that they’re just about ready to leave,” I say. “Where should I sit? Is he getting in the back?”
“I don’t know, I’m not sure,” she says, furrowing her brow and looking over her shoulder, toward the park, where the crowd is just beginning to disperse.
“Well,” I say, “should I get in the front or the back?”
“Umm,” she says, meaning every m. I wait for a moment, long enough to watch her blink the concentration completely out of her eyes.
“Why don’t I get in the front?” I say. “We can always switch around when he gets here.”
“Yeah, get in the front,” she says, clearing papers off the seat and stuffing them into the center console amid schedules, itineraries and napkins. I climb in and open my messenger bag, take out my notebook and start to unpack my recorder. She introduces herself as Mary, and I give her both my real name and my cartooning name, Mr. Fish. Mary swears that she knows my stuff, but then describes a cartoon with an angry penguin as one of her favorites of mine. I don’t tell her that she’s thinking of Tom Tomorrow.
“What a great turnout,” Mary says. “Don’t you think?”
“I guess,” I tell her.
“It’s really important for people to hear what Dennis has to say.”
“That’s why I’m here,” I say, wagging my notebook and pen in the air.
“Uh! There they are,” she says. “Here we go.”
“There who is?” I say, looking around. She puts the car in drive and edges out behind a dark-blue Oldsmobile. “Wait a minute,” I say. “Where are we going?”
“To the airport,” she says. “That’s Dennis in front of us.”
“What?” I say, glimpsing Kucinich and his wife in the back seat of the car in front of us. “But I’m supposed to be with him! I’m supposed to be interviewing him!”
“Let me in, let me in,” she says, talking to her side-view mirror. “Thank you, bastard,” she waves politely. “Fucking California drivers.”
“Can we stop?” I ask. “I need to interview him — this is my only chance.”
“Maybe he wants you to interview him at the airport?”
“I need more time than that!”
“Well, I don’t think we can stop. His plane leaves at 11:35,” she says, rooting around for Kucinich’s flight information.
“Aw, Jesus,” I say, closing my notebook and stuffing it back into my bag. “I give up.”
“Sorry,” says Mary sweetly, her right foot nullifying the sentiment by slowly pushing down.
We ride in silence for a while, as I, never more than 30 feet away from the back of Kucinich’s head, wonder which narrative of the day’s events the congressman wants me to believe: (1) that he was too much of an idiot to remember that he’d promised me an interview, or (2) that he was smart enough to figure that the press I was attempting to give to his candidacy was a meddling distraction to the vaguely progressive platform that he was running on.
Ten minutes into the drive, Mary’s cell phone rings and she answers it. It’s Marcus calling from Kucinich’s car in front of us. He wants to make sure that his GPS navigation isn’t feeding him bogus directions.
“I don’t know,” says Mary. “I’ve never been to Burbank.”
“We’re fine,” I say.
“What?” Mary says.
“Tell him that we’re headed in the right direction.”
“Mr. Fish says that we’re headed in the right direction,” she says.
That’s right, I want to say, the fucking genius who makes you laugh so hard by drawing that fucking penguin with the goddamn visor will get you to the airport on time, just so you can drive him home again afterward.
“Huh?” says Mary into her phone. “Yeah, the journalist . . . he’s with me . . . I know . . . He says that he’s supposed to be with you . . . uh-huh.”
“Ask him if I can do my interview with Dennis over the phone?” I ask, shooting in the dark, not caring who I hit. She holds up her finger, asking me to hang on for a second.
“Yeah . . . yeah. Can he interview Dennis over the phone?” She pauses. “All right,” she says, and then turns to me and asks, “Do you want to interview Dennis over the phone?”
“Yes,” I say calmly, “if he’ll talk to me.”
She hands me the phone.
“Hello?” I say. There is the sound of confusion, then the muffled sounds of chubby consonants being bled through a hand deliberately covering the mouthpiece on the receiver, then Kucinich.
“Yeah, hello,” he says.
“Hi,” I say.
“What’s your question?”
“Hang on for a minute,” I say. “I have to uncap my pen, since I can’t record this. All right . . .”
“What’s your question?” he repeats.
“You refer to our presence in Iraq as an illegal occupation,” I begin.
“Right,” he says.
“If our presence in Iraq is an illegal occupation, then doesn’t that automatically mean that our mission as occupiers is criminal and that those actively engaged in the occupying, specifically the troops, are essentially criminals?”
“Those aren’t my words! Those aren’t my words!” he shouts.
“I know, I know,” I say. “I’m just asking a question. The question is this: Is it possible to have an army of good guys when their combined efforts contribute to the perpetration of a massive crime against the population of another country? How can we support the troops when we abhor what their duty requires them to do? Isn’t that like supporting the word motherfucker and being against obscenity?”
“Hello? Hello?” says the congressman, as clear as a bell.
“Yes, hello,” I say back.
“Hello?” he says again.
“I’m here,” I say, watching him through the rear window of his car, furious at what I know is about to happen.
“Hello?!” he hams.
“Hello — I’m here!” I say.
Then comes the sound of the line going dead. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I say, as I watch Kucinich close his phone, lean up and hand it to Marcus. He sits back and opens a newspaper as calmly as a man who’d just finished watching the evening news and got up and locked the door to protect himself from his own imagination.
I first heard the name Kucinich — not to be confused with koo-cinich!, the onomatopoeic precursor to gesundheit, which we’ve heard all our lives — in February 2003, while attending a peace vigil at the town center in Sierra Madre with my pregnant wife. It was around 8 o’clock at night, and there were perhaps 50 people in attendance, all standing around with drippy white candles, everybody genuinely terrified of what the next few years might bring as a result of the Bush administration’s über-fascination with 21st-century beatific pyrotechnics. There was very little talking, everybody concentrating on his or her own private version of doomsday, with the exception of six or seven Gap hippies, all teenagers, who were set off slightly from the rest of us, each of them drawing on a cigarette that he or she lit with his or her own candle. Occasionally, another teenager would ride by on a skateboard or lean out of a passing car’s window to heckle somebody in the smoking circle and receive a “Fuck you, Wallaceton!” or a “Suck it, McGinley!” as a result.
The powerlessness of our nonviolent protest to prevent the war we were only days away from seeing launched on the world soon became unbearable, so I leaned toward my wife and suggested that we walk the few blocks back to our apartment, where we could set our lit candles into holders next to our bed. She agreed, and, passing close enough to the Gap hippies to catch a scrap of their conversation, I distinctly heard one of them say, “Chemtrails are real, man,” referring to the conspiracy theory that suggested the government was dumping unknown substances on the population from high-flying aircraft for undisclosed purposes.
“Congressman Kucinich is the only guy in Washington who said he’d look into it,” said somebody else.
“That guy’s got balls,” said another.
“We can’t bring that on the plane, it’s too much,” says Kucinich four and a half years later, at Burbank Airport. He’s looking down at two grocery bags overflowing with cellophane-wrapped vegan baked goods, as heavy as dung bricks. They were presented to Elizabeth Kucinich, the congressman’s wife, by campaign groupies wishing to acknowledge her food politics with a birthday gift she might actually be able to enjoy — which she might have, had she been bovine and free for the next 72 hours to chew.
“Well, what can we do with them?” asks Mrs. Kucinich, her British accent as kind to the ear as a tinkling bell. “We can’t just throw them away.” She looks at me and sighs, smiling.
“People sure are, well,” I begin, not knowing how to react to such excessive and misguided affection.
“Nice,” says Mrs. Kucinich. “They’re very nice, aren’t they?”
“Marcus,” says the congressman abruptly, “can you put these back in the trunk? We’ve got to get moving.”
“What do you want me to do with them after that?” Marcus wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” says Kucinich. “Can you ship them to us?” You could almost hear the dumpster two blocks away licking its chops.
“Can I walk along with you?” I ask the candidate, picking at the scab of our now obvious mutual disappointment in each other.
“Stay close,” he says to me, like a platoon leader just before entering the jungle in South Vietnam. Walking too quickly for me to ever get beside him, I watch in amazement as he zigzags around in the strange pantomime of a confused tourist, sloughing off every question attempt with a “Hang on a second,” his eyes bouncing back and forth between the airport signs like pinballs in a flashing machine.
As I amble along behind him, I begin to feel like the 13th-century Sufi philosopher Nasreddin, who was found one day searching intensely for something in the street in front of his house. When asked by a neighbor what he was looking for, Nasreddin answered that it was a key that he needed to unlock all the secrets of the universe. The neighbor asked Nasreddin what he was doing, exactly, when he lost the key. “I was rummaging around in my basement,” said Nasreddin. When asked why he was looking in the street for something that was probably lost in the basement, Nasreddin replied, “Because the light is better here.”
It’s at this point that I start to realize that an interview with Dennis Kucinich for the purpose of understanding his politics might be as foolhardy as attempting a deep understanding of a Shakespeare sonnet by interrogating each individual letter of the alphabet. Or asking a meteorologist to give meaning to a sunset. Sometimes the truth is on the periphery of reality, reflected more in what it inspires in other things than in what it states definitively in itself.
No longer interested in hearing him deflect, I quicken my gait and trot up to him to tell him that I’m leaving, just as he is cornered by walls and made to stop. “You stand in line to get the boarding passes,” he tells his wife, “and I’ll wait here with the luggage.” Turning to me, he says, “Okay, you’ve got a few minutes.”
“All right,” I say, snapping my notebook out of my bag, reflexively bowing to my duty as a journalist one last time. “Orwell said that the quickest way to end a war was to lose it. How difficult is it for you to talk about immediate withdrawal from Iraq without essentially asking Americans to embrace the decidedly un-American concept of losing?”
“The longer we stay there, the heavier the losses. People understand that. It’s time to recognize that it’s a war based on lies,” Kucinich says. “Orwell raised the question of the destruction of meaning . . . um . . . so, uh . . . hold on, I gotta . . .” Again, he is gone, off to stand with his wife at check-in, carrying some of the luggage with him. After waiting for a few minutes and realizing that he’s not coming back, I walk over, packing in my notebook.
“This isn’t going to work out,” I say.
“No,” he says.
“Can I e-mail you the questions?”
“No,” he says. “I’m going to be flying . . . a lot.”
“Can I call you?”
He thinks for a second. “Do you have a cell?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Gimme your cell and I’ll call you later.” I write down my number and hand it to him, then I thank him and put out my hand. His hand remains down at his side. “I trust that you won’t make any of the stuff that went on here at the airport part of your story,” he says, making real eye contact with me for the first time today. It’s the equivalent of a guy saying, I took a big steamy dump on your living-room rug and I hope you won’t tell anybody about the crappy car I drove home in afterward.
I don’t say anything.
Stepping outside again to see if I can get a ride back to Sierra Madre with Marcus or Mary, I think about something a friend of mine used to say all the time. He said that the best way to determine if a video store is any good is to find out if it carries gay pornos.
“A place brave enough to stock Shaving Ryan’s Privates and Dishonorable Discharge,” he says, “is not concerned with promoting a version of the world where only one kind of joy is tolerated.” He sees it as the ultimate metaphor for how best to measure the viability of a democracy, and he brings it up every election cycle. “Show me an American politician who is capable of balancing a budget, and who would never pass judgment on a 7-foot-tall black Tinker Bell who enjoys being blown by a line of Hispanic midgets,” he says, “and I’ll show you our only hope as a nation.” He insists that attempts by candidates to perpetuate the bogus idea that morality is something that can be adequately mapped and staked out and finally reduced to bullet points is akin to telling people that the only acceptable way to die is of old age. “And that’s why we’re completely fucked as a species,” he says, “because most people in the world aren’t smart enough to realize that trying has nothing to do with it.”
It takes Congressman Kucinich four days to telephone me. According to Mesoamerican myth, Quetzalcoatl was born after a four-day gestation to become, like every other deity, the god of (your-opinion-here). For some he was a compassionate god of self-sacrifice and butterflies, for others an absolute bastard of water and wind. There are many who believe that he wasn’t divine at all and, in actuality, was a wayward Viking, or, if not a wayward Viking, then a wayward Buddhist missionary or a wayward extraterrestrial. That said, nobody can know exactly who or what anybody else is completely, whether he or she is a rush job created in only four days or something allowed to evolve over eons. Everybody and everything is a conundrum, and must be, to some degree, in order to reflect the innumerable opinions, many of them conflicting, that exist in the world; the more confounding a personality or a thing can be en masse, the more reality he or she or it will be able to reflect back into the world by being able to be read as truth by people of as many different opinions as possible. Examples: the registered Democrat who has Republican values, the freedom-loving president who authorizes the use of torture in secret prisons, the millionaire who imagines no possessions, the meek who will inherit the Earth.
By odd coincidence, as with the Aztec god of miscellany, it took the political conundrum that is Dennis Kucinich four days of gestation to present himself to me reborn as his own opposite, at least in comparison with my impression of him following our first meeting. By contrast, this Dennis Kucinich, speaking to me on his own reliable cell phone, not 30 feet away but 3,000 miles away, from the floor of Congress, has humor in his voice and the confident chumminess of a friend of a friend. More important, he seems as unlikely to dodge any potentially controversial or complicated question put forth by me as Quetzalcoatl would’ve been to suddenly cast off his feathers and embrace the humiliation of becoming as vulnerable and gullible and worshipful as his inventors; a god will never look at himself in a mirror because, in a mirror, he is a dog.
And, by the sound of it, this Kucinich was no boob.
“Last time we spoke,” I begin, “you mentioned Erich Fromm, who was one of my heroes when I was in college.”
“Absolutely,” he says. “I mean, you take The Art of Loving, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness — here was somebody who had a very deep understanding of human potential and a deep understanding of love. I was reading him in high school. You had a number of people who were writing at the time, whose books were getting popular circulation. Carl Rogers was somebody else who I’ve long admired. Rollo May was another. Morris Berman’s Reenchantment of the World was a great book. These were humanistic philosophers, important people to the health and well-being of a society.”
“The overall premise of Fromm’s The Sane Society was how, in the broadest, nonclinical sense, sanity is subjective and that if you have a community where most of the people believe that the moon is made out of green cheese and you’re in the minority who doesn’t, then you’re the lunatic,” I said. “Do you ever feel that because of your views on peace and labor unions and impeachment and so on, when compared to other members of your own party, you’re marginalized for equally subjective reasons? I guess the question is, Are you the lunatic in Washington? And the second question is, Would you be proud of or offended by that characterization?”
“Well,” he says, laughing, “I happen to know that the moon is made out of vegan cheese. I look at it this way — one must have the power of one’s own convictions, and you really have to have faith in that. It’s much like what Emerson wrote about in his essay on self-reliance, when he said, ‘Above all, to thy own self be true, every heart vibrates to that iron string.’ ”
“Uh, some of that is Shakespeare,” I start to say, but Kucinich isn’t listening.
“Madam Secretary, how’ve you been?”
“Condoleezza Rice just walked by. I’m sorry, go ahead.”
“Well, I wanted to get back to that question we were talking about before the phones cut out the other day on your way to the airport — about the troops and Iraq as an illegal occupation . . .”
“Hang on for a second,” he interrupts.
“Aw, crap!” I think to myself. Hearing the phone muffled by his palm, I fear that, once again, I’ve moved too quickly with my troops question and not spent enough time engaged in the rigmarole of intellectual foreplay. Have I flung myself at the congressman with all the cloddish enthusiasm one typically reserves for the scratching off of a lottery ticket before making him feel like the most beautiful ass in the Democratic Party? Maybe I need to remember the respect I had for Kucinich before I met him — when I thought he was a decent guy standing on a soapbox, before deciding that he was really more a decent guy pictured on a soapbox, no more capable than any other advertised product of replacing the doldrums of life with something lemon-scented and affordable.
“All right,” Kucinich suddenly says into the phone, “go ahead.”
“I wanted to talk about the concept of supporting the troops,” I say, ignoring my own advice. “It seems like it’s something that can’t ever be talked about in any depth. Specifically, there seems to be a contradiction in our supporting the troops and our not supporting the war — the troops are the ones engaged in the actual violence, and, of course, that’s their job; the violence is what defines their role as soldiers, as occupiers . . .”
“Well, you know, actually,” Kucinich says, “it’s extraordinary that you’re talking about this, because you’re the first person in the media who I’ve talked to, in the 40 years that I’ve been in public life, you’re the first person who . . .”
I brace myself in anticipation of what I expect to hear him say next — something along the lines of “You’re the first person who, if I could just get my peace-loving, little-girl hands around your lousy fucking throat for sniping so relentlessly at our beloved servicemen and -women who suffer horribly every day at having their humanity compromised by the inherent inhumanity of their duty! Do you think it’s fun to have to be reminded every day of the death and violence and mayhem that your presence is causing? Our soldiers have to look at the blood they spill, and that’s yucky!”
Instead, he says, “You’re the first person I’ve talked to who put his finger on really what is a deep philosophical question. In a way, we’re in times where to take a stand for the truth seems to some anarchical, which shows you how meaning has been so powerfully inverted. It is really the fulfillment of George Orwell’s prophecy about the debasement of language, the destruction of meaning and the destabilization of civilization.”
I pause a second to be shocked, half a second to be flattered, and then no time at all to realize that I haven’t said anything worth the compliment.
“It’s about the perpetuation of confusion,” I continue, “so to say that you support the troops when . . .”
“This is what I saw when I was the mayor of Cleveland and I took a stand to save the city’s municipal electric system,” he offers as a diversion. “Everywhere I turned, it was as though I was speaking heresy in saying that the people had a right to own their own electric system. You go back, the date would be December 15, 1978, when the biggest bank in town was trying to force me to accept their dictation that I would sell the city’s municipal electric system, giving the private utility in Cleveland a monopoly on electric power in northern Ohio, or [else] the bank was determined that it would put the city of Cleveland into default on loans that I hadn’t even taken out. What had happened was the entire social reality had been upended as these special-interest groups worked their way through the media, and people didn’t know what was right. It took 15 years for the truth to be sorted out. And if I hadn’t had that experience, I would have found it very difficult to stand up to a war based on lies. Because in human experience, there are very few things as powerful and compelling as a struggle for survival, and war touches that instinct and people respond, not with their highest faculties but from the lower limbic system. And that puts us in the position where public policy is guided from levels that reflect earlier stages of human evolution.”
“That’s why the idea of supporting the troops . . .”
“This is why we end up in war, because people don’t stop to think, ‘Hey, what are we doing? Is this necessary? Do we need to be doing this? Is this based on truth?’ ”
“So when people say that they support . . .”
“When I stood up and I wrote that analysis in October of 2002 that defiantly dismissed any call for war, there were many people who asked me, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with you? Of course, Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Of course, Iraq had something to do with 9/11 — what’s wrong with you?’ And because I’d been through this before in Cleveland, I understood the way that an entire social reality could be manipulated to make wrong right. Hang on for a second, I gotta vote.”
While waiting for Kucinich to return, I put a gigantic asterisk, the size of an impossibly large sphincter, next to my troops question, figuring that the question is something to reintroduce later. After all, I have some questions about peace that I feel I need to ask, if only for the sake of allowing the congressman the opportunity to expound upon something without measuring his words.
“All right, sorry about that,” he says when he comes back to the line.
“Let’s talk a little bit about your running for the presidency on a peace platform,” I say. “Typically, peace to a politician is a trade agreement, which seldom has anything to do with real peace. You can have the absence of overt physical violence in a trade agreement, but then isn’t the commodification of people’s lives a kind of violence, not to mention the violence to the environment that usually goes hand in hand with modern commerce? Then there’s the question of what’s being traded. We’re at peace with Israel, for example, yet we sell them helicopters to perpetrate violence on Palestinians — what kind of peace is that?”
“You’re exactly right. What happens is this: I’m in Washington, and everywhere you turn, there are myths being made which are all now dealing in fear and terror, and, as a result, it’s destroyed other myths, which have to do with America’s benign position in the world — freedom, democracy.”
The myth of freedom and democracy? Was this a comment that revealed some compatibility between us or merely a slip of the tongue?
“So the dominant myths now are fear and terror,” he continues, “and if you don’t buy into them, you’re not a patriot.”
“Right,” I say, “you’re either with us or just like us.”
“And now I’m seeing a war gathering against Iran,” he says, “and it’s happening under everyone’s nose, and people are either oblivious to it or they feel that that’s just how it has to be.”
“Which goes to the heart of what I mean about our society’s concept of what real peace is,” I say. “Everybody will stand up and clap when they hear somebody talk about peace, because it’s widely understood to be the absence of war, of violence, which it is, but that can’t be its complete definition, just like the complete definition of love can’t simply be the absence of hate — peace shouldn’t be defined just in terms of what it’s not. If peace is defined only as the opposite of war, then doesn’t that automatically make war a necessity, because peace needs something to exist contrary to?”
“You’re right about that, but let’s go one step further,” he responds. “Let me take your awareness of that to a presidential election where candidates change their position every week so you don’t know anybody’s position on anything. It’s all polled to the point where it’s not the soul of the politician that becomes of interest; it’s the poll of the politician. There again, truth doesn’t matter. Stephen Colbert was absolutely right when he called it truthiness. That’s why half the people in this country still think that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. So, look, I am absolutely amazed that there is someone out there asking these questions, because I didn’t know there was anybody — I didn’t know there was anybody out there to talk to about this stuff.”
“Well, how frustrating is that for you,” I say, “to be in a profession that doesn’t typically invite the kind of conversation that matches your curiosity about the world? How slippery is the ground for you when you’re talking to people in public, or when you’re out in front of an audience? To maintain some level of popularity, do you sometimes feel you need to be as inoffensive as possible? How impossible is that given the state of the world nowadays? Some things really do require deep and sloppy conversation.”
“I think it’s important to approach things with an open heart and with clarity and courage — that’s it. Lincoln said it well when he said, ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.’ He was talking about binding up the wounds of a nation, but in a sense we have to continually work at binding up the wounds in our society and wounds to people’s physical, emotional and spiritual selves and wounds to the truth that provide the social reality where we live or refuse to live. Do I get frustrated by that? No. The real test of power is whether you can countenance the approval, disapproval, ups and downs, acceptance, rejection with a sense of equanimity. That’s how I proceed. I do my best to tell the truth the way I see it. The one advantage I’ve had through 40 years of being involved in public life is, I have a trained eye and it’s clear. So, listen, I’ve got to run, but I really appreciate your time and your patience.”
He gives me his e-mail address, then hangs up and disappears into the legislative branch like a monkey into a tree.
To say that all politicians are nothing but puppets whose many strings are haphazardly attached to a diverse network of competing special-interest groups is an oversimplification on par with saying that all cancers are bad. They aren’t. At least not when they’re compared to other cancers. So to say that Congressman Dennis Kucinich is less a puppet and more the living boy with no strings attached that Pinocchio became at the end of the fairy tale is not much of a compliment, since both have the same exact origins as tinder and, therefore, the same instinct to avoid exposure to too much heat.
I didn’t know this. Now I do.
Still, looking back on my brief encounters with Kucinich, I remember something that my grandmother once said while watching Larry King’s very famous and excruciatingly respectful 1992 interview with Richard Nixon, that given the choice between being a turd or a flower in life, I should consider being a turd. “Flowers are always getting trounced upon,” she said. “At least a turd commands enough respect to be stepped around.”
And perhaps that’s what I found to be the real tragedy about Dennis Kucinich: He is neither a turd nor a flower. But h0e may well be the best chance we have as a nation to save ourselves.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.