Few things make Americans more suspicious than what we don’t find on other people’s plates. And, in a political discourse choked with such phrases as “red meat,” “bread and butter” and “meat and potatoes,” Dennis Kucinich’s veganism has marked him as different or even weird. Britain’s Guardian has described him as “the vegan socialist”; a recent New Yorker cartoon imagined the Democratic presidential hopeful sweeping an election labeled “The Mars Primary”; and many American reporters invariably note his dining habits with bemusement — this, in a country where people think it’s normal to eat cattle that have been fed hormones and parts of other cattle.
Last Tuesday I spoke to Kucinich — “the Kooch,” to some supporters — at California Vegan, a Hollywood Thai restaurant, as primary results in seven states began to suggest a Kerry juggernaut. The Ohio congressman made short work of tofu satay, vegetable soup and carrot cake, washing these down with cups of hot water. He’d come to town to face the three Larrys — Mantle, Elder and King. Why, I asked, was he not spending this night in one of the primary states instead of America’s entertainment capital?
“Every chance I’m near California I come here,” he said. “No one is going to go into the convention with 50 percent of the delegates, and I see California as the state that is going to decide this race.”
Until this past weekend’s contests in Washington state, Maine and Michigan, Kucinich barely registered on the primary Richter, consistently polling in the twos and threes — roughly what the Progressive Party’s Henry Wallace got in the 1948 presidential race. Still, he has done well with Hollywood backers, who include Ed Asner, Joaquin Phoenix and Michelle Shocked. “This is a town of visionaries,” he explained. “The entertainment community in California always points to the future.”
Kucinich insists he’s in this race until the party’s July convention, and you believe him when he says, “I am convinced the defining issue of this election will be Iraq.”
I asked if his campaign hadn’t suffered from the Anyone But Bush attitude that has gripped Democrats.
“Because the party does not have agreement on any other issue,” he said, “it’s unstable, and the election tends to tip toward whoever is perceived to be winning at the moment. This election should be run on the basis of issues and not as a horserace, because before you decide who your nominee should be on the basis of a horserace, you better check what’s in the saddlebags.”
I also asked if there is a trace of socialism in his populist platform, perhaps the legacy of another prairie visionary, Eugene Debs. “I’m a Democrat,” he said simply. “A Democrat with a vision for social progress.”
Kucinich grew up poor in a large Catholic family that moved 21 times before he was 17 — at some points living in cars. His personal odyssey has taken him from an urban mayor’s office to spiritual awakenings that changed his mind on key issues, notably abortion, which he now supports after years of condemning. He doesn’t sound, however, like a political mystic or New Ager subsisting on airy mantras. He pauses to think before answering questions and speaks with the sharp twang of Cleveland ward politics, yet shuns easy smiles and feel-your-pain flattery; his hands continually form arrows that point to his listeners.
Before Christmas, Kucinich addressed a South-Central L.A. meeting of families affected by California’s rigid three-strikes sentencing law. Afterward, a man tried to disrupt the meeting with inflammatory rhetoric, which included telling people in the predominantly black audience that they were living on Mexican land and should go back to Africa. As the give and take got louder, it became apparent that this provocateur was becoming unhinged. Kucinich moved toward the man and put his hand on his heaving shoulders and talked him down. Why had he risked his own physical safety in that volatile moment?
“When there’s conflict I try to be a channel of peace,” Kucinich said. “I felt it was a time to put a calming hand to a fevered brow. I never feel threatened, ever.”
For his party’s left wing, moments like these should make Kucinich seem like a candidate who is almost too good to be real. The same is true for his well-defined programs, which support not-for-profit universal health care, gay marriage, repeal of the Patriot Act, an end to the death penalty and withdrawal from Iraq. Yet he hasn’t won the groundswell of support enjoyed by Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. The reason, of course, is that we are a different country than we were then.
More fundamentally, we are not the country we’ve always told ourselves we are. We claim to love underdogs but deep down despise their pretensions; and we are secretly afraid to follow men who sat down one day and decided views they held for years were wrong. And, while we cheer hard-luck stories, we don’t like our leaders too poor — and the Kucinich family’s vagabond migrations and that living-in-the-car bit scare us.
Progressives don’t resent Kucinich because we haven’t lived up to his ideals but rather because his poor showing reminds us that we cannot live up to our own.