Dennis John Kucinich likes Maui. “I’ve been here at least once a year for the last five years,” Kucinich said during a visit last weekend. “There’s something very special about Maui that lends itself to creating a new world.”
Of course, except for the delicate lei wrapped around his neck, his pin-stripe shirt and dark blue trousers looked way more Washington, D.C. than Wailuku. But can you really expect a visiting presidential candidate—even one as radical as U.S. Congressman Kucinich (D, Cleveland)—to dress down in front of a crowd of fans?
In this time of perpetual, unending “War on Terror,” Kucinich—a longtime vegan, organized labor advocate and unapologetic leftist—has positioned himself as America’s premier peace activist. Referring to himself as “The Aloha Candidate” during a Sept. 14 KHNL interview, Kucinich and his wife Elizabeth have been touring Hawai’i. Last weekend, they made a few stops on Maui, appearing at a rally, press conference and a couple fundraisers.
There are few more polarizing presidential candidates out there than Dennis Kucinich, though even today, few have heard of him. Dubbed “the one percent candidate” in 2003 by reporter Charles Bowden in the progressive magazine Mother Jones (“He’s a vegan and of course, no vegan can be elected president,” Bowen pointed out with more than a little sarcasm), Kucinich seems forever banished to the wings of the electoral stage.
His MySpace page currently lists 31,234 friends, including musicians Avril Lavigne, Ani DiFranco and Willie Nelson—popular names, sure, but hardly those political analysts associate with future presidents. And though he gets considerable TV time (he’s a favorite whipping boy of Fox News in general and Sean Hannity in particular), Kucinich never came close to beating John Kerry—or Howard Dean, John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham or Richard Gephardt, for that matter—in the race for the 2004 Democratic nomination.
Hardship and Kucinich are old friends. When he was in the sixth grade, he spent five months—including Thanksgiving and Christmas—in an orphanage. Before he got elected to office, he worked as a caddie, sportswriter and municipal court clerk. He first won elected office at the age of 23 and became mayor of Cleveland at 31—the youngest person ever to run a major American city—then lost the job four years later after the city slid into bankruptcy, which voters blamed (unfairly, as it turned out) on his refusal to privatize the city’s power utility.
Elected to the U.S. Congress in 1996, his financial disclosure forms show him to be one of the least wealthy representatives. Journalists repeatedly call him “diminutive” (he’s five-foot-seven), “Dennis the Menace” and, most unfairly, “unelectable.” When he ran for president in 2004, he won Maui County in the Hawai’i Democratic Party Caucuses and not much else.
While preparing for this story, I told four people I know—all young, educated and liberal—that I was going to write about Kucinich’s visit. Two had only a vague notion of who Kucinich was, and the other two had never heard of him at all, though one brightened when she heard he’s a vegan.
Sept. 14, 2007. 1:53 p.m.
Akaku Studios, Kahului
Billed as a live, televised press conference, there seem to be more activists in the audience than members of the press (confession: office work prevented me from attending, but I was able to email a few questions to producer Dave Coennen and watch the event on Akaku). Supposed to start at 1:15 in the afternoon, Kucinich was late coming from a Democratic Party luncheon, and the thing didn’t get started until nearly 2 p.m.
Now I’ve seen Kucinich talk many times on C-Span, Fox News and when he campaigned on Maui three years ago, but until the press conference I’d forgotten how utterly depressing his uncompromising view of America and its troubles can be.
“I’m rejecting war as an instrument of policy,” he said after describing all the things he’d do to end U.S. involvement not just in Iraq, but in all wars, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations everywhere throughout the world. He even advocated ordering “the mercenaries”—private contractors—home and paying reparations to the Iraqi people.
To Kucinich, the U.S. is an empire—the most economically and militarily powerful in history—irrespective of President Bush’s endless rhetoric about bringing democracy and freedom to the world. Kucinich wants nothing less than to break the back of the Pentagon’s control over the nation’s foreign policy.
Since presidential campaigns have historically played on Americans’ desire for fantasy—such as Ronald Reagan’s many references, drawn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, to the nation being a “shining city on a hill”—Kucinich’s repeated denouncing of American firepower and blood-letting can make for poor politicking. That he’s 100 percent correct is irrelevant—everywhere Kucinich goes he mentions that he was the first and, initially, only U.S. Congressman to vote against Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Even given the chaos and quagmire that grips us in that bloody country now, Kucinich is barely registering at the polls.
Perhaps his wife can help. Back in 2004, Kucinich ran for president as a bachelor. But two years ago, he married the British-born Elizabeth Harper just a few months after meeting her (it’s her first marriage, his third).
In a May 20 profile, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times in London breathlessly reported that Kucinich’s wife is six feet tall, 31 years younger than her husband, has a master’s degree in international relations and sports a tongue stud. “I knew at once I really wanted to marry this man,” she told the paper. “When you know it, why hang around?”
She is a striking woman with pale white skin and fire-red hair. I first saw her while watching a Daily Show bit in which Jon Stewart pointed out how the program director of a recent Democratic presidential candidates’ debate was obviously smitten with her, panning the camera to her first for reaction shots after Kucinich had answered a question, but then repeatedly returned to her face, even when other candidates were speaking.
Kucinich and his wife sat close together during the Akaku press conference. Much of the time, they held hands, which the camera focused on now and then. “We need to stop meddling in the world and undermining democracy,” she said at one point, speaking in a measured, careful tone. “There is great hope in the world—we just need a leader to take us there.”
Maui Community College, Pa`ina Food Court
As Kucinich slowly walked among the couple hundred people seated in the college’s cafeteria, talking in a slow, soft cadence without notes, I was struck by how much he reminded me of one of those self-help gurus you see on PBS during pledge drives. His words were lofty, even New Ageish.
“War is a disconnection from our higher potential,” he told the mostly hippie crowd. “A misunderstanding of our higher purpose.”
People nodded as Kucinich began using phrases like “the imperative of human unity” and “exploring the interior geography of self.” There are few places in the U.S.—even including Cleveland—where Kucinich can talk like this in public without getting scoffs, guffaws and outright cries of “Commie!” But this is Kucinich’s ideological base. The Maui residents packed in the Pa’ina Food Court are true believers—for them, Congress needs to impeach President Bush and get out of Iraq RIGHT NOW THIS SECOND. Don’t even ask them what they think of attacking Iran.
When Kucinich came to his trademark line, “It’s not just the war in Iraq we must end—we must end the use of war as an instrument of policy!” the food court erupted in applause. As though he was feeding on the reaction, Kucinich’s cadence increased dramatically.
“So many Americans have bought into this war on terror,” he said. “We must reject the fear that has been dropped over this country like some kind of dark cloth… I’m talking about an America that can be free of the violence and reconnect with the world community.”
As he often tells his audience (he mentioned it all three appearances I witnessed during his visit), Kucinich was the earliest voice in Congress denouncing Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He wants all the troops out now—not redeployed to Kuwait or Afghanistan, but out of the Middle East entirely—and he’s the only Democratic presidential candidate currently advocating such a move.
In addition, he wants “the abolition of all nuclear weapons”—a position also not shared by his fellow Democratic candidates. Kucinich wants no more Halliburton contracts, private mercenary corporations or secret assassination plots against accused terrorists. In fact, Kucinich wants nothing less than to “create a world where children don’t have to worry about perishing in one of these wars based on fear.”
Progressives (those on the right call them “socialists”) have not done well in American presidential politics pushing these kinds of messages. In 1972, as the Vietnam War was winding down, Senator George McGovern lost a bid to unseat Richard Nixon by one of the largest margins in history. In 1948, embattled President Harry S. Truman beat back former Vice President Henry Wallace, who told the voters the cold war would lead to a “century of fear.”
Still, Kucinich plowed on during his MCC appearance, rattling off positions would make even a moderate’s head spin:
“¢ A “not-for-profit”? health care system in which the federal government pays for all medical care. (“This is a racket!”? he said, referring to the current system based on HMOs, pharmaceutical corporations and private hospitals. “It’s time that we ended it and reclaimed the health of this nation!”)
“¢ Immediate impeachment hearings against President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. (“Our constitution must be redeemed as a sacred text that binds us as a nation,” he said.)
“¢ Focusing prison incarceration on rehabilitation instead of punishment, and giving ex-cons who’ve paid their debt to society “the chance to vote again.”
The last point is as radical as they come in American politics, despite the fact that 20 nations—including Canada and Israel—actually allow felons to vote while they’re still in prison. But in purely political terms, the issue is pure gold for Democrats, since most political analysts agree ex-cons would overwhelmingly vote Democratic. In fact, in their the recent book Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, researchers Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen claim that had the state of Florida allowed ex-cons who already served their prison terms to vote during the 2000 election, Al Gore would have taken the state by 30,000 votes, won the electoral college and been elected president.
Sept. 15, 9:01 a.m.
Maui Time offices, Wailuku
Kucinich in many ways is like the movie Patton. The film shows the tumultuous, violent career of General George S. Patton during World War II so well that both war-mongers and pacifists love it.
I was reminded of this while checking my email. One of this morning’s messages, sent anonymously, contained nothing more than a link to the web address www.kucinich.com. Clicking it, I was presented with the word “TRAITOR” printed in bold red letters across a picture of a smiling Kucinich. Below that was another link, this time to a You Tube video.
Running about eight minutes, the video—posted Sept. 15 by Rightangleblog, which bills itself as “the most popular conservative blog in Ohio” is an obviously edited version of a recent interview with Kucinich in Syria. During the interview, Kucinich talks about a recent talk he had with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad about Iraq and the chance for Middle Eastern peace.
“I believe that Syria has a very important role to play in bringing about stability,” Kucinich told the unidentified interviewer, who spoke with a thick British accent. “The United States must end the occupation of Iraq, close the bases and bring the troops home.”
From the video, it’s hard to tell exactly what was “traitorous” about the interview. The fact that he wants to end the war in Iraq? His willingness to treat Syrian President Assad like just another world leader? His use of the word “refugee” to describe the million and a half Iraqis who fled to Syria to escape the war? Or the fact that he has the temerity to say all this in Syria—a country the Bush Administration considers friendly to terrorists?
In fact, there’s actually little in the interview that’s different from Kucinich’s standard stump speech on the war. Kucinich could have shown the video at the MCC gathering the night before, and it’s likely the crowd would have given him a standing ovation.
Queen Ka`ahumanu Center, Kahului
Over the weekend, it’s gradually dawned on me that there might be a reason for Kucinich’s tremendous national unpopularity beyond his uncompromising left-wing views. His appearance on the stage at today’s Stand for Children Rally at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center only reinforced that view.
In terms of appearances by the candidate, this one barely qualifies, since Kucinich and his wife only spent about five minutes on stage. But in that time, Kucinich referred to three separate pieces of legislation he’d introduced or co-sponsored in the last few years.
At various times in his remarks, Kucinich told the mostly local crowd of about 50 that he’d authored a bill calling for “universal pre-kindergarten,” introduced HR 676, which calls for universal, not-for-profit healthcare and sponsored HR 808, which would establish a federal Department of Peace. He said the crowd should support Maui Family Support Services (the rally’s sponsor), but gave no reason why or described what they do, and soon after left the stage.
Kucinich had been making various references to specific bills and policies all weekend. He brought up HR 676 during the KHNL interview Friday morning. During the Akaku press conference, in response to a question from Akaku CEO Jay April on how best to protect public access to the airwaves, Kucinich said he wanted to “go back to the spirit of the Federal Communication Act of 1934.” At MCC, he referred to HR 333 (impeaches Vice President Cheney), the aforementioned HR 676 and, in response to a question from a man who said he was a reformed drug addict suffering from mental illness, “The Mental Health Parity Act of 2007.”
This tactic—answering emotional or even moral questions with references to arcane pieces of legislation—is very common among Democratic candidates. But according to the recent book The Political Brain by psychologist Drew Westen, it’s an e-ticket to disaster.
Westen’s book is white-hot among Democratic Party officials and Washington insiders these days, and it’s easy to see why. Westen’s thesis is that voters make their decisions based on emotional instead of rational criteria. To use a simplistic but easily remembered example, given a choice between a tough-talking, smirking quasi-cowboy who looks to his “heart” to make decisions (George W. Bush) and a Boston Brahmin who speaks in vague terms about the value of “public service” while ignoring sleazy television ads calling him a coward and traitor (John Kerry), voters will choose the cowboy every time, even if they disagree with his politics.
The reason, according to Westen, is simple: the cowboy more closely resembles a human being. “We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger, or contempt,” Westen wrote. “We are not moved by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance.”
Candidates don’t build up emotional resonance with voters by quoting legislation. They do so by talking about their own experiences and feelings–by talking to voters the way one person talks to another.
When asked about the nation’s dire healthcare crisis, Kucinich could have described his youth, when he was so poor he sometimes slept in the car. Or when the mental health question came up, he could have described hospitals he’d toured or patients he’d met.
By my count, in all of Kucinich’s public appearances on Maui, he made just one emotionally resonating reference, and it was at MCC, where the crowd was so sympathetic they would have cheered him if he started reading names out of the phone book. Talking about the need to move America away from seeing military force as a solution to international crises, he spoke of a trip he and his wife took last year to Lebanon, which was still reeling from a brief but ferocious war with Israel.
“We saw tens of thousands of structures flattened… just demolished,” he said. “Most of the arms used by the Israelis were purchased, or given, by the United States. And people were aware of it.”
Kucinich said he and his wife traveled to a village one night that was so dark the only illumination came from his car’s headlights. The town square, he said, was now “a makeshift grave.” A sign placed on some rubble read, “America, this is your democracy.”
Stunned at the sight of one young boy’s grave, Kucinich said he was comforted by one resident who, a few moments later, pointed out the graves of his entire family—killed, he said, in a bombing attack on the village.
There’s no way to know if a Kucinich campaign focused on personal, emotional stories like that would win votes in moderate, middle America. Given the fact that voters twice elected George W. Bush despite his fundamentalist Christian, right-wing politics that lie far outside the mainstream of America, it certainly couldn’t hurt to try. MTW