Last Friday, after seeing a gloating New York Times editorial published the day before about the Democratic primaries entitled, "And Now There Are Two," I called the campaign offices of Dennis Kucinich. I wanted to express my condolences on the death of their candidate. I assumed something terrible had happened both to him and to Al Sharpton; probably the two had been hit by a bus, or mauled to death by circus lions at a Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party dinner in Sheboygan, Wisconsin... We Americans are a stoic people, we like to grieve in private, but on this occasion I thought I would at least make the gesture of calling and offering my support.
I never reached Sharpton, but at the Kucinich offices, I was greeted with a surprise. The candidate was not dead at all. He was living and breathing and, apparently, still eating organically grown produce.
"He's absolutely fine," said Jon Schwartz, Kucinich's media radio consultant in Washington. "He's fit as a horse. We're expecting him to throw 250 innings this year. He's wearing out our catchers in Winter Haven right now, as we speak."
Actually Kucinich was campaigning somewhere in Minnesota, which like New York has a primary coming up on Super Tuesday, March 2. To prove that reports of his candidate's death were greatly exaggerated, Schwartz ended up putting Kucinich on the phone. On Saturday, I spoke to Dennis for about a half-hour as he drove through greater Minneapolis.
Before I get to that conversation, there are a few things about the campaign of Dennis Kucinich that I think are worth mentioning.
There are a lot of people out there who are inclined to laugh at this candidate. A few do so because they genuinely find him laughable, but most do it because they see him being laughed at in the news media. In this country we generally take our cues about whom we can safely laugh at from the mainstream press, and for the most part we laugh at the weak, the earnest, the sincere, the emotionally vulnerable. We laugh at people who are fat and ugly or who work as temps or at McDonald's because none of us want to admit that we're not the ripped six-pack guy on the cover of Men's Health, or a member of the Sharper Image target market. We're cowards, afraid of admitting to being who we are, and we laugh at people on the margins to avoid being identified as outsiders by the remorseless center.
It's the same with politics. Over and over again we have been told, in a million different ways, that a certain kind of idealism is actually childish weakness, and that the only pragmatic way of approaching life upholds force and commerce as the chief engines of social organization. That is why we laugh at people who use words like peace and community but praise as tough, responsible leaders anyone who's willing to drop the most mother-of-all bombs on defenseless foreign populations. We laugh at a person who uses the word peace for the same reason that we laugh at the person who works as a temp or at McDonald's: because we're afraid of being lumped together with him. We're afraid of being the proverbial punchline to the proverbial Dennis Miller joke about John Lennon and Joanie Baez and that goddamn Cat Stevens song, "Peace Train."
I will never forgive America for what Dennis Kucinich went through this year. Because he has had the audacity to call for an end to all wars, to announce plans for the creation of a Department of Peace, to question the very culture of viciousness and intolerance and crass commercialism that rules our public discourse, he has been labeled a lunatic by nearly every "responsible" press organ in this country and cruelly mocked to a degree that no civil society should allow an honorable man to endure. The New Yorker, that revolting beacon of glib, self-satisfied affluence, runs a cartoon showing Kucinich sweeping to victory in a primary held on Mars. The New York Times first angrily demands that he not waste any more of our time, then actually physically disposes of him after the passing of some self-imposed fictional electoral deadline. Even the more genuinely funny and more intelligent people in American public life–I'm thinking particularly of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon–can't resist savaging Kucinich whenever they get a chance. All because he's funny-looking, and because he uses the word peace without kidding.
I am a Dennis Kucinich supporter because I believe America's greatest problem is its incivility, its intolerance to new ideas, its remorseless hatred of weakness and failure, the willingness of its individual citizens to submerge their individual cowardice within the vicious commerce-driven standards of our national self-image. George Bush is a terrible president, but he is merely a by-product of these wider national tendencies, which exist outside of him and independently of him. And these tendencies are symbolized exactly in the laughter directed at Dennis Kucinich. To vote for Dennis Kucinich, I believe, is to vote for man's right to publicly be who he is and not be ridiculed for it. If we are peaceful people, it is a vote for our right to merely be who we are.
This is not a small thing, because we are in danger of losing that right in this country. If you are the wrong kind of person, even the New York Times would have you disappear from the stage entirely. That is why it is important to understand this vote not as a pragmatic choice for a winner, but as a passionate act of self-preservation. We must stand with the man who is taking all the abuse that most of us are too afraid to take in our own lives.
Well, enough of that. Getting back to the conversation with Kucinich on Saturday: I found the congressman in what appeared to be a good mood, as he negotiated the New York Times afterworld. Because I'm interested in this question personally, I first tried to ask him what he thought the reasons were for the media's persistent calls for him to leave the race. After all, he's not spending their money. But he seemed less interested in talking about the reasons the press insists on thinning the herd than in pointing out why it's important to ignore them. One interesting point he made was that being ignored by the press was not automatically a bad thing.
"It's like being covered by corporate cops," he said. "I mean, they certainly didn't do Howard Dean any favors... So this idea of having a press corps cover you relentlessly may be overrated."
He went on to suggest that even regularly consuming media can be as bad for you as being covered was for Howard Dean. "The thing is," he said, "if you depend on the media for your life, for approval, then you end up being bound by its logic. I don't, so I'm not."
Kucinich wrapped up his remarks about the media with a classic Kucinichism, taking a moment to expound upon the reasons why people in the media who behave this way should be treated with compassion. One would call this a common rhetorical technique of his, except that most of the time when he talks this way, he appears actually to mean it. This time was no exception.
"[People in the media] have a terrible cross to bear," he said. "Let's look at it from their point of view, okay? What a great responsibility they take on. They have to decide the fate of the world every day. They have to be able to tell people who their leaders should be, what the right decisions are to make...and it's very hard to do that, it's hard to be able to make those decisions."
He went on:
"You have to remember that this is kind of a throwback to another era, when there were vast amounts of people who could barely read, who couldn't really make decisions on their own. So they had to be guided. So what a difficult position to be in, to know that you always have to guide people as to exactly what to think... So you have to have compassion for people in that situation."
Regarding the upcoming primary, Kucinich was fairly unequivocal when asked to name the main issue that distinguishes him from the remaining candidates in the field:
Q: Leaving Al Sharpton aside for a moment, in what way can you say that you present a real alternative to George Bush in a way that John Kerry or John Edwards does not?
A: On the war. You know, both of them have the unfortunate occasion of having parroted the president's position on weapons of mass destruction. And not only parroted it, but in the case of Sen. Kerry, greatly embroidered and embellished it. Just look at his speech, I think it was October 9, 2002–he goes into tremendous detail about the weapons of mass destruction, he is tremendously detailed about the threat. And then for it to have turned out... What a great concession, to admit to having been fooled by George Bush, and then calling this a qualification for the presidency... (voice trails off, goes silent)
A: (returning, thoughtfully) I mean, perhaps it is a qualification for the presidency, and what does that say? I was never subject to the rarefied atmosphere of the Senate, but as the ranking Democrat on a congressional subcommittee devoted to national security, I never saw any proof that there were weapons of mass destruction.
Q: But a lot of us who were on the outside, who didn't even have the privilege of being in Congress, we supposed automatically that this whole weapons of mass destruction business was a pretext for an invasion that was planned all along for other reasons. Is that correct? Is the idea that they were fooled a little strange to begin with?
A: Of course it is. And of course that's what was going on. But there were a number of things that went into this, that played a part. One of those things was the whole dramaturgy of the constant threat, the lions and tigers and bears, oh my, and that was played up. And then there was the realpolitik search for hegemony in the region. And on top of that there was the posturing of various political leaders who were engaged in this ridiculous struggle to look tough. So this raises the question of what category of person you want your president to be in. That's not to say that the others aren't fine people in their own right. But it does say that when we entered a war that was totally unnecessary, that...I challenged the White House, I challenged the members of my own party, I challenged the media. And they did not [act] and so having given in to the administration on the war, it made it impossible for the party to challenge the White House on economic issues.
Q: Wasn't the vote that Kerry and Edwards made also just generally an endorsement of the whole idea of pre-emptive war?
A: Absolutely. It licensed pre-emptive attack.
Q: Because when the newspapers today talk about the vote that the two senators made, they generally discuss it only in the context of their having believed there were weapons of mass destruction. But wasn't there a larger issue, which involved lessening the standards for going to war?
A: Yes–but again, what are the implications of their having believed there were weapons of mass destruction? It's not just about a vote, the vote was what it was, but what information did they have? It just raises the question–what were they thinking? I mean, if they were fooled by George Bush–who else would they be fooled by?
In case you haven't seen Kucinich in a debate or haven't read this in the newspapers: He is the only candidate in favor of ending the for-profit system of health care and replacing it with free, universal single-payer health care. When I asked him how this compares with Kerry's plan of making the Senate health plan available to everyone, he explained:
"The Senate health plan is a government-subsidized for-profit health plan. I'm talking about eliminating those for-profit costs entirely. Plus my plan covers everything–dental, mental health, ambulatory care..."
"Wait a minute," I interrupted, "the Senate health plan doesn't have dental? Or mental health?"
"Oh, no," he said.
"So what does John Kerry do when he falls down and breaks a tooth?"
Kucinich didn't laugh. "I can't speak for John Kerry, but I'm sure he can make other arrangements. He probably has another plan."