The Dennis Kucinich Polka
I meet Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich on December 18 at Cornell College outside of Iowa City. The peace walkers are there. One of them, an emaciated kid with a beard, gives a short speech about hope and stars and enlightenment. There are close to a hundred people. A woman screams from the balcony, "What are you going to do about the unfair way we treat immigrants in this nation? Also Indians? I'm half Indian myself." She continues for five long minutes, explaining her own solution to these problems, and claps loudly as Kucinich repeats her platform with a little more restraint. There is definitely a moment where I think she is going to twist over the rail and fall to the ground. If I were up there, and I were a more violent person, I might push her over myself.
There is no other press traveling with Kucinich. ABC apparently pulled their full-time reporter after Kucinich made a mockery of Ted Koppel at the debate in Durham, New Hampshire.
I climb into the van with Kucinich and Paul, his deputy campaign manager and head of security. We're going to travel to Mount Vernon and Moline, a factory on the edge of a cornfield where they're building vehicle tracking systems, a library, and a bookstore. We'll finish at a house party where a young girl will play an accordion as 60 grown-ups sing the "Dennis Kucinich Polka."
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Kucinich knows how to go off the cuff with the timing of a spoken-word poet. It's great to listen to a politician who can really give a speech. And he's got nothing to lose, because the establishment has already written him off. And probably with good reason. Why cover a candidate who won't win? Kucinich will tell you that's a self-fulfilling prophecy and maybe it is, but it doesn't give him any more of a chance. Kucinich refers to the mainstream media as "the Great Mentioner." And you can tell it personally offends him that he's so ignored. I feel that way too when they don't review my books. I don't even believe in bad reviews, but there's nothing worse than being ignored and if Dennis wants to take on The New York Times I'm right there with him. Those elitist bastards have never once given me so much as a mention.
Kucinich's campaign office in Davenport, Iowa, is two blocks away from a riverboat casino. It's a small office, as one might think, right next to a gigantic undeveloped suite that resembles a concrete ice rink. The gathering is upstairs, in the building's cafeteria. I make a ham sandwich at the small spread on the edge of the room. Several tables are set up and Kucinich walks among them talking mostly about the war in Iraq. When he's done, a man asks him what he intends to do about drug addiction. "Something I have personal experience with," he says smugly. Kucinich takes a while answering and the junkie regularly interrupts him with comments like "That's me," "You got that right," "OK."
This is always a problem with progressive candidates. The people who show up at their events are often crazy, lonely, and starved for attention. Drug addicts are common. As are shamans, witches, and congressional candidates. And what they really want to do is talk about their own issues. They see a spotlight and an opportunity to steal it. And because the lefties are so p.c. nobody says, "Hey, shut up you crazy bastard." You can bet that wouldn't happen at a Bush rally, or a John Edwards rally for that matter, where press secretary Jennifer Palmieri would throw a full-body tackle on the junkie before the nightly news was ready to reposition its cameras. And everyone would pretend nothing happened.
If you were to really just get down to the issues, you would know that Dennis Kucinich is the only candidate--unless you take into account Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton, something I'm not inclined to do--who is in favor of universal health care, as opposed to universal health insurance. He's rabidly anti-privatization. He's also the only candidate suggesting we leave Iraq within 90 days. I don't know how I feel about Iraq. I think if it came down to it, Saddam would have beaten the shit out of Kucinich. It would have looked like a scene from the South Park movie.
But on health care he's clearly right, and that's important. I mean, why give all this money to the insurance companies whose profit margins are increased every time they don't answer the phone? He's probably right on Iraq too.
Late at night before the house party, I experience a deep connection with Kucinich. I can't believe there is no other press covering him. They assign 10 press people to watch John Kerry implode. Why ride in the back of the death bus when the front seat is open and waiting in the happy van? You want to get to know a candidate, this is the way to do it, with your knees touching. At first we were a little cold on each other; after all, I've called him a kook in print before, and I made fun of his veganism, which is ironic considering our moment of connection comes while talking about diets. I confess to Kucinich I drink too much coffee and I've been eating a hamburger a day for the last week. He shakes his head, because he knows writers, and writers always push their emotions too far and their diets reflect that. He explains how he used to drink six cans of Pepsi a day, and how he originally became a vegan to impress a girl.
"That's what I do!" I say, overjoyed. "I do things to impress girls too!" At the second-to-last stop of the day, at a public library, one of his supporters shows up with a huge home-cooked vegan meal. Dennis insists on splitting it with me. "Are you hungry?"
"No, that's OK." But he knows I'm lying. We eat side by side in the van. I'm tired and feeling a little emotional after listening to Kucinich talk about love and peace all day. "Your whole life can change in one moment--that's what people are looking for. They spend their whole lives searching for that." He hands me a bottle of water. I didn't realize how dehydrated I was. The stars are so brilliant that even at 50 miles an hour it looks like the sky might explode.
And I suddenly really think I will cry. "Envision the world as one. We need to think about reparations for all the innocent victims." I think I see a fog bank coming east from Nebraska but I know that's not even possible. I think, look at the telephone lines between Des Moines and Davenport. No way, man. Look at America, just look at it. Would you shed an American tear for the innocent victims? When the collateral damage is counted, will it touch your patriotic heart? Will they pray for us, to save our souls, while we pray for them? Radio Iowa, can you hear me?
It's the best food I've ever had. When it's over I am in an entirely different place and Dennis is splitting his apple pie with me. We are friends. "You're more in touch with your humanity than the other journalists," he says. But he has no idea how in touch I am in that moment. Then there's the house party and the polka. One woman suggests loudly, when asked about vice presidential candidates, "How about a black woman?" I wonder if she is talking about any one in particular or suggesting a constitutional amendment. In the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, we sit for twenty minutes while Dennis speaks with a Christian radio station. Man it's cold outside. In the lobby we hug and have our picture taken together. I realize that I have really been compromised. I don't know how. But when that AP reporter told me not to eat from the John Kerry buffet, that was nothing. That was just baked beans and bacon salad. Kucinich didn't even charge me transportation. He split his meal with me. I love the guy. Could he be president?
Just before I go to sleep I ask myself, Why not love your fellow man, why not peace on earth? In the morning the sun has risen over the enormous Coral Ridge shopping mall, the biggest in Iowa. And the shoppers from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are pulling in like ants returning to a hill. I ask myself the same question, Why not peace on earth? And the answer occurs to me immediately--because the other guy wants to rape your women and kill your children.
When considering Kucinich one has to also consider Cleveland. It's the only way to frame the debate. When I think about Cleveland I think about the canal district and my third week of college. I was sober at the time. I took six years off of drugs and alcohol from the age of sixteen to twenty-two, but in Cleveland I made an exception at the Crazy Horse II. We had driven all the way from the University of Illinois and at first they wouldn't let us in because we didn't have identification and we weren't old enough to drink but then we went back to the car and put on sweaters. We were young and the women were beautiful and we stuffed hundreds of dollars of precious college money into their undergarments. It was my first time in a strip club and I still remember a woman with platinum hair, silver stockings, and five inch heels which she took off to allow me to massage her feet. When it was all over, four a.m., and the Crazy Horse II was closing we asked where a couple of young guys should go to have a good time and the strippers told us to go to Popeye's. But Popeye's turned out to be a gay club.
Dennis Kucinich threw away his political career to save Cleveland's electricity grid. You want to talk about integrity, that's some heavy shit. The city was trying to privatize its electricity. It was all very corrupt, as you would expect. So Kucinich ran on the platform of killing the contracts. He was twenty-six years old, and he won the mayor of Cleveland. But then the big boys stepped in. They said he had to privatize the electric system or they were going to cancel Cleveland's credit. A city with no credit. Political suicide. Everyone, including both parties, told him he had no choice. But he held his ground and the banks cancelled Cleveland's credit so for the remainder of his term he had to run the city on a cash basis. The middle class was embarrassed. The big interests, the fat cats, put a million into ousting the boy mayor and exiling him to a political wasteland. After they got rid of Kucinich they let the issue drop, it had become too much of a hot potato. Cleveland held onto its electricity and Kucinich wouldn't be able to hold office again for fifteen years.
"Those were hard years," Dennis told me, and you know he means it, because all he wanted in life was to hold political office. "Those were lean times, I had to scrape to get by... I taught some classes, did some consulting... Tough times... Fifteen years in the void... You have to keep it together, man." Then he gave me the 'that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger' stuff. But his smile was bitter when he said it. In fact, it wasn't a smile at all.
Fifteen years later people started talking about the success of Cleveland's municipal utility. Kucinich was vindicated. The young mayor had been right. According to Cleveland Magazine between 1985 and 1996 Kucinich's gambit saved taxpayers $185 billion. He was invited to run for office again and won a seat in congress that he held for four terms, that he still holds today, which is why he has two Blackberries, one for campaign email and one for congressional business. So that's the thing. If you're going to understand Kucinich you first have to understand Cleveland.
Stephen Elliott is the author of four novels, including "What It Means to Love You" and "Happy Baby." He is currently working on a book about the 2004 presidential election. More of his writings are at www.stephenelliott.com.