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Dennis Kucinich: A peace-seeking idealist to the core

The congressman from Ohio makes his second run for the White House, wanting healthcare for all Americans and peace for the world.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 2007


To understand the importance Dennis Kucinich places on spirituality, scan his generally spare Capitol Hill office: a white cloth from the Dalai Lama, a bust of Gandhi, and a picture representing "conscious light" – a gift from Brahma Kumaris nuns.

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There's a Tibetan dragon washbowl and, on his desk, two heavy crucifixes once worn by Catholic nuns who taught him and who, he says, "saved my life."

"Obviously, I connect with all religions," says Representative Kucinich (D) of Ohio, in the midst of his second presidential campaign. "All manners of belief and even non-belief come from a common font, and that is the transcendent power of the human heart.... All those things that would separate us are based on misunderstandings of our nature."

They're somewhat unusual religious views for someone who still considers himself essentially Roman Catholic. But then, little about Kucinich is orthodox.

While his colleagues in Congress recently voted for more military funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he is pushing for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and advocates cutting money from the defense budget. In the middle of the war on terror, he wants to establish a Department of Peace. He's the only Democratic presidential candidate who wants a Medicare system for all Americans, supports gay marriage, and advocates repealing the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdrawing from the World Trade Organization.

The congressman is also, by all reckonings, a long shot for the nomination. The latest national polls have him hovering around 1 percent. (He often wins online polls with strong liberal leanings.)

But Kucinich, who projects supreme confidence in both his views and his abilities, is anything but discouraged.

Another item he keeps in his congressional office is an original script from "The Man of La Mancha," a gift from a cast member. It's an apt memento, since Kucinich has been tilting at windmills and dreaming impossible dreams most of his life.

Quoting the romantic poets

The eldest of seven children, he grew up in a household that was chronically short of money and often had trouble finding an apartment that would accept so many children. The family moved more than 20 times and, at one point, lived out of their 1948 Dodge. Kucinich worked to pay his tuition to the Catholic schools he attended and was one of the first in his family to graduate from high school. A sports lover despite his 5-foot, 7-inch frame, he played football and basketball – and endured brutal hazing from teammates – until he was diagnosed with a heart murmur and told to stop.

From the time he was young, Kucinich has been reading the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Browning, and the Romantic poets. He still quotes them and considers many of their ideas part of his broader sense of faith. A particular favorite is Percy Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" – whose final lines mirror Kucinich's own belief that love and hope must challenge oppression. "Tennyson – 'Come, My friends, 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.' Browning – 'A man's reach should exceed his grasp,' " Kucinich says. "The romantic poets had this understanding of the power of the human spirit…. That to me corresponds to religion, and to me the power of the human heart is an article of faith."

Those sentiments – that one should strive for the impossible, and try to create something better – were also drilled into him by the nuns in Kucinich's high school, St. John Cantius. Those ideas influenced his desire to be a politician – and to start young. Kucinich first ran for political office when he was 20 and nearly defeated a longtime city council incumbent in Cleveland. He looked even younger than he was, and news stories at the time referred to him as "Dennis the Menace" and "Alfalfa." Two years later he ran again and won.

In his 2007 memoir, "The Courage to Survive," Kucinich writes of telling a high school friend that he would be mayor of Cleveland by the time he was 30. He wasn't far off; in fact, he was elected mayor in 1977 at age 31, the youngest mayor of a major American city.