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

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.

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."

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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.

His term lasted just two years, and it was, by all accounts, tumultuous. "He gave the town a nervous breakdown and he wore them out," says Brent Larkin, editorial page editor at The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "It was unlike anything I've seen in my rather long career of paying attention to things that happen in this city. He was a different Dennis then. He was extraordinarily combative."

Kucinich was always at odds with the city council, vetoing dozens of bills it sent to him, which councilors then overrode. He plunged the city into fiscal default when he refused to sell Muny Light, the city-owned electric utility, despite extraordinary pressure from business and a hit placed on him by organized crime, according to police.

"It wasn't mine to sell. It belonged to the people," Kucinich says, explaining a decision that he credits with saving citizens hundreds of millions of dollars in utility rates. Others say it's more complicated – that the city is still paying for the decision with a poor bond rating. One panel of experts included Kucinich in its list of the 10 worst big-city mayors of all time.

But Kucinich came back from the political wasteland – he barely survived a recall election and lost reelection in 1979 – in part based on new evidence that his stand on Muny Light was not only courageous, but, in hindsight, the best decision. "Because he was right" was the slogan that helped him win his 1994 election to the Ohio legislature. Two years later, he was elected to Congress.

"He is the most resilient political figure I have ever met," says Mr. Larkin. "I cannot overstate enough how dead he was politically in 1979…. He really is a tenacious guy."

Against the mainstream

Kucinich has a less combative style these days, but he still relishes standing alone against the political mainstream. He was the only member of Congress to vote against a bill this fall to establish Sept. 11 as a day of remembrance for those who died in the terrorist attacks and who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Because the resolution didn't make reference to "the lies that took us into Iraq, the lies that keep us there, the lies that are being used to set the stage for war against Iran, and the lies that have undermined our basic civil liberties here at home," he chose not to support it, Kucinich said in a statement at the time.

In presidential debates, he calls attention to his solo positions – as the only Democratic candidate supporting a nonprofit single-payer healthcare system, the only one calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, the only one who supports gay marriage and who voted against funding the war in Iraq.

This fall he introduced a bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. In one debate, Kucinich whipped out his pocket-size copy of the Constitution when questioned about his efforts.

"A lot of people don't agree with Dennis on specific issues, but nobody ever doubts where he stands," says Andy Juniewicz, Kucinich's press secretary and a friend who worked as a copy boy with him at the Plain Dealer and has known him for more than 40 years. "He's probably the most courageous elected official I've ever known. Whatever the odds, if he believes he's right, he'll buck those odds and push for what he believes is right."

Kucinich himself explains those positions, which often go against the political mainstream, as simply coming from his internal convictions. "Emerson once wrote, 'Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string….' I've been reading that essay since I was 10 years old."

Still, Kucinich's critics often question whether his views are too extreme, too lacking in nuance and understanding of complexities, or so politically unpalatable as to make his election or the success of his proposals impossible.

"You have to mix the idealism with the practicality or you're foolish," says Timothy Hagen, president of Cleveland's Board of County Commissioners and chairman of the local Democratic Party when Kucinich was mayor. "The question becomes, can you convince enough people that what you're saying has validity and you can make it a reality. He hasn't been able to do that."

It's a criticism that Kucinich is used to, and one he bristles at. A traditional politician who, colleagues say, has probably met everyone in his district three times and is effective at delivering services to his constituents, he believes his ideas are practical – even if they're sometimes ahead of their time.

"I'm grounded in the practical everyday experience of people," he says. "I see paths toward civic health that are practical…. I feel I'm a candidate of the mainstream because I'm not hobbled by those who would purchase or rent my opinion."

Kucinich still lives in the same small house he bought more than 30 years ago and still carries a union membership card – for the stagehand union – in his pocket.

His roots have helped him stay connected to the people he serves, he says.

And he credits the education he received from the Catholic nuns, and the sense of discipline his coach, Peter Pucher, instilled in him, with creating many of the bedrock values that inform his views today.

"He sincerely believes in the kinds of things he's saying and stands for," says Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western University in Cleveland. Professor Lamis remembers going out to lunch with Kucinich and Carl Stokes, the first African-American mayor of a big city and a friend of Kucinich's until his death. The conversation turned to Tom Johnson, a Cleveland mayor at the turn of the 20th century and a leader of the Progressive movement. "They talked about how they considered themselves the only two Cleveland mayors to follow in the Tom Johnson mayoral tradition," says Lamis. "Coming with that tradition is fighting against the well-to-do special interests. It's just what Dennis believes."

A transformational love

But if Kucinich believes he's a candidate of the mainstream, he's rarely treated that way by the media, which tend to highlight some of his wackier moments – his close friendship with actress Shirley MacLaine, for instance, and the fact that he says he has seen a UFO over her house, the subject of a question Tim Russert asked in a Democratic debate this fall.

These days, his marriage is also getting as much attention as his political views. After two failed marriages, Kucinich met Elizabeth Harper, a striking British beauty more than 30 years his junior, in 2005 when she visited his congressional office to talk about monetary policy. He fell instantly in love. They were married less than four months later.

Kucinich explains their meeting and their courtship in near-mystical terms, and says it has transformed his life.

"When you're in a profound loving relationship, that's when the heart has wings and the spirit soars and there's a feeling of everything being right with the world," he says. "It's almost a fulfillment of Spirit and some of St. Paul's epistles when he writes about love." The couple recited the Prayer of Saint Francis at their wedding – the well-known verse that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace." He still hopes that his political career can be a way to work toward a larger world peace. But is this idealistic view of human nature at odds with the realities of a world in which peace often seems impossibly distant?

"It's possible to have your feet on the ground and your eyes looking toward the stars," Kucinich says, in a car rushing to an interview on Fox News to discuss his anger at being excluded from the final Democratic debate in Iowa. "There was a time when the sailors of old sailed by the stars…. It's our obligation to each other to catch the rhythms of the unfolding future which exist in present time, and to call forth, to name it, to set it in motion, to be as architects of new worlds."

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