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.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."