`Congressman Kucinich, why are you here?'
He's an unconventional character running in the U.S. Democratic primaries, but he's not giving up - and no one quite understands why.
WASHINGTON - When the race for the Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency began, they were 10. Now only four remain: John Kerry, who is the front-runner; John Edwards, who is still hoping to surprise Kerry; Al Sharpton, who is staying on in the race to ensure that the Afro-American voice is heard; and Dennis Kucinich, who is not giving up - and no one understands why.
Last Thursday, Kucinich participated in a public debate between the candidates, in California. The first question put to him by Larry King, who moderated, was: "Congressman Kucinich, why are you here?" Kucinich, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, and the most liberal and left-wing of the candidates, is used to being treated with that type of disdain. Speaking to Haaretz a day later, he said that the media had already made one mistake in the Democratic race when they eulogized Kerry. "It's hard being a reporter covering the Democratic race because you need a sense of prophecy that most human beings don't have. I have a lot of compassion for them," he said.
Both Kucinich's positions and his style are unconventional. He is the most vociferous opponent of the war in Iraq, and the most vociferous critic of the Bush administration's preemptive strike; and he has very atypical positions also about internal and economic affairs. While the other candidates have called warily for some kind of general health insurance for every citizen, Kucinich believes that the federal government should take charge of such insurance, an idea which Americans, who believe in a non-interventive administration, can hardly comprehend.
Moreover, at a time when Kerry and Edwards have barely touched on the subject of American trade agreements and their effect on the economy, Kucinich has a clear picture of what should be done: to pull immediately out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and all other economic treaties to which Washington is a signatory.
The 56-year-old Kucinich does not look like a future president. He is short, dresses in unconventional clothes (some say sloppily), and is a vegan. Unlike the other candidates, he does not have a supportive wife at his side. Instead, he goes on highly publicized dates during the race, in the hope of winning not only the presidency but also true love.
Out of Iraq
Kucinich decided to join in the race because of the war in Iraq. He relates how, even before the war was looming, during a California convention, he came out strongly against fighting Iraq and began getting letters of support. Some of them proposed he run for president and he took them seriously. "It is clear that the U.S. made a grave mistake in invading Iraq. It's clear to everyone now that Iraq was not responsible for 9/11, for the Anthrax attacks, that it did not pose a threat of attacking the United States and that it had no weapons of mass destruction," he says.
The first thing Kucinich would do if he were elected president would be to pull the American troops out of Iraq and put UN forces there instead. In general, he believes the lesson to be learned from the Iraq war is that the U.S. has to give up the right it sees for itself to invade any country in the world.
The Iraq war is also Kucinich's main card against the other candidates. "They are trying to be for the war and against it at the same time," he says about Kerry and Edwards, who voted in favor in Congress. In any event, the two leading candidates do not consider Kucinich a threat and do not relate to his claims.
Kucinich has a very unconventional point of view in the field of foreign policy. He believes that the Americans, who have a large Defense Department with huge budgets, should set up an equally large Peace Department. "It might seem naive," he admits, but says there is no region in the world that needs more urgent help understanding that people cannot go on killing each other forever than the Middle East.
Kucinich's idea for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on the establishment of a Palestinian state as soon as possible. "If there is a Palestinian state, you will not have to occupy the territories," he says, but hastens to add that details must first be worked out.
Belief in Sharon
Kucinich was very impressed with the Geneva Initiative, saying it is proof that people with opposing views can sit down together and reach agreement, but he believes, not unexpectedly, that the Bush government has missed the boat. He says Bush and his aides were so busy in their first year in office preparing excuses for attacking Iraq that they neglected the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and let the sides slide into a vicious cycle of bloodshed.
Kucinich believes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is sincere when he says a Palestinian state will be established and Israelis will evacuate the settlements ("You should always be open to people that are taking a new approach") but opposes the idea of making Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat irrelevant as a partner. "If the Palestinians chose Arafat to represent them, it might not be useful, but you can't tell them who to choose. It's their decision," he says.
Kucinich's candidacy last week received unexpected backing when he succeeded in coming in second after Kerry in the Hawaii primaries, winning some 30 percent of the vote. It is doubtful whether this reflects a general turnaround in voting patterns that will carry Kucinich to the top of the list, but it strengthened him and members of his camp.
Kucinich has a very meager budget for the race - only several million dollars compared to the tens of millions the other candidates have at their disposal - and a small organizational framework. He does not buy ads on TV or radio and his campaign is based on meetings with the public where he tries to convince the crowd that his is the only way "to save America."
Pop star status
Nevertheless, he does have supporters. In every town he visits, Kucinich succeeds in setting up the most vibrant campaign headquarters where dozens of young people, many of them students, treat him like a pop star. There are quite a few Jews among his active supporters and the assistant campaign manager is a former Israeli, Charles Lenchner. Kucinich makes frequent use of the Hebrew term, tikkun olam (repairing the world), when talking about his plan for world peace.
Numerous Democratic candidates have stressed their modest family origins during their campaigns. Edwards does not miss a chance to talk about how hard his father worked and how he was the only one who received a university education in the family; Wesley Clark told his supporters how he fixed his car alone because he had no money for a garage; and Dick Gephardt kept pointing to his modest family origins. In this respect, Kucinich is more convincing than the others. His family was genuinely poor and wandered from one house to another when he was a child in search of cheap lodgings and work. At one stage, they lived in a deserted car.
Kucinich was attracted to politics from a young age and at one stage his career seemed to hold out promise. At the age of 31, he became the youngest ever mayor of the large city of Cleveland, Ohio, and won a great deal of public support. But during his first term in office, he became involved in a clash with the large banks that tried to get him to sell the public electric company to private investors in order to return loans to them. Kucinich stuck to his guns, saying that the electric company had to remain public, and the banks began an all-out war to get their loans back immediately. The young mayor took Cleveland on a path to bankruptcy and his voters threw him out.
Years later, he decided to use the traumatic affair to rebuild his political career. The city's residents discovered that electricity rates had remained stable for years despite the empty coffers in city hall and decided to elect Kucinich as their representative in the state legislature. In 1997 he was elected to Congress and has remained there ever since. During his campaign, he often tells the traumatic story of his struggle against the banks to show that he is the only candidate who is really fighting for the little man.
Searching for a first lady
In the same way he used his failure in Cleveland as a lever for a renewed political campaign so Kucinich is exploiting his lack of a partner - considered a disadvantage in the American political system - to his advantage. The twice divorced candidate announced at the start of his campaign that he was also opening a new chapter to find a new partner who would be the first lady. He received dozens of offers on the Internet and, accompanied by the cameras, has gone on numerous blind dates while on his campaign trail. Jay Leno recently held a couples game on his show and Kucinich won a date with the actress Jennifer Tilly.
Despite the idiosyncratic aspects of his character, Kucinich is taking his campaign very seriously. He has declared he has no intention of withdrawing and hopes to gain additional successes tomorrow, Big Tuesday, when 10 states will hold primaries. Asked when he would nevertheless realize that he will not be elected, Kucinich says that moment is not near.
"I am in the race up to the convention. The nomination is not done until someone gives his acceptance speech and that moment has not arrived yet," he says. Comparing himself to the mythological horse who won the race despite all odds, Kucinich says: I am like Seabiscuit. I am in back now, but I have a strong finish."
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