Confessions of a Kucinich Voter
I’ve been thinking, this week, of some lines from Ken Kesey’s great novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Specifically, those in which McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the film) and Harding duel for bull goose loony of the hospital ward:
“Mr. Bibbit, you might warn this Mr. Harding that I’m so crazy I admit to voting for Eisenhower.”
“Bibbit! You tell Mr. McMurphy I’m so crazy I voted for Eisenhower twice!”
“And you tell Mr. Harding right back”—he puts both hands on the table and leans down, his voice getting low—“that I’m so crazy I plan to vote for Eisenhower again this November.”
“I take off my hat,” Harding says, bows his head, and shakes hands with McMurphy.
I always think of this scene when I recall casting my vote in the 2004 Democratic Primary for Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman and two-time presidential candidate whose political career seems over with the loss of his House seat on Tuesday (he was a victim of congressional redistricting). No, I did not vote for Dennis Kucinich for president twice, though he ran again, in 2008, and no, I won’t be voting for him this year. But I was crazy enough to do so once.
Technically, I was not alone in this. In 2004, Willie Nelson and Sean Penn endorsed Kucinich, and in the end over 600,000 people, or about 4% of primary voters, chose him. I say “in the end” because his total was inflated by the fact that he remained in the race until late July, endorsing John Kerry just before the convention, while every other candidate dropped out in the spring. He gained 5 percent of the vote or less in 35 different states, which is my favorite Dennis Kucinich stat, because it captures perfectly the sort of cheerful and somewhat-doomed doggedness that characterized him.
Despite all this, to the best of my knowledge, I never actually knew anyone else who voted for him—not anyone who admitted it, anyway. And I have not really admitted it, either, until now. But I did vote for him, and it was a little crazy. For one thing, at no point in time was there any chance whatsoever that Dennis Kucinich could be the Democratic nominee, let alone the president. For another, Kucinich himself was a little, well, crazy. To wit:
He was the boy mayor of Cleveland, and the city declared bankruptcy under his watch. After losing reelection, he stayed in L.A. with his friend Shirley MacLaine. They saw a UFO together; Kucinich felt “a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind.” Later he found himself in New Mexico. Somehow he got back into politics, and in 1996 was elected to Congress. In a 2002 conference on “The Alchemy of Peacebuilding,” he said,
The energy of the stars becomes us. We become the energy of the stars. Stardust and spirit unite and we begin: one with the universe, whole and holy. From one source, endless creative energy, bursting forth, kinetic, elemental; we, the earth, air, water and fire-source of nearly fifteen billion years of cosmic spiraling.
Wait, there’s more! During one 2004 debate, Kucinich, then single, said,
As a bachelor I get a chance to fantasize about my first lady, and maybe Fox wants to sponsor a national contest or something . . . And I’d certainly want a dynamic, outspoken woman who was fearless in her desire for peace in the world, and for universal, single-payer health care in a full-employment economy. If you’re out there call me.
Later, after I voted for him, he married a tongue-studded woman 30 years his junior, and he brought articles of impeachment against George Bush and Dick Cheney. Oh, and he also sued the House cafeteria over an olive pit.
For all of these reasons and more he became, in the eyes of many, the emblem of the loony antiwar left. The New Republic called him “ludicrous,” The Daily Beast “a national laughingstock.” Quixotic was a word often used, and rightfully so, to describe his presidential runs. An L.A. Times article about his recent loss noted that he “could sometimes draw snickers from those who viewed his passions—which included efforts to try to stop the Iraq war and impeach President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as his vegan diet—as throwbacks to an earlier era.” Yes, three equally crazy eccentricities right there! The vegan left, so loony in its protesting bad wars.
So why did I vote for him?
Precisely because of his unequivocal opposition to the Iraq War. Because he seemed comfortable in his own awkward skin (unlike a certain current GOP frontrunner). Because he wanted to create a Department of Peace (Department of Peace! Remember this the next time someone claims that Barack Obama, whose administration recently claimed the right to kill Americans who have joined terrorist groups abroad, is far left of mainstream American liberalism). Perhaps because I did not know as much about politics as I ought to have, had not fully explored all the positions, all the options.
But to be honest, I think I also voted for him with some of the detached psuedoserious irony that we would later come to ascribe to hipsters. It was funny to tell my very serious political roommate that I was voting for the antiwar dude who had seen aliens. And there was a certain freedom in that my vote did not seem to matter—Kerry won 46 states that year, and had the nomination wrapped up well before I sent in my absentee ballot for Pennsylvania. I look back sometimes on this vote with the sort of silly, secret guilt we feel over minor transgressions, only I am not quite sure where the guilt stems from: that I actually voted for Dennis Kucinich, or that, even as I was voting for him, I still did not take him completely seriously.
Consider: In the fall of the 2003, I drove with friends up to Manchester, New Hampshire, for a jam-packed day of candidate-following. I saw John Kerry glide gracefully around an ice-skating rink to U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I saw John and Elizabeth Edwards in a school gymnasium, Joe Lieberman and his mother in a packed stairwell. Was Kucinich there that day in New Hampshire? Did we see him? Did we not bother to visit any of his events? I don’t know. Maybe. I can’t remember.
In a strange way that is somehow pleasing to me, I view Obama as carrying on Kucinich’s legacy, though I have no sense at all, of course, that Obama (or anyone else) thinks this. It was Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War that propelled him to the forefront of national Democratic politics and, eventually, the White House, where he passed a universal health care bill. Universal health care and withdrawing from Iraq: those were the twin drums on which Kucinich banged relentlessly during the 2004 campaign. Here he is, in January of that year, sounding downright Obama-esque in his mixture of optimism and pragmatism:
It’s true, I am an idealist. But why should we assume that our ideals do not have a practical basis? I’m idealistic about peace. But what could be more impractical than war—particularly this war in Iraq? I support health care for all. It’s an ideal, but it’s very practical too because there’s so many people without health care today because of a for-profit system. We could turn this around and say that war is cynical, and that war profiteering is cynical, that unemployment is cynical, and all these things lead to despair. My candidacy is about a celebration of hope. It’s about an end to cynicism, an end of despair, an end to fear and the beginning of hope. We have to have confidence in the authenticity of our ideals. We have to have confidence that we can make those ideals part of the life of our nation.
Dennis Kucinich predicted from the start that we would regret the Iraq War, that it was wrong, that it would cost more in lives and dollars than we expected. And it did. Maybe, in the end, we should have taken him more seriously. And maybe I shouldn’t have been so ashamed to have voted for him.