Remember that kid in high school who ran for class president, the one who wasn't popular, who didn't have money or dress well or even make a decent hallway poster? Now imagine if he sticks to it so long he starts to win. And by the time he's 23, he's a city councilman in Cleveland. At 31, he's the country's youngest big city mayor. All this success, you figure, would make his skin glow a little, his suits a bit spiffier, his speeches a little punchier. But what if he was so damn earnest that it didn't? What if at 60 he still looked and sounded like Dennis Kucinich?
You would make fun of him. And you did.
But Kucinich--a six-term Congressman who is running for President despite consistently coming in last in the 2004 primaries and first in talk-show monologues--doesn't care. Because he's so sure that what he's been saying for four years is right--he's for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, ratifying Kyoto, universal health care--he's convinced there's a moment coming, some event or speech or interview, when voters will suddenly realize he's not a joke: "When people see what I have to say, they go, 'Hey, wait. He's right about the war. Ha-ha. He's right about health care. Ha-ha.'" Kucinich believes deeply in the coming of this grand American epiphany even if no one outside his tiny camp does. "How can you take someone seriously that led us to war and not take someone seriously who stood for peace? It's a commentary on where we are as a society," he says. "Do we value celebrity over truth?"
That, of course, is a decision that society made when Star magazine launched. And Kucinich isn't a celebrity; he's an aging, 5-ft. 7-in. vegan. Last Saturday, as he spoke at a lectern on the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles, accepting a Champion for Peace Award from the members of Military Families Speak Out at an Oscars for Peace event, none of the hundreds of people who walked right in front of him stopped, despite the fact that he was standing next to an 8-ft.-tall Oscar clad in camouflage and missing a leg.
Unlike most fringe presidential candidates, Kucinich has years of experience in elective office. But even mainstream liberals won't support a candidate who wants to end the war on drugs and create a Department of Peace. Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman passed over him for chairman of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, which he was in line to take over. Even Shirley MacLaine, who has been friends with Kucinich since the '70s, sees how his party won't embrace him. "Maybe it's because he doesn't speak doublespeak and we're so used to seeing that as leadership," she says. "Or maybe it's because he's so short."
And yet the universe has been going his way lately. Even his old kooky ideas are looking pretty good these days. His decision to allow Cleveland to default instead of selling its electric-utility company cost him re-election and landed him in a book about the worst mayors in American history, but he was later honored by the city council for refusing to sell, a move that saved customers nearly $200 million over 10 years. More inconceivable, less than two years ago, his office was visited by a stunning 6-ft.-tall Julianne Moore look-alike 31 years his junior, a Brit who was working for the American Monetary Institute. After some smooth wooing on his part ("I gave her a copy of my Department of Peace legislation and my e-mail address") and one date (at MacLaine's house), she agreed to marry him. If that happened to you, you'd think you could be President too.
Kucinich said he knew after that first meeting that Elizabeth would be his third wife: "I went up to Stephanie Tubbs Jones [Ohio Democratic Congresswoman], and I said, 'I met her.' And Stephanie said, 'Shut up!'" Now with his new bride constantly at his side, Kucinich has picked up his campaigning a little. Speaking to the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, he broke into Sixteen Tons (standing ovation from Jesse Jackson; four stars on YouTube). At an event in Nevada, Kucinich ended his speech with his new move: after listing his goals, he asks, "Why is it I'm able to do this?" Then he puts his arms out and spins, waiting for someone to yell, "No strings!" Once someone does, he twirls more and then yells, "A President with no strings!" (five stars on YouTube).
Kucinich will run all the way, waiting for that moment when he transforms from punch line to President. And he insists that he isn't frustrated that it hasn't happened yet. "Not at all," he says. "The real test of power is whether you can endure the setbacks and still meet each day with integrity and courage." That, though, is the test of moral fiber, not the test of power. The test of power is whether you can persuade others to do your will. And it may be that an earnest man with progressive ideas who still can't make a decent campaign poster will always fail that test.