Is the One
Studs Terkel, The Nation, May 6, 2002
When I finished reading John Nichols's exhilarating communiqué
from California ("Kucinich
Rocks the Boat," March 25), the bells
began to ring. In his speech to the Southern California
Americans for Democratic Action, criticizing Bush's conduct
of the war on terrorism, Dennis Kucinich set the crowd on
its ear--one standing ovation after another. Sure, they
were all liberals, but what counted was the response on
the Internet. The Cleveland Congressman's e-mail box was
stuffed to overflowing with 20,000-plus enthusiastic letters.
Among them was the call: Kucinich for President. That's
when--bingo!--I remembered my first encounter with him.
It was twenty-four years ago.
At the arrival gate of the Chicago-to-Cleveland flight,
a skinny kid who appeared no more than 19 or 20 reached
out for my torn duffel bag. I thought he was one of those
Horatio Alger heroes, whose opening line is usually "Smash
your baggage, mister?" This one said, "Did you
have a good flight, Studs?" I'll be damned, he was
the person I had come to visit, Dennis Kucinich, the Boy
Mayor of Cleveland.
He was 32 then, though he could pass as anybody's office
boy. As he carried my bag through the corridors of the airport,
passers-by called out, "Hello, Mr. Mayor." I was
slightly discombobulated, turning around several times to
make sure whom they were addressing. The following are passages
from our conversation in 1978.
At his one-family bungalow, his wife makes coffee. A player
piano is about the only piece of furniture that might distinguish
the house from any other simply furnished home in this working-class
neighborhood. "Some of my neighbors are within ten
years of retirement." A photograph of Thomas Jefferson,
in the shadows, hangs on the wall.
When I was young, I never dreamed of living in a house like
this. We were always renters. A number of times we moved;
it was because we were kicked out. It wasn't for failure
to pay rent. It was because our family was big. I remember
sometimes, in order to get a place, one of the kids had
to be hid in the closet. We always lived above some railroad
I'm the oldest of seven. There were a lot of tough times.
My father came from a family of thirteen children, my mother
from a family of a dozen. Our story is an ethnic Gone With
the Wind. (Laughs)
I spent all my time as a youngster coming to understand
the experience of the ghetto. It was growing up tough and
growing up absurd. I spent a lot of time out on the streets.
That's where I got my education. I made friends with all
kinds of people, black and white.
My dad's been a truck driver ever since he got out of the
service as a Marine. He's gung-ho. His dream was to have
all his boys in the Marines. My brother Frank served four
years, two and a half in Vietnam. My brother Gary served
five years, most of it in Hawaii. My father never questioned
authority. His authority was the guy who ran the trucking
I've always been taught to respect authority, although I
was more independent than the other kids my age. I was constantly
getting into squabbles with teachers. I was the first person
in my family, on both sides, who ever graduated from college.
I love literature. My mother taught me to read when I was
In the late sixties, I didn't go right from high school
to college. I worked for two and a half years. When I was
17, I moved on my own and rented an apartment above the
steel mills. In the same neighborhood where The Deer Hunter
was filmed. The frame house I lived in overlooked the steel
When I was in grade school, I would scrub floors and help
with janitorial duties to pay my tuition. When I got into
high school, I worked as a caddy at the country club, from
1959 to '64. I was carrying two bags. They called it workin'
doubles. Going forty-five holes a day, six days a week.
I believe in the work ethic. There's a tremendous dignity
in work, and it doesn't matter what it is. What some consider
menial, I found to be just a chance to make a living. I
always tried to do the best I could at that time. Work hard,
get ahead, that was my American dream.
We lived next door to black people. It was integrated. There's
a lot of poor and working ethnics who have to struggle their
way into the system, who can identify with black people's
striving. I'm trying to show both that the color of the
enemy is green. (Laughs) This is a city run by the Mayflower-type
aristocracy. It's as if the people here don't even exist.
Until recently. We seized the decision-making power through
the ballot box. If the black movement did one thing, it
created ethnic pride.
I'd ask myself why it is that with so many people trying
to improve society, not that much changes. As I looked around,
I saw many of the kids I grew up with trapped, not able
to get as far as they would have liked. I started to wonder,
What the heck is this? No matter how hard they work, they
can't get ahead. Seeing all these people working their heads
off, you find out the system is rigged.
When I first started, I didn't question the institutions.
I never really put it together. I think it was the Vietnam
War. I'd see that some people were profiting, while tens
of thousands of Americans were dying. Friends of mine went
over there, and they died. Kids I rode the bus with to school.
I started to think: This is a dirty business. I'd better
start to find out more about it.
I began to get into city politics. In 1967, I ran for the
City Council. I was 21. I went from door to door, and I
found out about people. Every campaign I've ever run has
been door to door. I spent months just talking to people.
They don't ask for much, but they don't get anything. They
can have a problem with a streetlight that's out, with a
street that's caved in, with a fire hydrant that's leaking,
with flooded basements, with snow that isn't plowed.
I've visited tens of thousands of homes over the past years.
That's how I got my real education. Door to door.
I was elected councilman in '69. I had just turned 23. My
ward was made up of Polish, Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks,
Slovaks, Appalachians, Puerto Ricans, blacks. It was a good
cross section not only of Cleveland but of America. They
worked in the mills around here. Some had lived in the neighborhood
sixty years. Same homes. The churches are still here. They
say masses in Polish and Slovak and Russian. They helped
keep the neighborhood alive. I loved it.
People were wondering how the heck I got elected to the
Council. No one believed the old councilman could ever be
beaten, he was so entrenched. At first, people wondered
if the banks sent me there. Or the utilities. Or some big
real estate interests. All the traditional contributors
who buy their candidates. I was elected on a shoestring.
I financed nearly my whole campaign out of my pocket, my
savings, which weren't much. I put together a coalition
of people who were disaffected and ignored.
first thing, some of the older guys came up to me and said:
"You got it made now, kid. All you have to do is take
your seat and shut up. If you just listen to what we tell
you, you're gonna be a big man in this town someday."
When I started stepping on toes, I didn't know I was stepping
on toes. I was just representing the people who sent me
to the City Council. I didn't know I was offending somebody
else. I found out very quickly there were a number of special-interest
groups who made city hall their private warren. There are
thirty-two councilmen. Thirty-one to one was usually the
When I got elected mayor, just as I came to the Council,
I was expected to represent the system. When I started to
challenge it, the titans of Cleveland's business community
began to get surly and used their clout in the media to
disparage the administration. I came to understand that
big business has a feudal view of the city, and that city
hall was within their fiefdom.
When I was elected mayor on November 8, 1977, it was discovered
that the previous administration had misspent tens of millions
of dollars of bond funds. They could not be accounted for.
The city was trying to negotiate the renewal of $14 million
worth of notes held in local banks. One bank talked: the
Cleveland Trust Company.
I had a meeting on the day of default at 8 o'clock in the
morning, with the Council president, the chairman of the
board of Cleveland Trust and a local businessman, a friend
of mine. The conversation turned immediately to MUNY Light.
The chairman of the board of Cleveland Trust made it very
clear that if I sold MUNY Light to the Cleveland Electric
Illuminating Company, he would extend credit and save the
city from default. CEI's largest shareholder is Cleveland
Trust. Four members of Cleveland Trust's board are directors
of CEI. If I didn't agree, I could not expect any help from
MUNY Light has 46,000 customers in Cleveland. MUNY Light
and CEI compete in most neighborhoods, street by street,
house by house. MUNY Light's rates in the recent decades
have been from 20 to 60 percent cheaper than CEI's, but
MUNY Light's competitive advantage has depreciated over
the years because of CEI's interference in MUNY's management.
From the moment Mr. Weir [Brock Weir, chairman of the board
of CEI] told me his price, I decided that a fiscal default
was better than a moral default. If I had cooperated with
them and sold MUNY Light to the private utility, everyone's
electric rates would've automatically gone up. It would
have set the stage for never-ending increases, much the
same way that Fort Wayne, Indiana, is faced with that problem
after relinquishing its rights to a municipal electric system.
was hoping I was doing the right thing in holding my ground.
I had to tell 'em no. I felt they were trying to sell the
city down the river. They were trying to blackmail me. If
I went along with the deal, they made it clear, things would
be easy. Mr. Weir said he'd put together $50 million of
new credit for the city. The financial problems would be
solved. My term as mayor would be comfortable and the stage
set for future cooperation between myself and the business
The media picked up the tempo. Why the heck don't you get
rid of MUNY Light? I was asked on a live TV show. I replied
that MUNY Light was a false issue. It wasn't losing money.
Its troubles could be traced to CEI's interference. I was
in office a little over a year and had inherited a mess.
The city had a plan to avoid default, to which five of the
six banks agreed: an income-tax increase, as well as tighter
control of the management of the city's money. That's one
of the reasons I got elected. I knew I was risking my whole
political career. But you gotta stand for something.
The referendum was to be on February 27. Both issues were
on the ballot: the income-tax increase and the sale of MUNY
Light. We organized volunteers. People went door to door,
in the freezing rain and the bitter cold, subzero temperatures
and big snow. We laid out the hard facts. We were facing
the attempt of corporations to run the city. We gave the
people a choice between a duly elected government and an
un-duly elected shadow government.
We were outspent two and a half to one, but we created circumstances
where people came to understand that every person can make
a difference. We won both issues by about two to one. It
was the first time in Cleveland's history that we succeeded
in uniting whites and blacks, poor and middle class, on
economic issues. Usually, they've been manipulated against
each other. Not this time.
My concept of the American dream? It's not the America of
IBM, ITT and Exxon. It's the America of Paine and Jefferson
and Samuel Adams. There are increasingly two Americas: the
America of multinationals dictating decisions in Washington,
and the America of neighborhoods and rural areas, who feel
left out. I see, in the future, a cataclysm: popular forces
converging on an economic elite, which feels no commitments
to the needs of the people. That clash is already shaping
The American Revolution never really ended. It's a continuing
process. I think we're approaching the revolution of hope.
We have the country that makes it possible for people, if
they've lost control of the government, to regain it in
a peaceful way. Through the ballot box. Before I got into
politics, I didn't know whether what I was doing even mattered.
Now I know. One person can make a difference. I think it's
something every person can learn. The main thing is, you
can't be afraid.
* * *
In November 1979, with just about all of Cleveland's newspapers
and television and radio stations--as well as industry--united
against him, Kucinich was defeated for re-election. Fifteen
years later, he began his political comeback, elected to
the Ohio Senate. His key issue: expanding Cleveland's municipal
electrical system, which provided low-cost power to almost
half the residents of Cleveland. In 1988, the Cleveland
City Council honored him for "having the courage and
foresight to refuse to sell the city's municipal electric
system." It was the same political body that in years
past outvoted him thirty-one to one.
Today, in his second term as a US Congressman from Ohio,
he is chairman of the Progressive Caucus, and its spark
plug. His website reads like a press release: "He combines
a powerful political activism with a spiritual sense of
the interconnectedness of all living things. His holistic
worldview carries with it a passionate commitment to public
service, peace, human rights, workers' rights and the environment.
His advocacy of a Department of Peace seeks not only to
make nonviolence an organizing principle in our society,
but to make war archaic." This sounds naïve and
loonily idealistic, except for one thing: He is a remarkably
practical and astute politician. His Ohio track record tells
It was his voice in the State Senate that caused Ohio to
scrap the planned siting of a nuclear waste dump in the
state. He gets things done in no small way because of his
understanding of his opponents' humanness as well as his
wrongness. There is an ultraconservative congressman from
a nearby state whom Kucinich describes as a "good,
honest man." I spoke to that Congressman and discovered
that he admires Dennis very much. You get the idea? I think
this guy can reach anyone and change seemingly unchangeable
minds. (Personal note: Dennis, there's one thing I'd like
to change your mind on--your stand on a woman's right to
choose. I know, because of your background, you are of two
minds on the subject. I have faith in your honesty and in
your belief in the dignity of the person that you will make
the right choice: pro.)
It's more than a hunch that tells me Kucinich Is the One
(if I may borrow a Nixonian slogan). I am a believer in
egalitarianism, and I feel it's high time an Ohioan had
another shot at the presidency. We've had only three since
the eminently forgettable Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.
In 1896, Ohio gave us William McKinley, with a little help
from his boss, Mark Hanna. In 1908, it gave us William Howard
Taft, fondly remembered as the heaviest occupant in the
history of the White House. And in 1920, we were gifted
with the genial, handsome, presidential-looking Warren Gamaliel
Harding. Even though I was only 8 at the time, I remember
it with some sense of pride because his nomination happened
in my hometown, Chicago. In a smoke-filled room at the Blackstone
Hotel, the Boys, blowing wondrous smoke rings from H. Upmanns,
with a touch of bourbon or two to lift all spirits, boozily
announced that Harding's the one. Sure, he was as little
known, say, as Dennis Kucinich, but with the leading candidates,
Gen. Leonard Wood and Governor Frank Lowden in a damn deadlock,
they said, What the hell, here's a good-lookin' guy. And
we gotta get home.
Now, in the year 2002, Ohio has given us another, of a somewhat
different stripe. I doubt whether he'll ever make People
magazine's list of the most beautiful people, but the blue-collar
Kucinich is the only one who can win back the blue-collar
Reagan Democrats, among the other disenchanted, and the
disfranchised. He talks the language they understand and,
at 55, with a remarkable eloquence.
Imagine him in a televised, coast-to-coast debate with Dubya.
Blood wouldn't flow, but it would be a knockout in the first
round, and we'd have an honest-to-God working-class President
for the first time in our history. It's a crazy thought,
of course, but it's quite possible, considering the roller-coaster
nature of our times.
Since plagiarism is à la mode these days, let me
steal the closing passage from the Rev. William Sloane Coffin's
invocation at a Yale commencement during the Vietnam War:
"Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take
our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set
them on fire." I'll add a brief benediction: Kucinich
is the man to light the fire. Amen.
Postscript. Obviously, I haven't touched on ways and means.
Obviously, the big dough will not be there. But this could
be the catapult for the hundreds of grassroots groups on
a thousand and one issues to coalesce behind one banner.
Jim Hightower has touched on that often. And Michael Moore's
book Stupid White Men is a bestseller. And there's a whole
new generation of kids, not just the students, but bewildered,
lost blue-collar kids. And, strangely enough, it can be
done the old-fashioned way, shoe leather and bell-ringing,
as well as e-mails. It could be that exciting. Nicholas
von Hoffman once observed that when people get active, they
get the feeling they count. Kucinich is like Poe's purloined
letter--right there on the table as we helplessly play Inspector
Clouseau goofily searching elsewhere.
Cleveland Ohio Office
Phone 216 252.9000 / Fax 216 251.8377
Washington D.C. Office
Phone 202 225.5871 / Fax 202 225.5745
Chief of Staff Doug Gordon