From Esquire It's Kucinich Time! Fanfare for the common man. And for his lovely wife, Elizabeth. The pure products of America go crazy," wrote William Carlos Williams -- antipoet of "the thing itself" -- but Dr. Williams was from north Jersey, and as far as I know never strayed to Cleveland, whose own pure products long have been flame tempered, union made, and born bat**** insane. So when I tell you that Dennis Kucinich is first of all a sane, sane man, and secondly, fit to be president -- and thirdly: It's Kucinich time, now, because what this blue-balled, war-thwacked nation needs is not another scleroid corporate whore but a sixty-one-year-old vegan peacemonger, poor beyond corruption and honest as spit, hauling balls big enough to both choke Dick Cheney and keep a smile like a woozy kitten's on the love-lit face of a twenty-nine-year-old heartthrob wife; and if not now, when? and if not Dennis, who? -- when I tell you this hand over heart and cheek untongued, then it behooves me also to say that I am a son of the same crooked flaming river, Cleveland-born and -bred and unashamed. But this is another pungent river in another town -- the slate-gray Piscataqua in Portsmouth, New Hampshire -- on a cool May Saturday morning gravid with rain, where five hundred or so union members, families in tow, have gathered in a small park to protest a proposed $2.7 billion deal that would let Verizon spin off its rural New England landline customers to a much smaller outfit in North Carolina, saving Verizon a sweet half billion tax dollars, plus the bother of an expiring union contract, plus the cost of pensions, not to mention the messy, unprofitable matter of bringing broadband to the rubes. It'll also hand Verizon six of the nine directors' seats on the little company's board -- the pickpocket's bump that bares the scam. It is, in short, the sort of humdrum money grab that makes shareholders drool and Kucinich spew lava. He looks small as he strolls through the crowd and takes the makeshift plywood stage, standing short and thin under a blue awning, wearing a ratty tan raincoat, a twelve-year-old boy's haircut, and a crooked grin as he lowers the microphone and barks, "Good morning!" A few in the crowd answer, but it's a safe bet that even they know nothing but his name, if that, and have never heard his voice. It is not the voice of a presidential hopeful -- it doesn't emit Hillary's frozen cheer, drip Edwards's honey, or ooze Obamanic earnestness. It's a four-seam fastball, high and tight, buzzing straight at the ear. "It's great to be here with brothers and sisters of labor," he says -- Kucinich himself is a stagehands' union member -- before turning to the woman standing to his left. She is lush and lean and six feet tall, dressed in a short black jacket, a pale-gold-and-red blouse, and black pants. Her hair falls in twin auburn cascades -- one over her shoulder and down her back, the other curving just beneath her bosom. "Joining me on the stage is my wife, Elizabeth," says Kucinich. He doesn't mention that they met in his congressional office when she came to visit as part of a delegation from the American Monetary Institute two and a half years ago, or that they got engaged a few weeks later down at Shirley MacLaine's spread in New Mexico, or that she boasts a graduate degree in International Conflict Analysis and a silver tongue stud, or that she is the third Mrs. Dennis Kucinich. "It was actually more than thirty years ago," he says, "that I first gained the experience that brings me to this stage today," and then Kucinich tells them the nutshelled version of the Battle of Muny Light, the climax of a yearlong war that began when Dennis was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1977 at the age of thirty-one. It was a dying Rust Belt city by then, a national punch line, hapless and backward in a way that Pittsburgh and Detroit never were. That river -- the Cuyahoga -- had caught fire in 1969, Lake Erie stank of death, the previous mayor had set his own hair ablaze with a welding torch at a ribbon cutting, and his wife had declined a White House dinner invite so as not to miss her bowling night. What had been a boomtown for a century had shrunk to the Mistake on the Lake. Then came Kucinich. Although he had been in city government for nearly eight years before becoming mayor, it felt like Che Guevara had ridden down from the hills to reform the land and free the peasantry. Because he was so young, his election made news all over the world -- good news. Because he filled City Hall with compadres -- some key staffers were in their twenties with no experience in government -- it felt like revolution. And because it was Cleveland, the whole shebang was doomed. If it hadn't been Muny Light -- Municipal Light and Power, the city-owned electric plant -- it would have been something else. The men who had run corporate Cleveland for decades weren't about to hand their power over to a bare-knuckled urban populist who believed that funding city schools and services was more vital than tax abatements for developers, who held court at Tony's Diner on West 117th Street, not the Union Club downtown, and who called them blackmailers and con men in public. Within a year of his election, using his public firing of a police chief as an excuse, they funded a recall election that Kucinich barely survived. But it was Muny Light that did Kucinich in. It was Muny Light that the private utility company in northeast Ohio wanted to swipe from the city, because Muny kept the rates down, killing profit. Before Kucinich took office, the deal had been sealed. All of the pillars who had long ago fled to the suburbs but still owned and bled the town as it withered and grew poor had agreed to strip Cleveland of one of its last real assets. Then this same dinky SOB now up on the stage in his shabby raincoat, running for the White House, told 'em all -- the lawyers and the bankers and the private utility company -- to go pound salt. "Lemme tell ya a little bit about myself," he shouts at the union crowd. "And once you know about me, you'll know why when I tell you what I intend to do about this sale, it's the real thing. I'm the oldest of seven kids, and my parents never owned a home. We lived in twenty-one different places by the time I was seventeen, including a coupla cars. I have this vivid memory of my parents sitting at the kitchen table in one apartment on St. Clair Avenue, one of those old white metal-topped tables that when it's chipped, there's black underneath. I remember them sitting at this table counting the pennies to pay the utility bill. "When I was in a room with the lead banker in Cleveland on December 15, 1978, and he was telling me that I had to sell the city-owned electric system, suddenly I was transported back in time and space to this little boy listening to and watching his parents count the pennies to pay the utility bill" -- and here Kucinich's voice softens -- "I was sitting there with this banker, and I could hear the pennies dropping again -- click...click...click..." Then he reaches back and hurls the four-seamer, up and in. "And because I remembered where I came from, I said no to the sale. I can't be bullied, I can't be bossed, I can't be intimidated, and I can't be tricked. I'm there on behalf of your families -- I'm there on behalf of your jobs. I'm there -- the same person who as a child listened to his parents count the pennies at the table -- " Shouting now, Kucinich pumps his right fist up and down as the crowd cheers. "Mom and Dad! I'm there for all the mothers and fathers who are worried about what they're paying, who are worried about their jobs, who want to make sure that they can claim that this country still belongs to working people, still belongs to the people, and there's someone who will stand for that principle." The folks who know that Dennis Kucinich cannot be elected president of the United States understand that while principle is nice, an excellent and desirable concept, practical politics is the art of the possible. Democracy requires compromise, and principle at times must yield to necessity. Being a Clevelander, Kucinich yields to nothing. Ever. When he said no to the sale of Muny Light, the city's banks, led by Cleveland Trust, made good on their ultimatum and refused to extend the city credit on $14 million worth of short-term notes. And by so doing, they deliberately flushed the city down the fiscal toilet and into default, which made more news around the world -- awful news -- and brought Dennis Kucinich's political career to an apparent end. But not immediately. On December 18, 1978, Mayor Kucinich, surrounded by the media, strode from City Hall to the main branch of Cleveland Trust downtown and withdrew his paltry life savings in protest. And because it was Cleveland, on the very same day, blocks away, his youngest brother, Perry Kucinich, robbed a different bank. Perry wasn't really a criminal; he was literally insane. But it sure looked bad for Dennis. Because it was Cleveland, though, it could've been worse. The local mob, for reasons that have never been clear -- some say it was because Kucinich disconnected the city's garbage-hauling contract from the Mafia -- hired an out-of-state hitman to whack the mayor at a Columbus Day parade. When Kucinich got sick two days before the parade, the hit was relocated to Tony's Diner at a later date -- and after the default, when it was clear that Kucinich shortly would be out of office, it was called off altogether. Kucinich, meanwhile, on the advice of the police, had long since begun wearing a bulletproof vest, and kept a gun at home. By saving Muny Light -- it's called Cleveland Public Power now -- Kucinich wound up saving Clevelanders hundreds of millions of dollars. In return for his foresight and political courage, he got thrashed a year later, when he ran for a second term, by George Voinovich, the current U.S. senator, who summed up his '79 campaign platform by telling The New York Times, "I like fat cats -- I want as many in Cleveland as I can get." Shattered by the loss, Kucinich limped back into the hills, unemployed and unemployable, a virtual pariah. The union crowd knows none of this, of course. They're cheering because, first of all, Kucinich showed up. All the Democrats zipping through New Hampshire trying to build a base for the primary were invited; only Kucinich came. They're cheering too because Kucinich promises to hold hearings on the Verizon sale -- a six-term congressman now, he chairs the Domestic Policy Subcommittee -- and also to ask the FCC and SEC to look into it. And they're cheering because, what the hell, the guy at the microphone with the hot wife and the drab raincoat is yelling and pumping his arm like Huey Long in an old newsreel. But when the speech is finished and Kucinich and Elizabeth wind their way through the crowd and up the street -- his arm around her waist, hers around his shoulders -- to a Portsmouth restaurant where his campaign manager has scheduled a news conference, the place is nearly empty. There's a photographer with an online business based entirely on photos of presidential candidates touring New Hampshire -- he got Obama earlier this morning in Manchester -- and two pimply young students from nearby Franklin Pierce University who've brought a digital videocam to interview Kucinich for their Website. That's it. Kucinich sits on a stool near the front window of the restaurant as the college kids line up their shot. Elizabeth smooths his hair -- he has a hint of gray just by his sizable ears, and the stubborn cowlick of a 1920s street-corner newsboy -- and then she levels the angle of the kids' camera so that Dennis doesn't look too wee. In real life, he's five seven, not really all that short, but his diet -- no animal products of any kind: no meat, no fish, no eggs, no cheese, no milk -- has thinned him to 130 pounds, and the fact that he looks decades younger than his age, combined with his buzz-saw voice and Sears wardrobe, not to mention his general level of intensity, makes him seem onscreen like a high school debater, or an embittered elf. The camera does not love him; luckily, Elizabeth does. "So what are we doing here?" Dennis asks after the college boys depart; he's itching to hit the road. He has another meet-and-greet at a bar up the street, and then it's on to Portland, Maine, an hour away, for a sit-down with a grassroots impeachment group -- last April, Kucinich formally filed articles of impeachment in the House against Dick Cheney -- then a speech to the Maine Lawyers for Democracy, followed by a keynote address at the Maine People's Alliance annual Rising Tide Dinner. Tomorrow morning, he'll catch a 5:00 a.m. flight to Cleveland, where he'll deliver a commencement address at Case Western Reserve University on Sunday afternoon. Kucinich is running for the presidency as if he believes that he can win because he truly does. When I ask him, in the empty restaurant, if he prepped his Verizon speech, he goes gimlet-eyed and snaps, "Yeah, I prepared it -- forty years in the making." And when I ask why he didn't close the sale and ask them for their votes, he smiles sourly. "Because they know I'm there for them. Because I think it's appropriate for people to know, first of all, what I'm capable of doing, to show them what I'm capable of doing. Once I've shown them what I've done, shown them what I know, shown them what I'm capable of doing, and go and do it, then their decision becomes easy. I close the sale by delivering on what I said -- and nobody else can or will do that." I did not know Dennis Kucinich in Cleveland. I did not know anyone like Dennis Kucinich. Cleveland is divided by the Cuyahoga River into East and West sides, and even in the salad days of yore, their folk did not mix. It goes thus: white ethnics, West; Jews, Italians, and blacks, East; auto plants, West; museums, East; Drew Carey, West; Paul Newman, East. West Siders had the airport and the zoo; East Siders had the money and the money. This was true when I was born, true when I left for good in 1984, and true now. I am from the East Side. We were Jews with no real money, but we were not poor. Kucinich is from the West Side, half Croat, half Irish. He was dirt poor and knew it. He shined shoes in barrooms to get a few coins to carry home. Nuns took pity on his clothes and scrounged up better ones for him. He lives in a real house today, but it is the same small West Side house that he bought in 1971 for $22,500. It is a miracle -- and no small paean to the American dream -- that Dennis Kucinich now not only sits in the House of Representatives, with a big fancy office in the Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C., but also believes that he will be elected president in 2008. "I'm ready," he says. "I'm ready to be president today. I can feel it. The attempt to settle the election so early is something that I think is probably tension reduction on the part of people in the media, but I'm not subject to their rules. There's time to do this." We are in his Rayburn Building office. In the reception area, there's an old black-and-white photo of the congressman in a sweater-vest and bow tie, pointing to a poster listing the three pillars of West Side civilization: polka, bowling, and kielbasa. But in his office proper, the burgundy velvet drapes are tied back with thick white cord, sunlight pours in, and the ceiling is sky-high. Here, in his slim blue suit, blue shirt, and red tie, Kucinich indeed looks ready for the Oval Office. Still, to the extent that Kucinich is subject to the mainstream media's rules about who matters, he hardly exists. His hour-long speech on the House floor detailing how the hydrocarbon bill being rammed down the Iraqis' throats by the Bush administration is really a ruse to grab the vast bulk of Iraq's oil made no news. He routinely is cropped out of debate group photos. He is almost always put at the far end of the stage and invariably ignored for long stretches. When finally called upon, he tends to yelp. He neither looks nor sounds like a man who could be cast to play the president of the United States. And, perhaps because he is from Cleveland, he yields nothing to his opponents for the sake of unity, nicety, or sales appeal. Onstage, his scorn is plain. His opposition to the Iraq war dates to late 2002; his position is simple: no timetables or benchmarks -- just stop the flow of money. He says that fellow Democrats either wish to end the war, in which case they can just stop passing appropriations bills to fund it, or they're just playing charades by funding the war even as they moan about not having enough votes to override a veto -- thereby preserving the war as an issue for 2008. His health-care plan is even simpler: universal, essentially free care under a single-payer, government-run system -- more or less how every other industrialized nation on the planet provides for people's well-being. To Kucinich, a candidate's plan either unseats the health-insurance companies or plows even more tax dollars into a for-profit industry that pays politicians millions of dollars to do its bidding. The folks who know that Dennis Kucinich cannot be elected president understand that his positions on these two issues alone, while principled and in accord with what tens of millions of Americans say they want, are nonetheless reducible to the sort of sound bites -- "Socialized medicine!" "Abandoning the troops!" -- that would hamstring any candidate, much less one with Kucinich's yap and look. Thus Obama, Edwards, and Clinton stand center stage at each debate and get the lion's share of the time. But Kucinich has a plan to raise his profile: He's writing a book, too. "It's gonna be a series of stories about how throughout my life I've come into circumstances where everyone would say, 'It's too late -- there's nothin' you can do about it,' and I decided to get involved, and changed the outcome. There's almost like a -- not almost, there is a spiritual mechanics to this. And that's what the book's gonna be about." Spiritual mechanics? He nods. "Doctrine of transubstantiation," he says. "That's spirit into matter, okay? And then matter extends to spirit." He slaps his hands together. "This is basic physics." Not on the East Side. A lot of us over there weren't big on that whole transubstantiation thing. "But I'm talking about it as -- the church has its doctrine, and the doctrine has many different possibilities within. It's theology, but it's also about things seen and unseen. It's not just a matter of faith -- there are things that the physicist David Bohm writes about in Wholeness and the Implicate Order. There's a reality" -- another hand-slap -- "that stands within existent reality, what's apparent. But there's something just behind it that holds that reality together, kind of in those interstitial spaces. There's another reality there. The way I look at it, translating it into social action, is that that other reality is waiting to be called forward, and made, and set into motion." Kucinich is just warming up. Next come Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, the Apostle's Creed -- in Latin -- and the "nexus where spirit infuses matter and transforms it. That's where I live," he says, bringing together the tips of his fingers -- "there at that connect-pole." The air in the office is already humming with the music of the spheres when Elizabeth walks in. Kucinich nearly levitates out of his chair as he moves to kiss her hello. "You look great," he crows. He's right. Great oogly-moogly, is he right. Her hair's pulled back tight from her scalp, she's wearing a thrift-store summer dress that she just bought -- a flimsy, low-cut, flowery thing whose thin straps leave her shoulders and back bared -- and she has tied some kind of scarf around her slender neck. Her clavicles alone are heart stopping. And Dennis can't stop grinning, a schoolboy lost in love. "I was just telling him about what I learned about how to change things," he says. "The spiritual mechanics of it." A staffer opens the door to let Kucinich know that ABC Radio is on the phone for an interview. "Elizabeth," he says, "what time should we be getting ready to leave?" "Well, the train's at five past two. We've got to go back to the apartment and close the bags up, and I'd like to eat something, too." She has the good British accent, light with laughter -- not the plummy, stuffy one. While Kucinich takes the call from ABC, she tells me that she sat for her last college final -- in a course called Conflict Resolution in World Politics -- on 9/11/01. "I came to America for a number of reasons. One, to work on monetary reform, which is something I really feel passionately about, but really with this in my heart: that I wanted somehow to help with the healing process -- for America to be integrated with the rest of the world. The second week I was in America, I met Dennis. I didn't know his politics. I walked into his office with my boss to talk about monetary reform." Love at first sight? "It was soul recognition." Behind her, meanwhile, on the phone, Kucinich tells ABC, "Obama, for example -- he says he opposed the war from the start, yet 100 percent of the time, he votes to fund it. I don't think the American people, by the time we get to the primaries and the caucuses, are gonna be able to square that. I think they're gonna say, 'Wait a minute -- quit sayin' one thing and doin' another.' The truth is the truth -- it's not necessary to try to recut it for the convenience of the moment." Truth is, I'm proud of the guy. Electable or no, homeboy's talking presidential smack and getting laid. They probably even do it tantric style -- lifting Kucinich to interstitial pleasure planes no Clevelander, East or West, has visited before.