Friday, November 30, 2007

The religion of Dennis Kucinich

"I can only guarantee you five minutes."

In the middle of a park in Sierra Madre, on an absolutely perfect fall Sunday morning, Sharon Jimenez, senior adviser on the West Coast for U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich’s campaign for president, is laying down some ground rules. We are surrounded by volunteers, who busily set up chairs, sort placards and stack fliers for the congressman’s speech and fund-raiser. Twenty feet away, at a lopsided picnic table beneath a lopsided tree, sits Kucinich, wearing a ginger-colored blazer that immediately makes me wonder how many Winnie-the-Poohs had to die to make it. With his familiar squint and little-boy haircut that always appears as if it has been combed with a hot buttered roll, he nods in response to the conclusions of a Pasadena Weekly reporter.

“I thought you were going to get me a ride-along with him to the airport,” I say to Jimenez.

“Oh, well,” she says, smiling and shrugging her massive shoulder pads.

“But I don’t have any five-minute questions,” I say, holding up my notebook. “All my questions are conversational — they’re Bill Moyer questions.”

“Like I said, I can only guarantee you five minutes,” she says, looking at her watch. “The congressman goes on in about eight minutes, and then he has to be in San Mateo for a straw poll at 2.”

Jimenez’s uncanny resemblance to the band manager and lovable curmudgeon of The Partridge Family, Rubin Kincaid, allows me the grace to forgive her persnickety manner as having less to do with me and more to do with the character that I imagine her to be playing.

“Which airport is he going to?” I ask. “LAX?”

“No, Burbank,” she says, drastically shortening even the drive time I was hoping to get.

“Burbank?” I flip through my notes, looking for short-answer questions, wondering if I’m wasting my time and trying to remember why I came in the first place.
I can't tell you how many times I have been here lately -- not in a park waiting to interview the man-less-likely-than-Alan-Keyes-to-be-president, but at an event of my own choosing where all I am wondering is how I recover the half day I just wasted.

Though it seems for Mr. Fish, the reporter giving the first-person here, waiting for Kucinich wasn't such a waste of time. The resulting story is the cover of the current LA Weekly, and it offers some illuminating passages on America's wackiest politician. This one is particularly enjoyable.
“All right,” he says, looking at his watch again. “We got five minutes — do you have a short question?”

“Sure,” I say, taking a second to turn on my tape recorder. “What nonpolitical source material informs your idealism?”

I smile, waiting. He doesn’t answer me. “In other words,” I try again, “a lot of your ideas seem to stress the importance of peace and humanitarianism and, certainly, you can talk about those things as political ideals, but politics doesn’t really offer the best insight into those subjects. It’s like Richard Nixon’s peace sign, for example, meant something entirely different from John Lennon’s. Most people don’t look to politics to help them sustain their understanding of humanitarianism — they usually look to art and poetry and literature and philosophy. What are your cultural reference points?”

“Well, you know,” begins Kucinich, hunching forward with the melancholy of somebody who has just been handed cotton candy and asked to knit a cake, “you can talk about the 20th century and look at the writings of Erich Fromm, the work of Carl Rogers, [Abraham] Maslow, the humanistic psychologists. You can look at the English Romantic poets from centuries ago who had a sense of the perfectibility of humankind, of our deep connection to nature, of the importance of upholding a natural world. You can come back to Walden Pond, to Thoreau, to Emerson, to their understanding of intellectual integrity and of freedom. But you could go back thousands of years, too, to the basic structure of moral law that’s reflected in the teachings of all the great religions.” He stops. I wait. He stays stopped.

“What about more-modern influences?” I say. “Are you in touch with any of the artistic or cultural movements that are contemporary; ideas and artistic trends that excite and motivate people, particularly young people, to view humanity as a whole rather than as incongruent pieces, which is more what politics tends to do? I don’t guess that all the values that inform your political identity are as antiquated or esoteric as Thoreau or the Bible — you were a product of the ’60s, right?”

“Look,” he says, “my philosophical underpinnings relate to concepts that are really timeless, that go back to 2,000 years of Christianity, thousands of years of the Hindu religion, that go to the tradition of Buddhism, to the moral teachings of Judaism, to the peaceful expressions of Islam. All of these are tributaries of a spiritual understanding that I have.”

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