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Photo by Matt OttoI've decided to get excited about supporting Dennis Kucinich. I've even learned how to spell his name, so there's no turning back now.
I've never seen Kucinich speak. Given the way our media is run now, he could be president and they still wouldn't give him airtime. But I like what I've read about him, and, fortunately, Kucinich is doing things the old-fashioned way—traveling the nation, picking up supporters vote by vote—so we can all hear him speak this Sunday (August 3) at noon at the old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana.
What do you need to know about Kucinich? He's about the only progressive running, with a 10-point platform that includes instituting single-payer universal health care, restoring America's manufacturing base, withdrawing from NAFTA and the WTO, repealing the so-called Patriot Act, cutting our bloated military budget to fund education and establishing a cabinet-level Department of Peace. His supporters include Michelle Shocked (who is appearing with him Sunday), Studs Terkel, Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt and Edward Norton, and if you doubt that God's on Kucinich's side, that's only because you haven't figured out who Willie Nelson really is yet.
You should probably also know that Kucinich is dead last in most recent polls, with fewer than 3 percent of potential Democratic voters picking him as their standard bearer. But supporters are calling him the Seabiscuit candidate, by which I don't think they mean he's been ridden by a one-eyed jockey, but that he's a come-from-behind champion.
Over platters of Cuban food at Felix's in Orange, I asked OC 4 Kucinich founder Jim Gibson why we should support this unknown lefty when the bland experts are saying the Democrats need a bland centrist.
"My answer is that Kucinich is the only one who can beat Bush, because Kucinich is the soul of the Democratic Party, which they've otherwise lost. And since they've lost their soul, they've lost their voters. There is a huge number of people with democratic values who don't vote because they see the Democratic Party as being practically the same as the Republicans. They don't think their input matters, since they think that wealth controls politics anyway, so why bother? To fight that, it's going to take a politician who's very honest and who's got a lot of charisma. Kucinich is both. He reminds me a lot of Bobby Kennedy," Gibson said.
Now there's a long thread: Kennedy's assassination was the last thing Gibson remembers happening in America before he shipped off to Vietnam in 1968, disillusioned and opposed to the war to which he was being sent.
I'd like to talk about Gibson for a while here, because a large part of my interest in Kucinich is secondhand, sparked by the enthusiasm Gibson and fellow anti-war activist Mike Mang have for the candidate. They've been struggling against the local and national current on various issues for decades, yet they still see a bright gleam of hope in Kucinich.
Gibson, now 55, grew up in a conservative Anaheim household, but even at age 16 was opposed to the Vietnam War. When he reached draft age he started to head for Canada, but when his notice actually arrived, his parents convinced him to return home and face it.
"The next thing I know, Kennedy's shot, and I'm at Fort Ord with my hair shaved off," he recalled. "I decided to try to become a medic so I wouldn't have to kill people. A lot of my fellow medics were conscientious objectors. The Army's attitude then was, 'If you want to be a combat medic, go for it,' because medics were killed at a disproportionately high rate, and they weren't going to miss us."
His time in Vietnam was "horrible beyond belief, a nightmare that never ended. Every day it was something: a gruff, gung-ho old Army vet on the table with his chest blown open, gasping for breath and crying for his mommy; another guy whose eyeballs popped out when his head was accidentally run over by one of our trucks. It was day after day of unloading helicopters, carrying wounded soldiers, or parts of them, their arms and legs. I had 13 months of that.
"The tour of duty was 12 months, but if you served longer, the Army would cut you loose earlier. They didn't want you to have time left in the service when you got back to the States, because they knew you'd be pretty messed up, and they didn't want you on the bases disillusioning the new soldiers."
Back home, he got a job in the burn ward at LA County's USC Medical Center, where he spent eight years, before opening a small printing shop in OC. He also became an activist then.
"In the burn ward, four out of 10 patients I worked with died horrible deaths, and I saw years of that. That and the senseless deaths I saw in Vietnam made me feel I had to do something more to save lives."
In 1979, Gibson helped form the OC chapter of the anti-nuke Alliance for Survival, and also that year he was arrested trying to block the entrance of the Anaheim Convention Center, protesting a military electronics expo there. In 1983, he formed the Orange County Committee on Central America, which organized protests of the U.S. involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In 1993, he and other war vets went on a "peace walk" through Vietnam, where he was overwhelmed by the forgiveness shown by people who had seen 3 million of their family and fellows killed in our war there. Gibson has remained involved in anti-war causes, including the recent local protests against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One thing he admires most about Kucinich is the firm stand he took against the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq when most of his fellow Democrats wavered. But there's plenty more he admires.
"I like his honesty and integrity. I like that he doesn't take corporate money. I like his health plan. I like that he's working class, a poor kid whose family sometimes had to live out of their car when he was growing up. He's worked hard all his life, and he respects work. He wants to bring jobs back to the U.S. I like what he did as mayor of Cleveland."
Kucinich may look like Paul Reubens, but he's a scrapper. When he took office in Cleveland in the 1970s—then America's youngest big-city mayor—the city was plummeting into bankruptcy, which it did under Kucinich, but only because he stood up to bankers who wouldn't approve a bailout unless he turned the municipal utility over to their private company. Kucinich took the heat for the bankruptcy then, but he's since been lauded for saving city ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
As mayor, a state legislator and a congressman, Kucinich each time has beaten a Republican incumbent in a conservative area.
"He'll beat the incumbent in the White House too if he gets the chance," Gibson maintains. "Once people know him and hear what he has to say, he will win."
Both Gibson and Mang have registered as Democrats so they can vote for Kucinich, earning the ire of some of their fellow Greens.
"Some Greens are pissed off," Mang says, "but I think the bulk of them are with us. At the first meeting of OC 4 Kucinich, we had about 50 people, and at least half of them were Green Party members."
"I'd never registered as a Democrat before in my life," said Gibson. "But I would vote for any Democrat now that they ran against Bush, because I think it is that serious. This nation can't take another four years of Bush."
They think Howard Dean would be the best second choice, but to them it's a distant second. Some tout Dean's abilities as a fundraiser, but that will amount to squat compared to Bush's war chest. Meanwhile, it has taken Kucinich months to collect a million dollars, a mere seventh of what Bush raises in an evening's fat-cat fundraiser.
Money simply isn't going to win the Democrats this election. It's going to take truth, vision and a bit of fire-breathing pizzazz to reclaim this nation. I don't know about you, but I'm desperate to believe that this country can still imagine a better future—one that is just, compassionate, functional and not driven by fear—and will do the hard work to achieve it. And I'm very interested to hear what Kucinich has to say this Sunday.Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich speaks on the steps of the Old Orange County Courthouse, at 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Also appearing are Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Michelle Shocked, Blase Bonpane, Daniel Nahmod, Scott Kalechstein and Joey Racano. Check the website: www.kucinich.us.