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The Secret Life of Dennis

The loony who's running: Dennis Kucinich.

On a sunny Saturday in New Hampshire not long ago, Dennis Kucinich laid out for me the path that would lead him to the presidency. "I think what will happen," he explained, "is that the tremendous demand for integrity and authenticity is going to cause my candidacy to emerge powerfully in the closing weeks of the primary campaign to change it all." The two of us were sitting in the backseat of an SUV driven by an aide, shuttling between campaign events. Small in stature but loud in voice, Kucinich held forth on any number of matters related to his presidential bid, from his opposition to the ongoing war in Iraq to his opposition to a future war in Iran. But the issue that got him most energized was the very fact of the bid itself. "As there's increased awareness that my candidacy represents a real departure from business as usual, that I'm the only authentic peace candidate, that I'm the only one who has real consistency and integrity--" Kucinich paused, seeming to have lost his train of thought. Then, as if he had suddenly retrieved it, he blurted out, "You know, I expect to be the next president of the United States!"

As the underest of underdogs, it's Kucinich's right--and perhaps even his duty--to project an unrealistically outsized aura of confidence. But it would be hard for this confidence to be more misplaced. For one thing, there's the fresh memory of the Ohio Representative's 2004 run for the White House, when the twice-divorced, then-bachelor candidate seemed to spend more time looking for a mate--participating in a "Dating Game"-style competition for potential first ladies--than he did looking for convention delegates. And then there's the reality of Kucinich's current campaign, which is actually in worse shape than the last one.

After all, in 2004, Kucinich managed to raise a respectable $13 million and had the support of a coterie of lefty celebrities, including Joaquin Phoenix and Danny Glover. This time around, Kucinich has taken in less than $350,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports; and his most notable supporter is his new wife, Elizabeth, who--being 31 years younger and about a half-foot taller than her husband--turns many heads when she accompanies him on the campaign trail. (Elizabeth was not, for the record, a contestant in Kucinich's 2004 first lady search.) Worst of all, Kucinich has watched Mike Gravel fill the gadfly role in the race, stealing his thunder on Iraq and other issues at the two Democratic debates. Indeed, about the only thing as fantastical as Kucinich's claim that he'll be elected president is his claim that he's running in the first place.

Kucinich's '08 gambit is less a presidential campaign than it is an elaborate fiction. That's because, aside from participating in the debates, he does virtually none of the things a presidential candidate does.

Yes, Kucinich goes out and campaigns, but only in the narrowest slice of America-- generally confining his stumping to vegan restaurants, small colleges, and other places that one finds within the listening area of a community radio station that broadcasts "Democracy Now!" And, as he hopscotches across this Pacifica archipelago, Kucinich doesn't offer much in the way of traditional presidential campaign rhetoric. While he does talk about de-funding the war in Iraq and instituting single-payer health insurance, he spends much of his time dishing out gooey, New Age sentiments--telling people about how "we are interconnected and interdependent" and that "the call for human unity is the call to save the planet and save the world and the universe, and we imbue all of our citizens with the sense of love for each other."

Even the straightforward task of public relations--which, for a money- strapped candidate like Kucinich, is crucial, since his campaign's lifeblood is free media--seems to be an afterthought. A reporter trying to reach the Kucinich campaign gets routed to press secretary David Bright's cell phone-- which Bright rarely answers, because, as he explains in his outgoing message, he lives in "rural Maine," where cell phone coverage is spotty.

The notional nature of Kucinich's campaign is strange because, in some ways, he's in a good position to run a serious one, at least relatively speaking. As the only Democratic candidate who voted against the congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war--Barack Obama, who opposed the war, was not elected to the U.S. Senate until after the war had started--Kucinich can plausibly argue that history has proved him right. Indeed, it's an argument that he has used to good effect before. After he was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1977 at the age of 31, Kucinich's political career crashed and burned when he refused to sell a city-owned electric utility, which resulted in the city going into default. He lost his reelection bid and went into political exile--moving to California and New Mexico, where he befriended Shirley MacLaine and became a vegan. By the early '90s, however, the correctness of Kucinich's decision not to sell the municipal power company had become apparent--by one calculation, the move had saved its customers more than $200 million, compared with what they would have paid to a private utility company--and he made his political comeback, winning a seat in the Ohio state Senate in 1994 and then his congressional seat in 1996. His slogan in his 1994 state senate race was "Because he was right" and, in 1996, his campaign logo was a light bulb with the words "Light up Congress."

But that sort of campaign doesn't appear to interest Kucinich much this time around. Rather, his candidacy seems mostly an ego trip and a much-needed diversion. As Brent Larkin, the editorial page editor of The Cleveland Plain- Dealer who has been covering Kucinich for 37 years, puts it: "It's got to be more fun for him than doing the serious work of being a congressman in a Rust Belt city that's got a lot of issues."

So Kucinich wages a Potemkin campaign. He declares that he expects to be president while he does nothing that would make that possibility, remote as it already is, closer to being a reality. Every politician, to be sure, lives in a bubble; but Kucinich's campaign exists in its own biosphere. On his recent swing through New Hampshire, he began his day at a high school in the university town of Durham, where a group called "Teaching Peace" was holding a conference. There, amid booths selling "Unscented Peace Vigil Votives" and Native American crafts, he mingled with about 100 people. Many of the adults already seemed to know him. One, a self-described "awakening coach" named Robert Foulkrod, first met Kucinich when he came to a retreat on Foulkrod's Maine farm 20 years ago. "I'm trying to inspire the city of Nashua to be organized for Dennis," he explained, before adding, "I'm not organizing it myself. I'm into awakening people. Do you know anyone in Nashua?" Meanwhile, Kucinich's attempts to win the support of those he didn't personally know-- namely, the high school students in attendance--were largely for naught. "I'm not old enough to vote," one explained apologetically after Kucinich asked for her support. "But you're old enough to influence thousands!" he pleaded in response.

The rest of his day was spent on similar endeavors--preaching to the politically converted or the politically irrelevant or, in many instances, both. But, in the afternoon, Kucinich finally participated in an event that seemed to bear some relation to a real presidential campaign. A group of about 20 retired generals and admirals--with approximately 700 years of combined military experience between them--had gathered at the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord and were meeting with any presidential candidate who wanted to discuss U.S. detention and interrogation policies. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden had taken them up on the offer, and, at the last minute, so did Kucinich. Arriving 30 minutes late for the meeting, the candidate hurried into a conference room, where, for the next hour, he laid out his foreign policy.

The meeting had a decidedly Model United Nations feel, with the group of 60- something white men wearing service academy rings pretending they were interested in what Kucinich would do as president, and Kucinich pretending that he would one day be president. But, when it was over, it seemed that no harm had been done by the military men's small courtesy of indulging a man who'd never be commander-in-chief. No harm, that is, until a young aide noticed me and my tape recorder and asked if I was a reporter. When I said I was, all hell broke loose. The meeting was supposed to be off-the-record, no press allowed. Every candidate had been provided a long set of instructions that explicitly spelled out that stipulation. And every candidate had abided by them--except for Kucinich, whose campaign had breezily invited me into the session. After an hour of furious negotiation with the meeting's organizers, I agreed not to write about what was said in the meeting, since it wasn't the fault of the retired generals that I'd been let in. But the episode made one thing clear: Taking Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaign seriously will bring you nothing but grief.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor for The New Republic.

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