There is no denying the influence that our leaders--especially politicians--have on the values of the rank and file masses of humanity. It's not hard to predict the lessons taught to our children when the people who make and enforce our laws are involved in scandals, engage in unethical practices, and sell their souls in order to gain influence and power.
But there's a movement afoot which could, with a little luck and a lot of sweat from grassroots organizations and activists across the country, land someone in the White House who dreams of a peaceful world, speaks about personal responsibility for creating it, and works tirelessly to make it happen.
Integrity is the word which comes to mind over and over when you witness the words and work of Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich (D-OH). His is the story of a man who threw his position as Mayor of Cleveland (and the youngest person ever to serve as head of a major US city) out the door when he chose to allow the city to go into bankruptcy in order to prevent the takeover of the public electric utility company by a privately-owned competitor. Both political parties, all of the newspapers and all of the television news stations told him to allow the acquisition to occur. Unaffected by public pressure, Kucinich followed his heart (and his desire to protect the people from a rate increase of 20-30%) and saved the public utility company. He was blasted by the press, lost the next election, and left Cleveland for about 10 years.
Kucinich decided to come back to Cleveland and to re-enter politics when the city recognized after all those years that, as the headline read in the Cleveland Plains Dealer, "DENNIS WAS RIGHT" on the utility issue. The Cleveland City Council honored him for his courage in refusing to sell the public utility company and he was elected to the Ohio Senate primarily on the issue of expanding the city's municipal electrical system. . In 1996, Kucinich was elected to the United States Congress. In the most recent election, this man who came back to Cleveland with the same values he had when he was nearly kicked out of the City, won almost 77% of the vote. That would be impressive enough considering that he did no television, radio or print marketing for his campaign, but it becomes even more telling when you consider that this most progressive of Democrats comes from a largely Republican, conservative district.
He won the hearts of Clevelanders by going door-to-door, by focusing on the needs of the people, and by his patent integrity. Everyone who meets Kucinich, whether or not they agree with his politics, is immediately impressed by his honesty and sincerity. He is particularly adept at coalition building in Congress, precisely because of this palpable integrity.
At a time when, for fear of being seen as unpatriotic, most politicians are waving the flag and questioning nothing which comes out of the White House, Kucinich is courageously and clearly voicing his concerns about the direction in which the Bush administration wants to take this country. Once again, he is taking up the cause of "we, the people"-the oppressed, the minority, the powerless. He's opposed to Ashcroft's current practice of indefinitely and privately detaining "suspected terrorists" who get no opportunity for a public hearing or even for an attorney. He's concerned about the innocent people who continue to lose their lives in Afghanistan as we bomb well after al Quaida has disbanded. And he doesn't want the US to cause the loss of more innocent human lives in Iraq as we prepare for war with a country that has not in any way been tied to the terroristic attack of September 11.
Rep. Kucinich recognizes the need to deal with these issues in a systematic way, with experts who would try to resolve them through peaceful, non-violent means. Such is the vision of his proposed legislation (HR 2459), which would create a cabinet-level Department of Peace. With this department, there would be, at the highest levels of government, real dialogue about how to respond to terrorism, without taking more lives and without guaranteeing future acts of terrorism against the US because we've given the next generation of desperate people another reason to hate Americans.
Rep. Kucinich is also working on legislation that would ban weapons in space. In spite of a previous attestation by Congress never to put weapons into the heavens, plans are being made by the current administration to do just that. Kucinich speaks openly of the arrogance of the "Vision 20-20" plan, which would effectively make parts of space US colonies. In addition to HR 3616, which would prohibit the US from using the skies as part of our war plans, the Congressman is also trying to drive support for a new international treaty which would guarantee that space is always free from the terror of war.
Kucinich recently gave a talk in Louisville and almost everyone in attendance was in agreement with him philosophically. With such an audience, it would have been easy to have taken cheap shots at Bush and the Republican party. But instead--recognizing the virtues of practicing compassion even with those who stand in diametric opposition to your views and opinions--Kucinich spoke about his optimistic vision of a new America. After the talk, world-famous cellist and friend of the Congressman, Michael Fitzpatrick of Millenia Music, played the Star Spangled Banner on electric cello, a la Hendrix at Woodstock. When he finished, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation. It was clear that everyone in the audience felt as if, with Kucinich as guide, Fitzpatrick had wrested the flag out of the hands of those who see patriotism and compassion as mutually exclusive terms.
Rep. Kucinich's speech was one of many like it that he has given since he started stirring things up in February of this year with a talk entitled, "A Prayer for America." (link) Though not covered by the media, this talk was quickly picked up on the internet and then widely disseminated (esp. by VegSource.com). Kucinich received more than 25,000 enthusiastic emails in response to it, and that unexpected reaction led Studs Terkel to declare in an article in The Nation (link) that "Kucinich is the one" who should run for President. Because the Congressman represents the views and the work of so many progressive grassroots organizations, Terkel reasoned, if hundreds of those groups coalesced behind Kucinich's banner, they could catapult him into the Presidential race.
One of the practical questions Kucinich will have to ask is how to extrapolate his victory in Cleveland--which was done by door-to-door campaigning--into a national election. After all, he might be able to meet (and thereby convey his undeniable integrity to) at least 51% of Cleveland voters, but he certainly can't do that across the country. The answer--if it lies anywhere--rests in Terkel's advice: the grassroots organizations become Kucinich's voice at the local level and do the campaigning for him. And with the internet as a tool, communities across the country could be united with one another in this campaign.
The Louisville talk in July of this year was a bit of a test of this theory. 17 grassroots organizations sponsored the event, which included a roundtable discussion with local leaders and a public talk. Because of IRS regulations, most of these nonprofits couldn't support a candidate for a political race, but they were enthusiastic about sponsoring a talk related to "issues" rather than politics. Almost overnight the unknown name of Kucinich became a household name in progressive circles in the community. After one gathering, it was crystal clear to this city that Kucinich is the leading visionary for a more sane world order.
Because mainstream media has largely ignored Kucinich's work, the first real step in testing Terkel's theory is to educate people both about the work which the Congressman has accomplished, and about the vision which he now articulates for a new America. In addition to his bills to create a Department of Peace and to ban weapons in space, Kucinich has worked long and hard for the environment, for workers' rights, for civil rights, for education, and for affordable housing. A quick visit to the "Issues" section of his website, www.house.gov/kucinich (link), makes it apparent which concerns are of most importance to Kucinich. And it illustrates the depth of his work in these areas.
For example, a visit to the "Environment" section will reveal his commitment to personal responsibility as well as his willingness to hold corporations environmentally accountable. The "Civil Rights" section shows his passion for equality, not just for people of color and women, but also for immigrants and gays and lesbians. The "Housing" section proves that he is a leading advocate for affordable housing in the country. A quick perusal of his website reveals that he doesn't just talk a good game in front of a friendly audience. This Congressman is willing to do the work necessary to challenge the system and to effect real change.
Kucinich says that we're living in fear after September 11, and that we have an obsessive paranoia about terrorism. While he supports reasonable, prudent measures to combat terrorism, he believes that we're spending a disproportionate amount of money responding to potential assaults on our nation. He quickly points out that, while we lost 3000 lives to terrorism in the attack on September 11, we lost five times that in domestic violence last year. Increasing the military budget by $50 B might increase security at home but it will certainly do nothing to address concerns about poverty, workers' conditions, or the need for national health care. And as Kucinich sees it, the answer to a new world order lies in how well we address these concerns. Once injustices--economic and otherwise--are addressed with sincerity (and with resources similar to those infusing the military), then and only then will the causes of violence and terrorism, nationally and abroad, finally subside.
So just what would it mean if Kucinich became President? Would the US military lose its funding and, as the 70s-era bumper sticker read "have to hold a bake sale while the Girl Scouts got the military's budget"? Would this peacenik, justice-seeker rob from the rich to give to the poor? Would farmers be expected to change their practices overnight in order to grow their food more sustainably, and to eliminate their factory farms? Would our jails be empty as we tried to preach love and kindness and forgiveness to all those who need it?
A dreamer, in order to be successful, has to be a pragmatist at some level. Kucinich knows very well that compromise is the name of the game in politics. But when you have the unique ability to coalition build (witness the bi-partisan support of his bill to create a Department of Peace), you eventually arrive at the desired result.
Let's look at what it could really do to the way our country acted if, at the top of our leadership, we had a President who worked for peace and sought out justice at every level. For starters, our country could conduct itself as a responsible world citizen--not only living up to the Kyoto treaty, for example, but leading the way in curbing greenhouse emissions, in improving fuel efficiency, in finding alternatives to our dependence on oil and coal, and in generally reversing the unsustainable environmental practices in which we engage. And while the President cannot prohibit state executions of prisoners, having someone like Kucinich as President would send a message to our children that the most highly esteemed and powerful person in the country felt that it was morally repugnant to practice state-sponsored killing in order to send a message that killing is wrong.
Having as our President someone who had a proven track record for dealing with issues with honesty and integrity would mean that we would finally hear in television and radio addresses the great responsibility we have as citizens to practice kindness and fairness in our business practices and in our consumer decisions, rather than hearing from the White House that the answer to our problems lies in "going shopping." It would mean that we would not only abide by the nuclear non-proliferation agreements, but we would engage the world in a real dialogue about how to ban nuclear weapons from the earth forever. And it would mean that our citizens could rely upon the executive branch of the government to make decisions based upon what's truly in our best interests, rather than on what some corporation or special interest group deems to be in our best interest.
Having Kucinich as President would mean that we could begin a transformation in the way in which our country behaves, domestically and internationally. In order for such a radical change to occur, it will have to be because the people are ready for it. And Kucinich submits that the people are ready for it. They're longing for it. And he should know. Having grown up poor and having taken up the causes of the people in Cleveland for years, Kucinich hasn't forgotten what it's like to be one of the members of "we, the people."
Having at the helm of our country someone who talks and walks responsibility and compassion could create the paradigm shift in consciousness when the US becomes a real world leader--not with might and power, but with kindness and empathy, understanding and love. The implications of this great change in consciousness--a shift away from violence in every form-- could overwhelm the world. Instead of having peoples of the world fear and loathe and terrorize us, they would applaud us; but more importantly, they would follow our lead. And together, with combined resources and talents, we could eliminate hunger and homelessness. We could have universal health care. We could have clean air to breathe, water to drink and soil to till. We could end terrorism and obliterate war. And we could march hand in hand into this millennium with an understanding and an appreciation of one another, and with confidence that nothing could stand in the way of our commitment to the belief that everyone is rightfully entitled to a safe, comfortable, and peaceful life.
John D. Borders, Jr. is an attorney in Louisville, Ky. He currently chairs the board for EarthSave International.