MANCHESTER -- Dennis Kucinich stood in front of a crowd of 500 college and high school students, running a hand through his oil black hair. The congressman from Ohio may be floundering at around two percent in most statewide polls, but if you dropped in on him at the New England College Convention Wednesday night, you'd think he had the nomination in the bag.
"As president I will move quickly to decriminalize marijuana," Kucinich bellowed. The crowd rose to their feet, applauding wildly. "We need to sensitize our nation to the class-based, race-based nature of our criminal justice system," he continued. The roar that met him encouraged him to seal the deal: "And as president I will end the federal death penalty!"
Absolute pandemonium erupted. I couldn't even hear anymore. People pumped their fists in the air. Two men came running into the room and slid in next to me at my table. One started pounding his applause out on the table. BANG! BANG! BANG! Both wore shirts that said in bright red letters: "COPS SAY LEGALIZE DRUGS. ASK ME WHY." Their raucous enthusiasm, alas, discouraged any questioning.
Continuing his impression of a presidential campaign scripted by the writers of Wayne's World, Kucinich explained why he had decided to run against such long odds: "There's nothing like being told 'no way,'" he said, "and saying 'way.'"
The youth responded with in-depth questions on substantial policy issues. "Can you talk about civic involvement?" one young man asked. "This administration makes us feel like when we walk downtown it doesn't make any difference."
Another young woman approached the mike. "I think the biggest problem in this world is nuclear warfare," she said, in reference to the numerous nuclear wars recently. "I mean, depletion, or depleted uranium, or whatever. What will you do? Because, I mean, the whole world could blow up." Answer: We would scrap our whole nuclear arsenal to "set an example" on the first day of the fabled Kucinich presidency. (And on day two the lion would lie down with the lamb.)
Throughout his speech, Kucinich angrily attacked anything that might endear him to swing voters. But the students ate it up, as a certain kind of kid is apt to do with anything that has a whiff of danger about it. A lot of their parents, I mused, were probably Republicans.
THE AIR THAT NIGHT was so charged that if Kucinich had asked for volunteers to storm the White House, they'd have made it as least as far as Connecticut. But it's hard to know what -- other than self-aggrandizement -- propels his campaign along. The congressman recently told The Washington Post that he would exceed expectations in New Hampshire "if I get one vote. Everybody will say, 'how did he get a vote?'"
No, Kucinich is running, like Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, not to win but as a way to position himself. He is quickly becoming the favorite politician-spokesman of the Blame America First movement, perhaps the only one they can "trust" at all.
In his stump speeches, Kucinich often invokes the need to live up to "American ideals." But then everything he says about America is so dastardly, so vicious, so demeaning, that if you'd never heard of the U.S., you would think the world better off if the rogue nation was destroyed by a large comet.
Kucinich believes we are on the "verge of a new age of discontinuity" and that our "nation's historic commitment at the core of who we are as a people is beginning to shake, wobble, and crack." It may already be too late for us, he warns. "Will the center hold in the face of the lies of Iraq? In the face of the PATRIOT Act?"
In fact, we are no longer in control of our destiny because of capitalism and globalization. "The idea of a market-based economy becomes a terminal disease" under free-trade agreements, he said, which have only "increased the stranglehold of global corporations on the governments of the world."
Iraq to Kucinich is simply Vietnam part deux. But he has an exit strategy: America must immediately pull its military out of Iraq and rebuild the country "to the extent we blew it up" in the first place. We must pay reparations to the families of Iraqi civilians killed in the war; we must foot the whole bill for a U.N. peacekeeping force to take our place; and we must renounce any interest in "privatizing" the Iraqi economy.
The alternative to Kucinich's plan is "World War III." Just for good measure, he added, "It is indisputable that terrorism is worse now than before 9/11."
MOMENTS AFTER HE SAID this, a burly young man with a knit cap pulled down over his eyes stood up and shouted, "Vote your hopes, not your fears!" But amidst the cheers, I must have missed the hope, even of the programmatic variety. Kucinich didn't discuss his beloved single-payer universal health-care plan in any substantial way. The speech was instead a litany of American misdeeds and impending disasters.
The kids were giddy though. A teenage girl at the table next to me had a Kucinich bumper sticker across the seat of her pants. Whenever he said something she really liked she'd get up and shake her backside toward the stage.
"When we become aware of our power, our potency, that's when miracles start to happen," was the thought that Kucinich left us with. "I guess I know this because, at some point, I was too dumb to quit." Amen.