The Dennis Kucinich Debacle

At 4 a.m. Saturday morning, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald put up a 2,500-word blog post that excoriated my post from earlier in the week, “So Long But Not Farewell to Dennis Kucinich.” I'd written four paragraphs that amounted to a light-hearted farewell for the congressman, quickly noting both his most famous political efforts and two of his more well-known personal stories. Greenwald portrayed the article—along with pieces at The Washington Post and The New Republic—as a contemptuous and mean-spirited celebration of Kucinich's defeat in last week’s Ohio Democratic primary. While he focused largely on my description of Kucinich as “among the wackiest members of Congress,” Greenwald framed his critique as an institutional one, neither mentioning me by name nor noting prior coverage of Kucinich's electoral plight. He wrote as though my blog represented The American Prospect’s editorial consensus rather than my own report. Still, he speculated errantly about my opinions of the Ohio congressman and the intentions of my post.

To Greenwald, the post was an effort to dismiss Kucinich's political agenda by highlighting some of his more colorful personal stories, like his experience with UFOs:

Neither the Prospect nor the Post would ever dare mock as “wacky” the belief in invisible judgmental father-figures in the sky or that rendition of life-after-death gospel because those belief systems have been deemed acceptable by establishment circles. ”Wacky”, like its close cousin “crazy,” is a term of establishment derision exclusively reserved for those who deviate from such conventions. And that’s the point worth making here: the real reason anyone with D.C. Seriousness, including many establishment liberals, relished mocking Kucinich is because he dissented from the orthodoxies of the two political parties. 

Saying Kucinich is “wacky,” Greenwald argues, is the same thing as calling him a nutcase. My one use of the term frames his lengthy critique. From my assertion that Kucinich is “among the wackiest,” he infers that I not only dismiss Kucinich but also oppose his political goals, like bringing to light the Obama administration's deeply troubling record on civil liberties. By the end of Greenwald's piece, you could easily think that my post had celebrated the end of the "crazy” Dennis Kucinich while adulating President Barack Obama and his most disturbing policies. That was certainly not my intent nor my belief.

If I were to critique Kucinich, my issue would not be with his ideological agenda but with his political competence. In my piece, I quoted from The Daily Show, where Kucinich chose to perform his ventriloquism act and answer questions about his electability with rhymes and a discussion of the "Age of Aquarius." John Oliver asked if he was quoting the musical. I did not highlight the exchange because I disapprove of harmony and understanding. Rather, I cited it because it illustrates the extent to which Kucinich has fostered his image as an out-of-the-box and, yes, pretty darn wacky, kind of politician. It certainly has its appeal.

But to me it seems that image has hurt Kucinich's efficacy as a liberal champion. Kucinich fought a lot of political battles worth fighting. But he lost almost all of them, and in the meantime, he made his concerns appear to come from farther and farther out in left field. Whether it's speaking out against U.S. assisted killings or filing articles of impeachment, what I find problematic are not Kucinich's initiatives; it’s the fact that he allowed his eccentricities to muddle his message. 

Those who love the congressman say that because he spoke hard truths and argued vociferously against the bad policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, he should be venerated. Often implicit in that argument is a notion that Kucinich's lack of political victories almost amounts to a badge of honor. One of the Salon commenters, mattwa33186 argues just that:

Kucinich didn't get much done in the way of legislation for the same reason Ron Paul doesn't get much done in the way of legislation—he never went along to get along. Never traded one principle to advance another. Never voted for something he thought was wrong so he could get votes for something he thought was right.

His lack of success in that area is simply a reminder that principled men can't get anything done in Washington any more. 

But effectiveness does matter, and other principled liberals have been able to have more relevance. Take Representative Keith Ellison, who was undoubtedly at risk of being dismissed as “radical” or “extreme.” The Minnesota Democrat is both African American and the first Muslim member of Congress. When he was sworn in, he asked that he place his hand on a Quran rather than a Bible. The right wing flipped out. But Ellison showed a shrewd political sense, using Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Quran. It was a move that helped change perceptions of Islam in America and helped to establish Ellison as a formidable politician. Since then, Ellison has successfully pushed for consumer protections from credit-card companies, and he co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Far from being dismissed, he now also sits on the House Democratic Steering Committee.

And Ellison, I should add, co-sponsored Kucinich's bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. 

Comments

If I were to critique Kucinich, my issue would not be with his ideological agenda but with his political competence. In my piece, I quoted from The Daily Show, where Kucinich chose to perform his ventriloquism act and answer questions about his electability with rhymes and a discussion of the "Age of Aquarius." John Oliver asked if he was quoting the musical. I did not highlight the exchange because I disapprove of harmony and understanding. Rather, I cited it because it illustrates the extent to which Kucinich has fostered his image as an out-of-the-box and, yes, pretty darn wacky, kind of politician. It certainly has its appeal.

But to me it seems that image has hurt Kucinich's efficacy as a liberal champion. Kucinich fought a lot of political battles worth fighting. But he lost almost all of them, and in the meantime, he made his concerns appear to come from farther and farther out in left field. Whether it's speaking out against U.S. assisted killings or filing articles of impeachment, what I find problematic are not Kucinich's initiatives; it’s the fact that he allowed his eccentricities to muddle his message.

Ahhh, Kucinich is a frivolous loser. He appears on a comedy show and acts silly. This does not humanize, however. It does make him an unsuitable politician.

But, when it comes down to it, Kucinich is a loser: "But effectiveness does matter, and other principled liberals have been able to have more relevance. Take Representative Keith Ellison...."

That's not much of a rebuttal to the charge that the Democratic Party is nothing but congeries of reactionary influence peddlers which has no place for the likes of Kucinich. In fact, it reinforces that judgment!

And, yes, the American Prospect is responsible for the content it runs. By running your Kucinich smear, it endorse that smear by treating it as a legitimate expression of a position that fits within its local political culture.

Bad job Abby. Bad Job American Prospect.

Some day, perhaps, you will come to realize how offensive your original post was and will abandon the attempt to redeem it by putting a new slant on it, as above. Perhaps Kucinich could be criticized for a lack of political effectiveness, but your original post lumped together his opposition to torture and his personal eccentricity. This was a mistake. To move on, you will have to admit it and apologize. Everyone makes mistakes; not everyone perseveres in them.

"Saying Kucinich is “wacky,” Greenwald argues, is the same thing as calling him a nutcase. My one use of the term frames his lengthy critique. From my assertion that Kucinich is “among the wackiest,” he infers that I not only dismiss Kucinich but also oppose his political goals," Sorry, no sale. Maybe TAP writers parse differences between "wacky" and "nutcase", but no honest person does. And when your writing goes like this: "...favorite among lefty college kids and Birkenstock-wearers around the country. He was probably best remembered for trying to impeach Dick Cheney for his handling of Iraq and for his presidential push for a Department of Peace," it's hard to believe your intention is to do those probable best memories a favor. It's much more plausible to see the whole piece as what Greenwald describes -- a smirking, lazy piece of writing that aligns your magazine with the DC establishment.

Look, it's fine to write whatever you think about Kucinich. It's less fine to double back and try to claim you didn't think it, along the lines of "who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" I don't blame you for writing another 500 words; writers have rents to pay and groceries to buy. I blame TAP for publishing them.

Hi Abby,
I agree with the above commentators. I like your new post on efficacy, but this should have been the first post. The first thing out however was a comment on perceptions of wackiness... That looks to be your over-riding perception of Kucinish--the first thing to pop into your head. That you should make this your focus, at the same time Kucinich (one of the few Dems willing to do so) is criticizing the Administration over the extremely worrying erosion of civil rights in this country is, well, unfortunate, to say the least...

The right wing flipped out. But Ellison showed a shrewd political sense, using Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Quran. It was a move that helped change perceptions of Islam in America and helped to establish Ellison as a formidable politician.

Yeah the "right wing", which according to you lefties hates women, is actually and fairly concerned to see Muslims gaining political power in America. Yeah the religion that regularly herds women around like cattle. Stones gays, and is utterly intolerant of other viewpoints...uhh, reminds me of someone, but I can't remember who that could be.

Yep we should open our arms wide for a political-religio philosophy that has the stated intent of ruling the world, and that by violence or terror, that builds Mosques here while denying any churches or even Bibles in their own lands. A political-religio philosophy founded in murder, lying and blood, that is the center of Jew hatred the world over...what is not to like?

How about that Arab Spring, ask Coptic Christians in Egypt how springy it is for them? Or Iraqi Christians, or Nigerian, or Sudan Christians, or Pakistan Christians. You liberals live in a perverse dream-world, you will not wake up until the sword is at your own throats.

The only ones who's perceptions have changed are terminal-case liberals that consider the Bill of Rights a suicide pact, that hate Christianity that seeks to change men's heart by moral persuasion, but embraces Islam who's cutting edge rules by force, terror, misogyny, and the greatest intolerance since liberals captured American Universities.

"Yeah the religion that regularly herds women around like cattle. Stones gays, and is utterly intolerant of other viewpoints...uhh, reminds me of someone, but I can't remember who that could be."

The Apostle Paul comes to mind. Shall we talk about the atrocities that have been perpetrated, and still are in some places, in the name of Christ? And if you disown those, on the (quite reasonable) grounds that not all Christians believe their religion justifies such things, then you have no basis for denying American Muslims the right to likewise disown those who murder in Allah's name.

Abby Rapoport,

No. This follow-up is almost worse than the original piece.
- If your attitude was not one of mindless, thoughtless derision, why didn't you make the points you try to make here in that piece?
- If any journalists at all had questioned Dick Cheney's lies before the pre-emptive attack on Iraq, we may have avoided that abject catastrophe, which has cost >100000 Iraqi lives, 5000 American lives, plus tens of thousands more with their arms, legs, and parts of their heads blown off, shattered their country, and wasted several trillion dollars in the estimated ultimate costs. The attack and occupation of Iraq was truly a horrible, awful stain, and the few leaders who had the guts to buck the tide of mindless war cheerleading deserve credit, not derision, for their genuine courage. Cheney didn't 'mishandle' Iraq, he lied through his teeth for months to justify a criminal attack on a country that posed no credible threat. That is actual treason, for which impeachment and then criminal prosecution should certainly have been pursued.
- The 'birkenstock' snide remark - throwing everyone who respected his principled stand against Cheney's treason into the same 'wacky' bin - how was that not derision?

Instead of being petulant and disingenuous, why don't you take Greenwald's totally appropriate schooling as a moment to reflect on your own sins and flakiness. It might make you a better journalist. By the way, right now is a good time to publicly question the next insane attack that our current leader appears to be seriously considering, and for which the same crowd of pundits are cheering. Show some guts... like Kucinch did.

goodness gracious, Ms. Rapoport, you are just a lousy human being.

Ms Rapaport’s original post about Rep Kucinich’s defeat seems to be taken almost entirely out of context. Intended as a lighthearted summary of Rep Kucinich’s public profile (incorporating points about both his policies and personality), it was interpreted and blasted as an institutional “good riddance” to a man who has held up one of the posts of the Democratic Party’s large tent.

In the defense of her post amid attacks by Mr Greenwald, Ms Rapaport raises important but uncomfortable points about Rep Kucinich. She correctly notes that Rep Kucinich’s quirkiness was distracting to his effort to convince others about the merits of his policy positions. He was too often that “odd chihuahua” barking in the corner (using imagery from the Daily Show video) who, although raising worthwhile points, was undercut by his inability to appear like a normal person.

I’ve met Rep Kucinich a few times, both on the campaign trail and more privately in his Congressional office, and I strongly agree with Ms Rapaport’s assessment. In a small group meeting at his Washington, D.C. office in the summer of 2002, Rep Kucinich brought up his veganism to emphasize his consistent pro-life policies. At the time his pro-life policies included not only anti-war and anti-death penalty stances, but also anti-abortion policies which he later reversed during his presidential run. His ability to explain his positions came across not has bold and persuasive, but as kitsch and awkward. I remember a campaign event at a San Francisco Bay area college campus during his 2004 presidential run (April 2003 at Stanford for the fact checkers) where he undermined his effort to appeal to a broad liberal audience by breaking in to song on the stump. This provided subtle grounds for critics to paint him as uninformed and naive.

The most startling part of this post-election discussion about Rep Kucinich’s congressional career is the ad hominem attacks on Ms Rapaport for expressing her opinion and assessment. I hope those who are offended by her stances would use the opportunity to reflect on her ideas instead of attacking her personally. I believe Rep Kucinich would have appealed to our better character during this situation by expecting us to act more like respectful adults toward one another.

-John Hamilton

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