By Matt Taibbi / Substack
I first met Dennis Kucinich in 2003, when he was running for president. I’d been assigned to write a feature about him for The Nation and didn’t know what to expect. The press take on him was two caricature terms: nutty leftist.
When I began following him around in New Hampshire, I didn’t find him to be nutty or even particularly a leftist. Mainly, he was just interesting. Ask other candidates about various issues and they would vomit rehearsed positions back at you, an experience that was like being handed a series of index cards. Kucinich treated the campaign like a conversation, and what you got from him were not positions but thoughts.
To the campaign press, Kucinich was a punchline and an annoyance. I have vivid memories of an exchange in Houston, Texas between reporters who one after the other declared how furious they were that Kucinich had not yet dropped out of debates, so that “real” candidates like John Kerry and John Edwards could have more airtime. In the years since, many of those erstwhile centrist reporters and pundits have adopted his politics, while Kucinich himself has been painted as a kind of neoconservative.
That label isn’t correct, either. The problem is that popular political media doesn’t know what to do with a politician who doesn’t define himself by sides, or who’d do something like speak at a CPAC convention in modern America and announce, “I feel comfortable anywhere.” We no longer allow politicians to be comfortable “anywhere.”
Early this week, I spoke with Dennis about all this, about his new book, The Division of Light and Power (review to come), about what his fight to save Cleveland’s power company meant then, and what it means now:
Matt Taibbi: In the book you describe when you first arrive in the City Council, and immediately the reader is greeted with shocking details: members talking about how “all I want is a little ice cream,” and “you’ve gotta to vote right,” and so on. It’s made clear that it’s a racket, that the legislatures are there to be servants of the financial interests.
Dennis Kucinich: Of course, as the reader is well aware, it’s not just in Cleveland we’re talking about. This goes on everywhere.
And when you’re new and you come in, many people are impressionable. They’re looking for cues about — what am I supposed to do now? Look, I came into City Council and was greeted by people who were old enough to be my grandparents. They looked at me, and they just couldn’t believe how I got there. When I told them, “Look, I knocked on doors,” they said, “Yeah, right.”
But what I learned is that there are many motivations for people to go into public service. Some people make no bones about why they were there. It was looked at as a business, and they were part of the business interests. It wasn’t hidden. It was out in the open. That was the reality that people participated in, and to go against it invited risk.
MT: There are these businessmen hanging around the Council. They’re handing out tickets to Browns and Indians games. What did they want back?
Dennis Kucinich: Oh, yeah. That’s huge. You get elected to City Council, and some of the people elected to Council are lucky if they could afford a ticket to a game. And suddenly, you’ve got utility lobbyists who are providing members of Council with season tickets or prime box seats to key sports events or to other community events. The lobbyists, as I wrote, become some of the best friends that these lonely Council representatives had.
This is the system. People move into the system, and suddenly instead of changing the system, the system changes them. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. You wonder why things don’t change. Well, the system changes people. The perks that are available for people in public office and the recognition and the honor is often such that once you get there, who wants to give that up?
You mean, all you need to do is give a vote here and a vote there? Big deal. Well, actually it is a big deal. After a while, you give up a vote, and then maybe a little bit later you give a piece of your soul. You just keep on that, and after a while you just become inured to how that causes you to view things, change the way you look at things.
MT: People will ask — are you above those temptations?
Dennis Kucinich: I think that growing up in Cleveland, Matt, the oldest of the seven, where we never had a home we could call our own, we were always renters, and because we moved and moved and moved and my dad worked, the family grew so quickly that we just never were able to make ends meet. Not really ever relying on material comfort and being informed by a Catholic education, I never really felt attached to the material world. So, the offers that could come didn’t mean anything to me.
It wasn’t as if I was looking to prepare for wider opportunities for myself in the material world. I’m involved in a world of ideas, principles, things that I believe in. Materiality, I respect it, it’s not where my motivation has been. The house I’m speaking to you from right now in Cleveland, Ohio, I’ve lived here for 50 years. I have a good life, but I never sought any material for its own sake.
So, when you’re in public life and really don’t want anything, it might be dangerous to these interest groups, because what do you do with somebody who can’t be bought? That’s really what I thought. Jumping to the end of the book where NBC interviewed this reputed mob hitman who was ready to take the job to take me out, he basically testified, “Well, we couldn’t buy Kucinich.” There was nothing I wanted, except to try to make government work for my constituents. That’s all I ever wanted. And of course, who knew what the consequences would be making that kind of a simple stand?
MT: You talk about how the system changes members when they get in. The ask from these financial interests ultimately, whether you call it a franchise or a monopoly or rent or whatever it is — they basically want the government to sign off on risk-free money flows, is that right? The CEI story being representative of this.
Dennis Kucinich: Oh, absolutely. But keep in mind, Matt, that I did not want to expand the scope of the book, but it would be easy to do a sequel that would point out the thousands and thousands of instances of privatization of public assets that are happening all over the world and often without any resistance at all, because people don’t know how to fight back.
When you look at the level of privatization that has been going on not only nationally in the United States, but internationally, with the help of international banks and organizations — the things that are inherently public assets are being chopped up and sold to cartels.
Once the Rescue Plan Act money runs out, you can bet money that there’ll be an attempt to privatize more public assets. You can almost see that coming again, another wave where communities will be looking for more money. Well, we’ll sell our water system, our light system, our parking meters.
There are so many things, and every city has billions, tens of billions of dollars, even more, of assets. And there’s always some interest group that’s looking at those assets to try to get them cheap and capitalize on them, and cause people to pay dearly by increasing the costs of water or electricity or waste collection and in some cases even public safety.
So, privatization is really a move away from democratic governance. And at the core of this, I was standing for democratic governance.
MT: There’s a phrase that’s come into a lot of popularity in the last five years on both the Democrat and Republic sides, this notion of a “rigged game.” It’s triggered populist uprisings in both parties. You use the phrase in the book: what did it mean to you in Cleveland?
Dennis Kucinich: It’s a rigged game. But, you have to have the confidence that you can beat a rigged game.
I was able to beat the rigged game by not giving in. I could have thrown up my hands and said, “Okay, you want that light system, take it, just let me stay in office. Give me the $50 million, and we’ll live happily ever after.” And people would never know because they’ve been told that this is imperative to sell, so who’s going to argue?
So, it is a rigged game. The question is who’s prepared to un-rig it, or to at least challenge it and to expose it for what it is? It’s easy to bemoan a rigged game. Try taking it on.
MT: A theme that runs through your book is how you found partisan labels confining…
Dennis Kucinich: I did.
MT: I ask because in recent years, there have been multiple profiles of you that have taken the angle, “Dennis Kucinich was proven right.” The Washington Post says you were the “future of American politics,” we just didn’t know it at the time. The question I’m getting at: is there something predictive in this book, too, that people don’t realize yet about that lack of partisan distinction? Because it feels like the country is moving in this direction of being less interested in labels.
Dennis Kucinich: When I stood on that presidential platform, when you covered me in the campaign, most people weren’t aware of where I’d been, because I didn’t wear it on my sleeve. But I knew I had to tell the story.
When I was campaigning nationally, I detected something that was different than I was reading about in terms of the public. I detected an underlying unity. Now, that’s not where the attention is today. Because the polarization’s been so extreme and pile-driven into the bedrock of American politics, that we come to believe that you’re either left or right or liberal or conservative. But I still think that there are a lot of Americans who see their country in a more gentle way, in a way that they connect to the heart of the country, that they feel the country in a different way. It’s a sense of sadness about where America is at the moment, and it’s turmoil that we’re in.
But I don’t think that really reflects who we are as a nation. I think there’s another America waiting to be evoked, and part of it is an America that is not partisan, that is not saying that the fount of all truth, love, and mercy rests in one political party or the other.
When you move away from this inelegant Punch and Judy show called the national political scene, with Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other, hey, it becomes this incestuous, internal game that is largely irrelevant to the concerns of people.
In this book, I write where the Democratic party was pushing for the sale of the light system, that the Democratic party was criticizing me for going after the banks, for challenging the banks. I was made to appear to be un-American for raising questions about the right of banks to redline communities. And I don’t forget for a minute that it was the Democratic party that chopped up the 10th District, which I had the privilege of serving for 16 years.
MT: No monopoly on gerrymandering, apparently.
Dennis Kucinich: Look, my feeling is that there’s a point at which partisan politics becomes its own game apart from the reality that most people have to live with, and that causes people to just tune out. And so, do I think that a new form is emerging? Yeah, I think so. It is, but where it’s going to go when it appears, I don’t know. But I do know that there is another America out there that is not always heard from, and that could end up becoming decisive at some point in the future.
MT: The book starts with a really interesting epigraph about fighting City Hall from City Hall, where you say that in order to fight City Hall, you have to first find where it is. City Hall is not just the physical structure, but the banks, the real estate combines, the investor-backed utilities…
Dennis Kucinich: And the mob.
MT: And the mob, right. So, today, nationally, where is City Hall, for people interested in fighting it? You’ve been in congress. What are some of those forces that are major players that people maybe don’t think about as much?
Dennis Kucinich: You have to look at Wall Street. We have a finance economy now. Look at the arms manufacturers. Our monetary system changed over 100 years ago. The monetary system was privatized. That’s another subject for another day. But the fact of the matter is that you’ve got Wall Street, you’ve got big money, you’ve got the banks, you’ve got multinational corporations. The whole idea of nationhood is up for redefinition.
I guess when any one of us takes a journey, an independent journey, any of us may discover truths about our society, about our culture, that others would not because they hadn’t taken the same journey. The Division of Light and Power is a story of my journey, what I’ve learned, and now I’m sharing it with the world.
MT: Is it fair to say that this book, ultimately, is about not selling out?
Dennis Kucinich: What I find interesting, Matt, is that people see different things in the book depending on where their interests are. I think one of the things the book will do is start a whole different discussion about who rules, who’s making the decisions, in whose interest is government functioning. As I said, government works. Who’s it working for?
Just to do a quick postscript here, I really believe there is such a thing as a soul. I really believe that if you give it up, you never get it back. This education that I had, the metaphor of Christ being put up on a mountain and showing the whole world, you can have that as long as you go along with the plan of this other force in the world.
Or as I tell the story in the book of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they had to worship the idol of gold. I pulled that out on the night of default, because that’s exactly what I saw happening. I knew, I had no question in my mind, that when I said no, I knew what was going to happen. I had no doubt about it, and I knew that my career was cooked. I was done.
It’s like the line from a Simon and Garfunkel song that gave me a little bit of encouragement that said, “Hang on to your hopes, my friend, that’s an easy thing to say. But if your hopes should pass away, simply pretend that you can build them again.” I just pretended that I could rebuild hopes. But I was shoring fragments against ruins, in the words of The Wasteland. I had no idea I’d ever have a chance for a comeback, because I really knew at that point that it could be over, that’s it.
But on the other hand, I also knew that if I had capitulated and agreed to sell, I didn’t own my own soul anymore. I was done. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t, because I had to stand for something. And sometimes in doing that, you might lose the moment.