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AUDIO: Robert Scheer Hosts Dennis Kucinich -- an Unpredictable American Original

    Former U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich. (Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Read the transcript below.

In the third episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer’s new KCRW podcast, eight-term Ohio congressman and two-time Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich raps about the underbelly of U.S. politics going back to his days as Cleveland’s “boy mayor” in the late 1970s.

Scheer and Kucinich recount how their early interview in Playboy magazine — which both admit may have cost Kucinich a mayoral re-election — led to a long friendship. In an illustration of how strange the political realm can be, Kucinich tells how former Republican Speaker John Boehner, a fellow Ohioan, tried unsuccessfully to aid him when Ohio Democrats “working on behalf of certain interests” redrew the lines of his district to ensure his congressional defeat in 2012.

As a veteran of the struggle against the corporate and political machine, Kucinich asks whether today’s “oligarchs who run our politics will simply claim ownership of everything and have it privatized.” On a lighter note, he talks about the effect his friends Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson have had on his life, and hints with some vigor that he is not ready to step off the stage of electoral politics. As he puts it, “Stay tuned.”

Robert Scheer: Hello. I’m Bob Scheer, and welcome to Scheer Intelligence, the KCRW podcast that I’m using as the chance to talk to American originals, that cast of characters that the American culture, with its immigrants, with its former slaves and everyone else, has thrown up that are unique to the American experience. Today my guest is one such original, Dennis Kucinich, a former U.S. congressman from Ohio. He served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat for 15 years; he also ran for president in 2004 and 2008. Dennis was also mayor of Cleveland in the 1970s, when I first met him as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed him when he was in a stormy race there. Dennis is a contributor at Fox News and, full disclosure, he is a contributor to Truthdig.com, the website that I cofounded, and he and I have been friends for quite a few years.

And I’m doing this podcast, which they call Scheer Intelligence; but really it’s a study of American originals. And certainly, Dennis, you’re in that category, and an American original. And I’m just thinking back, you know, how I first met you; you were already the mayor of Cleveland, you’d been a city councilman, and you were embattled in an election.

When I first heard about you, I didn’t think you were left or right or anything; I heard there was some crazy kid out in Cleveland who was taking on the power structure in that town. You had a Muny Light, a municipal light system that provided electricity to the people of Cleveland, and the banks wanted to take it over, and they were going to put the city into default unless this young mayor went for it, and went for their terms, and privatized the public utility system. And by the way, in terms of your experience, I don’t know where you were coming from; why don’t you just tell us? You had been on the city council, you grew up in Cleveland; you’re in a studio in Cleveland right now doing this interview. And who was that Dennis Kucinich that I met in ’78?

Dennis Kucinich: The person you met in ’78 is the person I am today. And that is someone who, if I see something that is unfair, unjust, if I see an attempt to try to defraud the public—what happened in Cleveland was that the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company was working behind the scenes to try to put Muny Light out of business, and there were politicians working with them. Their bank partner came in later to try to force the city to concede the electric system in exchange for renewing the city’s credit. You know, what I saw was a system that was a latticework of corruption. And I challenged it. I grew up in a way that involved really being committed to certain beliefs and ideas and ideals.

RS: Well, where’d that come from? The Catholic Church?

DK: Well, let me just tell you. My background, I had a Catholic education, and the nuns who taught me at many different schools were very keen on the practical application of religion to everyday life. In other words, to follow a certain set of principles or an ethic that involved just trying to do the right thing in the moment, and trying to be good in every way. And so I breathed that in, and it became part of who I am today.

RS: And also what you breathed in were a lot of noxious fumes from the car your family was camping out in. You had a hard—you know, I didn’t have a protected childhood myself growing up in the Bronx, but when I encountered your story when I went back there and I talked to people you grew up with, and I was profiling you for the LA Times and doing that Playboy interview, you know, people told me you really came from a rough background. I mean, how many kids, and poverty—

DK: Well, I was the oldest of seven. My parents never owned a home, and we lived in 21 different places by the time I was 17, including a couple cars. You know, when you’re young and it seems more like an adventure, you don’t really think about it until later in life, you look and you say boy, my parents had a tough time, and we were basically fortunate to survive. And that background really helps to inform me to live life every day with a grateful heart, to really be grateful for the opportunities and the blessings that are received, and never to take anything for granted, ever.

RS: Yeah, well, I understand that, Dennis. And you know, I just should let people listening to this—is that I did start out covering you as a journalist and then, you know, after I caused you your defeat [laughs]—

DK: Well, I think that one had many hands in it, including my own. [Laughter]

RS: But, no, I mean, I did a pretty controversial interview with you, and I guess the place where it appeared, in Playboy, caused you a little bit of trouble with the old ladies that otherwise loved you.

DK: Well, the previous mayor banned chewing gum and Playboy from the Cleveland Hopkins airport, so, you know. He set the benchmark.

RS: Oh, there you go, yeah. So, and I should tell listeners that despite, you know, and we did a pretty straightforward interview—because I actually at first didn’t think you were the real deal, frankly. You know, I came with my reporter hat on and, you know, I threw a lot of jargony questions at you coming from the left. And you were not a predictable left person; you were, in fact, there is a history in Cleveland that you pointed out to me at the time, of populism, and a populism that really is quite authentic to the whole, not only the history of Cleveland, the history of the United States. And I forget the name of the mayor whose statue—

DK: Tom Johnson, mayor Tom Johnson was, ah—

RS: And you took me, you took me to that statue and you said, “This is my role model.” Right? And who was Tom Johnson?

DK: Well, Tom Johnson was mayor of Cleveland at the turn of the last century. And he was the one who established the idea for a municipal electric system, and he was the one who championed—he invented the fare box for transportation systems, and then he turned around and championed a penny fare. He was someone who was a millionaire with the heart of an angel, who dispensed the resources of the community to those who were most in need. He was an extraordinary mayor, and he was written about by Lincoln Steffens. In his—Steffens called him the best mayor of the best governed city in America, at the time. And so, you know, Johnson was worthy of emulating; and he took a stand to establish Muny Light, and I felt when I was mayor it was my obligation to protect that rich tradition of Cleveland history, of government and service to the people, by preserving the electric system. And I took a stand that resulted in my getting elected mayor. And then on Dec. 15, 1978, Cleveland Trust Bank refused to renew the city’s credit because I wouldn’t sell the municipal electric system, and that led to my losing the next election. I was out of office, major office, for 15 years; but then I had a big comeback in ’94 and was elected to Congress for the first of eight terms in ’96, principally in this area, because I took the stand, because people knew I made a sacrifice. But the city power system endures today, and it’s really a tremendous credit to the people of Cleveland, who recognized their interests were at stake and returned me to office to protect those interests.

RS: And I just want to get a little personal note here, in the interest of informing our listeners. I did start out with, you know, my objective, tough-questioning hat on, and I gave you a hard time. Because as I said, you weren’t into the jargon of the left; your background was not as a leftist, and you were of a unique American populism which we’ve had over the years. And then after your defeat, I really was interested in you and also I came to like you. And you were going to write a book, and I remember you came out to California and I offered you the opportunity [laughs] to stay in a place I had in Berkeley. And you liked it quite a bit. And just as a memory of that—and we got to be friends, and you were out there for quite a while, off and on, and I’ve seen you over the years a lot. And my son Josh, who is one of the producers of this podcast, Joshua Scheer, was an exploited, unpaid intern for you at one point [laughter] when you made your comeback. So there we have Dennis Kucinich, you know, who’s not the tallest guy or the largest guy in the world, and Josh, who looks like a football player; and the two of you were walking down the streets of Cleveland dealing with the voters and hecklers and supporters, and he looked like your bodyguard or something. And so we’ve had a connection over the years. But I remember the Dennis that I knew back then, when you came to California, was not the Dennis who’s a vegan and who knows Shirley MacLaine or Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson, and you know, who’s sort of a symbol of a kind of counterculture in America and so forth. You were, in the worst sense of it, as American as apple pie, you know, made with canned apples. I remember, and I have to tell—

DK: No, made with organic apples.

RS: Not then, no, they were canned. And let me just—I don’t think you trusted food if it wasn’t canned or pickled or something. [Laughter] And I just want to say, you know, that you really learned a lot after that about a whole bunch of issues. I mean, you were very early on the environment and the struggle over power and conservation; you know, you set the record, really on that. And the way you functioned in Cleveland, I remember in terms of your concern about policing, you would call in complaints, you would talk to people. So you were very big on all of those issues.

DK: Well, let me just tell you something. I want to go back to something you talked about, in terms of, you know, the approach that I used that was not ideological. You know, for my time in public service, beginning as a member of city council, there really isn’t anything ideological about making sure that the streets are repaired, that the waste is picked up, that the catch basins are cleaned; that recreation centers, recreation areas are in repair; or to make sure that police and fire respond in a timely way, that there’s some community impact and control over public safety. I mean, those things, they’re really not ideological; it’s practical, it’s pragmatic; and that’s always been my approach, pragmatic. But when I confronted the banks in Cleveland and they began to put pressure on me to sell the electric system, I began to look at the deeper questions of economic democracy, and of the right of people to own these public-service facilities, and of the history that existed in America of people taking a stand for public parks, public education, water systems, freeways; that there has to be a public sphere. And right now in America, we are at a—we’re in a conflict over whether or not there is such a thing as the public sphere, or whether or not the oligarchs who run our politics will simply claim ownership over everything and have it all privatized. So that fight that we had in Cleveland, which began 40 years ago in earnest, when I became involved, endures today in so many different ways, where there’s a dynamic tension between the public interest and the private interest. And Bob, I’ll tell you again, I’m—you know, people will describe me as being left, but the truth of the matter is I’m very pragmatic. I want to see what works. But if somebody’s trying to steal something from the public, and they dress it up as some kind of progress, then I’m the one to blow the whistle.

RS: Yeah, well, and speaking of blowing the whistle, the voters did return you to office, because as the Cleveland Plain Dealer [headline] said, “Dennis Was Right.” That they wanted that public power plant because it kept the private power plant in check. So you went and you got elected to the state senate, and then you got elected to Congress; and how long did you serve in Congress?

DK: Well, I served eight terms in Congress, including—

RS: Eight terms and then they redistricted you out, they got your, chopped up your district and eliminated—

DK: Well, the “they”—so that we can be correct for the historical record here—“they” were Democrats in the Ohio House who were working on behalf of certain interest groups. You have to understand Ohio politics when I tell you that John Boehner, then Speaker of the House, actually made an effort to try to preserve my district, not because we vote together but because he knew that any opposition I ever had was always honorable, wasn’t based on politics, and that I’m a straight shooter. So Boehner actually made an effort to try to save the district, but the Democrats in Columbus threatened the entire redistricting plan if they didn’t relent and chop my district up into four pieces. And so recently, the people of Ohio passed a constitutional amendment that takes redistricting out of politics. If that had happened five years ago, I’d probably still have a district.

RS: I’m talking to Dennis Kucinich, an American original, as part of this podcast series. Dennis, when, you know, I interviewed John Dean, he was the first podcast in this series, and he talked about how the Republican Party is not the Republican Party of old. Because at least, you know, even under Nixon—certainly under Eisenhower, a great president—there was a concern for the public interest. I mean, Nixon supported the Environmental Protection Agency, the creation of it. And he believed in a guaranteed annual income at one point—

DK: Right! [laughs]

RS: —that the government would guarantee. And in fact, Democrats—because you were in Congress when all of this was happening—under Bill Clinton made an alliance with, you know, very right-wing Republicans in control of the Senate to pass all the banking deregulation that caused the Great Recession—

DK: Bob—Bob, you’re 100% right. What’s happened is that the political center has shifted far to the right. So people who are even advocating things that are common sense, and right and decent for the mass of American people, are now painted at the margins because the center has shifted so far to the right, with the help of Democrats as much as Republicans.

RS: So now, you ran in the Democratic primary, just like Bernie Sanders is doing now. And I don’t know if you recall, but I was not enthusiastic about your doing that; I thought it was kind of a trap. I think I was wrong; I not only think I was wrong, I’ll admit I was wrong. I think you were able to raise a lot of issues that wouldn’t have been raised. And now Bernie Sanders is engaged in the same kind of effort here as an Independent who now has gone into the Democratic primary. He has pledged to support—that’s the only part I don’t like, he pledged to support whoever the party nominates. And you know, what are lessons you have—you knew Bernie Sanders from the House, ah—

DK: Actually, I’ve known Bernie for almost 40 years. We were mayors, our terms kind of overlapped, going way back when. Bernie on the domestic issues is setting the pace, and is a necessary voice. He is having an impact. He may be responsible, if he doesn’t get the nomination, for pushing Secretary Clinton toward a more progressive form of economics; that would be an achievement, if he doesn’t get the nomination.

RS: But will she stay pushed? I mean, you can push these people in an election, but then they sell you out as soon as they’ve got the office.

DK: Well, you know, that’s always a problem. But I also want to say this. You know, when I ran in 2004 and 2008, it was a continuation of an effort to challenge American interventionism, these mindless, however profitable wars that our country wages for interest groups that have nothing to do with the American people. And I wish, Bob, that someone running this year would carry those issues forward. So far, that’s not happening. And that is a problem.

RS: Well, this is an important issue to discuss, then. Because you were in favor, and actually you put in legislation to have a Department of Peace. And I would say, yes, you were a great populist on the domestic, economic issues; but truly heroic, in the way Ron Dellums and a very few other people have been in the House, in challenging the imperial thrust of America, which really is what subverts the republic.

DK: Well, you know, when you come—when you get inside the system—you know, I come from the neighborhoods of Cleveland. And I got into Congress with the intention of fighting for more help for education for the people I represented, for healthcare, for retirement security, for jobs, for a cleaner environment, and on and on. And then when I got inside, what I found out is that I stepped into the belly of a beast of a war machine. And that’s all it was about. We’ve spent trillions of dollars and wasted that money on wars. And when I really came to understand what it was about, it was pretty shocking, Bob. But to me, it wasn’t enough to just say, well, I understand it; I gave hundreds and hundreds of speeches challenging the system, and I continue to do it today. And I do it now, saying we must end this interventionism; we must have a benign role for America in the world, not as a nation above nations, but a nation among nations. And we have to start to deemphasize the role of the military in our lives and in our culture. We are in a serious conflict right now over whether we’re going to be able to maintain even a semblance of a democracy, or be overwhelmed by a tide of fascism and oligarchy.

RS: Well, you know, and the fact of the matter is that Hillary Clinton, who seems to be the frontrunner right now and is quite hawkish, and she—we now know from these emails and everything else that she was much more hawkish than Obama. That she was one of the people in the administration leading the charge to overthrow secular, de-fanged dictators like Gaddafi, the same stupid thing that George W. Bush did in Iraq. You know, and so the question really is, is Bernie Sanders up to challenging her? Now, you say you knew him when he was a mayor, you knew him in the House; who is Bernie Sanders? Will he carry a progressive flag on international affairs?

DK: Well, on the domestic issues, Bernie is performing a critical function in carrying issues of equity, fairness, jobs, healthcare, social security into the general election, or into the primary season. But look, his campaign isn’t about raising these foreign policy questions. And the reason why I think we need to have that voice in this election is for this reason. If you look at all the resources of the United States that go into these wars—you know, the Joseph Stiglitz-Linda Bilmes study called The Three Trillion Dollar War is now the five trillion dollar war. And if you think of what it would mean to reprogram monies on the domestic side—I mean, what Eisenhower said way back when about every bomb, you know, that’s made takes money away from the needs of the people—that was true then, it’s true now. And so we have to make the connection. The reason why this is so urgent, there has to be a connection made between American interventionism, and the trillions of dollars that are wasted in these wars abroad, and government’s lacking the ability to seriously meet a domestic agenda. And that doesn’t even get into the broader questions of monetary policy, which is something else I’ve raised in the halls of Congress.

RS: You know, it’s interesting you bring up Eisenhower, and Eisenhower’s great, great lasting achievement; I mean, he did send the troops into Little Rock to enforce the law on the right to education, very important. But the fact of the matter is that Eisenhower’s farewell speech—like George Washington’s farewell speech, which warned about the imposters of pretended patriotism—Eisenhower in his farewell speech warned about the military-industrial complex. And as you well know that speech, here was the commander who basically had won World War II from the American side, an inspired world leader, and he was warning about a military-industrial complex that extends into every congressional district.

DK: No question about it.

RS: He was very explicit about it. But he also raised another question about fear mongering. You know, after all, it was Eisenhower who brought Soviet leader Khrushchev to the United States to see how we grow corn effectively [laughter]. And it really impressed Khrushchev, and probably began the end of the Cold War. So I raise a question about these Democrats, and Bernie Sanders is not going to raise these issues with Hilary Clinton, because Hilary Clinton’s a fear mongerer. She has supported the surveillance state. She went along with an administration that does drone attacks, and so forth. And it’s a real question that folks have: should they go for the Green Party, should they go for a third party, if Bernie Sanders does not rise to the occasion or if he loses, and the candidate of the Democrats is a war-mongering Democrat, and we’ve had plenty of them!

DK: Well, that’s why it’s important to inject this into the discussion now. You know, when I first came to Congress I was in a congressional hearing where the Department of Defense had to ‘fess up that they had over one trillion, “t” for trillion, dollars in accounts they could not reconcile. There was at that point over 1187 different accounting systems deliberately obfuscating how the money’s spent. Once I had that, Bob, I didn’t vote for a single appropriation for these wars or for the military build-ups. Throughout my entire career, not once did I go along with this, because I knew how the money’s being blown and wasted; and it ends up being, as a fellow by the name of Smedley Butler once said, a racket; “war is a racket.”

RS: So people like yourself who’ve been dismissed as peaceniks, as unrealistic, as not pragmatic on foreign policy—you know, without flattering you, because I’ve been critical when you needed criticism from my point of view—but the fact of the matter is, you were way ahead of your time on these issues.

DK: Well, it’s not—you know, when you see Democrats advocating bailing out Wall Street or spending trillions of dollars on war, and then they turn around and talk about change, the kind of change we get is—I don’t know, what, two quarters for a dollar.

RS: Is it a mistake to stick with the Democratic Party, Dennis?

DK: I don’t know. I mean, you know, it’s always—I chose a path to try to change the party from within. I’m still there, but I certainly understand those who feel that the party, by virtue of the way the campaign finance system is set up, cannot be responsive to the practical aspirations of Americans. I mean, I just want to go back to Cleveland, Ohio; there are neighborhoods here where people desperately need to fix up their homes, to try to save the homes from foreclosure; to be able to even own a home anymore; to be able to have jobs that would support that, to send their kids to college, to be able to have a decent life. We’re going to have the Republican Convention here in Cleveland, but the backdrop across the city is one of a city that’s very troubled. And the Democratic Party should be offering a real agenda. That’s what Bernie Sanders is doing on the economics, but we have to get the connection between this militarism and interventionism impairing our ability to be able to meet the needs of people here at home.

RS: You know, Dennis, let me ask you a question. When I met you, you were a hick, you know. And I don’t mean that in a bad sense, but you really were—

DK: Excuse me! [Laughs]

RS: Come on, we had a big fight—I took you down to see the Hearst Castle, I said I’ll drive all the way down Highway 1 and get sick doin’ it, but I’m going to eat in Morro Bay at a great restaurant. And I stopped to fill up my car with gas and you and your wife jumped out of the car, you know, and my kids and you were in some fast food place eatin’ some slop. And I went in there and I grabbed this food, threw it on the table and said “This is not food!” So you were no vegetarian then. And then here I went to Maui one day, I’m at the airport, and there’s Dennis Kucinich, the vegan! And he’s with Woody Harrelson, and Annie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s wife. And you know, through you—you get on the plane and I get invited to Christmas with Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson and Annie Nelson. And you know, you entered a whole ‘nother life there, Shirley MacLaine and so forth. What did you find there? I mean, there was actually, believe it or not, some sincerity and some commitment and honor with stars.

DK: Tremendously creative people. I mean, I’m a creative person; I took my creativity into government and challenged the entire system. But there are people in the arts and entertainment who are doing the same thing. And I’ve come to appreciate that, and I call many of them my friends. You know, when I was running for president, particularly in 2004, I had a very powerful response from people in the movie business, people in arts and literature. And that’s great, you know. And, look, I’m still from Cleveland, Ohio; I still have a home on Mylin [sp?] Avenue in Cleveland that I’ve had since 1971. And you know, I’m still the same person. But I’ve expanded my scope in being able to reach out and, you know, walk with kings without losing the common touch.

RS: Let me apologize, by the way. I love Cleveland, and—I do, I actually do. And my son Joshua, who is, as I said, producing the show, is a fanatical fan; the only thing we don’t like is that they won’t change the name of the baseball team. But what are your plans? Are you going to run for office again? Would you serve in government? What are you going to do?

DK: Well, it’s been used before, but “I’ll be back.” [Laughs] And—

RS: But do you have any, I mean, could you see—I mean, well, Bernie Sanders could win; you’d probably go into that kind of administration.

DK: Well, let me just say that I made a commitment a long time ago to be involved in public service. You can do that from inside or outside of political office; I don’t need an office to have an impact. But at some point, I think that I’ll probably be back in elected office. I don’t have any immediate plans, but you know, as I make my way around the Cleveland area and around Ohio, I have people who keep asking, well, when are you going next? And I just tell them, stay tuned.

RS: But I do want to end this by saying, you know, because this is a series on the American original; and it’s a good reminder about that mayor of Cleveland, that populism, resistance to power, challenging the elite. That’s as American as real apple pie, organic, that’s organic America. And you represent a tradition in America, not only a Midwestern, but certainly strongly rooted in the Midwest; [Robert M.] La Follette in Wisconsin, right; others, Eugene Victor Debs. And maybe Bernie Sanders will stick to that; he certainly has exhibited that for a long life. A tradition of progressive populism, not the phony populism you get from a Trump. And I think that in terms of the sort of American original, that’s what’s been the saving grace of this society. Do you see yourself in that tradition, and can you just name a few other people that have historically inspired you in that respect?

DK: My inspiration goes back to English Romantic poets, Irish poets, literature; you know, I’m certainly inspired by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George McGovern. And there are individuals who point the way to what’s possible, and I find them in my everyday life. And as long as we keep engaging in a possibility thinking, and being able to imagine the world we can have and work in practical ways toward achieving that vision, there’s always a chance that we can create a new world, and that’s what I’m about.

RS: And what you’re about is being the real deal, Dennis Kucinich. I’ve known you in a lot of different formations, and you’re just incredible in your integrity, and I want to be here on Scheer Intelligence podcast to affirm that. I know you and I know you stand for a great deal that we need. So take care.

DK: Well, Bob, I appreciate very much this opportunity, and your own integrity as a reporter. Thanks so much.

RS: Thanks. Well, that’s it for Scheer Intelligence, a study of American originals, and I think you’ll agree that Dennis Kucinich is certainly one. I want to thank our producers, Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer, and our brilliant engineer Kat Yore. See you next time.

Robert Scheer
Editor in Chief
Robert Scheer, editor in chief of Truthdig, has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist. His columns appear in newspapers across the country, and his…
Robert Scheer

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