With Congress on recess this week, most lawmakers have fled the Beltway for their home districts. But not Dennis Kucinich. When he and I spoke on the phone Tuesday afternoon, the antiwar über-liberal was ping-ponging around Washington, deep into Day 2 of his media assault on President Obama's decision to start bombing targets in Libya. "Somebody has to be here to try to get our troops back and stop these wars!" he told me brightly.
The Ohio congressman has cast himself as a leading antagonist since Saturday, when, during a conference call of the Democratic caucus, he asked if Obama's failure to consult Congress before green-lighting the disturbingly named " Operation Odyssey Dawn" qualified as an impeachable offense. "I raised the question of are there constitutional limitations on executive power," he explained matter-of-factly. "This is an urgent debate for this country to have."
But a member of Congress can't lob the I-word into the political pool without causing a few ripples. Sure enough, as soon as word of Kucinich's musings leaked, the media came calling. And rather than tamp down the controversy, the congressman eagerly kick-started the "urgent debate" on presidential overreach with damn near anyone who'd have him: MSNBC, CNN, the website Raw Story, The Alyona Show (a production of the Russian news network RT), and, most delightfully, Bill O'Reilly. Although no more enlightening than his other sit-downs, Kucinich's four and half minutes on The Factor did provide the mesmerizing spectacle of a Fox News host pummeling a Democrat while offering bellicose support for the Obama White House.
But that's the thing about Kucinich: He has long exhibited a deep appreciation of political theater and is arguably among its most endearing practitioners. Unlike so many demagogic bomb-throwers, he is neither hateful nor scary nor particularly partisan. He's just… goofy. Indeed, what distinguishes the quixotic ex-mayor of Cleveland from the ordinary Capitol Hill rabble isn't that he is so left wing or so outspoken or even that he is constantly being compared to a Keebler elf—though all of those things are true. It's that Kucinich embraces his reputation as America's favorite dotty uncle and even seems intent on fanning the flames now and again. This is, after all, the man who has boldly proclaimed himself "America's Most Courageous Congressman."
Give him, at the very least, points for consistency: In June 2008, as George W. Bush's term was winding down, Kucinich introduced an impeachment resolution, saying the 43rd president had manufactured a false case for war and violated U.S. and international law by invading Iraq. Even Nancy Pelosi kept her distance from that one. Now he's making a case against a president of his own party, telling O'Reilly: "You have to come to Congress if you're going to attack another country. He didn't do that, that's not a small matter." And some on the left agree with him.
Kucinich's four and half minutes on The Factor provided the mesmerizing spectacle of a Fox News host pummeling a Democrat while offering bellicose support for the Obama White House.
But let us set aside for the moment Kucinich's quirkier political positions, such as his professed desire to establish a Department of Peace. We're talking here about a two-time presidential candidate who, in the course of an October 2007 primary debate, wound up chatting with NBC's Tim Russert about having seen a UFO while kicking it at Shirley MacLaine's house in Washington state. Two months later, the candidate again set tongues wagging by attending a fundraiser hosted for him by Larry Flynt at Hustler magazine's headquarters in Los Angeles. A presidential hopeful, however hopeless, publicly snuggling up to one of the nation's most notorious smut peddlers? Somehow he comes across as almost charmingly obtuse.
Even Kucinich's personal life has taken on an air of unreality. In January, the congressman filed suit against two companies connected with the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria because of a 2008 incident in which he bit into veggie wrap and split a tooth on an insufficiently pitted olive. The case of Kucinich v. The Rogue Olive had political watchers from coast to coast snickering long after the suit was settled.
Then, of course, there's Mrs. Kucinich. Shortly after the congressman's 2004 presidential odyssey, he met, wooed, and wed a drop-dead gorgeous British gal 31 years his junior. Now director of public affairs for the Committee for Responsible Physicians, Elizabeth Harper Kucinich is a 6-foot willowy redhead with a peaches-and-cream complexion (and a pierced-tongue!) who could easily be mistaken for a fashion model. Kucinich, to put it gently, is not. The couple first met in early 2005 when Elizabeth, then working for a think tank pushing monetary-policy reform, visited Kucinich's office. It was, both say, love at first sight. They met a second time that May, and Kucinich proposed. Three months later, they were married. Now, every time a picture appears of Kucinich and his stunning bride, all of Washington shakes its head in wonder.
But however much Kucinich's antics prompt mass eye-rolling, they also succeed in drawing public attention to whatever issue he's touting. This week's impeachment brouhaha, for instance, pushed the question of a president's military prerogatives firmly into the spotlight. And, of course, all that media love impresses the folks back home in Ohio and, more generally, ups Kucinich's profile. For a rank-and-file Dem with politics so left wing he'll never amass broad-based support, Kucinich has made quite a name for himself on the national stage.
This is not to suggest that Kucinich is not genuine in his beliefs and passions. But neither is he above exploiting those passions when the situation calls for it. No sooner had Kucinich turned on Obama last weekend than his staff had woven the issue into a high-octane fundraising plea featured on the congressman's reelection website: Give now or risk losing the only truly brave voice in Congress!
Just because the guy is crazy doesn't mean he isn't also crazy like a fox.
Michelle Cottle is a Washington reporter for The Daily Beast.