What if the President of the United States were a vegan?
You can imagine the Republican attack ads if U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Cleveland) won the Democratic nomination: "He masticates ... in public ... with fruits and vegetables. Is that the kind of America you want?"
Beloved of Shirley McClaine and endorsed by Willie Nelson, Kucinich is the oddball in the Democratic race, and that's no mean achievement when the Rev. Al Sharpton is running.
Kucinich is the candidate of choice for what might be called "movement Democrats." He supports national health insurance, opposes corporate globalization ("free trade") deals and voted against the conquest of Iraq. Those positions aren't unique in the Democratic lineup.
What distinguishes Kucinich is that he's a radical in the sense of the Latin word — "radix," or root. Not enough to oppose the war, he wants systemic changes to prevent the next one, proposing a Cabinet-level U.S. Department of Peace.
"It's important to recognize our responsibility to do things that affirm human unity," he says.
"If we go it alone, if we have policies of pre-emption and unilateralism, we will ultimately fail. We really need to dedicate ourselves to a new approach in world affairs."
Calling himself the only candidate with an exit strategy in Iraq — ending the occupation within 90 days — Kucinich has attracted what little media attention he gets by discussing foreign policy.
"I advocate a new role, cooperating with the world community and ensuring that we work cooperatively to build peace," he says. "How much better would it have been after 9/11 if we had called on the world to join us in addressing terrorism as a massive crime that demands massive police activity, instead of dropping bombs on a country that hadn't even attacked us?"
But the Peace Department would have an equally important domestic role.
"We're at a point in U.S. history where we would really have to work in every city to create healing," Kucinich says. "I'm mindful of the mistakes and failings of the past but also of the possibilities of the future. This is a driving force behind the Department of Peace, to make nonviolence an organizing principle in our society. Cincinnati is one of many cities that has had to face the problems of a society that hasn't really dealt effectively with violence."
Making priorities of reducing domestic violence and child abuse, a Peace Department could also help communities find creative ways to reduce street crime.
"There's a lot of reconciliation that can be done between political and community groups when we confront the divisions that are the result of poverty, misunderstanding, racism," Kucinich says. "Cincinnati and all cities would benefit from new thinking, a new appreciation that emphasizes a sense of community and gets away from the sense of isolation."
Kucinich doesn't talk about urban life and family struggle from an academic perspective. For him, they're the stuff of biography.
"My family never owned a home," he says. "My mom and dad raised seven children. We lived in 21 places by the time I was 17, including a couple of cars."
No one expects Kucinich to become the first former homeless child elected President. But his idealism — his campaign rally Wednesday in Cincinnati is called "Imagine America" — can only help fuel the party's sense of mission, especially given widespread distrust of the 2000 election.
"The election was stolen," Kucinich says. "We need to be blunt about that."
How to prevent a recurrence? "We need to have such an outpouring at the polls that it isn't even close," he says. "We also need to have community involvement in monitoring the polls."
His campaign Web site (www.kucinich.us) offers tips for doing just that: direct, citizen action in service of democracy. It also asks the most fundamental question of a political campaign: "How much change are you ready for?"
BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.