Kucinich on the Couch
Why is he acting like that?
The very mention of the name Dennis Kucinich has become an emotional catalyst in Cleveland. In just six months as mayor -- and in the ambitious ten-year political career preceding that -- a bright hustler born on the East Side and bred all across town has inspired every reaction in the town populace from almost religious admiration to the most irrational hatred.
Why is he acting like that?
Whatever his political future, Dennis Kucinich will be remembered as the man whose every movement completely dominated the news at a time when Cleveland was facing some of the most critical problems imaginable.
Barely half a year after reaching the peak of his political career, Kucinich resembles nothing so much as a player in a Greek tragedy, being drawn slowly to defeat and disgrace by some uncontrollable forces built into his defiant personality.
Why is he acting like that?
And Cleveland has provided an audience as rapt as any that first watched Greek heroes fall beneath the weight of their own character flaws. As Kucinich's problems have grown more and more serious, and his attempts to deal with them have become increasingly irrational, a kind of morbid fascination with his behavior has developed. The news media simply cannot devote enough time or space to feed the hunger of an audience intent on watching every step taken by a man apparently bent on self-destruction. It appears that Dennis Kucinich is about to lose everything he has ever worked for, through no fault but his own - and no one wants to miss a single scene of that tragedy.
The media itself is as fascinated as its audience; for nearly ten years, Kucinich has defied every form of normal political reporting and analysis. What would have been normal coverage of any other politician always became free publicity for Dennis. Even more frustrating was the fact that reporters, for all the time they spent with him, sensed they never knew who Dennis Kucinich really was; that somewhere underneath the rhetoric and jokes and publicity ploys, there was a person whose true motivations they knew nothing about. They have been as anxious as any of the public to ferret out the true character of the man who has fallen so far, so fast.
Why is he acting like that?
In an attempt to sort out the complex elements that brought the 31-year-old mayor to his present predicament, CLEVELAND MAGAZINE gathered factual background data, much previously unpublished, on Dennis Kucinich. An examination of his past, it was felt, might offer a better understanding of his true motivations and character.
To test our journalistic analysis of his personality, we took our findings to two prominent local psychiatrists and asked for their reactions. Both agreed to comment, but only under certain conditions.
Their statements, they said, should be regarded as observations - not scientific analysis. In the absence of any standardized psychological testing, it is considered unethical for psychiatrists to publicly put their name on the diagnosis of a person they have not had as a patient. Both agreed, however, that the subject was serious enough to warrant professional commentary. They asked only that the context of their comments be explained, and that their identities remain confidential.
"Norbert," of course, is the nickname Kucinich earned for himself while attending Cleveland State University and working as a copyboy at The Plain Dealer. Reporters gave him the name because his pouty demeanor reminded them of a PD photographer near retirement who rarely accepted an assignment without complaining.
Almost all of the reporters who knew Kucinich then talk about how much they liked this hard-nosed kid who was working two full-time jobs, going to school, and living by himself in the grimy Tremont area. They admired his industriousness, his determination to become more than just another third-generation factory flunky from the south side.
Dennis, despite his bitchiness, was bright, quick on his feet, and - once he learned that biting nicknames and verbal barbs were part of the normal city room atmosphere at the newspaper - a regular sort of guy. It was, after all, his idea to set off that string of firecrackers in the back of the city room during the Hough riots.
But Kucinich was never regarded as anything more than a kid; there was always that impulsiveness, that quick temper - that streak of immaturity that stood out like a cowlick. The foolishness of betting reporters that he could drink ten martinis in 30 minutes, for example. Dennis rarely drank - an intestinal disorder, ileitis, normally prevented him from indulging (and does to this day).
Drinking the ten martinis in 27 minutes made him sick for days afterward, but that hardly mattered. What did matter was that he had won the bet, had proven to older men that he could play in their league, no matter what they though of him personally. Impulsively, he had seized on the drinking bet as a way to demonstrate that.
Impulsiveness - even a certa1 lack of control - has always been part of the Kucinich style. "What we've seen so far shows very little in the way of self-control," one psychiatrist says in discussing Kucinich's behavior.
Friends who advised Kucinich early in his career often had to urge restraint on the young firebrand, who appeared to have a bright future ahead of him. Dr. Mary Jean Thomas, Kucinich's academic advisor when he was majoring in speech communications at Case Western Reserve University, helped Dennis through his first two years in City Council. "When he asked what I thought of his speeches she recalls, "I would sometimes tell him, 'Dennis, there's no need to use a bludgeon when a stiletto will do.'"
But Kucinich found that being the council gadfly was a good way to attract media attention and, subsequently, votes. Impromptu verbal attacks against such established political figures as Carl Stokes, Council President Edmund Turk, and Council Majority Leader Gerald McFaul rated newspaper column space and voter admiration.
Psychiatrists point out that anyone who seems self-reliant, independent, and able to act and react quickly is generally admired - from a distance. But Dennis could never build the image of being a strong, decisive person among his political peers or those who knew him well. The picture of a baby-faced kid reacting almost totally from the gut, always taking what he knew would be the popular side of an issue, was 6 the one that stayed with them; many of his past associates (even former schoolmates) still describe him as "a little kid trying to act grown up."
"You can tell he's never accepted discipline," one psychiatrist notes. "He apparently has always been self-reliant, not used to making decisions with other people - even working without anyone's support.
"So those childish reactions fit that attitude of 'You've been mean, so we don't want you around,' or 'It's our ball, and you can't play.' I suspect he's only nice to people when he feels one up on them."
The psychiatrists add that other standard measures of maturity - such as the ability to postpone gratification, effective inhibition, a consistency of character - have been noticeably absent from Kucinich's behavior not only since last November, but throughout his entire political career.
"In a leadership vacuum, a gutsy guy, one who seems to know where he stands, is very appealing," one psychiatrist points out. "Because people like that part of him, they will overlook other things, dismiss them as minor personality problems."
It was especially easy for the electorate to ignore personality problems in last year's election. Kucinich deliberately toned down his normal style for that campaign, knowing it would alienate large blocs of voters. Instead, he presented himself as an experienced administrator who held constructive answers to problems like unemployment, urban decay and the Muny Light debt.
Kucinich knew that above all else, he was selling the voters the one thing they wanted most - hope. The image he purposely painted was one of himself on a white horse. He was keenly aware of the levels of desperation that exist in the city, and knew that people would respond to that image. He never worried about his ability to sustain it, claiming that it was good for the voters to have high expectations of his administration, that their expectations would only make him and his staff work harder.
One of Kucinich's political heroes is Harry Truman, the five-foot, nine-inch firebreather from Missouri who fired General Douglas MacArthur because "he wouldn't respect the authority of the President." Straight-shooting Harry was also known for his colorful use of the language and frequent employment of the veto power. Truman openly admitted that his greatest fear in life was indecision, and went to great lengths to prove that he was not a mama's boy.
Psychiatrists say that Dennis Kucinich has been trying to prove something, too. He has been trying to prove that a little person - he is barely five feet, seven inches tall - can be someone of stature in a big persons' world.
One of the shortest students entering St. John Cantius High School in 1960, Dennis nonetheless tried out for every sport. "Even though he couldn't play very well, he was always gung-ho," a former classmate recalls. "Like at football practice, he was always taking on the biggest guys on the field."
Kucinich developed a heart murmur after his freshman year that prevented him from playing any more high school sports. But he went on to become what is known as a "professional cheerleader," working as either a manager or statistician for all the varsity teams.
And he turned his considerable talents to other pursuits. He worked on the newspaper and yearbook, joined the debate club, lettermen and booster clubs, and any other extracurricular he could jam into an already too-tight schedule. (Kucinich was also working after school to help pay his $75-a-year tuition.)
"Somehow Dennis always wound up as the class spokesman," a high school friend says. "Even back then, he was never afraid to go up on stage and get behind a microphone."
Another classmate recalls: "If Dennis wasn't the center of attraction when he walked into a room, he knew how to become it."
Kucinich's attempts to establish himself as a person of stature took on incredible speed and proportions after high school. He was running for City Council by 1967 (three years after graduation), was elected to it in 1969, made two runs at a West Side congressional seat in the early '70s, and actually ran his own slate of candidates for City Council in 1973 (one part of an abortive power-brokering plan that was to include Joe Tegreene as a state representative and brother Gary in the Clerk of Courts office). Along the way, a number of his political opponents became political casualties - the most recent and notable of which was Ralph Perk.
"When we start moving up, we all have to decide whether we're going to emulate our teachers and elders, or try and outdo them," one psychiatrist notes. "In Dennis' case, it looks like he has always tried to outdo them."
"Dennis seems to have a need to be a person significant in size," another psychiatrist observes. "Since he's not physically big, he has to establish it in another way - so that when he enters a room, people say, 'Here comes a significant person - a formidable person.'"
Most people who have had the opportunity to observe Dennis Kucinich over any length of time comment on his constant "on stage" presence, on the fact that he never seems to stop campaigning. In fact, he rarely has a normal-voiced conversation - he always seems to be advertising himself. Even his smile flashes on and off on cue.
"He's obviously egocentric." one psychiatrist observes. "That's a result of continually trying to make himself bigger than he really is. But when that happens, then it's the one who effects the remedy - rather than the remedy itself - which becomes important. The reformation is secondary to being the reformer."
Being a high-profile reformer of course, has its dangers; when on makes mistakes, everyone is going to see those mistakes. The psychiatrists say that Kucinich's reluctance to admit mistakes - and deal maturely with them - is consistent with his insecurity about his size.
"You can see this guy just hates eating crow," one notes. "He almost a chokes on it. That's because he has a never liked backing off from something bigger than he is -- he'd rather be in there swinging at it.
Dennis Kucinich enjoys reading comic books, which is perhaps not a all that different from enjoying television or cowboy movies. What all three do is present a world in which the villains are easily distinguishable from the heroes. The bad guys wear black hats, hit women, or talk about taking over the world; the good guys wear white, have blow-dry hair cuts, or shoot webs out of their special palm web-shooters to tie up the bad guys.
Every rung on the Kucinich ladder to success has been another bad guy, from old Ward 7 Councilman John Bilinski ("nigger lover," Kucinich supporters called him in that vicious 1969 council race) to the Illuminating Company (CEI). Dennis' need to be a hero means, of a course, that his opponents must be villains - which may explain why a he has used smear tactics in almost every campaign he has ever been involved in.
The literature portraying Councilmen Michael Climaco (Ward 5) and Mary Rose Oakar (Ward 8) as pawns of George Forbes circulated on the lower West Side in 1973; the leaflets passed out in all-white Parma accusing Congressman Ron Mottl of supporting a Martin Luther King national holiday when Kucinich ran against him in 1974 even the cheap "slum landlord" shot directed against mayoral candidate Edward Feighan last year through Kucinich protege Benny Bonnano -- those are just a few of the products turned out by the Kucinich propaganda machine over the years.
The psychiatrists say that the in ability to see beyond heroes and villains, beyond black and white, into the gray complexities of the real world is considered another mark of immaturity. That Kucinich has chosen to divide the world into two simple parts ("If you're not for me, then you're against me," he has told opponents and supporters alike during his career) is due, more than anything else, to the influence of one man dominating his life - Sherwood Weissman.
"This reminds me of the way old union organizers would simplify and polarize situations to gain support," one psychiatrist said in discussing Kucinich's political history.
An interesting observation. Sherwood Weissman (his real name; "Bob" only came into use as his public profile grew) has been a union organizer since coming to this area from Philadelphia in the mid-'50s. He was recruited by the United Auto Workers (UAW) to do union organizing at the Chrysler Stamping Plant in Twinsburg, but lost his job there in 1959 when the company discovered he had falsified his job application. (He was not, however, removed from the plant - by that time, he had become recording secretary of the union; today, he I serves as its president.) Weissman claimed to have ended his formal education with high school when he | had, in fact, graduated from Temple University with an economics major in 1951.
"Colonizers," people like Weissman were called in those days; young intellectuals dedicated to the Marxist principle of organizing the workers, realizing that the masses would not be likely to follow the political dictates of college-educated liberals. So they put on a false commoner facade, and tempered their radical rhetoric by picking up wrenches or brooms in the factories.
It was not until ten years later that Weissman colonized the Kucinich camp, but that was a critical time for Dennis. Having lost to John Bilinski in 1967, he had since amassed a large file of information on his opponent (poring over old newspaper clippings in between copy runs at The Plain Dealer), and was determined to beat him in 1969. Dennis caught Weissman's ideological eye by returning a 12-page typed response to the endorsement questionnaire sent out by the UAW's Community Action Program (CAP) Council, which Weissman was president of at the time.
Their first meeting sparked an instant and lasting friendship. The young, idealistic Kucinich presented Weissman with an opportunity for injecting his version of social justice into the capitalist system; Weissman, with his organizing skills and political savvy, offered Dennis the very thing his first campaign lacked: expertise. It helped. Kucinich beat Bilinski by 16 votes that year.
But while the two men have grown into an impressive political team, they have also fed one another's psychological insecurities. Over the years, as Weissman continued to reinforce Kucinich's "I'm right, you're wrong, and there's no in between" type of thinking, a strange but familiar morality grew out of the relationship: The ends began to justify the means. Political expediency became their governing standard.
"How you do things tells as much about your values as what you do," one psychiatrist observes. "With Dennis, I think we're looking at an 'emperor of peace'; the kind of guy who would belt you with a cross, or beat parents who abuse their kids.
"He doesn't seem to be in touch with the fact that he represents such an obvious contradiction." And the vicious tone that often accompanies the means?
"That's typical of a counter-phobia," the psychiatrist says. "You throw yourself into what you are fighting or afraid of - that is, you identify with your aggressor - to prove to yourself that you can overcome the threat it poses. But in doing that, you often begin to take on the role of whatever is assaulting you. In this case, Dennis has to be tough to fight the villains - being gentle would be considered a sign of weakness."
Both Weissman and Kucinich have talked about the necessity of being tough; but it is to Weissman that the role most often falls.
"There's always a little bit of phoniness involved in being small and tough," the psychiatrist adds. "So a person like Kucinich needs someone like Weissman around to be the real tough guy; that's his support."
Weissman and Kucinich have, for all intents and purposes, become a single, two-headed organism. Weissman, with his vicious personal style and radical political ideology, could never secure a politically powerful position on his own; Kucinich, who has come to rely almost totally on the intellect of Weissman for guidance and direction, would never be sure of his decisions without him.
Most political observers agree that the Kucinich administration at City Hall bears little resemblance to a professional group of public administrators; few have noticed that it bears a rather striking resemblance to a family.
That Kucinich has surrounded himself with a surrogate family rather than administrators should, perhaps, not be surprising - people who do not have a family of their own normally tend to create or find one. (Reportedly, Kucinich's first marriage dissolved because his wife Helen wanted a home and a family; Dennis was said to be interested only in a career.)
"Deprived" might be the best word to describe Kucinich's childhood. When Dennis was young, his home life was anything but stable. The family moved frequently, unable to keep up with the rent payments, and never able to save enough money to even consider buying their own home. At times - so the official story goes - Dennis was so hungry he had to beg at the back doors of restaurants for food. By the age of 17, Kucinich decided to escape the bedlam at home, and moved into his own apartment near St. John Cantius.
In the absence of any real parental guidance, it was natural for two critical things to happen: Dennis, the oldest child, assumed parental responsibility for his six brothers and sisters, and began to search for his own parental figures. The control that he assumed over his siblings' lives became a political credo; and the results of his parental search are visible at City Hall today.
The only two strong father figures in his life are both part of the administration: Sherwood Weissman as executive secretary, and high school football coach Pete Pucher as properties director. ("Pucher was the only one at the school who wielded any authority," a former St. John Cantius classmate says. "And Dennis idolized him. He stayed next to him all four years, even when he couldn't play on the team.")
Sandy Kucinich, Dennis' second wife, also works at City Hall, assuming a motherly role toward Dennis. In interviews, she is fond of pointing out that she is a perfect helpmate to her husband, and sees to his day-to-day needs. "I am his best friend," she constantly tells reporters.
"It reminds you of the stereotyped Jewish mother," comments one psychiatrist. "She's there fussing over him, like, 'Look at the little fella - that's my boy.'"
The new brothers and sisters were gathered over a period of years, recruited into the Kucinich "family" at young, impressionable ages. The tie that binds them the tightest is their total, blind loyalty to Dennis. None questions his wisdom or commands. ("Traitors," those who talk to the media these days are called.) Even blood brother Gary, who now occupies Dennis' old council seat, is careful how he acts in Dennis' presence; Dennis frowns on public drinking and swearing, so Gary rarely does either around him. Away from Dennis, Gary can be almost an entirely different person.
Some family members even have a tendency to walk, talk and act like Dennis. Sherwood Weissman, for example, has similar speech patterns; the offensive Grdina sisters, Tonia and Betty, actually use many of the same phrases when they talk and order people around; Joe Tegreene even shakes hands in that same swinging, open-handed style. "It's like watching a group of Norbert clones," says one Plain Dealer reporter.
There is some question about where the original cloning cell came from. Former Kucinich workers say that Weissman was actually the first to use the halting, cliche-ridden speech pattern that the Kucinich "family" imitates, and that it was his syntax and ideology that set the behavior standard for the family. But whether it began with Weissman or Kucinich, the pattern has become fixed, and the family members follow it religiously.
"That's not unusual in a group like this," observes one psychiatrist."For example, you'll see little as children imitate their parents' behavior until they form their own character. And these people have id obviously identified with Dennis - hook, line and sinker."
Nor does the psychiatrist find the loyalty demands surprising. "What he's saying with that is, you don't agree with me, you don't love me.' The almost complete lack of trust in people is consistent with his background, where apparently he couldn't trust his parents and had to be his own boss. Now he doesn't want anybody around him who can think for themselves; all he wants are extensions of himself."
Another psychiatrist finds interesting parallels between the Kucinich "family" and the familial structures that exist within the Mafia.
"The model seems awfully familiar," he says. "If you're loyal, then you can come to the Don for favors; if not, you're cast out. But even though Dennis imitates the Don, he can't quite pull it off. As a child, he apparently never had a patriarchal figure, like Al Pacino had Marion Brando. Because there has never a been a role model, he still comes off like a little kid playing a game."
Dennis' childhood may have also a helped form his style.
"It doesn't sound like he was used to very gentle or considerate treatment," the psychiatrist adds. "If the role model was not one of gentleness or consideration, then that explains some of the harsh treatment he extends to others. In fact, the lack of warmth in his style makes you think this guy actually worships toughness."
With the amount of criticism that has descended on City Hall since late March, perhaps a certain amount of paranoia is to be expected among members of the Kucinich administration. But not even media attacks can account for the mayor's recent personal behavior.
His fear of being harmed or assassinated has reached almost paranoiac proportions. Kucinich often wears a bulletproof vest, even at home; literally runs from his car to his house; and is said to emerge from his home in the morning casting suspicious glances up and down Milan Avenue. "He looks like he exÂ pects a kamikaze pilot to be coming after him," one of the detectives assigned to guard the Kucinich home says.
"To me, that shows he has some awareness of what he has been doing to other people," says one psychiatrist. "Normally, you only think about things happening to you that you would consider doing to someone else; evidently he is identifying other people as capable of using the same kind of tactics he has."
Another psychiatrist comments: "Remember that paranoiac thinking - which sees harm coming from I outside - is a projection of inner feelings onto outward reality. There seems to be a great deal of anger and aggression here - so much so, that he doesn't know what to do with it all."
Anger, aggression, paranoia; frightening words, particularly when one is discussing the chief executive of the city. But fear and anxiety may have had more to do with Dennis Kucinich being elected mayor of Cleveland than most of us would like to acknowledge.
"What I've always been suspicious of," one psychiatrist says, "is quick problem-solvers. If someone isn't smart enough to realize that there have been plenty of smarter people before him who would have found the quick answers, realize that knotty problems take a long time to solve, that quick answers are bullshit - then that person has a problem.
"Of course," he adds, "it's human to be uncomfortable in a state of indecision - and being able to exercise caution, to live with indecision, is one measure of maturity. But our society seems to be responding more and more to anyone who promises shortcuts and quick answers."
This is especially true in Cleveland, where the lack of leadership at City Hall is only one of many pressing crises confronting an urban population that seems to be on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. But with a mayor who just six months ago had reached the high point of his career now fighting for his political life, the city may still be in for its most bone-jarring ride yet.
"Dennis is probably very angry at this point," one psychiatrist says. "He feels like he wanted to save everybody in Cleveland, and they don't even appreciate it.
"I wouldn't call him a paranoid; but he may well be headed in that direction."
Another psychiatrist believes that fear, as well as anger, may be a strong motivating factor for Kucinich in the weeks to come.
"I would think that a person like Dennis would be most terrified of being helpless in the face of a power bigger than himself," he says. "I would expect him to be very angry, very hurt about the recall. I think he'll feel the humiliation of this terribly."
And if Kucinich survives the recall?
"He won't like having been made to feel helpless; he'll feel that he's been treated unfairly. It's possible he may want to make other people feel that way when he's back in power."
In layman's terms, watch out!
12:00 AM EST
June 1, 1978