Speaker of the house

It was the late 1970s and somehow a guy with a goofy grin and a “Dennis The Menace” haircut had managed to become, at age 31, the youngest person ever elected leader of a major American city.

I met then-Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich when he was in the Sacramento area as part of a whistle-stop tour of California. A UC Davis student at the time, I recall sitting next to him in the backseat of a car en route to a local speaking engagement, wondering how someone so young could possibly have become so powerful.

Once I heard his speech, though, my wonder vanished. Kucinich was brilliant. First he described his lessons from youth as the eldest of seven children from a poor family. Then he outlined his progressive vision for the country with the brains of a Tom Hayden and the populist appeal of a Jim Hightower. His working-class moxy and radical politics, however, lost him the mayorship after just one term. But in 1994 Kucinich climbed back into political office on the strength of his campaign to expand Cleveland’s electric utility so as to provide low-cost power to half the residents of the city. He won election to the Ohio Senate and now serves as a congressman from that state.

A couple of weeks ago, Kucinich gave a speech in Los Angeles (see Essay on page 12) that has already been around and back again on the Internet because of its depth of truth, boldness and spirit. Written in the form of a prayer, with the same tell-the-truth-shame-the-devil passion that I remember him summoning back in the late ’70s, Kucinich ultimately challenges the direction the country has been heading in since September 11.

It’s about time somebody did.