By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
HART'S LOCATION, N.H. One day last spring, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat and long-shot presidential candidate, and his young British wife, Elizabeth, were sitting in an Italian restaurant in Dupont Circle.
They were by the window. They were holding hands. Elizabeth Kucinich was looking lovely, as usual -- the red hair, the luminous skin, the green eyes, the fine cheekbones. Dennis was looking, as usual, like Dennis Kucinich.
This guy passed by the window. He stopped. He stared at Elizabeth through the glass. Then he came into the restaurant and walked right up to their table.
"Doesn't even look at me!" Dennis is saying, grinning, as he retells this story between campaign stops. "He looks at her and he says, 'You are the most incredibly beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life!' I'm sitting right there, you know?"
"We're holding hands!" Elizabeth exclaims, in her elegant accent. She's lounging in front of the inn's fireplace, all six feet of her, looking like Botticelli's Venus, only with clothes on.
"He says, 'I've never done this before, but what are you doing for dinner?' " Dennis says.
"I just said, 'I'm sorry, I'm with my husband.' " Elizabeth says.
And the guy got all embarrassed and apologized and walked away.
"He was such a sweet soul," Elizabeth says tenderly. "I hate breaking hearts!"
Dennis Kucinich wears the look of a man who's just won the sweepstakes. He says a colleague from the House told him it didn't matter how he did in the presidential race because he'd already won.
He'd won Elizabeth.
"I responded, 'Now you know why I think I can be president?' " Dennis says. "If I can marry this incredibly brilliant, beautiful woman, I mean, why wouldn't I think I can be president of the United States?"
* * *
Dennis Kucinich is the happiest candidate in this race. True, he is polling in the low single digits, doing about as well as he did during his 2004 presidential run. True, he was recently the butt of jokes for admitting in a presidential debate that he once saw a UFO.
But he has Elizabeth, whom he met 2 1/2 years ago. It was love at first sight, during a meeting on monetary reform. "Soul recognition," they both call it. Less than four months later, they were married. He is 61. She is 30. He is short, at 5-7, and she is -- wow, she just keeps on going. And they are happy, so happy, that to see them together holding hands, grinning wildly, is to understand why they talk as if the universe has a plan for them.
So if the six-term liberal congressman is nearly invisible during his second presidential run, if his tall, elegant, improbable wife receives most of the press, if cameras cut to her face during a presidential debate, and rival candidate Sen. Joe Biden says, "Dennis, the thing I like best about you is your wife," and reporters schedule interviews to ask about her tongue stud, and "The Daily Show" does a segment about how hot she is . . . if she is the reason people stop and stare -- well, so be it.
He is just as wowed by her.
The story of Dennis and Elizabeth Kucinich involves: Indian nuns, a bust of Gandhi, a portrait of "conscious light," a mystical opal ring, congressional legislation, an Indian guru and the meeting of souls. Also: Dennis's good friend for decades, Shirley MacLaine, the actress and New Age author, who played host to the couple's second date.
But let us begin here on the couch, the day after Thanksgiving, 2007. The happiest presidential candidate and his wife are relaxing at an inn two hours north of Manchester that happens to be located in the smallest town in New Hampshire. (This is symbolically appropriate, given that Kucinich -- a high school football player -- is used to being the smallest guy on the field.)
They are as close as can be without lap-sitting. Dennis is holding Elizabeth's hand in both of his. Elizabeth's other hand is snaked around Dennis's back. She says to him: "You start."
He says: It was an ordinary day in May 2005. There he was, Dennis Kucinich, congressman, twice divorced, looking for love, as always. He was on the floor of the House, doing ordinary congressman things.
"Tell her about the morning," Elizabeth says helpfully.
"Ooh! That's right!" Kucinich says. Here's the amazing part. (Things involving Elizabeth generally tend to be amazing.) That very morning, believe it or not, guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who teaches peace through meditation and rhythmic breathing, had come to town. Dennis and Ravi have known each other for a long time. Ravi asked about Dennis's love life. Dennis said he was still looking for that special someone.
"And his response was, 'Stop looking and then she will appear,' " Dennis says. "And I said, 'Okay, I'm going to stop looking.' I said that. And that afternoon -- "
"I walked through the office door," Elizabeth finishes.
She was Elizabeth Harper then. She'd grown up in a village in the county of Essex, outside London. Her dad ran a security fencing firm. Her mom was a New Age healer who practiced aromatherapy and reflexology.
By the age of 27, Elizabeth had: Been known as the "Jolly Green Giant" in high school for her height and her love of environmental causes. Ministered to orphans and the poor at one of Mother Teresa's charity homes in India. Worked in Tanzania for 16 months with a British organization similar to the Peace Corps. Volunteered as a refugee caseworker for the British Red Cross. Become pen pals with a prisoner on death row in Texas. Earned a master's degree in international conflict analysis from the University of Kent, in England. Worked as a fundraiser for a pastoral service and as a care assistant for an accident victim who couldn't speak or walk. Sold gas and electricity contracts door-to-door.
And finally, Elizabeth had moved to America to take a job as assistant to Stephen Zarlenga, who runs an obscure New York-based organization called the American Monetary Institute. (Zarlenga advocates a sweeping overhaul of the banking system and has written a book purporting to expose those who've been "embezzling from society" and using "economic theory as a tool of class war.")
So, anyway, Elizabeth traveled to Washington with her new boss for a meeting with a congressman. She didn't know anything about Dennis Kucinich. She didn't know he was a lefty who had opposed the Iraq war and the USA Patriot Act from the beginning. She didn't know he had divorced for the second time in 1987, or that he had a daughter four years younger than her, or that during his last presidential run there was actually an Internet contest to find him a girlfriend. (It didn't work.)
She didn't know that he was attuned to the mystical, like her, or that he is vegan and has consulted a woman who teaches "expanded consciousness," and generally carries a tea bag in his suit pocket.
Her first inkling that Kucinich might be different from the run-of-the-mill congressman was the presence of two Indian nuns from the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in Kucinich's reception room. She chatted with the nuns about India and felt herself being "opened" up by the conversation.
Then she and Zarlenga were called into Kucinich's office.
Dennis watched the young woman's eyes. First they went to a bust of Gandhi sitting on his bookshelf. Then they went to a picture given to him by the Hindu nuns -- a burst of brightness against an orange background meant to depict "conscious light." Then her eyes went to his.
"That was it," Dennis says now. "One, two, three." He knew.
"As soon as I met him I knew my life had changed," Elizabeth says. "I knew that he was my husband."
On the couch, they lean in for a kiss.
So Elizabeth's boss and Dennis discussed monetary policy for about eight minutes. As Dennis later told his buddy Shirley MacLaine, he had to stop looking at Elizabeth for fear he'd declare his love for her right then and there.
"Did I give the slightest indication?" Kucinich asks his wife on the couch. "Tell me -- I didn't."
"Maybe not consciously," Elizabeth says, "but I did walk out and I phoned my grandmother and said, 'I've met a congressman and he's fallen in love with me.' "
Dennis gives a deep belly laugh. He seems amazed once again. Elizabeth caresses the spot above his ear where the black hair is turning gray. "I'd fallen in love with him, too, but I didn't tell her that bit," she says.
Kucinich gave the redhead and her boss copies of a bill proposing a U.S. Department of Peace. And he gave them his e-mail address, hoping she'd get the hint. They left.
He ran down to the floor of the House beaming.
He told his friends: "I met her." He didn't say who. He didn't explain what. He just said, simply: "I met her."
"I said, 'Well, Dennis, this is deep,' " recalls Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio).
"I didn't know what he was talking about," recalls Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).Against the Odds
The improbable journey of Dennis Kucinich:
Oldest of seven. Grew up so poor in working-class Cleveland that the family sometimes had to sleep in the car. As a kid, he scrubbed floors and shined shoes. He and his siblings lived briefly in an orphanage. He was short, he stuttered, he had asthma, and he had Crohn's disease, a chronic and painful inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. In high school, he played varsity football at 4-foot-9 and 89 pounds. (His teammates tossed him into a garbage can.) When he was 21, doctors removed eight feet of his small bowel and colon.
He worked his way through college and a master's degree in speech communications, and then he worked his way through the Cleveland City Council and the city post of clerk of the courts. In 1977, at age 31, he was elected "boy mayor" of the city.
His term was tumultuous, and the city slid into default when Kucinich refused to sell off the municipal electric system. He lost his reelection bid. For years, he worked in consulting and in various business ventures while trying for a political comeback. In time, many came to conclude that his decision not to sell the electric system had saved customers money and Kucinich claimed vindication. He was elected to the state Senate in 1994 (slogan: "Because He Was Right") and to Congress in 1996.
A feisty and combative populist, Kucinich is comfortable as an underdog, which may explain why he sees that flap about his UFO sighting in David-and-Goliath terms. He's still thinking of things he should've said in response to Tim Russert, the moderator who asked him about it during an October debate. He's convinced Russert was trying to "smear" him out of pressure from his corporate bosses at NBC and NBC's owner, GE, who fear his antiwar stance. (He believes this also explains why Russert hasn't invited him on "Meet the Press" in years.)
(Here's his account of the UFO: Twenty-five years ago, he saw three objects in the sky over MacLaine's house in Graham, Wash. He says he doesn't know what they were. MacLaine, who believes in alien visitations and has claimed that in a past life she was emperor Charlemagne's lover, recently wrote a book saying that when Dennis saw the UFO he "heard directions in his mind." Kucinich says that part isn't true.)
But Kucinich believes that, despite the UFO issue and the long odds, the people of New Hampshire are responding to his message. Indeed, he says, his challenge is to make sure he can manage all the new recruits.
"People are starting to move into our campaign at a rather fast clip," he says.
"The question," for many people, "isn't whether Dennis is the right person," Elizabeth says. "Everyone knows that Dennis is the right person. The question is whether they have the courage to vote for what it is they want."
Dennis Kucinich is for reducing the country's carbon footprint, ending the war, establishing a universal not-for-profit health-care system, withdrawing from the World Trade Organization and impeaching Vice President Dick Cheney. In front of a group of 100 in the tiny village of Center Sandwich, he speaks of "human unity," invokes Wordsworth and reads from his pocket-size Constitution. Elizabeth watches from the front row with a beatific smile.
He's in the midst of a long, wayward answer to an audience member's question about environmental stewardship when Elizabeth raises her hand to help him out. Dennis lets her take the floor. Elizabeth has been campaigning full time for her husband; she considers America her cause these days. She has the ability -- rare even among practiced politicians -- to speak extemporaneously in full paragraphs, without rambling or backtracking. Now she gives a succinct, eloquent speech about the need for new environmentally friendly technologies and sustainable architecture.
The crowd applauds.
"As you can see, I'll have help," Dennis says, grinning. A few moments later, they share a long kiss. More applause.
All of this is invisible to most of America, who know Mrs. Dennis Kucinich (if they know her at all) via caricature: the wife of that wacky UFO candidate, the hot redhead who -- oooh, a tongue stud!
Television interviewer: "Can we see it?"
Elizabeth: "No, you can't. Sorry."
Dennis: "That's my privilege."Falling Into Place
After their first meeting that day in his office -- that Dennis hoped was soul recognition, but feared was wishful thinking -- Elizabeth walked out of the Longworth Building, found a place to sit and read the paper he had given her. It was his proposed billto establish a Department of Peace. She thought it was amazing. Dennis understood the "interconnectedness and interdependence" of humanity.
"I didn't expect the bill should actually be so . . . conscious," she says.
"I was still thinking about Elizabeth about two weeks later, sitting, working late in my office as I'm wont to do," Dennis says. (We're back in the tiniest town in New Hampshire, and Dennis and Elizabeth are on the couch at the inn, sitting close as always.) "It was about 7:30 at night and I was just sending a message out to the universe saying, 'Where is this woman? If there's anything to be done here, I need a sign.' "
And at that moment --
"At that exact moment, I get an e-mail."
It was from Elizabeth. A sign. Her automatic signature included a quote, something about her heart being as open as the sky. Another sign. They began exchanging e-mails. They discovered they were both scheduled to be in New Mexico shortly. Dennis was going to visit MacLaine and Elizabeth was accompanying her boss, who was giving a lecture. They arranged to meet. In the meantime, Elizabeth, propelled by a feeling that she should buy herself a blue ring, found one in a store and bought it. She called it her "Dennis ring."
"I really don't know," she says. "I just saw it and called it my Dennis ring."
They met up in Albuquerque. They stayed up all night talking in the lobby of her hotel.
After that, everything fell into place. Dennis invited Elizabeth and her boss to have lunch with him and MacLaine the next day in Sante Fe, and then MacLaine asked everyone back to her Sante Fe home. Elizabeth's mom called and got on the phone with MacLaine to thank her for putting her on the path towards complementary medicine in the '80s through one of her books -- which, as it happens, is a book Dennis helped edit. ("Amazing," says Elizabeth.) Elizabeth and Dennis stayed up all night again talking at MacLaine's, at which point Dennis told Elizabeth he loved her, and the next morning, upon leaving, Elizabeth said she loved him.
None of which surprised Shirley MacLaine.
"They were basically spiritual soul mates; that was very clear," MacLaine says.
And after leaving, Elizabeth looked down at her Dennis ring and realized that the silver design inscribed on her blue opal, which had previously looked like just an abstract pattern of triangles, was in fact -- if one looked hard enough -- two K's, back to back.
"Kucinich and Kucinich," she says. "I thought, 'Okay! So I bought myself my own engagement ring!' "
And when she moved into his place in Cleveland, the two-story frame house he'd bought in 1971 for $22,500, Dennis was cleaning out the closets and discovered a cardboard tube he'd never opened before. What he saw inside stunned them both. It was a handmade banner that supporters had given him during his 2004 run for the presidency, with all sorts of figures painted on it, and in the middle was a redheaded woman --
"Long, straight red hair, standing in the middle, head and shoulders above everybody else, under the word 'imagine,' " Elizabeth says.
"I mean, you can't make this stuff up," Dennis says.
Their days are filled with these sorts of moments, as when they go out for Chinese food and the fortune in Dennis's cookie tells him he has "integrity and consistency." ("Isn't that amazing?" Elizabeth says.) And then they turn the fortune over, and Dennis's Chinese word is "hat," and amazingly, Elizabeth just bought a hat before lunch.
And even the three-decade age difference, which could theoretically be an issue, doesn't register for the Kuciniches -- "I've never seen myself as time-bound," Dennis has said -- and that's why Elizabeth's father, who is three years younger than Dennis, calls Dennis "Son," and Dennis calls Elizabeth's father "Dad."
(Though the Kuciniches do have different tastes in music. "He really likes polka," she says.)
"I never really understood 'love at first sight,' " Dennis says. But when he met Elizabeth, he became a believer. And as he's talking, it suddenly occurs to him what pithy riposte he should have thrown back at Tim Russert: " 'I don't know about those UFOs, but let me tell you about love at first sight.' "
The world can be cynical, which is all the more reason why a long-shot presidential candidate must be pure and unwavering in his faith, must be unmoved by the vagaries of the public and the media -- by its interest in the superficial, in things like height and tongue studs.
"It's pathetic," Elizabeth says of the nation's fascination with her piercing. "I really wish people would -- "
"Actually, it works okay with the young people," she says. She says some time back she was out in Los Angeles, visiting an organization that works with at-risk youth and former gang members.
"This young lad was taking me around, Hispanic chap. And he was really nervous," she says. "We just, like, chatted initially, and at some point I laughed and he said, 'Oh my God, you've got a tongue ring! That's so cool! I'm going to get everyone to vote for your husband!' "
"Ha!" says Dennis Kucinich, looking amazed.
The happiest presidential candidate laughs and laughs.