When ABC's Ted Koppel suggested to Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich during last week's presidential debate that his low poll numbers and relatively meager campaign coffers made him a "vanity" candidate who should perhaps leave the race, it gave the four-term Ohio congressman a chance to answer a question that he probably knows others are asking, if only in whispers.
"I want the American people to see where the media take politics in this country," Kucinich responded. "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls, and then we're talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people." The studio audience roared applause as Kucinich added, "I'm the only one up here on the stage that actually voted against the PATRIOT Act and voted against the [Iraq] war -- the only one on this stage." Whatever his critics believe, it's clear Kucinich doesn't think his is a vanity campaign.
Fresh from his run-in with Koppel, this week Kucinich sat down with Link TV, a national satellite network whose programming reaches 21 million homes worldwide. Link TV has invited each of the 2004 presidential candidates to be interviewed as part of "The People's Voice: Election 2004," in partnership with Salon. All of the interviews will feature questions submitted by Link TV viewers and members of leading citizens groups. Groups participating in the Kucinich interview, which was taped at Link TV's studios in San Francisco Dec. 16, include the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Family Farm Coalition, the World Affairs Council, the U.S. Students Association and the youth Web publication Wiretap.
In the hour-long conversation Kucinich discussed how Saddam Hussein's capture changes the political landscape, his own shifting views on abortion, and his recent venture into tabloid celebrity, when he went on a date with a woman who won an Internet contest seeking to pick a first lady for Kucinich, a 57-year-old bachelor.
The Center for Public Integrity is going to publish a book next month called "The Buying on the President 2004," looking at all the presidential candidates and listing each of your biggest campaign contributors, not just in this race but throughout your time in public life. Nine of your 10 biggest contributors are labor unions. As president, will you be beholden to labor unions? And will you be able to work with business in a cooperative way?
First of all, there is some disclosure needed here. [He pulls a union card out of his wallet and displays it to the camera.] I'm not a missionary to labor. I come from the house of labor, and I fully intend to have worker's rights enshrined in a worker's White House: the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike, the right to decent wages and benefits, the right to a safe workplace, the right to a secure retirement, the right to participate in a political process. I would have no trouble whatsoever in working with business as long as business understands that it has a responsibility to pay people a living wage, as long as business understands that it has the responsibility to make sure that people when they're on the job have certain rights, as long as business understands that it needs to create a safe workplace -- [then] we'll have a marvelous working relationship with business.
Caller question (from Link TV viewer Sol Cohen of Vallejo, Calif.): Are you in favor of national health insurance, or a single-payer plan similar to that in Canada, and if so, how would you implement such a plan in view of the hostility of the healthcare industry and the high probability of a Republican Congress?
I've introduced legislation with John Conyers of Michigan, HR 676, to create a universal, single-payer healthcare system -- a national health plan, extended Medicare for all. Now, the way that we would accomplish it is this: Currently the United States pays $1.4 trillion for healthcare, that's from private resources and from the government. [But] hundreds of billions of dollars of that $1.4 trillion go for things like corporate profits, stock options, executive salaries, advertising, lobbying, marketing, the cost of paperwork. We're already paying for a universal standard of healthcare but we're not getting it because of the allocation of dollars.
My plan is to take America away from a for-profit system, where healthcare is rationed by ability to pay, and create a not-for-profit system where all the resources go into providing Americans with medical care for all medically necessary procedures. Now there are some candidates for president who have said, "If you want fundamental change in the system I'm not your man." And one of those candidates is a doctor ...
Howard Dean, you're referring to.
Frankly. And I think that it's time to get a second opinion. Now, Governor Dean has said that he wants everyone to have health insurance. We must look at that description. Health insurance. That means you can have health insurance, but you're still going to be stuck with an insurance company that's going to raise your premiums, increase your co-pays, increase your deductibles and shrink you area of coverage. Because insurance companies make money not providing healthcare. My plan is to take it out of the hands of the private insurers and out of the hands of the pharmaceutical companies, and create a not-for-profit public healthcare system where everyone is cared for. That's a major difference between Governor Dean and me, and I think it's going to be one of those defining issues in this election.
You've been a strong critic of the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein has now been captured. How does that affect your view of what the United States should be doing in Iraq?
This is the moment we need to seize and go to the world community in the cause of international cooperation. [We should] take to the U.N. a new resolution, where the United States would give up control of the oil, hand over to the U.N. the contracting process and the responsibility for developing a new constitution and governance in Iraq. That would enable us to get U.N. peacekeepers in and get the United States out. We must end the occupation and bring our troops home.
But Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the U.N., has said that the U.N. is not going to go back in. If the U.N. and other nations will not send peacekeeping troops to Iraq, do you still believe the U.S. should pull out?
We have to ask why the U.N. has no interest in going back in. [It's] because the United States is still trying to hold control of the oil, is trying to privatize the Iraq economy, is engaged in a contracting process that is less than honorable, and is trying to set up a government in Iraq which they can run by remote control from Washington. So, what I'm suggesting is we take a new approach, which embraces the world community.
With Bush having captured Saddam, doesn't that strengthen his hand in such a way that he won't likely do that?
I think it would be a folly to proceed with that assumption. The fact is, the insurgency still remains a major challenge, elements that have promoted the insurgency are not necessarily connected to Saddam Hussein, there's a whole range of reasons why our troops are still under attack in Iraq and why the violence will not be quelled.
You've criticized President Bush on the war, accused him of lying about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, his ties to al-Qaida. You've called for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's removal. Do you believe that President Bush should be impeached for lying about a war that has now killed hundreds of Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis?
I don't think an impeachment at this point would be productive for this country. First of all, as a matter of practical politics, there's not going to be the votes in the House to be able to deliver any articles. Secondly, there won't be the votes in the Senate to deliver a conviction. And third, why go through the exercise when we're right at the verge of a presidential election? Let the people of this country decide, not 535 members of the Congress of the United States.
Caller question [from Jon Gold, chemistry professor, Pennsylvania]: When I was young, President Kennedy committed the country to sending a man to the moon by the decade's end, which at that time was a seemingly impossible task. But our country committed enormous resources, both human and financial, and was successful. Would you be willing to make a similar commitment of the country's resources and end our dependence on petroleum?
You're right, President Kennedy showed what positive leadership can do in setting goals and an expanded vision for America. I intend to do the same thing with respect to achieving energy independence. The path we take must be towards a 20 percent renewal energy portfolio by the year 2010. We have to incentivize the development of renewable technologies and provide disincentives for development of coal, oil and nuclear energy.
U.S. corporations are supposed to pay 35 percent tax to the federal government on any profits they make. Yet in recent years, about 250 of our largest and most profitable corporations have actually paid only 20 percent. Among the biggest tax evaders have been companies like General Motors, Texaco, Pepsi, J.P. Morgan. You have said that any corporation that shifts profits offshore so they don't have to pay taxes should not be allowed to operate in the United States. As president, could you really shut down companies like Pepsi and General Motors?
Could you shut them down?
Or not allow them to operate in the United States?
You can sign an executive order that would make it very difficult for them to get government contracts. You can make it very difficult for them to get government approval for all kind of things they need with respect to trade agreements. I think it's important for us to enter into a new era of corporate accountability. Corporations must be accountable to the public interest.
Caller question [from Rosa Garza of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Arlington, Va.]: As a first-generation Filipino American, I would like to know what your stance is on having state and local police enforce federal immigration laws. I'm concerned about this because I feel that it criminalizes immigrants and excludes them from police protection, which they should be guaranteed.
I agree with you. It's not an appropriate role for state and local police to be enforcing immigration laws. But we have a larger question here: Why has America now been less receptive to immigrants? I think it's because of fear. This administration is promoting fear. It's so important for this nation to remember where we've come from. We are, in fact, a nation of immigrants. We cannot let America become less free because we fear those who come to this country in search of freedom.
Where do you draw the balance, though? The terrorists who struck on Sept. 11 did come in through our borders. How do you make sure you keep the bad guys out and invite the good people in?
Well, you know, it's going to be interesting to see what the [official] investigation of 9/11 reveals. There is an assumption that the government didn't know anything about the fact that there were people trying to come into this country or planning to attack this country. That's why we need this report released, because then we can make a determination as to whether the concerns we have are well-founded.
Do you believe President Bush has told the truth about Sept. 11?
I think it's a mistake to assert that the president knew 9/11 was going to happen and did nothing. Because that's a stretch. But I think it's important for the information to be brought forward to the public ... just so America can put this behind us. We had a great tragedy in our national family. When you have a death in the family, you bring the family together to talk about it. You try to see if there's any reason or rhyme to it, and try to find a way to have some closure. But you can only do that by getting to the truth of the matter. This isn't about blame. This is about [our nation] not being stuck, not being so traumatized by 9/11 that we can't get off of it and we're forced to start attacking other nations and thinking that somehow that's going to be the solution.
Let me ask you a question that's not about issues, because certainly part of what makes Americans vote for president is their sense of the person running. Those of you who run for president, it's an exhausting, exhausting process, and I salute you for it. My question is, When is the last time that you had a genuine day off? And how did you spend it?
And how did you spend it?
I spent it with friends at Thanksgiving dinner just, you know, spent some time walking on a beach and had a great Thanksgiving dinner and it was just fantastic. I enjoyed it immensely.
And I have to ask you, how's the search for the future first lady coming?
[Chuckles] Well, you have to remember the context of this, Mark. I was asked a question, as were all the candidates: What would be the role of a first lady, or first mate, in your administration? And I said, "Look, I'm not married, I can only fantasize about this, but I'd want a woman who is passionate about healthcare and working for peace and a full-employment economy." And then I said, "So if you're out there, call me." And I heard from a lot of women.
How would the first lady function in a Kucinich administration?
[She] would be a partner, someone who is an advisor.
In a way that, for example, Hillary Clinton was during the Clinton years, that kind of a partner?
I think that Hillary Clinton and, you know, there have been other first ladies that have been very close to their husbands. The young lady who actually won the contest, we got together for breakfast the other day. And she really is emblematic of women all over this country who are serious about public policy and want a president to take their interest in these issues in a serious way, and I do.
A number of women I talked to, preparing this broadcast, were concerned about you because of your position on abortion. In the past you were pro-life. Since then you've come around to being pro-choice. Can you explain a little bit about that?
I've had a journey on this issue, and it's not the kind of issue that you can just [snaps his fingers] flip like that. This has been a product of many years of discussion with women in my life and with women in Congress. The [U.S.] Supreme Court made a ruling in a Nebraska case [involving late term abortion], Sternberg vs. Carhardt, which said that the legislative body in Nebraska had failed to take into account a women's health, and that it did not meet their test of Roe vs. Wade [because] it imposed an undue burden on a woman. The Congress of the United States [then] brought that identical bill back, and that was a moment for me.
I looked at it and I said, "They're not even concerned about a woman's health?" I mean, after the Supreme Court has stated this is something that you must consider, it was just like swept aside. So then for the first time in my career, I voted present on an issue that I had consistently voted in favor of. And that signaled a shift. Then women in the Congress and in my life started to talk to me some more and say this is not simply a matter of privacy, which it is, it's not simply a matter of choice, which it is, it's a matter of whether a woman is going to have true equality in society. So I can sit here and say that since that moment I have consistently supported a woman's right to choose.
This is before I became a candidate for president. And because of my journey on this, I may be the only presidential candidate who's in a position to balance what is a very difficult issue for our American community. And to try to get away from the judgment and the condemnation that has so afflicted consideration of this issue. And to create circumstances where abortions are less necessary but by affirming a woman's essential equality by protecting Roe vs. Wade. As president, I will ask anyone who wants to be appointed to the Supreme Court to commit to protecting Roe vs. Wade, so we don't go back into this very difficult national debate which could serve to undermine not only a woman's right to choose but her equality.
Education is another big issue. You've talked about giving -- and I'm sure many parents around the country will love to hear this -- free college tuition. How?
Right now, there are about 12 million people going to public colleges and universities in this country. The average cost is between $5,000 and $6,000 a year. You extrapolate that and you have between $60 and $72 billion a year that would have to be set aside [to provide] tuition-free education at public colleges and universities. So the question would be, where could that money come from? I want to see the tax breaks that went to people in the top bracket canceled, and put that money right into a fund for universal college education, tuition-free.
There's another area here, too. The Pentagon budget has been expanding very rapidly. One doesn't look too much at the spending policies inside the Pentagon, but actually that's my job. I'm the ranking member on a [congressional] sub-committee that has jurisdiction over national security, and we've held hearings on spending practices in the Pentagon. We know, for example, that the Pentagon has over a trillion dollars in accounts it cannot reconcile.
They've lost a trillion dollars through bookkeeping errors?
They can't track it down. They have over a thousand accounting systems. They can't track it down, and so we don't know. What we do know, though, is that this missile system they want to put up has been fraught with fraud. We shouldn't be spending money on it. So I'll set that system aside. I'll set aside the building of new nuclear weapons. We have so many weapon systems right now that are being developed when we haven't even used the previous generation. There's a tremendous amount of waste. I believe a 15 percent reduction in the Pentagon budget can be achieved without any adverse impact on our national security whatsoever.
Will they find the trillion dollars then?
Well, you know what, we'll find a way to straighten out the books. I mean, this is a nightmare for the taxpayers as well as for fiscal management.
Caller question [from Betty Overhoff, World Affairs Council, Danville, Calif.]: My question is about North Korea. Do you view it as a possible threat to the United States, and if you do, how will you handle this problem?
When President Bush declared North Korea part of the "axis of evil," and then he proceeded to attack Iraq without any justification, he created a North Korea [that is] a problem for the United States. As president of the United States, I would meet with the North Korean leaders and assure them that we have no intention of attacking their county. I would ask them to give up any of their ambitions for any kind of nuclear power. I would ask them to understand that as president I intend to lead the way, to live by the tenets of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls for all the nuclear nations to get rid of their weapons and for the non-nuclear nations not to develop weapons.
One last question. As a reporter overseas, foreigners often tell me, "You Americans, when you elect your president, you're not just electing the president of the United States. You're in effect electing the president of the world." How would you live up to that responsibility?
I will bring to the presidency a holistic worldview, a view of a world as one. My presidency will be one which will reach out to embrace the fullness and the diversity of the world, to let people know that America is ready to participate as a nation among nations, not a nation above nations. I think we can be about the beginning of a new era of peace in the world. And I'm ready and I'm up to that challenge.
Link TV can be accessed via Direct TV (Channel 375) or Dish TV (Channel 9410). This interview will also be shared with public TV and radio stations across the country and streamed on the Link TV Web site.