© Caroline Webb, Courtesy of Kucinich for President
© Caroline Webb, Courtesy of Kucinich for President

Since his election to the US Congress in 1996, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has championed peace, gay marriage. universal health care, sustainable energy, repeal of the Patriot Act—in other words, about every item on the progressive agenda. Not surprisingly, the former mayor of Cleveland has spoken out against the war in Iraq, and currently chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Capitol Hill. Although not himself a practicing Buddhist (he was raised Catholic), with his run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination Kucinich captured the imagination of many in the Western dharma community, including that of such well-known teachers as Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Boorstein. And though early in the primaries it was clear that he had no chance of winning the nomination, Kucinich continued to campaign tirelessly, long after his fellow contenders had dropped out of the race. He was interviewed in late May by Barbara Graham.

What did you intend to accomplish by campaigning after the nomination was sewn up? A campaign is not simply to win an election, it’s for principles. I’m working to advance peace and to create a greater understanding of the interdependence of all people. Continuing to campaign helped to let those who have similar commitments know that there is an important place in the public discourse for their views. It also helped to kindle encouragement in people’s hearts and served as a kind of balance to the heaviness of our political system.

You’ve introduced legislation to establish a Cabinet-level Department of Peace that would be dedicated to peacemaking, and which would be headed by a Secretary of Peace. How’s that going? Over fifty members of Congress have supported the concept of a Department of Peace. The idea is to create a structure in our society that makes nonviolence the organizing principle around which we can build new social and educational systems. This would lead to an entirely new way of being citizens of this nation and the world.

Do you think there’s any real possibility, given what’s going on in the world, that this idea can gather momentum? It’s inevitable specifically because of what’s going on. It will happen; it’s just a question of when.

Is it challenging to maintain your vision and also remain viable within a political system that’s built on compromise?
People are always intrigued by the idea that you can actually take a stand in politics that is both principled and pragmatic. We’ve been led to believe that principle is in itself unpragmatic, but this isn’t the case. How practical is war? Peace, on the other hand, is quite practical. So what we need to do is to demonstrate the pragmatic nature of principle and spirituality.

There’s so much talk these days about faith and politics, and it often has a very evangelical flavor. How does this differ from the spiritual values that you talk about?
The founding fathers were clear about separation of church and state. So they established a democratic system that ensures freedom of religion and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. At the same time, the founders imbued the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with an ethical and spiritual tone. The separation of church and state was never meant to imply a government devoid of spiritual principles. Actually, the two are compatible. But fear of violating this separation leads some people to reject any discussion with spiritual overtones. As a result, we lose the opportunity to strengthen our institutions by asking that they pay attention to the spiritual implications of their actions.

You’re often portrayed by the media as a mystic vegan flake. Do you worry about being marginalized and not being able to do your job effectively because of this?
What anyone thinks of me is none of my business. The moment that any of us begins to trade principle for approval we give up our power. We give up our real power to change things.

Did the experience of losing your bid for a second term as mayor of Cleveland in 1979, which you’ve talked about as your dark night of the soul, prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
Of course. There’s a type of freedom that occurs when everything that you’ve believed in and worked for is shattered, because then you have the opportunity to rebuild and to put yourself back together in a new way. If you experience a deep loss, it is possible to come to the point where you realize that you have nothing left to lose. If you have nothing to lose, you can get beyond ideas of loss and gain. Attachment to outcome can deprive us of our best opportunities.

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