Dennis Kucinich and the Olive Pit Lawsuit: The Interview

The Ohio Democrat may be suing over a cracked tooth in the House cafeteria, but he's remaining firmly closemouthed about his dentally disastrous encounter with a treacherous olive, despite Lloyd Grove's entreaties.

If you’re an impassioned liberal Democrat in the House of Representatives, it’s hard to know which was more painful: listening to Barack Obama’s center-right State of the Union address, triangulated with an eye toward reelection in 2012—or sustaining a cracked tooth while eating a veggie sandwich wrap in which a rock-hard olive pit has been diabolically concealed.

Don’t expect a ready answer from Dennis Kucinich, the eight-term congressman from Cleveland, Ohio’s 10th District.

The 64-year-old Kucinich, who opposed Obama from the left in the 2008 Democratic primary race, is decidedly stoic about the president’s speech, in which Obama touted a federal budget freeze at 2008 levels, reaffirmed the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq, and otherwise sang the praises of American business innovation.

“The president never gives a bad speech, and there was a lot to appreciate and admire in his speech last night,” Kucinich told me mildly. “But when we get to the unfolding of the policies—if the speech was a preview of the direction the administration will take in the next year and a half, then what we’re seeing is something quite different than where we were in 2008.”

“Quite different”? Not much bite there.

In the meantime, although he’s suing the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria’s private contractors that sold him the sandwich in April 2008, Kucinich is firmly closemouthed about his dentally disastrous encounter with a treacherous lunch.

“This is a private legal matter, and I’m not going to try the case in the media. I can’t do that,” Kucinich, a vegetarian, told me Wednesday evening, after news of the lawsuit leaked. According to court papers, Kucinich is demanding $150,000 in damages from Restaurant Associates and three other companies for allegedly causing him “serious and permanent dental and oral injuries requiring multiple surgical and dental procedures” as well as “significant pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment.”

I asked Kucinich if he has stopped patronizing House eating establishments—and he won’t even answer that.

“Anything I say could become a subject for the lawsuit, and I don’t want to do that,” he dodged.

I asked him what he had for lunch. “I don’t have any comment to any question you would ask,” he chided. “It’s a private legal matter and it’s going to be tried in the courts.”

I asked him what he had for lunch on Wednesday.

“I don’t have any comment to any question you would ask,” he chided. “It’s a private legal matter and it’s going to be tried in the courts.”

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Maybe Kucinich’s disappointment with Obama’s speech might give us something to chew on.

“It’s not about being disappointed,” he corrected. “It’s about understanding that the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2006 with a promise to end the war. It’s about understanding that the administration is so desperate to end the war in Iraq that they’re claiming the war is over, when there’s still a large amount of troops there and we’re hiring private contractors to act under color of the United States.”

Kucinich went on: “Let’s talk about Afghanistan. It was a mistake for us to invade Afghanistan. It was appropriate for us to attack the training camps in response to 9/11. It wasn’t appropriate for us to get locked into a war. The cost of the Iraq War is going to $3 trillion and we’re already close to half a trillion dollars in Afghanistan. The problem with Afghanistan is that we’re dealing with a kleptocracy…Billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer dollars either stolen or wasted…Mr. Karzai has been masterful at playing off the United States interests.“

Afghan President Hamid Karzai might be a crook, I suggest, but isn’t he our crook?

“The minute someone becomes ‘ our crook,’ we become complicit in our own defeat,” Kucinich warned. “We’ve been there before.”

Nor did he find all that much to like in Obama’s domestic policy presentation.

“I think when he talked about ending the tax breaks to oil companies, that was good,” he said. “I liked when he talked about the metaphor of Sputnik.”

But freezing discretionary spending?

“If you’re going to talk about the importance of education and at the same time talk about a freeze on federal spending, that’s a problem,” Kucinich told me, predicting that if Obama’s budgetary ideas are enacted, Pentagon spending will balloon in relation to more productive domestic spending and the economy will be severely harmed.

“I wish he would have focused more on job creation,” said Kucinich, who estimates that unemployment in his congressional district is topping 15 percent, well above national average.

Will liberal disaffection for Obama result in a primary challenge from the left?

“It’s possible, but not likely,” Kucinich said, adding that he, for one, will not be the olive pit in Barack Obama’s sandwich.

Update: After publication of this story, Kucinich settled his lawsuit, and released the following statement: Friday, 28 January 2011 Though I would prefer to focus your attention on my work dealing with the profoundly important issues that face our nation, such as job creation, getting the economy back on track, and ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - -it seems that some are more interested in discussing my personal dental issues. Given the degree of public interest you should know some details: This injury required nearly two years, three dental surgeries, and a substantial amount of money to rectify. The legal action you have heard about was filed due to the severity, expense and duration of the dental injury, the complications which followed and which still persist. I wanted to resolve this matter without filing a lawsuit. The events below involved numerous dental visits, more than are detailed in this summary. The dental injury set in motion a chain of dental and medical events. When I bit into the olive pit, (unbeknown to me at the time), upon impact the tooth split in half, vertically through the crown and the tooth, below the level of the bone. Externally there was no evidence of a break. This was not about aesthetics. The internal structure of the tooth was rendered nonrestorable. Although the pain was excruciating, I shook it off and I went right back to work. This tooth is a key tooth which anchored my upper bridgework . The injured tooth and the bone above it became infected. I took a course of antibiotics for the infection, had an adverse reaction to the antibiotics which caused me to have an intestinal obstruction and emergency medical intervention. Later, my dentist referred me to a specialist who informed me that the damaged tooth had to be removed. A third dentist removed the tooth and I was fitted for a temporary partial. I waited for the bone to heal. An implant was placed, but it failed. Many months later still a second implant succeeded. My bridgework had to be completely reconfigured, a new partial was designed, so this injury did not affect only one tooth, but rather involved six (6) replacement teeth as well. A new crown with a new precision attachment was engineered and put in place. To clarify, no dental expenses were covered by any health plan, nor did I have dental insurance that covered the injury, which, until it was resolved, affected my ability to chew food properly. The clamor for information about this incident requires that I provide at least this much information. I would have liked to provide such details sooner but did not want it said that I was trying the case in the media. So that is why I declined any interviews about the matter. The parties have exchanged information and after some investigation and discussion have resolved the matter for an amount all parties believe reflects the actual out-of-pocket expenses related to this incident. The terms of the settlement are confidential; however, I feel that the defendants have responded fairly and reasonably. I don't want to have to make another dental visit for a very long time, and will be making no further comment on this matter. Thank you very much. Dennis

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.