It's not a question of whether or not you believe in UFOs. The crucial question is whether you believe they have little green men inside.
Unidentified flying objects do exist -- even if they turn out to be a pie plate, glowing swamp gas or the effects of a hangover. What is far less certain is whether these objects have been piloted to earth by crab creatures from the planet Xenon.
It appeared, however, that Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was trying to blur this all-important distinction during Tuesday night's debate in Philadelphia. Kucinich, the former "boy mayor" of Cleveland who now is a U.S. congressman, was asked about a quote in Shirley MacLaine's new book about his spotting of a UFO near her house.
To his credit, Kucinich owned up to seeing the UFO. But he also seemed eager to brush it off as no big deal: "It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It's, like, it's unidentified."
He then went on to joke that he planned to move his campaign office to Roswell, N.M., site of a crash landing by an alien spacecraft in 1947, an incident since covered up by government officials who moved the craft to Area 51, a secret installation in Nevada. The occupants of the craft, now nearing 200 years of age, are being held at Guantanamo.
Kucinich also joked that the number of Americans who believe in UFOs is the same as those who think President Bush has the nation on the right path. But the joke fell flat. After all, it's a given.
It's like saying the number of people who believe Dick Cheney is doing a great job correlates precisely with the number of people who wear aluminum foil helmets to protect them from space transmissions that would compel them to become the sex slaves of aliens. Tell us something we don't know!
But Kucinich's evasive answer at the debate did not jibe with the description of the event found in MacLaine's book. In that, she wrote, "He saw a gigantic triangular craft, silent and observing him. ... It hovered for about 10 minutes or so and sped away with a speed he couldn't comprehend. He felt a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind."
Now, that is mysterious. Why didn't he go into detail during the debate? What were the directions he heard in his mind?
Were they harmless: "Go left at the light, go three blocks then take another left at the Taco Bell"? Or were they something more sinister: "Send your Social Security number to me, Kwame Ndango, son of the former finance minister of Namibia, and I will transfer $5 million to your checking account."
Perhaps he simply was embarrassed about being at Shirley MacLaine's house. But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson handled the situation better when asked later whether he believed in UFOs. Richardson frankly acknowledged that the government was stonewalling on the spacecraft at Roswell, which, of course, is in his state.
Richardson no doubt was pandering to the pro-extraterrestrial crowd because, frankly, he could use their votes. But at least he was straightforward in his answer.
Ordinarily, it is Kucinich who can be counted on for straight talk: "Get us out of Iraq!"; "Bush is nuts!"; "My wife is hot!"
Sad to say, his equivocation on the UFO issue could stop the Kucinich bandwagon in its tracks. Whatever momentum he had heading into the final weeks before the Iowa caucus may have been slowed considerably by his fudging on the giant triangular craft he saw in the night sky over Shirley MacLaine's house.
But the other candidates should not be smug. From now on, questions about dealing with the "illegal alien" problem are likely to take on new complexity: "How do you feel about driver's licenses for Martians?" "Should employers be penalized for hiring workers with multiple heads?" "Can we build a fence in the sky?"
And don't count Kucinich out yet. In the final analysis, it is hard to deny that his wife really is hot.