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Minnesota's excellent Ventura

The state proves it can rock 'n' roll. Now comes school

By Garrison Keillor

TIME magazine

Georgia had Lester Maddox and Louisiana had Earl Long, and now Minnesota has gone and got an interesting Governor of our own: a pro wrestler with a shaved head and a bad-boy swagger whose voice is hoarse from bellowing at opponents and threatening to rip their arms from their sockets. He was the protest candidate, a chance to throw toilet paper in the trees and piss off Dad, nobody dreaming he would actually be elected. But in a three-way race the ball takes funny bounces, and that is how Minnesota got a 6 ft. 4 in., 250-lb. Governor named Jesse ("The Body") Ventura, and all week Minnesotans were feeling sort of giddy about it, like Lutherans who've drunk a little more than we meant to and now here we are singing Alley Oop and dancing on the sofa. Who woulda thunk we could get this crazy?

"Rest assured. You got the most exciting Governor in the United States," Jesse announced afterward in his alpha-male voice to all of us turkey necks. He uses the phrase "rest assured" a lot, and when he wants to sound official he says, "At this point in time." He loves to talk and does it stream-of-consciousness style, segueing suddenly, coming back to his basic reference points, which are pro wrestling, talk radio and the Navy SEALS. He doesn't automatically shut off, reporters have discovered.

He ran a smart race, snarled, boasted, was entertaining, campaigned in a sweatshirt ("Retaliate in '98"), sat in on the televised debates with his two opponents (who didn't bother to mess with him), kept saying he was no politician and expressed himself more bluntly than had been customary in Minnesota politics. He cussed a little. He was vaguely outrageous, the right thing to be when you're running against two suits.

The Republican and the Democrat were perfect fall guys for him. The Republican was an ex-Democrat and glibness on wheels, and his big smile looked as if he'd worked on it all summer. The Democrat reminded you of your classic, cheerfully clueless high school principal. Both of them had that tendency common to career politicians of putting their mouths into gear with their minds only partly engaged. They blathered. This made Jesse look like Abe Lincoln.

People were grateful for the diversion, and of course politics is pretty much debased this year anyway. When the farm economy is tanking and meanwhile Washington is in the thralls of sexual obsession, and Congress is dormant until late October when it produces a $500 billion spending bill that is passed unread and undebated, then what exactly is the objection to Jesse ("The Body") Ventura?

He glided in under the political radar. Right up to about 10 o'clock on election night the local press treated him like a cartoon character. It wasn't reported until later, for example, that Ventura is his stage name, that his legal name is James Janos--a small detail, but Minnesotans had never elected a pseudonym before. He mused about the death penalty and legal prostitution, which are not winning issues here except among drunks, but nobody held it against him. He likened the war on drugs to Prohibition and called it a failure. People let that one go too.

So, late on election night, the suits are up in their suites, brooding and trying to look confident, waiting for the Glocca Morra vote to roll in and save them, and Jesse is strutting tall turkey at his campaign headquarters at the racetrack, looking like everyone's nightmare of a brother-in-law, shaking his big fist, yelling, "We shocked the world!" and comparing himself to Muhammad Ali and the U.S. Olympic hockey team of 1980 that beat the Russians. All across Minnesota, the quiet, decent people who believe in Good Government and Working Together to Resolve Differences are leaning forward in disbelief at the thought that the next Governor of their state might be THIS GREAT BIG HONKING BULLET-HEADED SHOVEL-FACED MUTHA WHO TALKS IN A STEROID GROWL AND DOESN'T STOP. And then he won.

Well. We are a state of highly repressed Scandinavians, and sometimes we like to surprise ourselves. Minnesota is a $12 billion-a-year operation, and we have taken the janitor and made him the CEO, but hey. Now we have the inauguration to look forward to. He promised to be lowered by helicopter to the capitol dome and rappel down the side of the building, and that would sure be something to see. Meanwhile, everybody in Minnesota can do a pretty good Jesse imitation. A good way to start the winter.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 16, 1998

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