Everyone laughed. Then everyone gasped. Now it's time to take Jesse Ventura seriously. Here's why he's a populist hero
By Paul Gray
Inveterate partygoers try not to think about the morning after. For it is then they will realize that telling off the boss, such exhilarating fun the night before, may have consequences later that day. Or they will wake up to regret grabbing the microphone from the singer in the rented band and regaling the room with a medley of Oh Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. And, oh, the lampshade on the head, and, ah, the hand on the backside of a stranger. Why? And what now?
Millions of Minnesotans awoke with such queasiness last Wednesday. Sure, the gubernatorial campaign had been a hoot, what with a no-chance-on-earth third-party candidate marauding about the state and providing some comic relief from the stiffs who headed up the Republican and Democratic tickets. But the election was supposed to signal sober-up time. Instead, the good citizens of Minnesota learned that they--or 37% of the 61% of those who went to the polls--had voted into the Governor's office a 6 ft. 4 in., 250-lb. shaved-head former professional wrestler and Twin City radio shock jock named Jesse ("The Body") Ventura.
The traditionally progressive, populist state that has given the nation such substantive political figures as Harold Stassen, Orville Freeman, Hubert H. Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale braced itself for ridicule, which had already begun. Tuesday night, CBS' Late Show with David Letterman offered its version of Ventura's Top 10 campaign slogans (No. 7: A Man in Tights Has Nothing to Hide; No. 1: It's the Stupidity, Stupid). TV news shows on Wednesday featured clips of Minnesota's Governor-elect from his World Wrestling Federation days, wearing a feather boa and perching on the ring ropes, haranguing screaming fans. Thursday morning a morose Minnesotan wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Well, finally we have a Governor who knows how to execute a flying head scissors!"
But once the joking had subsided, the head scratching began. For Ventura's triumph in Minnesota was a stunning political upset with unforeseen causes and unpredictable consequences. He was the first candidate of Ross Perot's Reform Party to win statewide office. He defeated two respected, if not beloved, career politicians--Republican Norm Coleman, mayor of St. Paul, and Democrat Hubert ("Skip") Humphrey III, state attorney general and son of the late Vice President. Ventura's slogan, "Retaliate in '98," seemed an off-key way to appeal to voters in a prosperous and well-governed state with 2.4% unemployment. Retaliate for what?
Boredom seems to be the most likely answer, plus a growing grass-roots resentment of elitist politicians who govern by focus groups rather than personal convictions. Says Steven Schier, chairman of the political-science department at Minnesota's Carleton College, of Ventura: "He's charismatic, he's warm, he's colorful. Coleman and Humphrey were much more conventional politicians and provided a nice gray backdrop. Every act needs a straight man, and he had two of them." Ventura's campaign manager, Doug Friedline, says, "He's very straightforward and honest. You may not like his answers, but you're gonna get them anyway."
At first blush, straightforward and honest seem odd terms, even for a campaign manager, to apply to someone who made his name in the phantasmagorically staged world of pro wrestling and then parlayed his fame into roles in Hollywood action films, including Predator, The Running Man and Batman & Robin. Plus Ventura's appeal to populist sympathies and his downscale campaign wardrobe--faded jeans, scuffed sneakers, an occasional camouflage jacket and bush hat--belied the fact that he is a wealthy man. He lives with his wife of 23 years, Terry, and a teenage son and daughter on a 32-acre horse farm in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Posted above the front door of his red brick colonial house is a sign: FORGET THE DOG. BEWARE THE OWNER.
Even his opponents admit that Ventura's testosterone-overload image can be amusing. But how much of it is true? The record yields a mixed answer.
For openers, his name is assumed. James George Janos was born in Minneapolis in 1951; graduated from Roosevelt High School, after exploits on the football and swimming teams, in 1969; and immediately enlisted in the Navy, where he qualified for the SEALS underwater demolition team. During his campaign for Governor, he made much of his military service, at the intended expense of his opponents. A radio ad, set to the theme from the movie Shaft, contained the lyrics, "When the other guys were cashing government checks, he was in the Navy getting dirty and wet." He boasts a Vietnam Service Medal on his personnel record, although he has consistently refused to explain what he did there.
Discharged from the service in 1973, Janos headed to California and took up with a motorcycle club called the Mongols. "It was the only mode of transportation I had when I got out of the military," he now explains, and scoffs at idle suggestions that this affiliation could have created some entanglements with the law. "I've never been arrested in my life. Never had cuffs put on me, never been charged with a crime, never spent one day in jail."
He returned to Minnesota and spent a year at North Hennepin Community College. In 1975, the same year he met and married his wife, he went back to California to try his hand at professional wrestling. That was where Jesse Ventura was born. He'd always wanted to be named Jesse, and Ventura was the name of a California city. Presto. Showtime.
He was no great shakes as a wrestler, but he could roil the crowds by playing the bad guy against such scripted good guys as Hulk Hogan. Recalls Hogan: "Jesse's best move was to cheat and run...He'd take the tape off his wrist and choke you, he'd gouge you in the eyes, and then if you cleared your eyes or got the tape off your throat, he'd run for his life." But Ventura was funny and articulate outside the ring, skills that led, once he hung up his tights, to movie roles and jobs as a TBS wrestling commentator and a talk-show host at radio station KFAN in the Twin Cities.
Ventura entered Minnesota politics in 1990 when he ran for mayor of Brooklyn Park, a Minneapolis suburb, and won, causing a nervous frisson in the state's political establishment. Here was a guy who had campaigned on a Harley. Still, how much harm could this outsider do? He had been elected to a part-time job; most of the work was done by a paid manager, and the mayor's vote counted for no more than those of the six other members of the town council.
Perhaps predictably, Ventura clashed noisily and often with fellow council members. But he looks back on his four-year tenure in office as a success. He recalls persuading an 85-employee local firm not to relocate elsewhere: "It wasn't like I promised them anything, I just told them how much they meant to our city." He also claims credit for upgrading his police officers' weaponry and the subsequent decline in gang activity on the streets. "We made it undesirable for them to be there. It's called firearm superiority."
But Rick Engh, a 14-year town-council member who was mayor pro tem under Ventura, has less happy memories of those days: "I probably served more as mayor than he did. He was always away making movies and everything." Engh also charges that Ventura was "two-faced." One of his initiatives as mayor was to stop cigarettes from being sold at convenience stores. "Yet," Engh says, "he would sit there at the meetings chewing snuff and spitting in the cup. I thought that was rude and disrespectful to the audience."
Ventura did not abandon his rough habits or smooth his swagger during the gubernatorial campaign, and a plurality of the audience evidently felt charmed rather than insulted. He brandished his cigars, a habit he says he picked up on a movie set from Arnold Schwarzenegger. ("Jeh-see," he intones in a convincing Terminator imitation, "have a sto-gie.") On the hustings, Ventura regularly told audiences what pollsters could have warned him they didn't want to hear. At a rally at the University of Minnesota, he reminded students that he opposed expanding government subsidies for college tuition. "If you're smart enough to be here," he roared, "you're smart enough to get through it," meaning college. "Have we become that dependent on government?" When his opponents, once they recognized him as an actual threat, accused him of knowing nothing about running a $12 billion-a-year state government employing 48,000 people, Ventura responded in essence that he didn't have all the answers but would damned sure roll up his sleeves and learn them once he was elected.
For all his basso profundo bluster, Ventura waged a campaign well within the mainstream of Minnesota political thinking. Outsiders view the state as a bastion of liberalism--witness Eugene McCarthy, Vice Presidents Humphrey and Mondale--but insiders disagree. Carleton College's Schier says Minnesota "is actually a quirky populist state. It gave 24% of its vote during the 1992 presidential election to Ross Perot." Ventura's fiscal conservatism--no tax increases, the return of all future state budget surpluses to taxpayers--struck a responsive chord. So did his moderate-to-libertarian views on keeping government from meddling unduly in private lives.
During the campaign, Ventura was quoted as musing aloud about legalizing prostitution. On the record, he denied favoring such a move but added, "Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot legislate stupidity. People are going to do stupid things. We cannot sit and every time someone does something stupid, make it a law and have the government come in, because if you do that, you're going to lose your freedoms." The macho former wrestler had this to say about why he favored gay rights: "Love is bigger than government."
But the most potent weapon in Ventura's triumph was his up-the-Establishment attitude, his platform quotations from such political thinkers as Jerry Garcia and Jim Morrison, his TV commercial showing him as an Action Figure doll doing battle with the Evil Special Interest Man. ("I don't want your stupid money," growls the Ventura doll.) Some may call it the Revenge of the Couch Potatoes, but Ventura's campaign galvanized younger Minnesotans. They swarmed to the polls to register and vote on Election Day--Minnesota law allows same-day registration--in such numbers that some polling places ran out of ballots and had to run off copies. This surge of new voters explains why Minnesota's 61% election turnout was the highest in the nation.
Democratic state representative Myron Orfield ruefully concedes Ventura's extrapolitical appeal: "Jesse isn't just a former wrestler. He's a cultural phenomenon. He's connected to the modern vernacular of things here. He's with it."
He's also poised to take command of the very power structure he so vividly and colorfully ran against. The number of his Reform Party allies in the state government is exactly zero. During the campaign, when he was asked how, if elected, he would deal with Democratic and Republican legislators, Ventura would roll up a sleeve, flex a bicep and rumble, "This is how." Good theater, but not a terribly plausible plan for running a government.
In a somewhat pained editorial after the election, the Star Tribune urged citizens to be calm, legislators to be cooperative and the Governor-elect to mend his ways: "The scorn for government he voiced during the campaign was one part ideology, one part showmanship and several parts ignorance. He can't get away with the ignorance any longer."
Ventura is plainly not the knucklehead he has sometimes, to please the crowds, pretended to be. The question is not whether he can learn on the job--say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, make nice when political advantage and simple prudence dictate such a course--but whether doing so will put him at odds with his own freewheeling nature. Minnesotans and the nation at large can look forward to the unusual spectacle of a man wrestling with himself.
--Reported by Kermit Pattison/St. Paul and Ron Stodghill II/Minneapolis
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