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The People’s Choice

In Aristophanes’ Birds, Herakles with his club makes an improbable member of the diplomatic corps sent down from Olympos:

Poseidon: We two will ring in peace, next, with the birds.

Herakles: I’ll wring peace from their necks with my two hands.

The Herakles in a 1975 production of Birds by the North Hennepin Community College players was Jim Janos, freshman drama student, part-time bouncer in a local bar, and aspiring professional wrestler (he had just taken the fighting name “Surfer Jesse Ventura”). Odd as was his appearance in an ancient Greek drama, nothing can match the deep implausibility of Ventura’s current role, as the action-figure-toy governor of Minnesota. After his one year in college, he had gone on to wrestle under the name “Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura,” appeared as a bulky adjutant to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, hosted radio talk shows high on insult and low on inhibitions, and served as the maverick mayor (1991-1995) of Brooklyn Park, the same Minneapolis suburb where he had appeared as Herakles two decades earlier.

Though he slipped into office early this year with only 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race, he quickly became the feel-good governor who makes Minnesotans enjoy their own previously unsuspected drollery. The state, after all, is one that Garrison Keillor introduced us to, long ago, as a land of Scandinavian silences, of buried Lutheran guilt—“a state of folks in earth tones,” as he puts it in his new book. Then along came Jesse, like a technicolor Bozo the Clown popping up in the black-and-white gloom of an Ingmar Bergman movie. Now even Keillor wonders at the way Ventura has gathered a good staff and conducted a successful legislative session. The only people unhappy with him at the moment are the more ideological Republicans. “He has knocked the struts out from under the religious right,” Keillor says.

It was not always so between Ventura and Keillor. When Time asked Keillor to comment on the surprise victory of the flamboyant wrestler, whose ring attire ran to rhinestones and feather boa, Keillor, who has never met the man, mused that this was like a corporation’s taking the office janitor and making him CEO. Ventura, whose fighting persona was based on showily staged enmities, had an aide invite Keillor to attend the governor’s inaugural ball in a janitor’s costume. The exchange of further insults led Garry Trudeau to run the feud in his “Doonesbury” comic strip. Keillor, whose agent had suggested a political satire as his next book, wrote a mad nightmare vision of a Ventura simulacrum (Jimmy “Big Boy” Valente) spiraling crazily up to the presidency by the year 2000.

Minnesotans’ laughter has by now become good-natured and self-celebratory. Even the man’s gaffes have become endearing. When his own book revealed that he does not wear underwear, Fruit of the Loom sent him twelve thousand pairs of undershorts. He donated them to two charities, which thanked him profusely, since that is just what their beneficiaries need—others leave them old coats and dresses, but who donates their cast-off underwear? Even boorishness, in the alchemy of this moment, became a benefaction. The citizens of Minnesota treat Ventura as a sly practical joke they are playing on themselves.

On June 15, I went to a Girls State assembly in St. Paul where Ventura was scheduled to address the young delegates in their mock political convention. The woman in charge at the dais admonished the four hundred high school juniors: “When he enters you must show Jesse respect, since he has not always…” She trailed off with a nervous laugh, unable to put tactfully whatever she meant to say—that he had not been treated with respect, or that he had not shown dignity himself? It was significant that, even in this call for formality, she called the governor “Jesse.” He has refused to answer questions from some journalists who address him with first-name familiarity, demanding respect for his office. Still, it is hard to be solemn with a man who, the day after he won office, said on the radio that one of his detractors should take his criticism and put it “where the sun don’t shine.” Even at this high school meeting, he will provoke titters when he reflects on the fact that it is the class of 2000 before him and he is getting so old that his own high school class is having its thirtieth reunion. After hailing “the Class of Zero Zero,” he mutters in an aside, “Jesus!”

When Ventura came into the gymnasium of Bethel College, where the Girls State delegates had just finished their voting, he was greeted with a writhe of adolescent rapture. Ventura, generally popular, is most popular with young audiences, which he seeks out. An organizer of Girls State said this was the first time in years that a governor had shown up for their event. Journalists who follow him say that their own children beg for information about him, buy his action-figure toys, and do not like it when their elders are dismissive of him.

Nor is this reaction confined to adolescents. In the election, he won 46 percent of the eighteen to twenty-nine age group—as opposed to 16 percent for the Republican, Norm Coleman, and 37 percent for the Democrat-Farm-Labor (DFL) candidate, Skip Humphrey (Hubert Humphrey III).1 Much of this edge came from new participants—16 percent of those voting registered on election day, a thing made possible by Minnesota’s encouragement of minor parties. Ventura, running on the Reform Party ticket, got three quarters of that 16 percent, in a turnout (60 percent of the voting populace) unusual for an off-year election, especially in a year when disgust with politics ran high because of Monica madness in Washington. Ventura, for all his flamboyance, and despite his boasts of womanizing as a youth, has a reputation as a solid family man, devoted to his wife and two children. As he told Jay Leno after the election, “Have you seen my wife? I don’t need to look for an intern.”

Ventura’s candor—his air of being too inexperienced at politics to lie—threw him into the greatest imaginable contrast with the soiled or seedy politicians chasing or running from scandal. That is why Ventura, who made a populist appeal, was not elected with the edge of bitterness that is manifest in many populist campaigns. The voters were not particularly angry—Minnesota has been spectacularly prosperous in recent years, and Ventura won marginally more votes from those making $50,000 to $74,000 a year than from those making less than $16,000. He lost the vote of those with less than a high school education (prime material for populism of the resentful sort), but he led the other two candidates in the 89 percent of the voters who thought the state’s economic condition was good to excellent. In fact the state seems to have felt it could take a gamble on this attractive outsider precisely because things were going so well—it was unlikely he could contrive a disaster. He had earlier been helped in his election as a colorful mayor for suburban Brooklyn Park because people reflected that he could not do much damage in a strong-council/ weak-mayor city where his vote was just one of seven members on any major issue.

Even so, few suspected Ventura might win this race until its very end—and that misperception was one of the causes of his victory. Humphrey, confident that Ventura could not take the main prize, felt Ventura would draw more from the right than from the left, so he made a point of saying that Ventura should be included in the televised candidate debates (though the League of Women Voters was going to include him anyway). In fact, Ventura won more liberal votes than Humphrey (4 percent more), while losing the conservative vote by a whopping 19 percent to Coleman. Ventura made deep inroads into the DFL base, taking away a third of the party’s voters, splitting the women’s vote with Humphrey, and leading him 37 to 26 percent among college graduates. This was no victory of hicks. Women liked Ventura’s stands favoring abortion and gay rights. The wrestler’s macho rhetoric and Rush Limbaugh growls have misled out-of-staters into thinking of Ventura as a stirrer of right-wing discontent. Minnesota’s perception was more accurate—and that is why Coleman won an absolute majority (58 percent) of the conservative vote, the highest figure run up in any category of this three-way race.

At a time when George W. Bush is trying to temper his party’s right-wing drift by presenting himself as a soft (“compassionate”) conservative, Ventura has performed an opposite trick, coming before the people as a hard and tough liberal. If he hugged a tree, he would kill it. He probably does not even know what tofu is. He drives a Porsche, not a Saab. And his favorite book (“I read it seven times”) is the story of the Manson Family murders, Helter Skelter. That is why he can get away with things that would make people wince if they came from “sensitive” liberal stereotypes like Alan Alda or Phil Donahue. During the debates, when the candidates were asked about a recently passed Minnesota law banning gay marriage, Coleman supported the law aggressively, Humphrey opposed it timorously, but Ventura said:

I have two friends that have been together forty-one years. If one of them becomes sick, the other one is not even allowed to be at the bedside. I don’t believe government should be so hostile, so mean-spirited…. Love is bigger than government.

Gays like Ventura, and pass around a story about Ventura’s response to Trent Lott’s claim that sexual lifestyle is a matter of choice, not biology. He is supposed to have asked Lott, “When did you make your choice?” On his radio show, which careened recklessly around many subjects, he refused to discuss the death of TV comedian Phil Hartmann since he had met the man and he was too distressed to consider whether he had committed suicide or been murdered. Sensitivity is the last thing one expects in a body-slammer.

Though he likes to say that he is a centrist, on a whole series of hot-button issues, Ventura is a liberal: abortion, gay rights, women in the military, legalizing marijuana, legalizing prostitution, opposition to capital punishment, to school vouchers, to school prayer, and to display of the Ten Commandments. He praises the liberating Sixties, opposes laws against burning the flag, loves rock and roll, and condemns the Vietnam War. He opposed Bush’s war with Iraq, though he went, as a supporter of servicemen, to see the Minnesota troops off for their desert duty. Even on gun control, though Ventura loves his own automatic rifle and has threatened noisy partyers with it, he supports background checks before firearm sales, and says that all gun purchasers should receive mandatory training (an expensive and time-consuming process that would drastically slow gun sales). From those wanting permits to carry concealed guns he would even require periodic retesting. The Republican state convention that was held after this year’s legislative session became a marathon exercise in Ventura-bashing. The new chairman of the party called the governor “Roger Moe [the DFL Senate leader] on steroids.”

  1. 1

    All vote statistics are from “We Shocked the World!”: A Case Study of Jesse Ventura’s Election as Governor of Minnesota, by Stephen I. Frank and Steven C. Wagner (Harcourt College Publishers, 1999), pp. 29-34.

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