The People’s Choice

Jesse Ventura
Jesse Ventura; drawing by David Levine

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.…

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