There can hardly have been a weirder sight in this country’s political history: Minnesota governor-elect Jesse "The Body" Ventura standing before a whooping crowd at his 1999 inaugural ball, sporting a garish, tasseled jacket, biker’s headscarf, shades, and a psychedelic Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, a pyrotechnical display fizzing behind him. That night, Ventura paraded and pumped his fists as if his prize were not the leadership of the nation’s 32nd state but a WWF Smackdown victory, his head thrown back, his enormous mouth bisecting his enormous face, in the midst of a warrior’s cry that would make Howard Dean’s notorious howl look like a lullaby.
Five years later, Jesse Ventura still tends to stand out a little.
Since mid February, the former governor has been a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP), and it seems safe to say that America’s oldest university hasn’t seen anything quite like this guy before. On a Tuesday afternoon, Ventura lumbers through Harvard’s venerable red-brick buildings, on his way to lead his study group, "Body Slamming the Political Establishment: Third Party Politics." He walks with a bulldog swagger, his arms in fighter-ready arcs by his sides. Since he arrived here, Ventura has become something of a cult figure on campus, and you will often find a coterie of Jesse groupies milling about him. At the Tuesday event, 80 or so students listen with rapt attention as he launches into a Venturian monologue: "Sure, I smoked pot. If you grew up in the ’60s and you didn’t smoke pot, you’re either a liar or you didn’t grow up in the ’60s."
For the most part, students do not exit lectures enthusing about how "cool" and "entertaining" a teacher is. But then Ventura — despite having adopted the moniker "The Mind" — is not what you’d call a typical academic. "The students are in awe of him," says an IOP staffer, who goes on to add that she finds Ventura to be "pompous" and "self-important." Apparently, the former wrestler is given to talking about how "dangerous" he is — which would seem to be a fair enough appraisal.
Down the hall from his Harvard office, a poster promoting an upcoming seminar bears a photograph of the Reform Party’s onetime darling in full battle attire, clutching a large, menacing-looking rifle, above the caption BIG MAN ON CAMPUS. Ventura is indeed a big man, and he has the voice to match. Normally, the IOP’s corridors are hushed, subdued, the kind of place where a stapler cracks out like gunfire. Ventura changes all that. If he is speaking — and he rarely isn’t — you can hear his sonorous tones from a hundred yards away.
On a Friday afternoon, Ventura sits at a desk in his small office at Harvard, still wearing that Hendrix T-shirt, holding court. "Bullshit," he says to a bespectacled man, who mm-hmms in agreement. "The guy’s wearing a button-down shirt, you know?" And then: "I’m the only elected official who met Fidel Castro." Later, Ventura addresses a slight, jittery-looking young man with the same booming tenor. "I said I’d only come here if they gave me a tie," he says as the kid shrinks into his chair. "Did you see the movie Trading Places? He went to ‘Hahvaaahd!’ " The student, bless him, sits and twitches, a pained smile on his face.
Over the next few minutes, Ventura, who has a discursive conversational style, touches on the Cold War, basketball, girls’ hockey, the price of the tickets for his inaugural ball ("10 bucks"), the guests at said ball ("transvestites standing next to bikers"), his exercise regimen ("working out like a madman"), and Alan Dershowitz. After a while, the twitching kid is joined in the office by a friend, who seems equally anxious in the presence of the great man. "What’s going on this weekend?" Ventura asks the twitchers. "Any parties or stuff?" Finally, the boys make a grateful exit and the wrestler-turned-statesman (do not call him a politician) turns his fleshy face to a waiting reporter. Yikes.
Jesse Ventura does not like the media. In fact, it’s safe to say that Jesse Ventura hates the media. He especially hates the Minnesota media, with whom he sparred and bickered nonstop during his four-year term as governor. That is, until he stopped talking to reporters altogether — a vow of silence that lasted throughout much of his final year in office. "I refused," he says. "I was like Prince." He adds, "They stuck it to me, screwed me, abused me. The state of Minnesota’s media has dissed me forever."
Still, better to have Ventura give you the cold shoulder than to have him drive your nose into your brain, which he is perfectly capable of doing. Not only was Ventura a pretty handy wrestler in his day, but before that he was — as he is extremely fond of pointing out — a Navy SEAL. "You have to understand, I come from the world of the Navy SEAL," he says, still discussing his beef with the press a good 10 minutes after he started. "And we live by a simple thing: we don’t get mad, we get even. That’s embedded in me, and so anyone that gives it to me can expect retaliation."
A few days later, Ventura continues on this theme during his Harvard study group. The class, slated to discuss the media’s effect on third-party politics, basically amounts to an hour-and-a-half griping session about the sneering, lie-telling Fourth Estate. At one point, discussing a radio reporter who gave him a particularly hard time, Ventura says, "He’d better hope he never sees me." At 52, Ventura has grown a professorial beard, and a halo of hair now crowns his boulder-like head, but at six-foot-four and 270-plus pounds, he’s not someone you’d necessarily want to have to hope you never see. As Ventura continues his tirade, his guest speaker, John Wodele, looks on with an expression of grave concern. A couple of times, Wodele even jerks himself from his seat to provide an edge-smoothing qualification: "Let me just add to that ..."
Old habits die hard. As Ventura’s gubernatorial press secretary, Wodele held what may have been the toughest job in politics. "I’ll never forget it," he says, "not for as long as I live." This may be an understatement. Ventura is every spin doctor’s worst nightmare — a politician given to speaking his mind. Worse yet, the stuff that went through his mind was not always the most, um, delicate material. In a 1999 interview with Playboy, Ventura mused about how nice it would be to be reincarnated as a 38DD bra. In the same interview he called organized religion "a crutch for weak-minded people." Predictably, this did not go over too well among Minnesota’s many Lutherans.
"There’s no question that Governor Ventura is a very strong and convincing communicator," Wodele says. "But he was also his worst enemy, because he generally doesn’t go through a filtering process that normal politicians learn to do." He adds, "This certainly does make it difficult for someone like myself." Today, Wodele is a consultant, specializing in, appropriately enough, crisis media management.
If Ventura was a PR person’s worst nightmare, he was in many ways a news writer’s dream. "There were so many wonderful moments," says Jim Ragsdale, a political reporter for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. "To me, that’s what I lived for, those moments that revealed something about him. It was like having a regular guy in an important job. Once he came out from a meeting with the Dalai Lama. I said, ‘What happened?’ and he said, ‘I asked him if he’d seen Caddyshack.’ The Dalai Lama said, ‘No, I haven’t seen that one.’ This is the spiritual leader for half the world and that’s the question Ventura asks. It had no significance other than the fact that it was interesting to him."
one of the SESSIONS Ventura will be leading for his IOP third-party-politics study group this semester is titled "Wrestling Then Politics: The Perfect Preparation for Serving" (guest speaker: the WWE’s Vince McMahon). In politics, as in wrestling, Ventura says, the key to success lies in selling yourself to the public. "The wrestler may not be in public who he is in private, and I think it’s the same with the politician. Your public persona is not your real one." Some observers have questioned whether Ventura’s regular-guy routine may be just that — a routine, a kind of "Mr. Smith Goes to Minneapolis" persona.
It seems more likely, though, that Ventura is simply a product of his upbringing. Born James George Janos and raised in a working-class section of Minneapolis, Ventura grew up in a world that did not exactly steep him in sophistication. His parents were ex-military personnel who had gone on to blue-collar jobs — his mother was a nurse, his father a maintenance worker. While "probably exceptionally bright," Ventura says, he was not a stellar student. "I was a dreamer," he explains. "I would procrastinate, do just enough to get by." On the streets with his friends, he would smash the occasional window, or sneak cigarettes behind garden walls — "Nickel-and-dime stuff, nothing serious." He loved to watch wrestling. Nothing remarkable.
Already, though, the politician was beginning to take shape. "I was a latchkey kid," he says. "My parents had gone to work when I got up, and when I got home they weren’t back yet. So now you see why I don’t buy into all this sympathy crap, when people start saying, ‘Ooh, but no one’s home for little Johnny!’ Well, it didn’t affect me. I liked it when they weren’t home, it gave me more freedom. My parents, my mother especially, she raised my brother and me to be very independent, very independent." A few years ago, to a chorus of boos, Ventura lectured a single mother about expecting state hand-outs: "Is that the government’s job, to make up for people’s mistakes?" To some extent, this may have been Ventura’s own mother talking.
If Ventura got his independent streak from his mother, he inherited his gift of the gab from his father. "My father was a great talker," he says. "He only had an eighth-grade education, but he could dominate a room. He loved talking politics. He hated politicians. A lot of my father’s old friends, the ones who are still alive, because he passed away in ’91, a lot of them see him in me." Four years after his father’s death, Ventura’s mother died. Neither parent got to see their son sworn in as governor. Before his mother passed away, he says, "she told a lot of her friends to keep an eye on me, because I was going to do something big. She didn’t say what, she wasn’t clairvoyant or anything, she was a nurse." He adds, "My parents would never have dreamed that I would become governor of the state. So that’s the one regret I have."page 1 page 2
Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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