I Sing 'The Body' Eclectic


In some respects, Jesse Ventura is not your ordinary Governor. His inauguration Monday was attended by Arnold Schwarzenegger and about 700 journalists, and was carried live by four cable networks. Naturally, one wonders: Does the 37th Governor of Minnesota still flex his girthy biceps to demonstrate how he'll handle the legislature? "No, I don't," he says. "Because of the fact that I haven't worked out in four months and I have an ego. When I get back in training, I'll be back showing my arms."

Whereupon he notes that the grounds of the state Capitol have a beautiful deck out front. "Wait till summertime, when I take the lawn chair out there and get some rays."

Not for nothing is Ventura suddenly the most celebrated (is that the word?) politician (is that the word?) in Minnesota, probably in America. The man who went from working-class college dropout to Navy SEAL in Vietnam, bad-guy professional wrestler, a.m. radio talk-jock, and then, shockingly, vanquisher of well- funded Republican and Democratic candidates to become the Reform Party's first major-league winner–well, if you haven't had enough of him already, there will soon be the Jesse Ventura book, the Jesse Ventura action figure, maybe a Jesse Ventura bean-bag toy. Get used to it.

Ventura eats it up. He loves making the fans howl with glee. Or with rage. He told a television interviewer last month of the unique exhilaration of hearing 19,000 pro-wrestling fans chanting in unison, "Jesse sucks!" "What a compliment!" he said. "I did my job!"

Since the election, he has told a gathering of university students that if they're smart enough to be in college, they're smart enough to figure out a way to pay for it, and will value the education more for doing so. He has scolded a gathering of state union officials for their monolithic support of Democrats, and then announced his opposition to the minimum wage. Yet when he goes to visit a state agency–he is visiting most of them, to learn the job–the bureaucrats pack the halls and hang from the rafters to cheer him.

Meanwhile, he hopes to stay on as the volunteer conditioning coach for a local high-school football team. "I'm the Governor," he told me, when I wondered if this was quite practical. "Why can't I? If I want to leave here at 3 in the afternoon and go coach kids Monday and Tuesday, who's going to stop me?"

A little of this could go to a guy's head. If he had one. So does he?

The news about Ventura is that, press reports to the contrary, he is not a triumph of style over substance; arguably, rather, the other way around. Voters still listen to what candidates say, even if the political press rarely does, and Ventura has things to say. He is a Jovian figure, 6 feet, 4 inches, size 50 or 52 jacket, earnest and mischievous by turns, but always as blunt as he is broad-shouldered. He holds strong opinions centered on a worldview in which self-reliance and American Dream patriotism figure prominently. But he shows no interest in intellectual coherence. He prefers springing surprises to parsing syllogisms. One of the surprises, however, is that his views have a political coherence which more- conventional politicians might benefit from noticing.

"I am a libertarian," he said one day last month, in a windowless transition office not much bigger than he is. "I've taken the libertarian exam and scored perfect on it." But, sputters your correspondent, doesn't that exam ask about legalizing drugs? "You're asking a personal opinion, now," he says. "I think the war on drugs is a failure. When you say `legalizing,' I would use a better term of `decriminalizing.' I'm for giving the addict a way to get it so he doesn't have to go out and hold up the 7-Eleven store to get enough money to go buy it at these inflated, ridiculous prices that prohibition causes."

A thought hits him. The drug war is a good example of what he calls "legislating stupidity." During the campaign, one of his refrains (another was "Retaliate in '98") was: "You can't legislate stupidity." People do stupid things, always will, and government should get out of the business of passing laws to stop them. "There's too many laws altogether," he says. "If they tell you ignorance of the law is no excuse, then we should all be running around with backpacks. Because you need so many backpacks with those law books so you wouldn't be ignorant."

And so he objects, incredulously, to Minnesota's law against fornication. He suggests that the state legislature devote one year in four to repealing outmoded laws. "And I'm a believer that there should be a sunset provision on anything that's passed." Though he won't renounce the cash, he scorns the recent settlement between the tobacco industry and state attorneys general: "Government has now found a way to raise taxes by using the judicial system rather than using the legislature." He is for abortion rights and gay rights. During a campaign debate in October, he said: "I have two friends that have been together 41 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."

None of this, however, is what is most interesting about Ventura. From the libertarian Right we know what to expect: tax cuts today, tomorrow, forever; jagged anti-government rhetoric and mistrust of public institutions; revolutionary impatience. Those are the attributes that ignited the Gingrich Congress of 1995 and alarmed the electorate of 1996. In Ventura, oddly, they are missing.

In the campaign, his big platform point was a promise to return the state's burgeoning budget surplus to the voters. But he says he won't return a penny until after the fiscal year ends on June 30 and the projected surplus is "real money in the bank." Predictably, Republicans are demanding that Ventura cut taxes now, before the legislature can spend the surplus. No dice, says Ventura. "I don't deal with speculation. All of these experts that did speculation and statistics and all that–well, they speculated that I wouldn't be sitting here." So much for the supply side.

True, he says, government is too big and does too much. Close down the redundant state Senate, says he–but use the proceeds to raise salaries for House members, so they can devote themselves to politics full time. "If you get a decent salary, then it would instill a better-qualified person to want to seek out public service." So much for "Cut their pay and send them home."

School vouchers are a favorite cause of the departing Republican Governor, Arne Carlson. Ventura rejects them in favor of money to reduce the size of classes in public schools. "I'm a product of public schools, and I challenge people, rather than running from public schools, let's band together and make them better. I believe in fighting the fight, not retreating."

Cut government? Yes, but slowly. "I'm going to do it carefully, very prudently. I'm not going to rush in." His first budget is likely to be steady-as-she-goes. The talk of drug decriminalization is personal opinion, he cautions, not political agenda. So much for the revolution.

Here is radicalism in moderation. Here, too, is politics with a sense of humor, an attribute that is remorselessly absent from national politics. In a state whose parties have gravitated toward the extremes (the Republicans are full of evangelism, the Democrats declared their convention "fragrance-free" in consideration of sensitive noses–and just look at the two U.S. Senators), Ventura found an abandoned wilderness in the populist center, and drove through it with a truck.

He may, it is true, prove to be a lousy Governor. Plainly, he is no detail man. The testosterone shtick may wear thin with the voters. Then again, one's thoughts stray to another veteran of lowbrow entertainment who eschewed fine points for impolitic pronouncements, honed his message on the talk circuit, and went on to a successful governorship–and beyond.

Ventura will never be President. Nor is he the fierce partisan that Ronald Reagan became. His national significance lies in the place where he is not–in the Republican or Democratic party–and in the place where the Republicans and Democrats are not–in the radical center. "I don't fit into their scope," Ventura says. "I'm fiscally conservative and I'm socially moderate to liberal. How can you be that, and fit into either one of the parties?"

Good question. At a time when the Republicans and Democrats in Washington are clutching one another's throats while pulling both right and left of the electorate, one wonders whether it is a question that either party will have the sense to ask.