The Body is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Understanding Jesse Ventura's long, sad decline


Jesse Ventura has come a long way since those heady days of November 1998. A Reform Party longshot in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, Ventura ran as the outsider's outsider, a flamboyant former Navy SEAL, professional wrestler ("The Body"), and Hollywood bit player who'd already achieved the impossible, serving one term as the elected mayor of his hometown, the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park. To the surprise of everyone—except the candidate himself, or so he humbly claims—Ventura grabbed 37 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating both Democrat Hubert Humphrey III and Republican Norm Coleman. To celebrate his inauguration, Ventura wore a tie-died Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and sang "Werewolves of London" onstage with Warren Zevon.

"I'm fiscally conservative and socially moderate to liberal," he told reason in December 1998. "I've taken the libertarian exam and scored perfect on it." That libertarianism was responsible for Ventura's best ideas, including the decriminalization of marijuana and a proposal to make the state legislature spend every fourth term repealing outdated laws, not passing new ones. Not surprisingly, both plans went nowhere, though Ventura did succeed in removing at least one stupid law: a state ban on playing bingo more than twice a week at nursing homes. "I put great trust in our elderly," he deadpanned before the press, "that, with this burden lifted from them, they will not abuse this great privilege."

But while showmanship helped him on the stump, it didn't give Ventura the thick skin necessary for dealing with other politicians—or with the press, who sparked his wrath after reporting that his 22-year old son had thrown wild parties at the governor's residence. "Today," he writes in his new book, Don't Start the Revolution Without Me, "I view those media people as equivalent to pedophiles, because they attacked my children on multiple occasions."

So he called it quits as governor after one term, announcing on Minnesota Public Radio that he "will always protect my family first." Since then, Ventura has spent a semester as a visiting professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government (you read that right: his seminar was called "Body Slamming the Political Establishment: Third Party Politics"), campaigned for Texas gubernatorial hopeful and fellow third party iconoclast Kinky Friedman, and retreated to Mexico's Baja peninsula, where he grew a funky beard.

Now he's back in the spotlight, promoting a bizarre new book filled with conspiracy theories and the endlessly repeated question: Will he or won't he run for president? Given that just last week Ventura was hinting that he might challenge comedian Al Franken for the Minnesota Senate seat of Republican incumbent Norm Coleman (Ventura's Republican foe from the 1998 race), it seems that The Body is desperate for whatever political action he can get.

Pathetic title aside, Don't Start the Revolution Without Me turns out to be an unexpectedly fascinating read. First and foremost, Ventura has gone whole hog into political paranoia. He devotes most of one chapter, and other lengthy passages throughout the book, to challenging the Lone Gunman theory of the John F. Kennedy assassination, a subject he's clearly obsessed with. Of Pat Buchanan's success in wresting the 2000 Reform Party presidential nomination, Ventura charges, "it was a set-up all along by the Republicans. A way to destroy the momentum for a third party." As for Pearl Harbor, "some evidence exists that FDR and Churchill were privy to the Japanese attack…but needed a catalyst to bring America into World War II."

Even the Patriot Act—a piece of villainous lawmaking, no doubt about that—falls under the shadow of conspiracy. At a whopping 342 pages, Ventura simply doesn't believe that the government could have cobbled it together in those "first scary weeks" after the attacks. "Its almost as if somebody had it all ready to be unveiled," he writes, "but just had to wait for the right moment—a Reichstag fire, a Pearl Harbor type event, to make it a reality."

This is the Bush Did It theory at its most simplistic (substitute Cheney for Bush if you prefer). As Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the Senate's lone vote against the Patriot Act, noted at the time, the proposal contained "vast new powers for law enforcement, some seemingly drafted in haste and others that came from the FBI's wish list that Congress has rejected in the past."

But it's the 9/11 attacks themselves that have really sent Ventura over the top rope. How did those two planes bring down the Twin Towers, anyway, he wonders. "I don't claim expertise about this," he continues, before citing his "four years as part of the Navy's underwater demolition teams," but "something about the official story doesn't add up." In Ventura's view, the towers should have flattened like pancakes, "rather than the concrete being pulverized and flying through the air for blocks."

As radical journalist Alexander Cockburn has remarked of the "9/11 Truth" movement, "one characteristic of the nuts is that they have a devout, albeit preposterous belief in American efficiency." That certainly describes Ventura's repeated assertion that four hijacked airplanes should not have been able to bypass our air defenses. "Yet no bells went off, no emergency sirens, no fighter jets scrambled until very late."

As a former governor, not to mention a Vietnam vet, Ventura should know firsthand that the government screws stuff up, both the big things and the small ones. September 11 was FUBAR writ large. Yet here he displays a perversely unshakeable faith in American air traffic control.

It's all of a piece, really, his belief that the media "jackals" were out to ruin him, that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone, that "the media today are controlled by the big corporations," that "certain people in the government were out to keep an eye on me," that if Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda "were responsible…it was not without some knowledge of those impending attacks on our side."

Still, I wouldn't mind seeing Ventura run for president (or for senator, or dogcatcher, or whatever). In addition to talking conspiracy, he's likely to raise all sorts of other trouble, from advocating the repeal of organized religion's tax-exempt status to mandating that every politician who votes for war have at least one relative in uniform (both proposals are in the book). That could be fun to watch. Plus, he's no longer so quick to identify as a libertarian, sneering nowadays that Minnesota's Libertarians "tend to want anarchy." Liberals and conservatives, after all, are just as responsible for Ventura's wacky ideas as libertarians ever were, and a new campaign is likely to spread the blame.

Besides, we might as well get some laughs in before the election. And Jesse Ventura is always good for that.

Damon W. Root is a reason associate editor.