In early 1999 I was assigned maybe the easiest political story of the era--a profile of Gov. Jesse (The Body) Ventura. It was all color, all the time, from his feud with Garrison Keillor to his claim that St. Paul's streets were so confusing because they'd been laid out by drunken Irishmen. Moments after he delivered his first State of the State speech to a packed chamber of the Minnesota State Legislature, a polished piece of political theater, I asked him how he had mastered the teleprompter. "I did a Miller Beer ad once," he said.
Ah, beer. It seems that Ventura's son, Tyrel, now 22 years old and, by his father's own account, a far better-behaved lad than the governor had ever been, held several house parties over the years at the governor's mansion. Apparently, alcohol was consumed and a bit of vomiting ensued, staining a quilt prepared especially for a visit by Vice President Al Gore. Disgruntled former employees of the mansion ratted out the wrestler, who took great offense at being portrayed as a bad parent and last week announced he would not seek re-election.
It's hard to believe now, but just three and a half years ago Ventura's election was viewed not just as a curiosity but as a body slam to the body politic. If a wrestler could be governor of a major state, what did that make all the real politicians? Rather than being ridiculed, Minnesota voters were lauded for their insight: politics is a big joke anyway, so why not vote for the most fun character we can find? And coming between Ross Perot and John McCain, Ventura's election as an independent seemed a particularly vivid harbinger of the collapse of the two-party system.
His retirement is also a sign of the times--different times. Like Gary Condit and Bill Maher, Ventura will likely be viewed by history as a "September 10th" kind of guy--a diverting luxury in an angry but placid prewar epoch. While his independent centrist politics remain in tune with the country, his act is suddenly very old. We've learned that wrestlers can govern--until government has to wrestle with something truly important.
Ventura says he's not seeking re-election because he doesn't want his family subjected to any more sniping from reporters, who he only half-jokingly suggested be required to wear the word jackal on their press passes. The governor is hardly faking his loathing for the local press; he told me during his honeymoon that he was "this close" to decking a cameraman who got too close to his wife, Terry, at the airport, and that was well before things really deteriorated. But the telling breach was not with the media; it was with the voters who once so adored him.
The early moves of The Body were much better than critics expected. He made mostly strong appointments and had an instinct for moderate policies that played well against both extremes. He pushed through a tax rebate, but also some tax increases to close the budget gap. If Ventura wasn't quite the "action hero" he promised he'd be, hammerlocking the special interests, he wasn't their tool, either, which represented some improvement. Even when he said something politically stupid (telling Playboy that religion was often "a crutch"), it had the benefit of being honest. Gore wasn't the only politician who flew to St. Paul to learn something about communicating with disengaged voters.
But from the start there were signs that Ventura saw the governorship as just another promotional opportunity. He wrote two best sellers, appeared on "The Young and the Restless" and took a part-time job as announcer for NBC's XFL football broadcasts. The details of governing bored him, so, after a while, legislators began to ignore him. Eventually, Ventura became a kind of Minnesota mascot, the overgrown gopher who pops up on national TV but spends most of the time underground.
The affair with voters may have ended when he went to New York's Ground Zero last fall as the guest of ABC's "Good Morning America" while a strike of Minnesota public employees was still underway. Those were the same employees who would have to protect Minnesotans if terrorists struck, say, the Mall of America. Not smart. Polls showed him slipping below 30 percent support for re-election.
It's always possible that Ventura will change his mind and throw his body back into the ring. That's what wrestlers and mavericks (Ross Perot in 1992) like to do. In the meantime, I'm going to miss Jesse. It's not every day that a politician says he wants to be reincarnated as a bra, and specifies the size (38DD). But overall, it's time to move on. Al Sharpton announced last week that he was going to India and Pakistan to bring peace to the region. No one noticed, which represents some measure of progress in a perilous time. Farewell to antics. Send out the clowns.