The Taming Of Jesse

Sweeping through the statehouse on his way back to the office, Jesse Ventura finds himself standing knee to face with an awestruck group of 6-year-olds. "Do you all know who this is?" a teacher asks nervously, as if, after all the recent headlines, she's not quite sure what he'll say in front of the children. "Jes-se Ven-tu-ra," the group answers. The giant governor leans down and smiles. "Hey, kids, are you seeing all the different parts of the capitol today? That's great." Then that mischievous look crosses his face. "You know what? You should all be for a unicameral legislature," he says, referring to his plan to shrink Minnesota's lawmaking body to a single house. "Can you all say 'unicameral?' " He waves his hand like a conductor, and the confused kids dutifully respond: "U-ni-cameral!" Beaming, Ventura waves goodbye and disappears behind heavy oak doors.

Just six months ago Ventura swaggered through these same halls like a superhero, sometimes drawing spontaneous applause. Now he'll take a receptive audience where he can find one. The weeks since Ventura's disastrous Playboy interview hit the stands--he dismissed religion as a "sham," among other comments--have been the most painful since his election last November. His approval ratings in Minnesota have plummeted. His national star has dimmed considerably. Trusted advisers have surveyed the damage done to his administration's agenda. Shaken and seething at the media, Ventura admits he made a mistake, and he's vowing to rein himself in. "I'm not going to offer my personal opinions on anything," Ventura told NEWSWEEK. "It's sad, because I get four or five people who come up to me on a daily basis and say, 'Governor, don't change. Be who you've got to be.' But in light of my family and self-preservation, I know that I have to change."

His political survival may depend on it. Ventura began this month to roll out his "Big Plan"--an ambitious agenda ranging from his beloved unicameral House, which he says will streamline government, to vague goals, such as involving parents in the schools. But the Big Plan may already be in Big Trouble. While Ventura says he doesn't care about polls, the fact is that he needs massive popularity to push programs through a legislature in which he has no natural allies. During Ventura's first legislative term, lawmakers were afraid to take him on. But with a recent poll showing that about 43 percent of Minnesotans now see Ventura as an embarrassment, critics on both sides of the aisle feel emboldened.

How to repair the damage? Ventura gets conflicting advice. His aides in the capitol would like to see him use more discretion in his comments. Political advisers, however, caution him that above all he should continue to be himself. Never one to be "handled," Ventura is struggling to find a balance. Before his meltdown, he was considered the one man who could unite the Reform Party. Aides say Ventura has little interest now in being a presidential power broker, and Ventura confirms that he could leave the party if Pat Buchanan--a Republican "retread," in Jesse's view--is the nominee. But he sees his administration as a test of what a reformer can accomplish. He still wants to be the outrageous guy who sang in a feather boa after his inauguration. But he also wants to be a governor who gets things done.

Ventura's done plenty already, including the highlight of his first year: a $1.3 billion tax rebate. But it was probably inevitable that he would stumble. Almost overnight, he went from an obscure former wrestler to the most quotable man in America. For years, first on talk radio and even in his recent book, Ventura had been making many of the same oddball comments he made in Playboy--but no one cared. He was stunned when those same thoughts triggered a national debate. "All of a sudden, people won't eat or lives will be lost if I don't offer my personal opinion on things," a sarcastic Ventura said last week. "You can be yourself and get elected, but you can't be yourself and govern. You have to give the correct answers. You have to give the answers that don't offend anyone."

Sitting in the sanctuary of his capitol office, dressed in jeans and sneakers for his weekly stint coaching high-school football, Ventura said he would discuss only policy now. He wouldn't say how his wife, Terry, reacted to his comments. ("I'm not going to talk about my family--no offense to you.") But Ventura was livid when reporters from a local paper approached Terry inside her church. "I'll always protect my family, because my family comes first," Ventura said. "I've been manipulated by the media for their own ends, and I'm not going to let it happen anymore." Ventura vows to get even with reporters. "I was elected here to do the state's business and not my personal war. So I will hold off on my personal war. But when I'm through with this job, I will resume my personal war." How? He may write a book about the media when he's out of office. If Ventura doesn't bounce back, that may come sooner than he once thought.