By Mike Mooneyham
May 18, 2004
ASHEVILLE, N.C. As the former governor of Minnesota browsed through a local pipe shop looking for a humidor, a customer gave him a double glance before uttering, “You look a lot like Jesse Ventura.”
Ventura smiled wryly, winked and retorted, “A lot of people tell me that.”
Nearly a year and a half removed from office, Ventura is 31 pounds lighter, sports a dark beard and no longer shaves the sides of his famous dome. With a Cohiba cigar locked firmly in his mouth and looking more like Cuban dictator Fidel Castro than his most recent and refined political incarnation, Jesse “The Body” Ventura continues to evolve.He’s worn a number of hats over the years – biker, Rolling Stones bodyguard, Navy SEAL, pro wrestler and announcer, pro football commentator, movie star, suburban mayor, governor, talk show host, Harvard professor.
His next step, he hints, could be a run for the nation’s highest office.
“Anything is possible,” bellows the gravel-voiced Ventura, in this western North Carolina town for a golf tournament and auction to benefit the Asheville-based Eblen Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides medical and emergency assistance for residents in the region.
Having stated earlier this year that he might be interested in an independent campaign for the presidency in 2008, the 52-year-old Ventura has not made a firm decision on a White House run.
“I’ll make a decision about it at some point, but am I serious about it right now? Not particularly. I like to do things to remind people that we need more than two choices,” Ventura told The Post and Courier. “It’s like I said one time on the Larry King show when I was on with (former) Sen. Alan Simpson, who was expounding the two-party system and how great it was. It’s so great it gives us one more choice than communist Russia. What could Simpson say? He sat there and couldn’t deny it. Why do we get only two choices? We need three or four choices.”
Ventura, who broke the monopoly of the two-party system with a stunning dark-horse victory in the race for governor of Minnesota in 1998, still believes the country is ready for those extra choices.
“It’s viable,” he says, “because 40 percent of the public doesn’t recognize themselves with the two parties right now. The reason it’s not viable is because the two parties will do everything to make it so it can’t. They don’t want anyone else in the game. It’s their No. 1 priority.”
Ventura adds that he’s not overly excited about either of the major candidates in this year’s presidential election.
“I’m just very disappointed in the president because I opposed the Iraqi war,” says Ventura. “I think in the long term it’s going to be a major mistake. I might be wrong … I also don’t like the fact that when he came into office he told us he was going to be a federalist president, which means power to the states. He’s done just the opposite. He’s taken power from the states and brought it the federal government instead.”
The presidential talk didn’t exactly come out of left field. Many of Ventura’s closest friends and colleagues say it’s been on his mind for years. And it’s not even the first time he’s floated the idea with a wink and a nod. “Jesse has been talking about being president of the United States for many years,” says World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon, who has vowed to support him if he decides to throw his hat back into the political ring. “He is convinced he will be president.”
Ventura’s wife of 28 years, Terry, has told him she won’t go with him if he wins the White House. No problem, he says. “I told her if I become president, I’ll move the White House to Minnesota.”
The response typically draws laughter, although not all of Ventura’s constituents were laughing toward the end of his term as governor. He left the office disillusioned and discouraged after a frustrating final year.
JESSE VS. THE PRESS
Ventura suggests that the only thing that might keep him off the 2008 campaign trail would be the “media jackals” and their treatment of his family during his time as governor. Ventura makes no bones about his dislike for the press in his home state.
“I will never talk to them for the rest of my life,” he says bluntly. Using his message of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism, Ventura’s anti-candidate, anti-establishment self-made man image appealed to young voters, blue-collar workers and other stereotypically red-blooded males. But his relationship with the press in Minnesota rapidly soured.
Ventura insisted that the St. Paul Pioneer Press could not use his “trademarked” name and image in a political comic strip, or refused, for “security” reasons,” after 9/11, to let reporters know his daily schedule. He regularly shunned reporters who wrote critical articles about him and compelled the statehouse press corps to wear media badges identifying them as “professional jackals.”
Ventura, who has refused interviews with local reporters since leaving office in January 2003, says the state press relentlessly hounded his wife and children.
“They (the press) constantly attacked me because I embarrassed them. They’re supposed to be experts, yet not one of them predicted I would win. And then when I won, the public began to question them. They’re supposed to be the experts, but they didn’t see this coming. Then they took the attitude that they were going to prove to the public that they were wrong to elect this guy. They couldn’t get me on policy, so they had to go after me personally. And then they went after my kid.”
The manager of the governor’s residence during Ventura’s four-year reign claimed in a tell-all book that the Venturas’ son, Tyrel, frequently used the governor’s mansion for his party headquarters at the taxpayers’ expense, entertaining young women he had met at bars. Finally, when a newspaper reported that one of his “two photogenic children who attend public schools” had been trashing the governor’s mansion with hard-partying friends, Ventura decided that it was time to reclaim his privacy.
“We were facing budget cuts,” growls Ventura. “The governor’s residence is a luxury, it’s not a necessity, so therefore I closed it. They didn’t like that too well. There was a disgruntled employee who was fired, and he accused my son of underage drinking and wild parties in the governor’s residence. Well, the media didn’t ask one important question. He went home every day at 5 o’clock. How would he know what went on at midnight? He wasn’t even there. But they didn’t care whether it was factual or not. They had their story. The other thing was that my son was 22. How could it be underage drinking when he was of legal age? They didn’t care about that either.”
“THE MIND” REVISITED
Ventura began a cable television show in October 2003 on MSNBC called “Jesse Ventura’s America.” Originally billed as a “no-holds-barred” show planned for five nights a week, executives at the struggling news network eventually relegated it to a Saturday night slot. The short-lived program was canceled after a two-month run for reasons, Ventura says, that might have had to do with his political stances and his penchant for saying things that mainstream media considered over the top.
He has a lucrative three-year deal with MSNBC that ensures he will be paid the duration of the contract. “They’re paying me,” says Ventura, who reportedly was getting $2 million for his services. “I’ve got a three-year contract. It’s their call. They’re buying my silence. There’s maybe a reason for it. Who knows.”
But it’s been a semester of teaching class at Harvard as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics that has given Ventura a new and refreshing look at the world he left behind. The three-month academic stint earlier this year, he says, was therapeutic as well as enlightening.
“Only in America. I only went to high school, and here I am teaching at Harvard, the greatest university in the world. For me it was like rehab. For someone serving in office and then getting to go teach the young people at Harvard, it was the equivalent of a drug addict going to the Betty Ford clinic. It takes your cynicism away that you had when you get out and it made me feel that I can still believe.”
The change of scenery obviously did wonders for Ventura. He dropped 31 pounds from his 6-4 frame and is now down to 245. He trained hard during his time at the school, where he pumped iron, followed a special diet and worked out with the football team, joking that he still has three years of college eligibility left. He says he wants to lose weight slower now, but he’s determined to trim down to 220 over the next two years.
The Harvard experience was a refreshing change of pace from his four years as governor.
“It (being governor) was like standing still and jumping on a treadmill that’s going at seven, because you better hit the ground running, you’re going to run the whole four years. And when you get off, it’s like getting off the treadmill. About a week later, it finally dawns on you that you don’t have any more meetings, you don’t have to make any big decisions. Four years was enough. If I had wanted to stay, I would have run again.” Ventura says he’d jump at the possibility of returning to Harvard.
“I’ll go back if they ask me. I liked it a lot. It was a lot of fun. I was able to relate to the students because they were the same age as my children (20 and 24).”
While there Ventura taught a class comparing pro wrestling to politics. They both require a flair for the dramatic and carefully scripted conduct, he says.
“There are a lot of similarities.. You become very comfortable in front of large crowds while performing. You have to learn how to talk on TV and to be comfortable with television cameras. Most importantly, when you’re wrestling, the character you portray in the ring may be nothing like what you really are. I believe a lot of these politicians are the same. The character they’re portraying on TV is nothing like what they really are.”
CENTER OF CONTROVERSY
Many years ago he reinvented James George Janos – his real name – into a colorful showman called Jesse Ventura. The first name he simply liked, a reflection of his outlaw nature, and the last name was picked from a map of California.
Blessed with a great delivery and razor-sharp wit, Ventura was a natural behind the camera and parlayed his colorful persona featuring bulked-up muscles and draped in a pink feather boa – into a successful pro wrestling career that ended in the mid-1980s when health problems forced him to retire from the ring. In between stints as a highly paid pro wrestling commentator, he ran for mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., in 1990 and served from 1991 to 1995. Between 1995 and his run for governor, Ventura had a popular radio call-in show in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market.
The entertainer-turned-politician had to convince skeptics who laughed at the prospect of having a pro wrestler occupy the governor’s mansion. CBS news anchor Dan Rather summed up Ventura’s 1998 gubernatorial election victory by saying, “People could not be more surprised if Fidel Castro came loping across the Midwestern prairie on the back of a hippopotamus!”
“You have to let them know that you don’t always live in that fantasy world,” says Ventura.
While many have criticized Ventura for his bombastic demeanor and outspoken nature, few can deny that he’s refreshingly candid, a fighter who speaks his mind. Not many governors have had brothels name rooms for their most recognizable customer.
Like his colorful wrestling persona, Ventura provided his share of controversy as governor of Minnesota, where his first proclamation was declaring Feb. 15, 1998, “Rolling Stones Day” in the state.
A self-described fiscal conservative and social liberal, he supported property tax reform, gay rights, abortion rights and the regulation of illegal drugs. While funding public school education generously, he opposed teacher’s unions. Lacking a base in the Minnesota house and senate, his vetoes were often overridden. His critics claimed he was long on talk and short on alternatives or tangible plans.
During a protest of college students, he once said, “If you are smart enough to go to college, you are smart enough to figure out a way to pay for it.” During an interview with Playboy, he publicly fantasized about life as an oversized brassiere. But he drew the most scorn for calling religion a “sham and a crutch for weak-minded people,” suggesting that people of faith are inclined to meddle in other people’s business. That unpolished gem was hardly well received in a state where 70 percent of the population regularly attends church. Ventura, the only governor out of 50 to refuse to sign a proclamation for a national day of prayer, later tried to explain the comments, but never offered a complete apology.
Even overweight folks couldn’t escape Ventura’s loose-lipped style, with the governor observing that fat people “can’t push away from the table.”
But, in the end, most agreed that he had been the biggest thing to hit the state of Minnesota since Paul Bunyan.
WRESTLING HALL OF FAME
Ventura was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame March 13-14 in New York as part of Wrestlemania festivities. He chuckles when recalling his acceptance speech.
“Who in God’s name would have thought I’d be in the hall of fame before Ric Flair,” he joked. “Then I looked back at him and said, But then again, Ric, I’m sure you’ll get elected immediately after you turn 70 after you retire for six months.’ He’s the only guy I know who’ll wrestle until he’s 80.”
Ventura says that he has long buried the hatchet with WWE owner McMahon, who he once successfully sued for nearly $1 million for royalties and interest from wrestling videotapes. The mat impresario’s now-defunct XFL football league later hired Ventura as an announcer, which cased him to catch considerable flak for being on McMahon’s payroll while governor.
“Vince and I have no problem,” says Ventura. “He and I get along better today than we ever did.”
Since his last days in the business, Ventura has observed sweeping changes in the wrestling industry.
“Wrestling has changed. I worry about the young wrestlers because of their longevity. They’re not going to be able to have 15-, 20-year careers anymore. They’ll have five-year careers. But I’ve seen a change over the past two months. They’re going back to the mat. And the reason why is because they can’t have guys injured all the time. They can’t make money that way.”
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
A cultural icon, Jesse Ventura is a walking photo opportunity wherever he goes and a magnet for an inquisitive public that seems drawn to his openness and sizable personality.
A young lady asks for an autograph for her fiancé, and Ventura goes off into a lengthy spiel on the do’s and don’ts of marriage. “Communication is the key,” he advises, emphasizing that honesty is the best policy. “Don’t hold things back. If you’re troubled by something, it’s better to communicate than to hold things back, because if you hold things back, it starts building like a pressure cooker. If there’s a problem, talk it out. When you start not talking to each other, that’s when trouble develops and things can escalate. If something’s troubling you, talk about it in a good way and don’t be afraid. Two individuals are just that, and they’re going to rub each other wrong at times. The honeymoon will end after about a year, and that’s the critical time.”
Ventura seems genuinely interested in responding to everyone’s questions and seems to never tire of talking issues. Whether at a celebrity dinner in Asheville or on the links at The Cliffs in nearby Travelers Rest for the Brad Johnson Celebrity Golf Classic, Ventura is at home being the center of attention, shooting straight from the hip and always speaking his mind with in-your-face honesty.
“You couldn’t find a more gracious guest,” says Eblen Foundation executive director Bill Murdock, who served with Ventura on the board of directors of the International Wrestling Institute in Newton, Iowa. “He’s never too busy to talk with someone, sign an autograph or have his picture taken. He is truly a man of the people.”
Even with his diverse resume, Ventura says there’s one thing he still wants to accomplish.
“I haven’t made a hole-in-one yet. That’s one thing I want to do. I hit a shot two years ago 194 yards, ended up dead center of the hole, and I could have put my thumb between the ball and the hole. Easiest birdie I’ve ever had. Stevie Wonder could have made it.”
There’s something peaceful, he says, about being on a golf course.
“It’s better to have a bad day at golf than a good day at work.”