Maybe it only looked as if he were having fun

JESSE Ventura barged into the governorship of Minnesota with a barrage of mixed metaphors and a noisy, heroic gospel of shaking the cobwebs out of the political establishment.

Within two months of the Jesse saga, multitudes in Minnesota vowed they would never be surprised or shocked by anything Jesse said or did in office.

Today the multitudes are offering a meek confession.

They are shocked.

Only a handful would have predicted that Jesse would turn down a run for a second term – certainly not after all that airtime on late-night TV and his celebrity status from Beijing to Berlin. Jesse was a world personality. They asked him for his autograph in Istanbul. They asked his opinion on world trade in Tokyo.

But this week, Jesse said four years as governor were enough. He made his announcement in the midst of a spreading controversy over the misuse of the governor's residence by his 22-year-old son. To explain his decision, the onetime chair-throwing professional wrestler dipped grandly into the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. "God Almighty," he said, "I'm free at last."

Free of what? Media snoops? Dull politicians?

Phyllis Kahn, a feisty and perceptive veteran of 30 years in the Minnesota legislature, a Democrat, might offer the best evaluation of Jesse's governance and his latest turmoil.

"I was totally amazed like everybody else by his decision," she says. "You hear people say he couldn't stand the possibility of losing the next election. I don't see that at all. His ego is too big to even consider losing an election. I have two minds on Ventura. He did and said crazy things. But for two or three years, when we had a big budget surplus, and he let his advisers and appointees run the show, he was actually a pretty effective governor."

His successes, while not necessarily head-turning, included championing a light-rail system and presiding over three years of plenty in which taxpayers got refunds he called "Jesse checks." He pushed through property-tax reforms and slashed car-registration fees. He was also vocal on social issues, appealing to the state's progressive voters with his stands on abortion and homosexual rights.

But then "the economic slide came, and you had Democratic control of one house and Republican control of the other, and Jesse the Independent and maverick in the governor's office. It got to be a mess," Ms. Kahn says. "He didn't have the faintest idea how to manage."

But what else? Did all of the once-adoring throngs in Minnesota desert him?

A loyal core following

Well, not totally, and maybe not even decisively. Although his popularity has skidded dramatically into 30 to 40 percent approval after the 75 percent reading of three years ago, he may have won another term against candidates put up by the Republicans and Democrats. Despite all of his gaffes and absurdities, Jesse still commands a stubborn if shrinking loyalty. Most of the Irish have forgiven his casual slander of the Irish and the drinking stereotype, made early in his regime. Most of the churchgoers have forgiven his casual slander of what he called churchgoing hypocrites. A lot of the citizens didn't see Jesse as a buffoon despite his catastrophic adventure as a football analyst in the one and only season of the XFL league, which was a crude attempt to create the pro wrestling hysteria on the gridiron.

Still, in some ways, Ventura's election now seems almost a quaint artifact of a pre-Sept. 11 age – when the stock market was booming, the biggest national crisis involved the president's sex life, and Minnesotans could afford to send a man named "The Body" to the governor's mansion as a form of protest or even just for fun.

Nationally, election of figures like Ventura would be far less likely now, some say, because the public regards government as serious business once again.

"It may be the end of the era of men behaving badly in public office," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "We can't afford to be governed by attitude alone, not when our national security is seriously under threat."

In this post-attack era, Ventura's departure brings the number of open governors seats this fall to 20, out of 36 races being contested.

Jesse announced his decision not to run in a typical venue – a call-in show on public radio. It came a day after a newspaper story in which the former caretaker of the governor's 20-room state mansion told of wild parties in the building involving Ventura's son. No wild parties were connected directly with the governor. A spokesman expressed outrage over those revelations and said they grossly exaggerated the facts and the extent of damage to the building's furniture. Ventura himself referred to the "silliness" of the story but said he made his decision two weeks ago.

The background of the story was that Ventura and his wife decided to leave the governor's residence and to live on their ranch as a result of a dispute with the legislature. The manager and seven other employees were fired because, they said, of remarks they made after Ventura closed the building.

Lesson: Be careful who you fire

"The big mistake Jesse made," Rep. Kahn says, "was firing the manager." You know how those things always go. There's bitterness. And pretty soon things that were being kept in the family get into print. The same thing happens to royalty. Be careful who you fire.

The response from the startled Minnesota public this week was predictably divided. Ventura still has a highly vocal following whose core made up the approximately one-third of the voters who four years ago said they were turned off by old style politicians – the Democrats had put up the son of the late Hubert Humphrey, and the Republicans ran St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. All of them attracted approximately a third of the vote. Jesse's wedge was bigger than the others.

That bigger wedge wanted a swashbuckler who ridiculed political mastodons.

Jesse's economic views, to be sure, had a bent that was more libertarian than blue-collar, but "style is a very important part of politics and he certainly had a populist style," says Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University in Washington.

Jesse appealed to people who watch Schwarzenegger movies. Why not? Jesse acted in movies of that genre himself. He also may have been the only governor in America to pack heat to work because has worried about his safety.

If he's serious about his decision, he may be headed back to talk radio.

And here in the heartland of political order and societal peace and quiet, peace and quiet may reign again.

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