Wrestling With a New Political Era

In his first full day as the governor-elect of Minnesota, Jesse "the Body" Ventura introduced his constituents to The New Statesmanship. "I've got news for you, buddy boy," he snarled to a local radio commentator who ridiculed Mr. Ventura's presumptions to high office. "I'm renaming you now Minnesota Wrong." Then, in pro-wrestling vernacular, he told him where he could put his advice.

All unemployed speechwriters within earshot might have collapsed in unison, but with Ventura in office, they are going to stay unemployed. Ventura talks off the top of his bald head. And today in Minnesota, whatever comes careening off that head is met with instant adulation by multitudes who suddenly have found a massive new knight to relieve them from the boredom and double-talk of conventional politics.

In Minnesota this week, millionaires and powerbrokers, most of whom laughed at Ventura's entry into high-level politics just a few months ago, lined up to deliver homage to this real, this living Lancelot, who talks rowdily in double negatives and schemes gleefully about making his entrance onto the statehouse grounds on inauguration day by rappelling from a helicopter.

That could happen. After Ventura's demolition of Democrat Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III and Republican Norm Coleman in the election Tuesday, it probably should. Nothing else makes as much sense in the aftermath of one of the truly wacky political events of '98.

Jesse. How improbable is Jesse as governor of Minnesota, a onetime professional wrestler, beer peddler, and showman running a state that gave American politics Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy?

Maybe not so zany at all. This is 1998. The country is still rich and powerful, and Minnesota is one of the most prosperous provinces. But 1998 is the year of presidential porn on TV, which aggravates the citizen's traditional gutful of politics, and there on the debating rostrum are Humphrey and Coleman, the essential traditionalists.

Attorney General Humphrey is a nice guy who beat the tobacco companies in a huge lawsuit, and Coleman, the mayor of St. Paul, is a smooth politician who was a Democrat until he got tired of waiting in line to be governor, so he discovered a faster route: Join the Republicans. But now somebody invites Jesse to make it a three-corner debate. Jesse wearing the garments of the Reform Party but figuratively wearing the tights of the professional wrestler, which is how he got to be a celebrity and part-time actor in those hard-body thrillers that make tons at the box office.

Humphrey and Coleman struggled to restrain from laughing. Here was a guy who once in the debates was asked how as governor he was going to handle opposition Democrats and Republicans. Jesse expanded one of his vast biceps and made a fist. "With this," he said.

Skip and Norman were appalled. But something was happening. Jesse wasn't your available lout from studio casting. Jesse was reasonably bright if politically ignorant. He was a professional talk-show host and a onetime mayor of the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park.

He knew enough about professional politicians to know their vulnerabilities to the one-line harpoons that reflected the public's skepticism of professional politicians. So who were these guys on the platform with him, he asked one of the crowds that began to swell at his rallies. They were allegedly political pros, he said. And who was Jesse? Well, Jesse was a man of action. Jesse was a veteran of Vietnam and the Navy SEALS. You put those political pros in the tight spots Jesse Ventura had seen, he told the crowd, and what would you see? "They'd wet their pants."

They may or may not. But Jesse could spout a line like that because almost everybody who met him found him likable and approachable: Big guy, bald head, mustache, man from the underwater hazards, crushing handshake, man who had vanquished all those Neanderthals in the wrestling ring. Arnold Schwarzenegger of the North.

It wasn't long before Coleman and Humphrey were deferring to him in the debates, seeing the mounting public fondness for him. Jesse bellowed punchy solutions for cleaning up the political mess - none with much substance but all packing cues for instant applause. They eventually painted Humphrey, in the minds of some audiences, as an earnest but fuzzy old-line New Dealer. And alongside Jesse, Coleman looked like a slick Easterner, shored up by huge campaign donations.

To be sure, Coleman and Humphrey, both with strong merit as public servants, offered far more than Jesse's homespun proverbs about putting government "back in the hands of the people." But to the dismay and astonishment of the analysts, Jesse began to climb in the polls, and Tuesday he overwhelmed all of the money and gurus.

He left the traditional politics of the Democrats and Republicans flapping in the backwinds of the Jesse tornado. If politics in Minnesota (and everywhere) had gotten boring, Jesse offered entertainment. He pricked holes in the political pros. He got the young aroused in a way no one has for years. They had no interest in politics. But they did grow up on the bicep movies, and here was a guy who came out of the culture. Jesse was macho and fun and blurt-it-out. "You're one of us," they started to say.

And then late in the campaign Jesse came up with borrowed cash and started running TV spots. His handlers produced an action doll that sneered at money being offered by Evil Professional Special Interests. Jesse's new claques howled happily. It was different. The next spot put Jesse in shorts, sitting in the posture of Rodin's Thinker. Jesse the Mind, not the Body. Jesse both the Mind and the Body. The Jesse multitudes went wild. And grew.

So what does all this mean for American politics in 1998? Probably that what it needs more than anything is some yuks and something a little wild and impulsive and yet harmless. Harmless? The analysts were busy today wondering how Jesse is going to govern with a platform that says down with taxes, up with America, shrink government, and maybe consider legalizing prostitution. But Jesse doesn't really have to govern. His managers and the legislature essentially do that. In Minnesota in January you're going to have Republicans running the House, Democrats running the Senate, and Jesse of the Reform Party ready to interpret the mess for talk-show audiences.

But the guy won by coming over as an offbeat hero, and he might be saying something profound about what works in politics today. A respected politician listened to one of the debates. The candidates were asked whether the public should finance a new baseball stadium. "Humphrey opposed it but it took him three minutes to say so. Coleman gave you this and that, more words. Jesse said, 'if they've got enough money to pay players $91 million, they can build their own stadium.'" The guy with the shortest, punchiest - and meatiest - statement got elected. He may make his inaugural speech wearing wrestling tights.

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