Letting Jesse be Jesse

The music had ended. But the sounds of Zoltan Kocsis's bravura performance of Liszt's First Piano Concerto were still airborne as the audience pressed toward the exits of Minnesota's Orchestra Hall, carrying a retired Minneapolis newspaper columnist (me) toward an unprogrammed encounter with an angry woman who wanted to unload her wrath.

She had no time for intramural talk about Kocsis and Liszt. The target of her furies was a politician named Jesse, a.k.a., The Body. This is Jesse Ventura, the talk-show gadfly, the muscular Midas of politics, elaborately paid football analyst and, incidentally, the governor of Minnesota. This is a man of mind-bending, oddball portfolios that now include one that could only have done justice to a paranoid Roman emperor. Jesse's latest is an attempted act of revenge against nosy reporters at the state capitol. He wants each to wear a credential badge identifying himself or herself as an "Official Jackal."

"What are you going to do about Ventura?" the woman demanded.

I told her I'd rather talk about Liszt. I also told her that mothballed columnists have less clout than live ones. I did say that Ventura was probably an improvement on Nero. He's made more money being goofy and he hasn't yet threatened to throw newspaper reporters to the lions.

He is, though, only halfway through his four-year term.

There are a couple of truths about Ventura that may have escaped people around the country who've always pictured Minnesota as a haven for normalcy and admired its stolid acceptance of 10-foot snowbanks. They want to know how these people could have elected a noisy cowboy to run a once-orderly ranch.

The first surprise about Minnesota is that it is not predominantly appalled by a pro wrestler governing the state, at least by this pro wrestler. The reason is that Minnesotans don't expect normal behavior out of Ventura as a governor. They do expect normal governors to avoid using the public office in a candid grab for outside money because of its visibility and whatever power it has.

Ventura candidly grabs for outside money.

His take so far may run into a million dollars, culminating in his current role as an analyst (actually, as a barker) for the XFL telecasts orchestrated by Vince McMahon, the promoter whose pro wrestling vaudeville gave Ventura his first forum.

The wardens of bedrock political values in Minnesota - principles that thrust Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale into presidential politics - are uniformly outraged by what they see as Ventura's sleazy misuse of the office. But they do give him credit for changing the Main Street dialogue in Minnesota. It used to be that when two Minnesotans got together they talked about when the ice would melt on Lake Minnetonka. They now talk about the latest bafflements coming out of Ventura's office, as though some of his nuttiness has now become a state resource to replace blizzards and Lake Wobegon.

All of which may explain The Body's continued popularity in Minnesota and obscure the fact that he was elected by a third of the voters in a three-way race. A lot of those who didn't vote for him accept him with a shrugging forgiveness: He may be an occasional embarrassment, but he hasn't been a disaster. The state is prospering economically.

And in fact, some of his grades are impressive. His appointments to important commission offices have been sound. His damage-control expert, John Wodele, who's in charge of putting a negotiable spin on some of Ventura's loonier flights of logic, is expert. Ventura has put himself on the side of good government by advancing the cause of light rail in the Twin Cities and raising barriers against the manipulation of taxpayers by stadium-promoting athletic teams.

But his espousal of the old rugged individualist themes - "Do it yourself, man" - chills people who know that life isn't that simple or available to multitudes of poor and voiceless people. It especially puts at risk future students whose education is imperiled by his ideas of shrinking the budget of the struggling University of Minnesota. Nor do friends of the school who are proud of its medical and technical breakthroughs take any comfort from a hard-balling governor who makes big dough on the side.

What he is as governor is what he was before: A pro wrestler who made it big with a hammerhead style and a hustler's brass. Bob Whereatt, a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter, looked at the Jackal badge he was told to wear and said he wouldn't. "The Jackal business is silly, but I'm offended by the implication that I might not be allowed to cover a news conference if I didn't write what the governor approves," Mr. Whereatt said.

In retrospect, his spinmaster, Mr. Wodele, said that wasn't the intent of language on the badge making it revocable for cause. No specific cause was originally revealed. In the firestorm of journalistic scorn and hilarity that followed, Wodele said the badge business would be revisited or modified. While it is, the attempted jackalization of the press corps is up in the air.

But Ventura got to be a pro wrestling star in a business where villains had to be invented. Jesse is no Nero. He may have less power but more craft. If you're a wrestler-politician looking for a villain, the newsroom is irresistible. In Minnesota, the folks there are as confounded by Ventura as the rest of the public.

Jim Klobuchar is a retired columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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