Last Sunday night, in a bright, loud arena, the governor of Minnesota launched a man through the air and called him a bastard. Out of the wrestling ring--twixt the ropes--into the chairs. Then the governor returned to his duties as wrestling referee: trading trash talk with a muscle-bound female wrestler named Chyna and adjudicating the victory of a Cro-Magnon-like assemblage of sinew and scowls named Mankind over Stone Cold Steve Austin. Cheers, huzzah, explosions, good night.
The next day, the governor resumed his push for a unicameral legislature.
Neither incarnation surprises anyone anymore. On the contrary: Live with Jesse in your midst, and you get used to the contradictions. He's a man of the people whose curriculum vitae reads like a workingman's fantasy: He was a Navy SEAL. He made movies with Arnold. He drives a hot, fast car, and he owns a spread with horses neighing in the barn. Talk-show host, wrestling star, elected object of adoration. No one else can be Jesse, yet he still seems like Everyman. He's a barking ref whipping up the proletariat one day, a stern reorganizer of the political templates the next. In the past week, he was more the former than the latter: In a nod to his free-and-easy past, a Nevada brothel named a room for the man who was its most recognizable customer.
No matter. He'll probably be your president someday. Already, Jesse has a national profile that vaults him over all the wonky guvs--the Tommy Thompson tinkerers, the Lamar-level wannabes.
Picture Steve Forbes as a wrestling ref--he'd look like a high-school library volunteer, worried someone will dog-ear a page in the dictionary. Pat Buchanan has Ventura's energy and populism, sure. But you can't imagine Pat in full Navy SEAL camouflage, swimming through dark water with a knife clenched in his teeth. Just as the only person ever excused for acting Clintonian is Clinton, only Jesse can be Jesse.
It's not just the manly bluster that gives Ventura his street cred; it's the unremitting, in-your-face and down-your-trousers honesty. Ask a presidential candidate about drug use, and you get a tap-dance recital. With Jesse, there's no need to ask questions. He doesn't just admit he visited brothels, for example, he'll happily recount the tale of the time a hooker obliged him gratis.
It might be more than you want to know. In fact, there are times you wish you could file a Freedom From Information Act request against Ventura. He doesn't have any skeletons in his closet--just feather boas. His skeletons are all out in the living room, nicely posed, a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other, placards hung around their necks with highlights from his tell-all autobiography.
The latest wrestling gig, however, laid out the fractures in the state's political landscape. His involvement in the wrestling show struck some as an unethical attempt to cash in on his resuscitated fame. Sure, Jesse was donating his fee to charity. Sure, his charitable contributions this year from his book, his action figures and the wrestling gig top $200,000. That didn't matter to a perennially aggravated local activist, who filed a suit to block Ventura's appearance because the guv could profit from royalties and ancillary sales. J'accuse!
Yeah, right. An indulgent judge dismissed the suit, giving the green light to Ventura's extracurricular pleasures. Besides, it was a Sunday night. Nothing happens in Minnesota on Sunday nights. Bar Jesse from the ring, and come Monday morning he'd taunt the critics: "Oh, lots of governor work had to be done last night: Signed a bill to put up a stop sign in Brainerd, watched a little TV."
For some, however, it wasn't the ethical questions that were so objectionable. It wasn't the possible dereliction of duties. It was . . . the wrestling. We don't hold other people's former trades against them, as long as they remain firmly in the past. Truman did not open a hat shop in the White House. Reagan did not endorse Borax in his State of the Union speeches. Carter did not sell--or grow--Rose Garden peanuts.
In the state's gubernatorial election, Ventura had some support among the well-heeled and well-schooled--not a lot, but some. These people believed Ventura was a former wrestler. After the election, they sighed with relief. It's as if they'd bought a pet bear on a drunken whim and were relieved when it curled up and went to sleep: Isn't he cute. Then the bear woke up--and cheerfully embraced modern wrestling.
In Jesse's day, wrestling was silly hooey, a harmless show of shirt-shredding good guys and cartoon evil. Nowadays it's upthrust middle fingers, clutched groins, spiky leather-loined dominatrixes, heroes without heroic qualities, a dank aroma wafting from the head office. It's aimed right at the 14-year-old boy who shouldn't be watching in the first place. Fine for a night's kicks, if you like that sort of thing. But definitely not gubernatorial. Ventura's appearance in the ring sealed the case for the doubters, the quailing elites, the people who had taken a wait-and-see approach, but to Jesse, they don't matter. They never did.
By some odd coincidence, tax rebate checks started arriving in homes across Minnesota the week before the wrestling match. The rebate was not entirely Ventura's doing, but the timing couldn't be beat. Even the poorest got a check that let them buy the wrestling match on Pay Per View and still have a few hundred bucks left over. And so the guv's cheerful, honest, naked self-interest has intersected perfectly with the needs of disaffected voters. He's the bread. And he's the circus.
James Lileks is a metro columnist for the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and a nationally syndicated commentator for Newhouse News Service.