Jesse Ventura's gaffe riot

From dumb racial jokes to self-serving politics, the Minnesota governor's past predicted his future.

By Jake Tapper
May 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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There he goes again.

In the wake of the Littleton school shootings, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was once more stuck explaining himself after suggesting that more guns --
specifically, concealed weapons -- could have let Columbine students and faculty defend themselves and prevent the massacre. "Jesse (the Mouth) needs that foot extractor again," read a Minneapolis Star-Tribune op-ed piece on April 25.


Ventura's remarks should have come as no surprise. He's a Vietnam vet, a libertarian, and a gun nut. As mayor of Brooklyn Park, he applied for a license to carry around a loaded concealed weapon, though he didn't qualify for one under state law so the police chief had to turn him down. And Ventura has a pattern of gaffes that predates his introduction to a national political audience last November, when voters defied the pundits and elected him governor.

It was a blind date that got a little out of control, and ended up in a Vegas wedding chapel.

Candidate Ventura was never taken seriously by the state press corps, nor by his opponents. So neither he nor his history received much scrutiny. He got in some trouble during the campaign for suggesting that maybe prostitution should be decriminalized, but most of his shoot-from-the-lip honesty that voters did see came across as refreshing.


But since Ventura's astounding victory in November, he has surprised Minnesotans with a number of peculiar gaffes. His approval rating has started to sag a bit. Last month, even before his Columbine blunder, a Mason Dixon poll conducted for the St. Paul Pioneer Press revealed that the governor's job approval rating, while still high, had slipped, from a 69 percent excellent/good rating to 57 percent.

All of Ventura's post-election blunders, however, have roots in his pre-election political and personal history. A look at Ventura's past would lead to a safe prediction about the future: The gaffes won't stop.

Gaffe No. 1: His racial "jokes"


In February, when discussing the Mille Lacs Indian Treaty, upheld that month by the U.S. Supreme Court, Ventura said that if local Native Americans really wanted to enforce the use of the treaty, they "ought to be in birch bark canoes instead of 200-horsepower Yamaha engines with fish finders." Ventura then said that fishing true to his "natural heritage" would be "DuPont fishing" -- throwing DuPont-manufactured grenades into the lake and skimming up the explosion-pulverized bass.

Then, a few days later, on the "Late Show With David Letterman," Ventura joked that the roads of St. Paul were confusing because they'd been designed by a bunch of drunken Irishmen.


None of these comments should surprise anyone. Ventura hails from the world of professional wrestling -- a "sport entertainment" fraught with ethnic and racial stereotyping. Indeed, pro wrestlers have depended on such stereotyping -- a Native American was given the moniker "Chief Strongbow," a notorious Japanese manager named "Mr. Fuji" would bow to his opponents, and, in the name of patriotism, crowds booed the Soviet-Iranian tag-team duo Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik.

But Ventura went farther than most in the wrestling world. As a "bad guy" pro wrestling announcer, he sometimes offered commentary that was criticized as racist. During the first WrestleMania, Ventura described the psyche-out moves of an African-American wrestler, the Junk Yard Dog, as "a lot of shuckin' and jivin'." Over and over, he jokingly maintained that the middle name of another black wrestler, Koko B. Ware, was "Buckwheat."

"He told me he has a brother, too," Ventura said. "Named Stymie. Wears a derby."


According to David Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Ventura went so far with the "Buckwheat" comments that even World Wrestling Federation CEO Vince McMahon finally told him to cut it out. "Jesse was bitter about it," Meltzer says. "He complained to me, 'I asked Koko and he said he thought it was OK.'"

Ventura also constantly referred to a Latino wrestler, Tito Santana, as "Chico."

"I betcha Chico wishes he was back selling tacos in Tijuana right now!" Ventura said as Santana got pummeled during WrestleMania IV's tag-team championship.


It seems obvious that, if you desire a governor with great racial sensitivity and healing powers, your best bet is not to look to the locker rooms of the WWF for candidates.

Gaffe No. 2: Hypocrisy about fundraising

After holding himself up during the election as the one virtuous candidate who didn't take any PAC money, Governor-elect Ventura accepted more than $100,000 from big-money donors to fund his gubernatorial transition. "It's a wonderful way of buying access without losing a dime," Common Cause president David Schultz said. Ventura said that he avoided any conflicts of interest by not looking at the list of donors, but later returned the money after outgoing Gov. Arne Carlson allotted some state funding for his successor's expenses.

Though Reform Party candidate Ventura regularly dissed his Democratic and Republican counterparts for taking dirty money, Ventura is no virgin on this issue. As mayor of Brooklyn Park -- where he served for one term from 1990 until 1994 --Ventura and two other local mayors traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby the Minnesota congressional delegation on highway funding. Before they left for D.C., however, Ventura and his mayoral pals took up a collection of more than $5,000 in campaign contributions from Twin Cities-area businesses to distribute to the congressmen. This apparent quid pro quo assuredly played a part in the huge success of the trip, as they returned with $36 million, well more than they'd originally asked for. On the stump last year, Ventura cited this successful lobbying experience, though he acted as if his charisma and large biceps had been more convincing than the envelopes in his jacket pocket, which he somehow neglected to tell voters about.


Ventura seems to believe that his motives are pure and therefore they should never be questioned. For example, he has expressed bewilderment that anyone would question his having accepted a $500,000 book contract immediately after his election. The fact that he'd shopped around a similar book proposal a year before his election -- one that, not surprisingly, had found no takers -- fueled the impression that Ventura was profiting from his public office. After all, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich had come under fire for signing a large book deal in his post-victory euphoria, as well.

Gaffe No. 3: "My first priority: To repeal the tax on jet skis! (Hey, how come no one's clapping?!)"

The stage was set as the new governor was about to give his first speech to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Everyone in the crowd anticipated that Governor Ventura would announce his long-heralded plan to give the taxpayers a tax rebate from the state's $6 billion surplus.

But instead, Ventura announced that he would fight to eliminate the surcharge on Wave Runners, the jet-ski-like watercraft of which he just happens to own about a half-dozen at his lake cabin. According to one newspaper editor present at the speech, the audience wasn't sure if Ventura was joking.


He wasn't.

Surprise! Ventura's political career was founded on personal interest. He first became active in Brooklyn Park politics opposing a development on a wetland on his street. As a talk radio shock jock, Ventura constantly railed on Wave Runner rules and regulations--just as, as a former motorcyclist, he had opposed helmet laws. "The banning of personal watercraft [on smaller lakes] got him going from April through July" 1997, says David Ruth, his producer at KFAN-AM, now in the governor's communications department. "I had to beg him to stop talking about it."

Gaffe No. 4: Body-slamming a "little old lady"

Pat Helmberger, a state Capitol secretary and self-described "little old lady," was making Valentine's Day cards featuring a caricature of the governor in a feather boa and tights. Ventura had his attorneys send Helmberger a "cease-and-desist" order for the cards. Since Helmberger had only made about $200 on the cards, Ventura came under fire for being a bully.


Ventura is exceedingly protective of his image--he even copyrighted "Jesse 'The Body' Ventura" in the early 90s. The fuel for this fire was provided by WWF CEO McMahon, with whom Ventura entered into a protracted legal dispute over the marketing, merchandising, and lack of compensation for the use of his name and image. Ventura eventually won more than $800,000 in the legal match; the judge who ruled in favor of Ventura swore in the governor during his inauguration.

Gaffe No. 5: Ventura puts an unwed mother in a headlock

During a protest rally in which Minnesota students decried the fact that the governor's education budget didn't reduce tuition, Ventura got into an ugly verbal skirmish with a single mother. According to newspaper accounts, Ventura argued that there were ways to earn money for college other than handouts from the government, mentioning his four years as a Navy SEAL and his time at North Hennepin Community College on the GI Bill.

"What about single parents?" yelled a woman.

"I don't want to sound hard-core," Ventura responded, "but why did you become a single parent? Is it government's job to make up for someone's mistakes?"

Ventura, a true American rags-to-riches story, seems unable to comprehend why every other American isn't able to replicate his life's journey--from humble origins (his father was a Department of Streets employee with no more than an 8th grade education) to a ranch home and estate with millions in the bank. Ventura, born Jim Janos, was always a decent athlete, but it was his determination and cojones that got him a huge, pumped-up body, wealth, and fame. It is a blind spot, sure, and it can manifest itself in a callous cluelessness to those who weren't gifted with his personality and, it demands saying, the benefit of parents as wonderful as his were.

Gaffe No. 6: Jesse goes Hollywood

Immediately after the election, Ventura was criticized for jetting all over the country making all sorts of self-promotional appearances: Leno, Tom Snyder, Letterman, a football promo, MSNBC, "Dateline NBC," A&E's "Biography" and ad infinitum.

He wined and dined with Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson, who were in town for a movie shoot, and he flew to L.A. and elsewhere to try to drum up even more moviemaking in Minnesota.

He even said that maybe he would act again -- as he did in "Predator," "The Running Man" and "Batman & Robin." Minnesotans asked: Is he a governor or an entertainer?

For God's sake, people, he's both.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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