Still "the Body"

With no one left to wrestle, Gov. Jesse Ventura has taken to grappling with the Minnesota media.

By G. R. Anderson Jr.

Published June 19, 2000 9:00AM (EDT)

On May 21, after some prodding, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" that he would welcome the chance to be a commentator on ABC's "Monday Night Football" should the network approach him. He noted that he had done commentary before with the World Wrestling Federation and the Minnesota Vikings. Ventura claimed that he could certainly do the job, but the criticism he would receive back home would be inevitable.

Though it remained just talk, pegged to Rush Limbaugh's recent interview for the job, Ventura proved to be prescient. Later that night, a sports show followed the late news on WCCO-TV, the Minneapolis CBS affiliate. Dan Barreiro, a sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Pat Kessler, a veteran government reporter for the station, mocked the CNN appearance. They ridiculed the fact that Ventura used to bandy about town in Zubaz pants, a muscle-T and a black do-rag. They wished aloud, between chortles, that "Jesse" would learn to keep his mouth shut. Even to a casual viewer, the contrast in the two programs was apparent.

"I have a love-hate relationship with the governor," Kessler notes, barely joking. "I love him and he hates me."

When Ventura's bestselling autobiography, "I Ain't Got Time to Bleed," hit the shelves in paperback on June 12, the guv added a few chapters, most notably one in which he assails the Minnesota media -- calling them "corrupt, shameless and irresponsible as hell."

Ventura goes on to say that "with the local press constantly nipping at my heels" he has become "more cautious about the way I phrase things. I've been scrupulous about keeping state business and personal business separate. I'm clear about that. Why can't the press be?" That seems pretty ironic given this week's activities, when Ventura squeezed in a speech at the Panetta Institute in Monterey, Calif., and an appearance on the "Tonight Show." Ventura's personal travel costs were covered, but accommodations for his aides were paid for by the state of Minnesota.

While most of Ventura's critiques are aimed at the press in general, he has also taken personal shots at the Minnesota media. He routinely eviscerates members of local television and print organizations, often lashing out at specific reporters during press conferences or belligerently denying them any quotes whatsoever.

"It's scary to follow him around," according to one member of the Capitol press corps. "There are some reporters he obviously hates, and he will confront them in a frightening manner."

Conversely, the national media continue to swoon over Ventura. While he shuns and chides the press in his home state, he jumps at any chance to infiltrate the Beltway and trot out his tough-talkin', goodwill persona. And he recently granted the rights to his life story to be staged as a Broadway musical and fulfilling a lifelong dream this week by taping a guest shot on "The Young and the Restless." (It is set to air in July.)

Locally, Ventura's behavior flies in the face of what seems to be a reasonable treatment of his first 18 months in office. He has even gone so far as to criticize the St. Paul Pioneer Press on a number of stories -- including the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative piece on the University of Minnesota men's basketball scandal -- that have nothing even remotely to do with him. What is the source of Ventura's vitriol and why doesn't it transfer to the national newsies?

For Kessler, an affable man who resembles a middle-aged Andy Richter, it's a question of a lifelong behavioral pattern. "He needs to have an adversary, like he did in wrestling or when he did play-by-play announcing," Kessler says. "He has personally assumed his persona."

The churlishness from Ventura means stalemating local reporters while the governor remains perhaps the highest profile state official in the country. "I asked for an interview 44 times in a row, an official written request, and finally got one after I was turned down 43 times," says Kessler, who dryly notes that he has become Sam Donaldson to Ventura's Ronald Reagan, shouting out questions when the Body gets in his Lincoln Navigator.

"The state media's relationship with the past governors wasn't all that great to begin with, and other politicians certainly try to intimidate reporters," added Dane Smith, a 15-year veteran political reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "But there seems to be less and less access to him for one-on-one interviews, and that's troubling."

Paul Moore, a member of Ventura's press relations staff, acknowledges that Ventura has been reluctant to grant interviews, but quickly adds that Ventura refuses even more requests from the national media, saying his office fields about 10 per week. "It's really up to Jesse to pick which ones he wants to do, and he's more inclined to do shows where he can talk about issues, like [advocating] unicameral [legislature]," he says. "He prefers to do the live ones, where he can be unedited. The trouble is, nationally, one off-hand comment, like the 'Monday Night Football' exchange on Wolf Blitzer, will spur requests from other outlets to do whole shows on the subject."

Kessler believes that Ventura is afraid of scrutiny on real governing issues, but has masterfully maintained an image that portrays him as a gut-bucket politician who can't help himself. "He has a biorhythm where he'll take two weeks off, but then he has a need to shoot off some news."

May 24, the day the added chapter was made available to the local media, Ventura had to meet the press. According to Kessler, it was dead silent when Ventura entered the room. "Ventura looked up and said, 'Why all the long faces?'" recalls Kessler, who does a formidable impersonation of the Body and admits to having his share of shout-downs with the governor. "Then he smiled and said, 'Oh it's not that thing about being corrupt is it? You know I gotta say this stuff to sell books.' I've come to believe that 75 percent of this is an act."

For all that may appear to be fun and games, it is clear that Ventura has a controlling and bullying strategy to maintain his image nationally and locally. "He believes he can intimidate reporters and change coverage," Kessler says.

Moore partially concedes. "He can be imposing for someone covering him the first time," he says. "But we don't get any complaints specifically about any incidents."

But according to Clay Steinman, a communication studies professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, the upper hand belongs to Ventura, and the effect is more subversive. "He comes across as strong, lively and smart, someone who can identify complex issues concisely in a way that Minnesotans identify," Steinman says, adding that the governor rarely speaks specifically on any important issues. "Which on some levels means that Ventura's strategy has become successful. Popularity is enhanced by inaccessibility."

Ventura has experience with fame that gives him an advantage to control his image. "He's one of the smarter politicians around, and there's the combination with his experience in show business and as an actor," Steinman says. "That gives him insight that other politicians don't have."

And while Moore claims that the national press treats Ventura seriously and fairly, Steinman is circumspect. "When the national press talks to him, they don't really care about what he has to say about governing," he says. "To them, he's not in politics, he's in show business."

And that plays to all of Ventura's strengths, according to Verne Gagne, former owner of the American Wrestling Association, who gave Ventura his first wrestling gig in the early 1970s. "The thing you have to understand is that I didn't give him a chance because he could wrestle," Gagne once told me. "He wasn't a great athlete, but boy, you put a camera on him, and he could talk and incite a crowd like nobody. The only trouble is, he's so contrary I could never keep him in control. His ego just won't let anybody tell him what to do."

As for the claims that Jesse is a governor in absentia, Moore refers to the weekly airing of "Lunch with the Governor." Each Friday from 11 a.m. to noon, Ventura stomps on familiar broadcast grounds, discussing his whims and taking calls on WCCO-AM, long the state's most widely listened to AM radio station. According to Arbitron, Ventura is heard by nearly 250,000 people during that time period, and the show is heard on 24 other stations around the state. More importantly, Ventura is firmly in control.

While it is not unusual for a politician to have a radio show, there is a striking quality to what the Body does with his hour on the airwaves. Ventura's pre-governor shows tended to be strong on hubris and disgust; now he conveys a warmth and frankness that is genuinely stirring, sometimes even inspiring. He will devote as much time to a large issue like baseball-stadium funding as he will to fishing registration. On the June 9 show, he defended his book chapter to a caller by saying, "Who else is going to hold the media accountable if I don't do it? They need to be watched, and I've got to hold their feet to the fire." It should be noted that Ventura is a 10-year member of the American Federation of Television and Radio, which, ironically, makes him a card-carrying member of the media himself.

In one regard, Ventura's relationship with the local media stems from his openness -- he talks plainly, which has opened up a new kind of dialogue. He has inspired a rapport among the electorate that most politicians seem chronically unable to establish. Instead of lashing out at the media, Ventura should be pleased with the reaction he has created.

He has made some political misfires, such as lobbying too hard and too long for a unicameral legislature (which garnered him praise in a comment piece in the New Yorker), or vetoing funding for a new site for the world-renowned Guthrie Theater (which the legislature overruled). But this only points to the fact that the guy is governing.

Of course, he is also his own biggest fan, and participating in summer slams and soap operas cloud many of the things Ventura may be doing right. The governor can rightfully gripe that only one local reporter followed him to the national governor's convention in St. Louis last summer, while several were at the press conference to announce his appearance as a guest referee in a WWF event. He complains when journalists question him on his "personal business," but reveals all the details of his personal life in his tell-all autobiography. And amid this schizophrenia, Ventura still says he could steal this 2000 presidential election, if only he were a candidate.

"For Ventura to say that he could run for president and win if he wants to is ignoring that he would be chewed up and spit out by the national media," Kessler says. "He doesn't get any tough questions from the national media because they can't possibly know what goes on here. He would seem refreshing, but they would have him for lunch."

But Ventura has gotten by before. Maybe it's ego. Maybe it's the media creating its own circus. Maybe it's an honest effort to keep a third-party movement in the national limelight. But all of this has turned Ventura into a media paradox. Journalists love his rebellious streak, but only when they are witnesses, not victims. Voters see these complexities as a sign that he is human, one of them, which fosters expectations that can only lead to disappointment from time to time.

Kessler, for all the sparring he and Ventura have done, remains enchanted. "I mean look at this guy," he says, lowering and slowing his voice. "He is a gift from God!"

G. R. Anderson Jr.

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