Wrestling with evil

Maverick Governor Jesse Ventura talks about the enemy in our midst, defends Ashcroft's terror crackdown and blasts compulsory patriotism.

Published December 17, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

A former Navy SEAL, wrestler and small-time actor turned radio talk-show host turned suburban mayor, Jesse Ventura won a three-way race for Minnesota governor in 1998 and remains best known for his more nongubernatorial activities, including a Playboy interview in which he insulted organized religion and said he'd like to be reincarnated as a large brassiere and, while it lasted, doing color commentary on XFL football games.

Despite his outsize image and sometimes outlandish statements, Ventura is popular with the normally straitlaced people of Minnesota. For much of his term, his approval rating has hovered around 70 percent. With the economic downturn and a series of recent controversies, his popularity has slipped to a new low, but 53 percent of Minnesotans still approve of the job he's doing, according to a Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll earlier this month. And for a third-party candidate likely to face two opponents if he runs for reelection, 53 percent is a strong number.

Ventura has been battered of late. Like many states, Minnesota is facing a budget crisis, with the shortfall expected to be around $2 billion, and Ventura has said he may have to raise taxes. In October, some state workers struck for two weeks. The governor, a longtime critic of the public schools on accountability issues, has been battling school officials over funding levels and referenda on school levies. His disdain for the local media continues to grow -- he recently forced members of the Capitol press contingent to wear buttons that read, "Official Jackal" -- and he took a public relations hit when he jetted to Los Angeles to film a cameo appearance in a movie while the controversy over the potential shuttering of the Minnesota Twins baseball team was exploding.

He did win back some points last week with his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, where he told baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who was claiming that baseball is in financial ruin, "I have a hard time believing it, Mr. Selig, that they're losing that kind of money and still paying the salaries they're paying. That's asinine. These people did not get the wealth that they have by being stupid."

Ventura, whose life was chronicled by Salon's own Jake Tapper in "Body Slam: The Jesse Ventura story," spoke to Salon by phone from his office in the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul.

What do you think is the role of government in post-Sept. 11 America?

Well, I think the role of our government is pretty much what the president is doing. This was an attack on America. And not only us but an attack on the entire world if you look at who was in the World Trade Center. It wasn't just Americans in there; it was literally from dozens of countries.

This was an attack much different, even worse, as I've stated, than Pearl Harbor, because at least Pearl Harbor was an attack of military against military. In this war of terrorism it's an attack of terrorists against innocent civilians. And to me that makes it worse, and therefore our resolve and our determination have to be even stronger. So my view is it's our job as government, No. 1, of course, is to do everything that we can to ensure the safety of the public. I think it's a role that's unarguably government's. You might argue about different roles government has, but I think in the role of public safety, you can't argue that position. That is a role of government. Second is to be very aggressive in going after the perpetrators.

You said a couple of weeks ago that Minnesotans should be "alert and careful, but be free." What exactly does that mean?

Well, what I mean by that is that this is a war focused on the civilian population. They're the targets. It's not focused on a base, it's not focused on our military, who are prepared and generally are in good shape that way. But civilians aren't used to this. So what we need to be alert about is, Who is the opponent? And like in the case of the fellow [Zacarias Moussaoui, thought by U.S. justice officials to have been the would-be 20th hijacker] that's right now gotten indicted for the six charges or whatever, they caught him here in Minnesota. How did they catch him? They caught him because someone was alert, because someone saw flags go up in just this person's temperament and what they were trying to do. The flight instructor felt uncomfortable, felt that something was wrong, and he made the phone call. And lo and behold he captured, who knows what this character was going to do.

So that's what I mean by telling the public to be aware, be alert, if they see something that they think isn't quite right or they notice something, hey, make a phone call. But don't allow it to take away from the freedoms that we have of moving about freely in society, because if we allow that to happen then they win. If they can take away America's freedom and America's resolve and everything we have in this country, then ultimately they can be victorious, even though they won't physically win. They could win emotionally, and we can't allow them to win emotionally either. We need to go on with our lives and realize that, yes indeed, life is always a gamble and a risk, you take that when you cross the street.

You mentioned Moussaoui's arrest, and there was also the story a couple months ago about how the Somali community in the Twin Cities may have donated a lot of cash to Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, believing the organization was a charity, when in fact it had ties to bin Laden and al-Qaida. Then on Nov. 7, President Bush targeted "62 individuals and organizations connected with two terrorist-supporting financial networks," Five of those groups and one of the individuals were in Minnesota. What's going on up there?

We don't know. I mean, we welcome immigrants here. Some of them you kind of raise your eyebrow. They come from very warm climates, and it's got to be quite a shock to come to Minnesota. Is there any particular reason they're here in Minnesota? I think for the most part it was economic opportunity. We also had the lowest unemployment rate in the United States of America. Other than this current recession that we're in, which is also national, Minnesota's economy has been phenomenal, so it's not unusual for us to get that type of activity going on in Minnesota, and up until Sept. 11 there was no reason to distrust it. Now maybe there will be a little more lack of trust, now there will be more investigation as to companies and what goes on here.

And again, a lot of these people, in the case of the Somalis, they may have been duped too. They don't know what they're contributing to. You know, many charities, you contribute to and then lo and behold you find out later they're not what they portrayed themselves to be. So again, people need to have the self-discipline and self-control to investigate for themselves: What is it that I'm involved with here? And don't be led into something that on the surface may seem good but underneath may not be. But I don't think it was meant that somehow the Somali population of Minnesota is involved in terrorist activities. I don't believe that. We've all seen some of our top charities not do exactly what they said they were going to do.

How do you grade the job that President Bush is doing so far?

I think he's doing very well. If you could look at a positive, though, I will say that I believe the war helped him, because had there not been Sept. 11, and had the recession hit, even though President Bush isn't responsible for that recession, you learn quick enough in these chairs that whoever's sitting here is going to get the blame regardless. So in his own popularity it's probably been very positive. Now, as a president, I think he's doing a very good job. He's leading the nation, I think his resolve is clear. I like the fact that he's speaking his mind very clearly and telling the public what his intentions are and what he's going to accomplish, and he doesn't seem to be wavering from that and I hope he continues on that track.

Do you think the war on terrorism is generally a good idea? Do you have any fears of it becoming bogged down, like a Vietnam or a War on Drugs?

Well, I think it's inevitable: We have to fight it. We were attacked and there's 4,000 dead people in New York. It's a case that I think the terrorists kept getting bolder and bolder because they saw us having no resolve. You know, they attacked a ship and got away with it. They attacked our two embassies and basically got away with it. They've been sniping at us for a long time. Well, now they've awakened a sleeping tiger, and I don't think it's quite what they had in mind. I think they're rockin' and reelin' and wonderin', "Whoops, maybe we got a little too bold and brash." And they'll pay the price for it now.

Would you want your son fighting in Afghanistan?

Would I want him fighting there? Of course not. I don't think anybody would want anybody to be fighting there. Do I think the cause is good enough? Yes, I do, and that's how I judge. It's a quick judgment: Would you send your son? And I would have to tell you that yes I would in this case.

How do you feel about the civil rights questions that are coming up, that have kind of shaped up as a battle between John Ashcroft and your old "Batman" co-star, Sen. Leahy? Where do you fall in that argument of civil rights vs. security?

Of the people we're going after? I feel they have no civil rights. Civil rights and the rights in our country are for our citizens. This is a declaration of war, and they should be treated the same as any other person who's the enemy. And in fact they're the worst enemy, because as I said, they're not targeting military against military, where you can deal with them and call them a prisoner of war, because they're an honorable military person who's just simply carrying out -- you know, I don't ever blame the soldiers. Let's remember, in normal times, war is the result of failed political policy. And the soldier is just a tool used by the particular government. They are not at fault. Which was the case in Vietnam. Too often we'd blame the warrior and not those who sent them there.

In this case, though, this is in a way a whole different ballgame because this is a war of attacking innocent civilians, and in that case, people can say what they want, but I don't want to show 'em any mercy. I think that if you show them mercy, that'll give them more strength. Let's remember, I'm an ex-Navy SEAL, and the thing you learn is, whether people want to know it or not, you have to fight them on their level. You have to be as ruthless as they are.

You're not worried about any kind of slippery slope in terms of our justice system?

No, because those things have always happened in times of war, and then when the war is over, those rights are usually given back. But at a time of war we're all going to pay a price. We're all going to lose certain freedoms as a result of the safety that needs to be put in place. So I'm not worried.

I'll tell you what I'm more worried about in Ashcroft's case. I'm a great believer in states' rights, and it troubles me greatly every time the federal government is overruling what a state has done. I'm more worried about what Ashcroft is doing with the assisted suicide in Oregon than I am with these perpetrators. And then if you take it a step further, the medicinal marijuana issue. When you have states' people passing these laws saying, "This is what we want," and the heavy hand of the federal government comes in and says, "We don't care what your citizens said. We are the boss," that troubles me a lot more.

And there I have been a little disappointed in President Bush because he is a governor, and he came in and told all of us governors that he was going to [follow] a federalism of giving powers back to the states, and yet it doesn't seem that that's happening at all. In fact it seems the opposite is taking place. The federal government continues to try to erode what I consider our states' rights. I believe our country was formed with strong states and a limited federal government power.

Is there some pushing through of what might be unpopular policies under the radar while the war is going on?

Oh, there's always going to be that. You're going to get policies going into place under, quote, "national security." It's just a matter of people have to use their level heads and deem is this really a security item or is this someone's personal agenda.

Let me switch subjects slightly. There's been this increased feeling of patriotism and loyalty toward traditional institutions that we've all felt since Sept. 11. Does that have any effect on your outsider appeal? Do you think Americans have an appetite for outsiders right now?

I don't know. I do think, though, I've heard all this stuff on the talk radio about mandatory Pledge of Allegiance and all of that stuff, and I don't believe that at all. Because if you look at the young people who are over defending our freedom right now, every last one of them didn't have to do a mandatory Pledge of Allegiance, did they. And yet they're still over there, aren't they. I watch the film of how the Taliban teach, where they put all those little kids in Iraq in those rooms and all that, and they just go over and over and over and virtually brainwash them. I don't think we need to fall down that slippery slope either. I think patriotism comes from within your heart, and that you don't have to sit and recite certain things en masse to prove you have patriotism for the freedom of our country.

You didn't quite answer my question. Does it affect your popularity? Your appeal has always been that you're an outsider, you're not the same old thing, and it seems to me people are gravitating toward the same old thing these days.

No, I don't think so. I don't think it's hurt me at all because I think people still see in the two political parties a great downfall in this country, that they're not representing everyone. And just because of this war isn't going to mean that they do. You can look at them and say yes, they're both focused on winning the war. Well, likewise they're both focused on destroying the third party movement too. And I think people see through that, and they see that it's clear that they do that.

You've succeeded in getting one legislator, state Sen. Bob Lessard, to come over to the Independence Party. Is that enough?

It's certainly not enough. Is it going to be difficult? Yes. I think too many people expect too much too quick. You have to remember that these two established parties have been here for hundreds of years, and they work together in conjunction to make sure third parties don't. The role of the third party isn't always just to get people elected or to become a main player. The third party movement's already a player, because in their zealous moves, the two parties, to stop third parties, they will always focus on the third party issues, because they want to convince people, "You don't need this alternative. We can do it." So that's how the third party scores its victories. It brings to light certain agenda items that are important to them, and it forces the other two parties to deal with those.

Is it possible for a third party to succeed without a celebrity, high-profile personality?

Probably not because the problem with the third party movement is that it's so fractured. You've got so many different elements within it. See, I believe I'm a centrist. I'm fiscally conservative and I'm socially liberal, which is what I believe most Americans are. But of course the Republicans are both socially right and fiscally right, and the Democrats are fiscally left and socially left. And they try to make you become them, rather than to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, which is what most people are, and when given the choice of a candidate like that they'll support it, as they did me, in the center.

The center decides the election. You've got the far left and the far right, which are a constant, they'll be there all the time. It's who can persuade the center to shift right or left. And yet when there's a good center candidate, then you can hold out the left and the right and be victorious.

Talk to me about your relationship with the media, with the "jackals."

Yeah. Well, it's not as bad as it's made out to be. In fact, the last two months a lot of stories were written about me that were untrue. All I did was take a break from them. I took two months where I decided I'm not giving them any interviews. And they started making things up. I got accused of suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, from Sept. 11, and all this other nonsense, when all the time we were just working and simply not talking to them. And you just get tired of it. You need a break from it. You're tired of the sound bite interviews, you're tired of the manipulation that the media does. And I'm human like anyone else, and I had to take a break from it, so I did for two months. And then they accused me of being at war with them simply because I'm not talking to them. I've got better things to do sometimes.

Where'd the idea come from for the "official jackal" buttons for working media in the Capitol?

The jackals? It came from my book. My second book was "Do I Stand Alone? Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals." We had another name for 'em but they wouldn't put it on the cover and sell it in Target, so we had to switch to the word "jackal."

What made you decide to print up the buttons?

Just a joke. What we wanted was identification. I wanted to ensure that the people who were coming into press conferences were indeed the press, and I wanted them easily identified. So somebody just off the cuff, jokingly, said, "Shall we make them jackal passes?" And I said, "Yeah, that'll get 'em all bent out of sorts. Let's do it."

And it did.

Oh, certainly it did.

Do you regret doing that?

Not a bit. I don't regret anything. Regret is for people who live yesterday. And I'm a person who believes you can't live yesterday over again, so why have regrets?

Let's talk about tomorrow. It's just you and me talking here, and 3.8 million readers.


Are you going to run for reelection next year, or the Senate, or a beach in Hawaii?

I don't know. Never would it be the Senate, because I don't think I could take being in the legislative part of government. I've been in the executive both as mayor and now as governor. I think the transition would be too difficult for me to go to the legislative end. I'd have to be in the executive end, so if you substitute Senate for president, that would be the proper change. Now, am I telling you I'm running for president? No. But if I went for federal office, that would be the one. If I went for it. Do I have a desire for it? No.

Am I going to seek reelection? I'll decide that after the legislative session. No. 1, I think campaigns are far too long, and because they're so long they're too costly. No. 2, you take an oath that you'll be here for four years, which includes four legislative sessions. If I do anything to announce my candidacy at this point, then the focus for the legislative session, it will already -- by the media -- turn to November. And I don't want that to happen. So at least until the completion of my last legislative session, we've got huge challenges. This'll be the toughest session of the four because of the deficits. So I want to be focused on that and not focused on running at all.

Have you had a chance to look at the Osama bin Laden tapes today?

I've heard bits and pieces of them.

Any impressions?

Just that he very clearly seemed to know about the whole attack and orchestrate it. I don't think there's any doubt when you hear that tape that he fully knew about the attack and took part in it.

Who's more evil, him or Victor Newman [the villain from Ventura's favorite soap opera, "The Young and the Restless"]?

Oh, he is.

That's pretty evil, then, eh?

Oh, Victor's not that evil. Victor's turning into a softy. Damn writers. He's best as a villain.

What should the XFL have done differently?

They should have got the antitrust status that baseball has. [Laughs]

That would have helped.

I was asked that by one of the congressmen. They said, "Governor, would the XFL be here today if it had the same antitrust status as baseball?" And I paused a moment and said, yes, there'd be no other competition. Certainly it would still be here today. He was making a great point, that why is this particular sport being given this special privilege when others didn't have it.

No, the XFL was, you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I thought it was great football. I enjoyed it. I thought the media was unduly harsh on it because of the fact that they don't like Vince McMahon and they're in the back pocket of the NFL. But that's neither here nor there, it was a venture that was tried. I was happy to be a part of it. It's too bad that league folded because it would have been a great feeder system for the NFL.

Give me a quick prediction of how the Twins thing is going to play out.

Oh, they'll be here next year. My prediction is that there's going to be a baseball lockout. I don't think there'll be a season. The impression I got in Washington was that these two groups, the players and management, have some huge obstacles between them -- huge -- and both of them are going to have to make huge compromises, and I just don't see both sides making those compromises.

You sat next to Bud Selig. Is he the hateful weasel that he comes across as being?

No. He was very cordial to me and we were very nice to each other and I respect him in his position. But the only thing I kind of don't like is that if they're asking me to come in and fix baseball, which everybody seems to be doing, well then I'd like his salary and his title. You know, I'd like to be the commissioner of baseball, and pay me what he's getting paid to do it if you're asking me to do that job for them.

We seem to be a society today that our main focus is based on our entertainment, which I should jump for joy over because I come from the entertainment industry, and it's nice to have a society like that. But when government's out there worried about baseball when you're fighting a war.

I'll give you an example. I did a 25-minute speech on the state's security on public television, telling everybody in the state what we were doing, how we prepared, this, that and everything about the war. When I finished that and walked out to leave on the elevator, Esme Murphy, one of the top CBS reporters here in the Twin Cities, came up to me and said, "Governor." Here was her question: "How do you respond to some people who say you're spending too much time on state security and not enough time on Major League Baseball and the Twins?"

Now you laugh over that, but think about it a moment. Pretty pathetic.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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