|The Body politic
He's been a professional wrestler and a Minnesota governor.
By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff, 2/25/2004
CAMBRIDGE -- Like a pro wrestling match where the featured performer walks out and whips up the crowd beforehand, Jesse Ventura's first Harvard class began early and outside the ropes. Arriving at Lowell House for his weekly seminar, Ventura -- a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics this semester -- waited for another class to finish. While he stood outside, students eager to hear from the former wrestling star and Minnesota governor, whose reputation for shooting from the hip is well established, gathered around. He did not disappoint.
Without working up a sweat, Ventura managed to hold forth on terrorism, the Central Intelligence Agency, Vietnam, the draft, Al Franken, and how he, Ventura, once traded an empty ammunition belt for sexual favors in a Nevada brothel. What kind of favors he did not specify, but this being Harvard and not the Spice Channel, apparently even Ventura knows when to hold back the ammo.
That was merely the warm-up to a 90-minute session that unfolded like academe's answer to a WWE "SmackDown!" card. Nominally about third-party politics from an insider's perspective, Ventura's study group, which attracted about 80 students (mostly men), took a merry romp through his winning 1998 campaign for the Minnesota State House -- then detoured into whatever else happened to be on the restless mind of Jesse "The Professor." A sampling: Republicans and Democrats: "They're Crips and Bloods in Brooks Brothers suits."
Teaching at Harvard: "Some felt I'm not academically qualified, and they're right."
Political fund-raising: "It's panhandling. . . . That's the system we have, though. It's based on bribery."
Same-sex marriage: "Could someone please tell me how this will affect me? Come on, this is Harvard, folks. I came all the way out here to learn this."
The California recall election, won by his pal Arnold Schwarzenegger: "A joke."
In the classroom, the performer once known as "The Body" has trouble keeping any body part still. He rocked on the balls of his feet while standing and rocked in his chair while sitting down, which was neither often nor for long. His lecture style, a hodgepodge of candor, stand-up comedy, and pure bombast, proved to be not unlike his interview mode: When backed into a corner, Ventura likes to fire back with questions that begin, "Now, you tell me . . ."
In that vein, he boldly asked the class which politician had pioneered use of the Internet. (Hint: not Howard Dean.) And why only 50 percent of US voters bother to vote. And why there's no public outcry over Republicans and Democrats circumventing campaign-finance laws. And this gem: "Can anyone at Harvard prove that God exists?"
As the room emptied, Harvard junior Kim Terca confessed she'd been fascinated with Ventura since hearing him five years ago. "He's a normal citizen able to use his celebrity to talk about politics," Terca said, notwithstanding the fact that, as one seminar participant had noted, there was nothing "normal" about Ventura's celebrity when he rode the third-party rail into public office.
Standing nearby was Michael Boufford, a Harvard economics major. "The Democrats and Republicans are so predictable, " he said. "Ventura makes up his mind on individual issues. He's one of the true characters on the political scene."
Asked if he'd ever seen Ventura wrestle, Bouffard grinned.
"I'm a little young for that," he replied. "I'm more of a `Macho Man' Randy Savage-era fan."
From the ring to the political arena What is to be made of Harvard embracing Ventura and vice versa? Critics of the man and the university might find ample fodder for satire here, as Garrison Keillor did in "Me: By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente," his 1999 novel spoofing Ventura's rise to power. No question, either, that Ventura's resume is unusual for a university that symbolizes The Establishment, at least in many eyes.
Following a six-year stint in the Navy (much of it in Vietnam) and one year of community college -- don't call him a dropout, please -- Ventura spent 15 years in pro wrestling as a performer and broadcaster. He later parlayed his ring fame (and physique) into a minor career as a Hollywood action hero, making his celluloid splash in the Schwarzenegger vehicle "Predator" -- the first film, Ventura quips, to feature two future governors.
Back in Minnesota he became a popular talk-radio host before running for mayor of Brooklyn Park, his first successful foray into politics. Still, his '98 campaign on the Reform Party ticket shocked the political establishment, perhaps even more so than Schwarzenegger's victory last year.
All kidding aside, Ventura admits the Harvard match is an unusual one.
"I give kudos to them for having the courage to bring me here," he says during a recent interview at his Harvard office. By the end of his fellowship, he adds, some at the Kennedy School may have to answer for that decision.
"The risk is, I'm not the status quo," Ventura continues, a point underscored by his course outline. Listed are sessions on political assassinations (Ventura has ripped the Warren Commission Report on JFK's murder as a government coverup) and global terrorism. Guest speakers include Richard Marcinko, the "Rogue Warrior" author and former Navy SEAL commando whom Ventura calls "a shooter, not a paper-pusher," and Vince McMahon, the wrestling impresario whose now-defunct XFL football league hired Ventura as an announcer. Ventura caught flak for being on McMahon's payroll while governor. Now the two are slated to discuss -- presumably with straight faces -- how pro wrestling ideally prepares one for a career in politics.
Notably unconcerned about Ventura's loose-lipped style is Institute of Politics director Dan Glickman. Not only did students clamor for Ventura, says Glickman, but they potentially have much to learn from an entertainer-turned-politician who appeals strongly to young people.
"He was governor of an important state and a phenomenon in American political life," Glickman says forcefully. "It's true he's not an intellectual, but he has street smarts. Plus, Jesse is fun to be around. I have no qualms whatsoever."
Minneapolis adman Bill Hillsman worked for Ventura in 1998 and was an Institute of Politics fellow two years ago. According to Hillsman, Ventura's antiestablishment politics need to be heard at the Democratic-tilting Kennedy School.
"Jesse is a professional provocateur," Hillsman says. "It's no accident he played the villain as a wrestler. He was never happier than when he got 17,000 people in Madison Square Garden to hate him."
Let it be noted, too, this is not the first time Ventura and Harvard have tag-teamed. More than four years ago he came to a "Pizza and Politics" gabfest at the Kennedy School. Ventura remembers the moment fondly. "I thought to myself, `This is Harvard,' " he recalls. "You expect Harvard to be this stuffy, arrogant place. But then you get here and see how bright everyone is -- what could be better? I loved it."
Awkwardly, that visit coincided with the release of a Playboy interview in which Ventura made controversial comments about organized religion, legalized prostitution, and other hot-button issues. He ridiculed fat people. If reincarnated, he said he'd prefer coming back as "a 38 double-D bra." Suddenly a confident Ventura was thrown on the defensive. Meanwhile, a feud with the Minnesota press corps (Ventura had "Official Jackal" stamped on their credentials) erupted with full force.
According to political reporter Dane Smith of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Ventura and the local media sparred right up until the governor's decision not to seek reelection in 2002.
"Some of us, including myself, were not treated that badly," says Smith, who credits Ventura for finding a "moderate, centrist" way of governing and for drawing young people into politics.
That said, Smith continues, "There's no question he was the most hostile governor in modern times. Like all politicians I've known, Ventura is a self-promoter. In his case, though, his whole life has been self-promotion."
Grappling with critics Ventura's counterspin: The media began piling on when he refused to play by their rules. He notes that a trade-mission trip he led to China was ignored by the Minnesota press corps; as soon as he returned, the story broke that his son had been throwing underage-drinking parties in the governor's mansion. Ventura remains furious about the episode and about a tell-all book written by an ex-employee. Were he single, Ventura says today, he would have run for office again and "stuck it down their throats," as he colorfully puts it.
"A third-party candidate is never treated equally," Ventura asserts, rocking in his chair. "They look at you as a novelty, as cannon fodder. `This is entertaining,' they think, `but we'll go back to the Democrats and Republicans, because only they can run our government.' Which is baloney. Having been a villain in wrestling, my relationship with the media has always been rocky. They don't view wrestling for what it really is, entertainment."
Asked whether today's Jesse Ventura is the same man Harvard invited in 1999, he says no.
"He's changed a lot," Ventura says. "He's a lot brighter. Not that I necessarily have any more brain power, but when you have an opportunity to learn, you become smarter at more things. Having run government for four years, and being in charge of 26 departments, that's an education. So I think I'm savvier today. And probably more cynical."
Cynical especially about the Democrats and Republicans, he continues, both of whom courted Ventura at the height of his popularity.
"They could care less about the public," he says tersely. "The public comes in third. Number one is keeping their power. Number two are the special interests, the people footing the bill. Finally, the public good might be third -- if they can profit from it. If there's no profit, they could care less."
Calling himself "a very black and white, common sense guy," Ventura maintains that the "stupid, lazy" media went out of their way to belittle him, even orchestrated his political demise.
"Why did they label me a college dropout?" he asks. "The connotation is, he left to go have fun. Not that I served honorably in the Navy, went to college on the GI Bill, trained to be a pro wrestler, and took a job when the opportunity came up. Isn't that what college is for, to prepare you to earn a living? The positive is, I still have three years of eligibility left -- if Harvard wants me for its football team."
The nadir, he admits, may have come after Sept. 11, 2001. Ventura joined New York governor George Pataki at ground zero, bringing along thousands of sympathy notes written by Minnesotans. Controversy over who paid for the trip dogged the Minnesota governor, though, and when state workers went on strike in spite of the national tragedy, Ventura boiled over.
"I looked at my wife and said, `You know what? If these people put their own dollar-an-hour raise above the integrity of our nation, I don't wanna be their boss anymore,' " Ventura recalls. Others see the tipping point differently: that Ventura's brash, antiestablishment style wore out its welcome for keeps when national security and the war on terrorism became paramount. In any case, says Ventura, "I kept it quiet, because we had another legislative session coming up. But I knew it was over."
Inarguably it has been a struggle for Ventura to find a next act. MSNBC signed him to a reported $2 million contract and built a new political talk show around him. Produced in St. Paul, it debuted in October and featured segments such as "Hero and Dork of the Week." Ratings were dismal, though, and by year's end it was put on permanent hiatus. MSNBC, which continues to pay Ventura, has hired a new president in the meantime and shows no interest in reviving the show.
What went wrong?
"You'll have to ask them," growls Ventura. "I'm ready to go right now. I will say I'm probably a better guest than host -- maybe that was a problem. But we were prepared to go. Hell, they're still paying me. I'll go on tomorrow."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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