'The Body' Politic or How to Read Gov. Jesse Ventura

St. Thomas faculty analyze the political forces behind a pro wrestler?s election as Minnesota?s governor

Okay, I admit it: I am a political junkie from way back. I probably said "Adlai Stevenson" before I said "mama." My first outings as a child were peace marches with my slightly-too-old-to-be-hippie parents. The Saturday afternoons of my childhood were spent door knocking and "lit" dropping for various candidates. My first bike sported both a banana seat and a political bumper sticker.

I’m all grown up now, but I still enjoy politics: the roar of the electorate, the smell of the voting booth. In stoic, Scandinavian Minnesota, it’s what passes for theater.

And what a show we have playing on the main stage these days! Tragedy! Comedy! Drama! All starring Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura, pro wrestler turned radio talk show host turned politician.

A little over one year into his first term, I still am trying to understand how Jesse came to be governor of Minnesota and what his election means. For help, I turned to several members of the St. Thomas faculty. Here’s what they told me.

Star power at the polls

Ventura’s rise up the political ladder is not the first but is perhaps the most dramatic example of celebrity politics, according to political scientist Dr. Nancy Zingale.

"We think of actor Ronald Reagan becoming governor of California or Fred Grandy [who played "Gopher" on the TV series ‘The Love Boat’ and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa], but Charles Lindbergh ran for Congress, as have several astronauts."

Primary elections have become very influential in the nomination process, both locally and nationally. That means getting your name out, explains Zingale, who specializes in the role of public opinion in voting behavior and elections. This, in turn, has increased the influence of television in campaigns. Ventura didn’t have much access to the media via paid commercials, Zingale says, but he did receive a lot of free print space and airtime as a novelty.

"Being included in the debates [with St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III] legitimized Ventura’s candidacy and also gave him the chance to look good compared to the other two candidates. They thought that he would make a fool of himself but, instead, he came off as honest, straightforward and common-sensical."

The "Jesse phenomenon" could happen only in a few states, according to Zingale, because of Minnesota’s acceptance of same-day registration.

"In Minnesota, you can act on your enthusiasm the day of the election," Zingale says. Her research shows that 75 percent of those who registered to vote on election day cast their ballot for Ventura, contributing significantly to his 2 percent margin of victory over his closest rival, Coleman. "If they had not been able to vote because they weren’t registered, Ventura would not have won."

Zingale also is interested in the demographics of Ventura supporters. "The impression is that it was young people who elected him," she says, "but if no one under 30 had voted, he still would have won. He had a larger margin of victory among those between 30 and 50 than between those 18 and 30."

How is Ventura performing after one year in office? "He’s learning," she says. "He’s surrounded himself with very good people and he’s gotten some good advice. Most of the embarrassing situations he has gotten himself into don’t really have much to do with governing. He’s not actually going to legalize prostitution or dismantle organized religion."

Even if he did, "Democracy has never required that people be sensible," she laughs.

Harmonic convergence

Communication professor Dr. Kevin Sauter sees Ventura’s election as the result of a near-perfect alignment of political forces, not unlike the Age of Aquarius ("when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars"), something I, child of the ’60s that I am, understand perfectly.

"Part of Jesse’s election had to do with what was happening in Washington," Sauter says. "Not just dissatisfaction with Clinton so much as unhappiness with Congress, with the partisan gridlock in D.C."

To this, Sauter adds distinctly local elements: two equally matched "career politicians" — Republican Coleman and Democrat Humphrey — beating up on one another and leaving room for an end-run by Ventura, the timing of opinion polls revealing Ventura to be a "viable" candidate rather than a "wasted vote," good economic times and a beautiful day. ("Never underestimate the weather’s role in elections!")

Ventura may have added considerably to political theater, says Sauter, but he hasn’t contributed much to public discourse.

"Coming out of a talk-radio background, Jesse is used to rabble-rousing and taking shots at the people who are not listening [to his rhetoric]. But now his audience is different, more diverse."

Sauter defines a good communicator as someone with something to say, and in a way that motivates the listener. By contrast, Ventura is adversarial and ego-expressive in his communication.

"Jesse has little sense of audience. Everything he says is filtered through his lived experience. He talks about his license-plate tabs and wanting studs on his snowmobile," Sauter says. "Even when he brings up issues — legalized prostitution, say — the content of his speech is not of import to the body politic. He is not leading the public discourse.

"Ventura’s election raises celebrity politics to a new high — or low, depending on your viewpoint. Previously, you had to have a track record in politics to be elected. Now all you have to have is a name."

Sauter sees Ventura’s rhetoric as the epitome of the adversarial nature that public discourse has taken on over the past 30 years. "There is more partisanship. The lines are more sharply drawn. There is less ‘gentlemanly conduct’ in the public arena now," he says.

"To his credit, Jesse has touched a nerve. He’s brought new people into the conversation. Maybe he represents one side of the pendulum, and maybe the pendulum will swing back to the intellectual, thoughtful, Adlai Stevenson-type candidates. Who knows?"

Our governor has more testosterone than your governor

Gov. Ventura’s rhetorical style also is of interest to fellow communication professor Dr. Debra Petersen, who uses the lens of feminism to examine our most public figure.

"It had to be done," she explains. "His rhetoric requires a feminist reading."

Based on listening to speeches, watching televised ads, reviewing interviews and watching the World Wrestling Federation’s "Summer Slam," in which Ventura acted as referee, Petersen ascribes to Ventura a "classed and hypermasculinized" presentation of self.

Along with Sauter, Petersen presented her observations to a standing-room-only crowd at a National Communication Association conference in Chicago in November.

"During the campaign, Jesse presented himself as the working man’s candidate — and I use the word ‘man’ very deliberately. He emphasized his blue-collar roots, even though, by most definitions, he’s now a wealthy man," Petersen explains. "He selectively drops things from his biography when they aren’t convenient."

As evidence of Ventura’s testosterone-infused prose, Petersen points to Ventura’s references to his Navy SEAL experience and the way he talks about both wrestling and politics in terms of "battle."

"Jesse plays up his role as one of the ‘bad boys’ of professional wrestling. He has a very combative style. His campaign theme was ‘Retaliate in ’98,’ " she says. "The funny thing was that, in exit polls, most Minnesotans expressed satisfaction with the way things were going. They were optimistic about the future. So, retaliate against what?"

Petersen notes that during his campaign the governor often was pictured in a leather jacket on large motorcycles or on the sidelines of the football field at Champlin High School, where he is a volunteer conditioning coach. Petersen views this approach as, in part, a rejection of the "feminization" of politics by some Minnesota voters, which has troubling consequences for women candidates.

"A woman can’t out-testosterone a man," Petersen says. She points out that there has never been a woman governor of Minnesota and that the state has elected only one woman — Coya Knutson in the 1950s — to Congress.

"Despite our reputation as a progressive state, where you fall on the masculine-feminine continuum is still a big deal in Minnesota politics," Petersen concludes. "I don’t see any high-level women politicians in the state any time soon."

Media frenzy

Journalism professor and former TV reporter Dave Nimmer has a different way of describing Ventura’s brash political rhetoric: "He’s a bully," Nimmer says, "and a thin-skinned one at that."

Ventura may complain about the media but he has used it effectively to his advantage. "He’s a creature of the media. He was part of it as a talk-show host. A great deal of his first year as governor has been conducted on the front pages and on the 10 p.m. news."

This relationship (love-hate? hate-hate? love-love?) has worked to reporters’ advantage as well.

"He’s been good for a lot of reporters, particularly political reporters. They are getting more time and space than ever before. Heck, it got them over to Japan!" Nimmer says, referring to extensive coverage of a November trade mission to Japan.

And they will keep the governor on his toes. "[Reporters] aren’t going to let him get away with being simply a celebrity. They want to introduce him to the world of public affairs," he says.

Nimmer sees this symbiotic (or is it parasitic?) relationship continuing: "I don’t see Jesse being able to contain himself when he’s angry, nor do I see reporters backing away. The focus has been on his outrageous behavior and ideas but the media haven’t denied him the opportunity to be issues-oriented."

The quality of Ventura’s legacy will depend on his ability to define his agenda and lobby for change, Nimmer says.

"I’d like to ask him what the state can do for the poorest 10 percent of our population who are being left behind by the current economic prosperity. Where is his voice on that issue? It’s pretty hard to tell someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they don’t have any."

Down for the count?

Mike English has the least academic but perhaps the most pragmatic approach to Ventura’s reign. Although there are few similarities between pro wrestling and amateur sports, English, who has coached wrestling at St. Thomas for four years, can see some lessons learned in the governor’s leadership style.

"Like other sports, wrestling is character-building. It requires a lot of self-discipline. There are a lot of qualities that a person can take away from wrestling that will help them attain their goals."

English thinks that Ventura has considerable confidence and mental toughness. Like the governor, "most guys will take those characteristics away from the mat and apply them to being a good husband, a good father, a good colleague."

Although to this day, English "can’t believe he’s running things," he gives Ventura the benefit of the doubt. "There’s no reason he can’t be a successful governor."

The theater season

In Minnesota, we often talk about the "theater of seasons." November 1998 was the opening of the "political theater season" with a new star: Jesse Ventura. His brand of political theater isn’t playing to rave reviews but the critics have been temperate, if not kind.

Will the drama go into an extended run, beyond the current four-year production? Will the play make it to the Broadway of the national stage via a presidential run in 2000? Or will Ventura walk off stage when the lights go down?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

But it sure is fun to be in the audience.

Julie C. Lund, director of donor relations at St. Thomas, is a graduate of Carleton College. She spent the first 10 years out of college working in and around the Minnesota Legislature, and enjoys working in higher education because it’s "even more political" than state-level politics.