The Man Behind the Mind

Budget brawls and bulldog farts. Shock jocks and Satan's Cheerleaders. Jesse Ventura stars in the season's political blockbuster, but First Flack John Wodele directs the show.

"I have to read the papers quickly. I've already read the Pioneer Press," John Wodele says, as he scans the front pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It's 7:30 a.m., and it's still quiet inside the bone-white walls of the state capitol, which doesn't open for business for another half-hour. On this cold, damp Tuesday morning, May 11, Gov. Jesse Ventura's director of communications is here early, as always, in his ground-level corner office. An intern pops her head in: more coffee?

"The stories today are all about shutdown," Wodele says, gesturing at the headlines. The belly-bumping standoff between House Republicans and Senate DFLers over the state budget dominates the news, and Ventura has been floating hints that he just might be willing to halt government operations if a deal isn't struck fast. All of which prompted Wodele to put in some extra hours the previous weekend on top of his already intense schedule.

As near as he can remember, he worked last Friday until 9:00 p.m., when Ventura appeared on KTCA-TV's Almanac to talk about the budget impasse. There the governor suggested he would revert to literal arm-twisting of the legislative leaders to force a deal. By now, four months into what scholars may someday call the Ventura Era, Wodele says, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum have gotten used to such antics. "What I'm finding is they've been through this so many times, they don't get worried about what they read in the newspaper. They don't get all worked up about his communication style--they're looking for the message in there."

On Saturday Wodele came in early and didn't leave until 10:00 p.m., after drafting a budget statement for Ventura to deliver the next day. On Sunday morning, reporters started paging him at 9:00.

He reviewed what he'd written the night before, deemed it "too provocative," and set about revising. After the 1:00 p.m. press conference, Wodele went home at 2:30, for a very short, very typical weekend.

Wodele's spartan office is directly below the governor's. It is surprisingly uncluttered. A few plants sit in the corners, a copy of the latest issue of the media-industry glossy Brill's Content rests on an end table, uncorrected bound galleys of The Wit and Wisdom of Jesse "The Mind" Ventura (an unauthorized, quickie compendium of quotes) lie atop his desk. A picture of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on the wall.

From this bunkerlike office, the 51-year-old Wodele (pronounced "WOOD-lee") serves as head gatekeeper between the media and the governor. He takes boundless calls from reporters, fields the never-ending media requests for interviews with Ventura, and functions as the governor's official mouthpiece. He suggests language and phrases for Ventura to use in speeches, providing him with "talking points"--a few key particulars to focus on--or quickly bringing the governor up to speed, briefing him, prior to a public appearance. Sometimes Wodele's job is simply to step forward and utter the press-conference-closing "Thank you."

Media relations is now just another part of modern politics, but Wodele's job is clearly different from that of those who've filled his chair before him. Ventura is the celebrity-as-governor and governor-as-celebrity, and the level of media interest in him--locally, across the nation, around the globe--is inarguably greater than it ever was in Ventura's immediate predecessor, the comparatively mild-mannered Republican governor Arne Carlson, or for that matter, any of the 36 other governors in state history.

That fascination is amplified by Ventura's own personal style of relating to the media. Alternately brusque and good-natured, Ventura has a habit of simultaneously belittling the press and giving them an it's-all-in-fun wink-and-a-nudge to let them know he understands the game. Early in his term, he grew irate when a reporter questioned his singing ability. When he picked out a Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicle as his official transport, he cracked about the benefits of its heavy-duty suspension "for running over reporters."

At other times, Ventura has had to hastily backtrack from his almost stream-of-consciousness style of commentary. The rookie governor took a beating after his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, during which he suggested that St. Paul's street design was the bungled work of drunken Irishmen. A few weeks ago he hastily apologized for implying that lives could have been saved inside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, had someone besides the gunmen been carrying a concealed weapon. Wodele can suggest talking points, but clearly there are times when Ventura will follow his own whim and instinct. After all, that's a big part of why the guy got elected in the first place, and he's not about to alter his m.o. now.

Wodele scans Ventura's schedule for the day: a morning press conference to promote technology spending, an appearance on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday program for some budget posturing, and a midafternoon appearance with Gen. Colin Powell at South High School in Minneapolis. His thick, brown hair shows just a few hints of age, but his eyebrows have gone owlishly gray. Even though he holds what is essentially a desk job, Wodele is a man in motion--a flurry of speedwalking and quick, deliberate movement, a figure who seems driven by a perpetual restlessness.

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