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.

Wodele and Ventura pile into the fabled red Lincoln Navigator that serves as the governor's official vehicle, for a quick drive to the Minnesota Public Radio studios in downtown St. Paul. Wodele preps Ventura for the likelihood that other media will be there as well. "Last time we were down here, a lot of TVs were just sort of give them, you know, 'Everything's cool,'" instructs Wodele, referring to the budget stalemate. As the truck pulls onto Seventh Street, Ventura notices a WCCO-TV truck camped at the curb. "Oh jeez, they got the live eye in the sky here," he groans. "I'd hate to have their jobs."

Ventura heads into studio 3D with Midday host Gary Eichten; Wodele beelines for the producer's studio, where he grabs a chair in front of a console. Through the glass he can see the backside of the ever-twitching First Head. The sound of Garrison Keillor's sonorous voice, on the "Writer's Almanac" feature, fills the studio. This past spring Keillor raised Ventura's ire with his parody of the governor in his quickie book, Me: By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente.) Wodele's bored and wonders aloud: "Why would you put this on at noontime when people are driving?"

Ventura is here to talk about the budget impasse: "I am going to make the governor's residence available tonight," he tells Eichten, extending an invitation to Moe and Sviggum to drop by to settle their differences. "I'll even lock them in a room with Franklin, my bulldog." Later the governor will suggest that he intends to feed his flatulence-prone pooch a load of flatulence-producing raw hamburger in order to speed negotiations.

Terry Gydesen

As he listens to Ventura talk, Wodele pulls out a white legal pad and starts scribbling: "This stalemate is baffling--because no matter what happens, this budget will provide for the largest tax cut in the history of the state." He intends to slip the note to Ventura, but there's no break in the program.

Near the end of the hour, he ducks into the hall, where two cameras are shooting Ventura through the glass. When the governor emerges, Wodele informs him, "There's a horde of 'em out here. We'll give 'em a couple of questions." Outside the elevators, the governor stops for a chat with the assembled press. Reporter: "Are the rumors that you'll return to wrestling true?" Ventura, gamely: "Never say never."

Back in his office, Wodele confesses that the idea of inviting legislative leadership to the governor's residence wasn't exactly spontaneous. "We strategized as to how to approach the negotiations from here on in." The positioning calls for the governor to be cast in the role of the facilitator--willing to keep his doors open at all hours. If party leaders don't comply, they more clearly become obstructionists to the process.

Wodele settles back and starts munching carrots again. He scans a copy of a letter from Sviggum to Moe that was copied to the governor's office and the media and exclaims, "There it is! There's the answer!" Of the ideas floated in Sviggum's letter, Wodele figures that point No. 6--"Use up the $50 million from the November forecast for K-12 education"--could be the one to loosen the logjam. "It gives him an out," says Wodele of Moe.

More calls: "Hi, Neal, this is John Wodele, returning your call on Howard Stern. I'm not aware that we have a decision on that yet." He hangs up, dials again: "Michelle, do we have a decision on Howard Stern yet?"

The question revolves around whether Ventura will appear on Stern's show to promote his hot-off-the-press autobiography I Ain't Got Time to Bleed. Ventura's publisher, Villard Books (a division of Random House), likes the idea; the governor, Wodele says, "is thinking he doesn't want to," and adds that an appearance might be "a little bit difficult for some of the constituents back home to handle." Can this be the Ventura that Minnesota elected, wary of wrestling with shock jock Stern? Wodele: "His concern is that there's a certain dignity that goes with the office."

At just after 2:00, Hafner announces, "It's Mike Allen, from the New York Times." Allen wants to know if Ventura is helping another wrestler-turned-politico--Bob Backlund, who is running for Congress in Connecticut and is known for his "cross-face chicken wing" move. "I'm not aware that the governor is," Wodele responds. "I've heard the governor say that he's not aware of any laws that prohibit wrestlers from being elected to office." Wodele and Allen shoot the breeze about a recent article in the Pioneer Press that meant to suss out how much promoters might pay to see Ventura step back into "The Body" that made him famous.

Hafner pops in again: WCCO-TV's Pat Kessler is on the line, wondering if it's true that Ventura has been offered money to get back into the ring. Wodele picks up the phone and opens with a joke: "Only if I get ten percent."

The breakneck storm of calls is just another example of how different Wodele's job is from that of his predecessors. Cyndy Brucato, who served as Governor Carlson's deputy chief of staff from 1991 to 1996 and oversaw the office's communications, notes that "celebrities have a different relationship with the media than public officials do, and that's something that Wodele recognizes instinctively. On a given day, I would probably have a dozen media inquiries." Wodele says that at the beginning of the year, his voice mailbox--which maxes out at 50 messages--needed to be emptied four times a day.

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