According to reporters who cover the governor's office, if Jesse Ventura were a cartoon character, steam would surely be whistling out of his jug ears. The guy is ready to blow. "He seems deeply, deeply angry right now," says capitol reporter Jim Ragsdale, who writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I think this recent spat with the media is more intense because of the emotions of the day."
Pat Kessler, political correspondent for WCCO-TV (Channel 4), agrees. "This is the latest in a series of eruptions from the governor--some of them serious, some of them shtick, most of them both," says Kessler. "And while this too shall pass, it may be longer in duration than previous disagreements with the media."
The latest flare-up in a two-and-a-half-year media jihad--which has been highlighted by (among other things) drunken-Irishman jokes, jackal press IDs, and a bizarre observation about "hunting man"--commenced late on Tuesday, October 2. Ventura and his wife Terry had visited the remains of the World Trade Center with New York Gov. George Pataki and a camera crew from ABC-TV's Good Morning America. No other media--including reporters who had traveled from Minnesota--were permitted to come along. A day later Kevin Diaz, the Star Tribune's Washington correspondent, approached Ventura spokesman John Wodele on the set of Good Morning America to request a one-on-one interview with the governor. When asked what the topic would be, Diaz said he wanted to know whether there had been an "arrangement" between the morning show and Ventura's office that resulted in ABC having sole rights to the ground-zero visit.
Wodele says he had explained to Diaz the night before that ABC had paid for his and the governor's airfare, and two hotel rooms (which, as it turns out, is standard practice for the show). He also acknowledged that Ventura had agreed not to appear on any other morning shows or The Late Show With David Letterman during the visit (also standard practice). But at no point was there an "exclusivity agreement" concerning coverage of the tour, Wodele told Diaz: ABC had set up the event with Governor Pataki's office, and any issues of access had nothing to do with Ventura. As Wodele loudly took Diaz to task, Ventura, who was standing nearby, entered the fray.
"What Kevin insinuated on that first night irritated me, but I answered the questions," Wodele says now. "But when he came after me again the next day, I got upset. The governor saw me getting badgered by a reporter, and he came to my rescue."
Reporters who covered the New York junket say Ventura was spoiling for a fight that morning. After all, he'd been grilled the day before for flying away two days after 28,000 state employees had walked off their jobs. Still, the governor had reason to be miffed at the coverage of the Diaz episode, which was portrayed as a pissing match and did not feature much of an effort to get at the facts behind what transpired.
If you believe Wodele--and everyone who covered the fracas says the governor's spokesman has been open and honest throughout the affair--Ventura didn't even know he was going to be on Good Morning America until "a day or two" before he went to New York. Wodele says that when he approached the morning show to help arrange a trip to the site, he assumed there would be full media access, and that when he found out ABC had negotiated exclusivity with Governor Pataki's office, he complained to the network. He says he was assured that at least one local representative from a radio station, newspaper, and TV station would be allowed to go along. That so-called pool arrangement fell through at the last minute, Wodele says, whereupon he consulted Ventura, who decided not to interfere with Pataki's plans during a sensitive time. "The thing that still bothers me is that all these people are still saying ABC got exclusive access because of some kind of payment arrangement," Wodele fumes. "And that's just not true. Period."
Says Diaz: "The truth is that the police had stopped granting passes to ground zero right before the trip. They weren't issuing them anymore. You could only get one if you were attached to a VIP delegation, like Pataki's. So in the end everyone can pass the buck. Ventura's office can point at ABC, ABC can point at Pataki's office, and Pataki's people can point to the police."
"I believe the governor's anger was real," concludes WCCO's Kessler. "He was angry to be challenged. He was angry that someone would say things about him back home. He was, in my view, embarrassed that this was happening in front of Governor Pataki, the New York media, and the national media. And I think he was upset that his wife was in tears the day before at the press conference. All of this combined, in a highly emotional time, to create an explosion."
Righteous or not, Ventura's rage, and not the incident itself, is what has turned the New York trip into the media flap that won't die. Not long after the confrontation with Diaz, Ventura vowed to stop speaking to local reporters. His office, which briefly ceased publishing his daily schedule altogether, has since released details of the governor's workday only sporadically--ostensibly for security reasons. "I do all my speaking engagements. I just don't broadcast them to the media," Ventura told Minnesota Public Radio on October 23. "If the media knows it, so do the terrorists and [Osama] bin Laden."
In response, news columnists from the Star Tribune's Doug Grow and Lori Sturdevant to the Pioneer Press's Laura Billings and Joe Soucheray lambasted the governor for his thin skin and selfish behavior at a time when his state is facing a dwindling surplus and the nation is at war. Garrison Keillor chimed in with a piece on the op-ed page of the New York Times entitled "A Governor Works in Mysterious Ways," in which he dubs Ventura "Larry" and makes fun of his preoccupation with personal security.
"I think this is the waltz he's been doing with the media ever since he was with the World Wrestling Federation. It's just part of his game," says longtime Ventura critic David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University and the former president of Common Cause Minnesota. "He's being eclipsed by larger events in the world. There's nothing in reality that he has a major role in, in terms of New York, Washington, and Afghanistan. So this is his way of staying in the news."
Other observers aren't so sure. "I don't think this has anything to do with calculation or anything. It's the way he sees the world," argues the Pioneer Press's Ragsdale. "What he's doing right now does not work in his own best interest. Why aren't we reading stories about how he won the strike? That was a huge victory. And I can't get him to talk about it because he's still fuming about this stupid thing in New York.
"And you really can't accuse him of blacking everyone out," Ragsdale adds. "Because the minute you think he's not giving any interviews, he's all over the airwaves."
To be sure, Ventura's choice of folks to speak to during his ostensible media embargo is as interesting as what he's saying to them. As is usually the case not long after Ventura takes a vow of silence, he's ubiquitous. This time around he has chosen to vent at length as a guest and guest host on Joe Soucheray's Garage Logic program on KSTP-AM (1500), and he has appeared on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning with Katherine Lanpher. Quotes from those appearances are then picked up by every major media outlet in town. (Through his spokesman, the governor responded to City Pages' request for an interview with an evasive "We'll see.")
"When he says he's not talking to the media, he's generally referring to the capitol press corps," Wodele explains. "Governor Ventura has a lot of respect for Minnesota Public Radio. He likes their format, where he has the time to answer the questions without interruption. And he has a good relationship with Katherine [Lanpher] and [Midday host] Gary Eichten. And I have to say, Gary asks him the tough questions."
And what of Soucheray, who has never been shy about taking shots at Ventura? "The governor enjoys a good battle," Wodele replies with a chuckle. "Especially when it's in the kind of environment Garage Logic provides. Even though there isn't much love lost between the two, I do think they have a grudging respect for each other's entertainment value."
On the other end of the continuum, skeptics such as Schultz and Kessler argue that Ventura gravitates toward talk radio because the questions are broad and open-ended. Moreover, it's an environment he's familiar with and that allows him a lot of control. (Before taking office he had a morning show on KFAN-AM ; he now hosts a weekly program on WCCO-AM .) "He tends to go only to talk-radio shows, call-in shows," Kessler says. "It's understandable, from his point of view: He feels more comfortable, not only because it's his previous life, but also because it gives him an opportunity to tell his side of the story, generally without being challenged."
This episode, like the ones that preceded it, will surely blow over. But there's a sense that it might produce lasting damage. Ventura's 58 percent approval rating, while still high, is less impressive given the high poll numbers elected officials are enjoying nationwide during this time of national crisis. And the governor's colleagues are growing weary of the spat. Late last week the DFL sent an open letter to Ventura urging him to tone down the anti-media rhetoric. "The bottom line: His image is taking a beating during rally-round-the-flag time," opines Schultz.
"The governor, without question, was terribly upset by the accusations that he was bought," the besieged Wodele offers. "And I don't blame him. That's a hard one to let go of. Do I wish he'd let go? Yes. Is he going to? No. That's just his personality."