¡Viva Jesse Libre!

James O'Brien

First an unfashionable confession: I liked Jesse from the start. I liked his homely candor and reflexive loathing of the professional political classes; I liked the manifest joy he took in his own implausible rise. And I will always savor the thought that an elected representative of mine had the temerity and the exquisite bad taste to ask the Dalai Lama if he'd ever seen Caddyshack and to grill Castro about the Kennedy assassination. I'm only sorry that now we will never know for sure whether the Pope shits in the woods.

He was no great shakes in matters of taxing and spending, it's true. But he was better than his critics have made him out to be. The Ventura years saw the cutting of taxes and services not only in Minnesota but across the country. That course was inevitable by the time he was elected, the deliberate result of federal policy: By turning over welfare funds to the states in bloc grants (to stimulate new ideas and new programs, they said), the Clinton administration's 1996 welfare bill really just fomented a state-by-state race to the bottom of the social spending barrel. What state, after all, can afford to become known as its region's welfare magnet? For the little it's worth, Jesse was far from the most draconian of service-slashing governors in his time.

Where the public purse was not the central issue, Ventura's positions were frequently very good. He advocated domestic-partner health benefits for same-sex couples. He steadfastly condemned the proliferation of sanctimonious religious rhetoric in politics, favored extensive campaign finance reform and the decriminalizing of most drug offenses, and opposed three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing guidelines. He declared Washington's periodic assaults on the entertainment industry fatuous and politically motivated, and sneered at what he called "morality brokers" in politics. Last spring he quashed a ridiculous bit of legislative grandstanding that would have compelled Minnesota school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Ventura termed himself a "moderate libertarian," but in reality he is what used to be known as a liberal Republican.

Jesse's most apoplectic critics were usually educated liberals. They were the last people you wanted to get trapped beside at parties when the subject of the governor came up. Their animus was entirely personal, predictable, and telling. The indignity of this coarse brute, treading halls where giants among men have walked--surely it was more than a civilized people could be asked to endure! At the simplest level it was class bigotry, no more and no less, yet beneath that lay an even more profound naiveté--or hypocrisy, take your pick--concerning what electoral politics is and how it manages to work so poorly. Take their archetypal complaint: Ventura exploited his renewed celebrity as the wrasslin' governor to make money on the side. Of course he did, and so what? This may shock you, but the vast majority of politicians who possess any sort of prominence or clout take advantage of their position to fatten their personal fortune, whether it's through campaign dollars given in expectation of political favors or the job opportunities and client bases at their disposal when they leave office. Jesse's tack was less odious than most. Think of it this way: Would you prefer that your governor was beholden to a cable TV wrestling promoter, or to Allina and Xcel Energy?

What Ventura's left-lib critics failed to see was that the whole phenomenon was part joke, and the joke was on them. The insurgent sentiments that propelled him to victory were predicated in large measure on the total collapse of liberalism that accompanied the sale of the Democratic Party to the same interests that own and operate the Republican Party; if not for workaday liberal complicity in this transaction, there would be no hunger for the larger-than-life Ross Perots and Jesse Venturas of the world. Just try getting them to hear this, though. They nod, but soon enough it's back to the same old refrain. How can you take him seriously? He's not a professional. He possesses not a shred of expertise to qualify him for such an august job. He's just a guy. The obvious riposte tends to be a conversation stopper: If you are still proposing to place your faith in "experts" and political "professionals" at this late hour, friend, you are truly hopeless. (But then it's long been my theory that liberals who still cling to the Democratic Party don't really want to see anything changed. They just want someone intelligent-sounding to talk nicely to them once in a while. If he pisses on their shoes afterward, that's okay. And there you have the Clinton years.)

In Jesse resides all the hope and bitterness of Middle America's largely silenced white working class--and most of its flaws, too. Like so many of the people for whom he speaks, Ventura is at heart a moralist himself, and hence his analysis of what's wrong with politics and media tends to be based in misplaced assessments of character, topped with an unhealthy dollop of conventional wisdom. He is eloquent in his condemnations of cant and false piety, and he sees in very general terms that money in politics is a large part of the problem. But no sooner has he said so than he's off on some well-worn tangent. He excoriates the public for its apathy toward politics, never stopping to consider that their disaffection may be a direct result of the candidates purchased for their consumption. He maintains, nonsensically, that Democrats and Republicans differ radically on public policy, and that what's needed is a new wave of centrists.

His fabled and largely misdirected hostility toward the press helped undo him in the end. Now, there are plenty of good reasons to hate the media, but these were not Jesse's reasons. His was a personal beef. Years ago Ventura won a landmark lawsuit against a pro-wrestling promoter for the unpaid and unauthorized use of Ventura footage in a series of videos, and since then he has held the abiding conviction that he ought to be compensated, or at least consulted, every time his name is mentioned in a public forum. (When Garrison Keillor published his satiric novella about Ventura's rise, Jesse's first public complaint was that he wouldn't see any of the proceeds.) To say he hasn't chosen his battles well is a considerable understatement.

But he has shone a welcome and sometimes telling light on Republicrat business as usual. Ventura played a salutary role in demystifying the business of politics and reviving the forgotten figure of the citizen- politician. There is no great mystery to politics and governance, he told the audience of Politically Incorrect a couple of years ago; addressing his fellow panelists, he averred that "any of us could understand it." In its quietly perverse way, that's as radical a statement as any elected official has uttered in some time. I'll miss him.

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