Jesse Ventura wants to talk.
He's on the phone, growling. "You want an exclusive?"
The guy hates the press. During his governorship, he famously printed press passes that read, "Media Jackal." Why's he calling now?
"My new show on TV," he says.
Ventura says he would have given the interview to the Star Tribune, but last time he got the shaft. The paper said he could only fight when he knew the other guy's moves first—a cheap shot at his long ago pro wrestling career.
"So I thought I'd talk to you instead," Ventura says. "Give you an exclusive."
He says he'll call back with the details in an hour, and hangs up.
A ROOSEVELT HIGH SCHOOL graduate who enlisted in the Navy in 1969, Ventura earned a spot as an elite SEAL trained in underwater demolition. He shipped out to fight in Vietnam, where he passed the time with cheap beer and easy women.
After he got back stateside, he joined a California motorcycle gang called the Mongols. Armed with discharge papers in 1975, he came back to Minnesota for community college classes and a little football.
Already big and tough, he started hitting the weight room. He was a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones for a while. Then he found regional pro wrestling and changed his name from James George Janos to Jesse Ventura. Ventura got married to his girlfriend, Terry Masters, moved to Oregon, then back to Minnesota while wrestling in different leagues. He added "The Body" to his moniker. His reputation grew.
Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation—home to the likes of Hulk Hogan—signed Ventura to a contract that carried him through to the 1980s before blood clots in his lungs made it too dangerous to continue. McMahon put Ventura on the announcer's mic for a while, where he was a huge hit, but in 1990 the two parted ways over contract disputes.
In the meantime, however, Ventura had laid down the beginnings of an acting career, with memorable turns in Predator, The Running Man, and Demolition Man.
Jesse and Terry settled in Maple Grove and he picked up an announcer's gig with World Championship Wrestling for a few years. But he was restless. And he was frosted by what he saw as an unholy union between local developers and politicians. In 1990 he made his first foray into elected office, running for mayor of Brooklyn Park against Jim Krautkremer, an incumbent who had held the office for 18 years.
Ventura won. Easily. "The Body" was becoming "The Mind."
In 1995, he got behind the mic again, this time as a radio talk-show host at KFAN and KSTP. From there, he parlayed his populist sentiments into a successful run for the governor's seat in 1998 under the Reform Party banner.
It was a tumultuous term. His administration slashed the state's budget, ran three surpluses, and issued tax rebates that were popular at the time but in retrospect may have been short-sighted. Having no major-party political affiliation was a blessing a curse—he had no natural enemies or allies—and passing legislation was a constant struggle.
Conquering the rest of the world seemed easy by comparison. He got book deals, a Playboy interview, a guest appearance at Wrestlemania, a season-long gig hosting XFL football.
The spotlight only made the scrutiny in Minnesota worse. Ventura had to apologize for unwise cracks about drunken Irishmen designing St. Paul's streets. And there were allegations that his son, Tyrel, was hosting parties at the governor's mansion in his absence. By Ventura's fourth year in office, the state's black ink had turned red. He was in a constant battle with the news media. By the time he returned from a trip to China in 2002, he'd had enough.
And just like that, he was gone. Between trips to Mexico, where he lives for about half of the year, he would reappear from time to time to promote books or movies, gabbing with the likes of Larry King and Howard Stern. MSNBC gave him a weekly chat show for a while. He even taught at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Now he's back with a controversial new TruTV show called Conspiracy Theory, in which he accuses the government of everything from faking 9/11 to mind control.
The phone rings again. It's Ventura.
"I feel like doing this today. Right now."
A SOLITARY MAN PLUGS CHANGE into a parking meter on Washington Avenue. Gone are the days of personal drivers, media flacks, and policy wonks. But you can't mistake the man he once was as he strides forward with his paw out for a vise-like handshake. He's a mountain topped by long, stringy hair that falls out from under an old ball cap and almost touches the Rolling Stones jacket covering his broad shoulders. A dark blue T-shirt is tucked into his jeans. He's showing a little paunch.
One of his meaty hands shoves open a coffee-shop door and he steps inside. No heads turn, which suits him fine. He's not running for anything anymore, and he shuffles quietly to the back of the room, hands in his jacket pockets, to a big round table where he settles down in an old wooden chair. He leans back, lays one elbow on the table, and slowly looks around the room.
Ventura's interest in conspiracies was born on the road decades ago during his wrestling days, when he'd kill time on long flights or road trips by picking up a book.
"You're limited in your options," Ventura says. "So reading became very important, and I got into books on John F. Kennedy's killing and tried to read everything I could on it."
Ventura, always somewhat of a skeptic by disposition, found the government's official explanation hard to believe. He points to the fact that JFK's body was whisked away by the feds before Texas officials could perform an autopsy.
"Why is that?" Ventura demands, his body bouncing with growing ferocity. "Why? Why?"
Ventura believes that Agent Orange in Vietnam caused his blood clots, and that the war itself was based on a lie. He's convinced that there were at least two CIA plants within the state government when he was governor.
So when the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the scales fell from Ventura's eyes.
"I find the government's theory to be wanting," he says. "They've told us that 19 Islamic radicals armed with box cutters defeated our multibillion-dollar air defense system, while conspiring with a bearded guy in a cave in Afghanistan."
All that death and destruction, all those logistics: It strains credulity. And when people question the official version of events, they find themselves laughed off as a bunch of nut jobs or worse.
"I find that peculiar," Ventura says, leaning forward and jabbing the table with his finger. "Why is this whole event off-limits? And don't tell me it's because it's been investigated. Don't come to me with the 9/11 Commission, like that was some kind of investigation when they didn't even have subpoena power. They didn't put anyone under oath!
"And now they're going to try this guy [Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, one of the confessed 9/11 masterminds]? With torture evidence? He was waterboarded 180 times, and we're going to accept that in a court of law, and the people of this country are going to sit back and think that's fine?"
It's a train of thought that eventually led Ventura to a collaboration with a California production house called A. Smith & Co., responsible for shows including Hell's Kitchen and Trading Spaces. Ventura's show, Conspiracy Theory, was picked up by TruTV, the rebranded Court TV. Shooting began in October 2008 and only recently wrapped up. If the first season is a ratings success, Ventura has been promised a shot at the Kennedy assassination.
On the show, Ventura gets to play the role of news editor, deciding what stories are worth checking out. People who harbor all sorts of below-the-radar ideas and theories know his reputation and come to him as a last resort "and they say the public needs to know," Ventura says. "'You're the only one who can do it. You're the only one who can get it out there,' they tell me."
Having a big production team at his disposal excites him, too. He chews over each theory with his staff like dogs with a bone. "We hassle back and forth on the pros and cons of the conspiracy. I give out assignments. Then we all come back together, do a few final interviews, and ultimately leave it up to you. Do you believe the conspiracy is real? Or do you think it's bunk?"
Ventura draws no conclusions himself, at least not publicly. Who was behind 9/11? "I don't know," he says with a shrug. But the truth is out there and Ventura wants to track it down. "This is fun for me to do. It's exciting," he says. Recalling that it took years for the American public to learn that Johnson escalated the Vietnam War by exaggerating the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Ventura says he wants to rake some muck and challenge conventional wisdom. Sure he's aiming for high TV ratings, but he's also filming for the history books.
"I just think that there needs to be a record that not everyone believes the status quo," Ventura says. "One hundred years from now I want people to be able to find something that says, 'Not everybody believed.' It's time to shake up the lemmings."
The show's P.R. campaign alleges that there are all sorts of subversive activities around us. In one episode, reads the press materials, "Jesse's investigation of government surveillance on its citizens uncovers a nationwide program that allegedly turns local businessmen and office workers into spies, snooping on their neighbors and ratting out their friends in exchange for information and special privileges from the FBI." In another, we learn that "The Bilderberg Group is a collection of the world's elite who meet once a year at a luxury hotel and, the story goes, decide how it will run the world. Their latest alleged plan is to thin out the world's population through disease and vaccines. In this stunning episode, Jesse attempts to infiltrate the Bilderberg Group, expose its well-known members, and stop their latest 'soft kill' plan before it's too late."
Next up: HAARP, the Pentagon's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska. The military says the program is looking for ways to harness the atmosphere to help radio communications. But in Ventura's world, "these radio waves could be used to change the weather and control people's minds!" Nick Begich, an anti-HAARP activist, says he believes the program is boiling the atmosphere. A physicist, Brooks Agnew, says he thinks he accidentally triggered an earthquake by using radio waves to locate underground oil. And Ventura is denied access to the research site.
"The Pentagon doesn't do anything unless there's a military value in it," Ventura says with agitation, "and here's the conspiracy end: Do you remember the Tsunami that hit Indonesia? ... Global warming? Could there be a tie in there?"
He's onto mind control now. Radio waves used at HAARP are on the same frequency as the ones in a human brain. "Do you think that's just happenstance?"
The Mind wanted answers, so a scientist beamed radio waves into The Body.
"I was able to hear sounds, but not through my ears," Ventura says. "My ears were plugged. It came in through the front of my skull.
"No one else in the room could hear the music. I heard it...."
THE SUN IS WANING. VENTURA'S gravelly voice has progressed to a dry rasp. He peels off his ball cap and wipes a palm across his balding head. He's tired of talking, so he stands to stretch his legs. There's a little stiffness in his walk. He orders an orange juice. Pays cash. The barista shows him no extra attention. Does she even recognize him?
Ventura's not waiting around to find out. He twists off the bottle top, takes a sip of orange juice, and steps out into the slanted light of a late autumn day. Down the avenue, the strip joint lights are flickering. Commuters are hung up in traffic, fingering their cell phones, paying no attention as he stops on the sidewalk and looks south to the Minneapolis skyline's gleaming skyscrapers. He points at one.
"Know what that reminds me of?" he asks, rising to his favorite topic one more time. "Building 7. You know about building 7?"
Building 7 was the 47-story structure that stood across the street from the main World Trade Center complex. It was not struck by either of the two jets that crashed into the Twin Towers, but in the conflagration caught fire and eventually collapsed in the early evening. Conspiracy theorists don't accept the official explanation. They claim conspirators rigged explosives, perhaps Thermite, to cover their tracks. After all, a BBC reporter said that the building had collapsed 20 minutes before it fell. How could she have known that?
The official reports and explanations "defy the laws of physics," Ventura says in one last salvo.
Standing close, his craggy eyebrows furrowed, he speaks about explosives that can be concealed in paint used to coat the walls of buildings, and how the Twin Towers could never have collapsed at the speed they did without some kind of accelerant to speed the debris to the ground.
Then, as the light fades, he shakes hands and heads for his car, alone.