It didn’t quite sink in for a couple of days. Was it all a bad dream, a practical joke gone too far, a hangover that wouldn’t quit or was Jesse Ventura really the governor of my home state? What in God’s name happened to the sensible and sane people I had known growing up in the year and a half since I had left for graduate school? Was Minnesota replacing Bill Clinton as the national joke?
The campaign had been unconventional to say the least. Running on the Reform Party ticket with the motto “Retaliate in ’98,” Ventura, the former Navy SEAL, Vietnam vet, bodyguard for the Rolling Stones, professional wrestler and B-movie actor, had been surging in the polls. His opponents were two well-respected and well-financed candidates, Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Hubert Humphrey III, the state’s attorney general and the son of the former vice president of the United States.
Running as a tax-cutting populist, Ventura had captured the state’s imagination with his wit, outsider status, disarming candor and libertarian philosophy. When asked in a debate about taxpayer funding for a new stadium for the Twins and Vikings, Ventura cited Mike Piazza’s new $90 million contract and growled “let them build their own damn stadium.”
When asked by a reporter which member of Clinton’s cabinet he would like to wrestle most, Ventura scoffed at the question and said he wanted to body slam only Clinton. He went to college campuses and told students that after the age of 18, people were on their own. It was not the government’s role to provide for adults. The kids went wild.
Election night was high drama. Early exit polls showed Ventura leading, but I concluded that he would eventually falter and I would be able to sleep easy. As the night wore on and Ventura’s victory became clear, I found myself cringing a bit. The following morning, the phone calls and e-mails began coming in. They were a mixed deluge of ridicule and astonishment. My best friend pronounced himself “embarrassed” to be a Minnesotan, reminding me “63 percent of us are sane.” Another friend e-mailed that I had to “get my parents out” while I still could.
My parents were more sanguine. Although my mother and father both had voted for Coleman, she conceded, “We were all pulling for Jesse last night.” These were my parents? My brother had heard the news in Europe on CNN and had almost fallen out his chair. “The guy was a Navy SEAL,” he assured me. “He can’t be dumb.”
My sister was more to the point, “Look at Clinton. Now that’s embarrassing. And he’s president.”
Meanwhile, the national media was having a field day. Who cared about congressional Republican loses when you now had a U.S. governor with his own action figure? Ventura had quickly become a staple of Jay Leno and David Letterman, with Letterman offering up the “Top 10 Ventura Slogans.” No. 1 – “It’s the stupidity, stupid.”
Newsweek and Time were working on cover stories.
A friend from college who is a math teacher at Ventura’s alma mater, Minneapolis Roosevelt High, told me The National Enquirer had been rummaging through old yearbooks for a story.
The state’s image as the thoughtful and reserved home of Garrison Keillor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Little House on the Prairie and Bob Dylan had been obliterated. We now had a pro wrestler in the governor’s mansion.
Perhaps the most surreal moment of the night came when a stunned Tom Brokaw asked Ventura if he now wanted to be referred to as merely “The Body” or “Governor The Body?” Neither, Ventura replied. He preferred “The Mind” since he no longer made his living in the ring. This remarkable exchange took place after Ventura had earlier reminded Maria Shriver to “say `hi’ to Arnold and the kids for me.”
After likening his “mind-boggling” upset to the 1980 Olympic hockey team and Muhammad Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston, Ventura hit the state’s sweet spot in the most unorthodox of acceptance speeches.
Standing with his wife of 22 years, his children, his 64-year-old elementary school teacher running mate and other supporters, Ventura seemed as amazed as anyone with the result. “You’re still cheering me, only in ’81 it was `Jesse sucks,’ ” the former bad boy of pro wrestling cracked.
The quintessential underdog had prevailed. “The American Dream lives tonight,” he declared to a throng of delirious revelers at his victory rally at a race track in Shakopee.
A race track?
-The writer is a second-year student in the Graduate School of Political Management.