At first I liked Jesse Ventura mainly because I hated Hubert H. Humphrey III. Fresh from his battle with the big, bad tobacco companies as Minnesota's attorney general, Humphrey ran for governor, no doubt confident that voters would reward his courage in daring to challenge the least popular industry in America. How wonderful it was to see this self-righteous statist not only defeated but also utterly humiliated, losing to a former professional wrestler with a fondness for feather boas, a bit-part actor and talk radio host whose candidacy was treated as a joke.
It was a joke, and it was hilarious. Given his lineage, Humphrey could not even claim that Ventura won based purely on name recognition and celebrity. The victory was a repudiation of slick professional politicians, the sort of people whose every move is geared toward getting and holding onto power.
Say what you will about Ventura, he definitely did not fall into that category. When he announced the other day that he would not seek a second term, state Sen. Roger Moe, a Democrat running for governor, declared, "I have been saying for the last year and a half or so that I did not think he'd run for re-election because I didn't think he enjoyed it."
Moe seems to view Ventura's distaste for politics as evidence of a character flaw. But the people I worry about are the ones who do enjoy politics, who would never consider voluntarily giving up the reins of government.
Unlike conventional politicians, Ventura never tried to please everyone. A man who calls reporters "jackals" and organized religion "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people," or who speaks favorably of decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, is clearly not calculating the political impact of his words.
Ventura freely offered his opinions, and you had to believe he was being honest because they were so frequently at odds with the views held by most voters. "It seems to me that God put everything here for a reason," he told High Times. "I don't think the reason cannabis is here is so we can destroy it."
Ventura expressed skepticism not just about drug prohibition but also about paternalistic legislation in general. "You can't legislate stupidity," he explained in an interview with Reason magazine, "because people do stupid things, always will, and government should get out of the businesses of passing laws to stop them."
Describing himself as "fiscally conservative and socially moderate to liberal," Ventura liked to say, "I don't want Democrats in the boardroom, and I don't want Republicans in the bedroom." He claimed to have received a perfect libertarian score on a quiz designed to assess political leanings.
But it was always clear that Ventura's views were something of a mishmash. While libertarians liked his tax cuts, his criticism of the war on drugs, his opposition to taxpayer funding of stadiums, and his proposal for a legislative session devoted exclusively to eliminating bad laws, many were disappointed by his opposition to school vouchers, his enthusiasm for light rail, and his embrace of campaign finance restrictions.
More than an ideology, Ventura represented a style, one that irked pundits and legislators who felt that he did not take politics seriously enough. They were embarrassed by his off-the-cuff remarks, his goofy campaign ads (one showed a Jesse Ventura action figure fighting Evil Special Interest Man), his casual dress (at his inauguration party, he sported a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, a fringed jacket, and big shiny earrings), and his moonlighting as a football commentator, pro wrestling referee, and soap opera actor.
"You don't need to be a brain surgeon to be governor," a St. Paul barber told The New York Times. "He proved that."
But it's not as if Ventura is less intelligent than the average politician (admittedly a low benchmark). It's just that he was never obsessed with looking and sounding the part.
Despite his background in the fakery of pro wrestling and movies, the cigar-chomping, bandana-wearing, gun-toting macho man managed to be more genuine than any guy in a dark suit who has ever promised to fight your fight. And if his antics have encouraged people not to take politicians too seriously, he has accomplished more than most.