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Jewish World Review June 20, 2002 / 10 Tamuz, 5762

John H. Fund

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The Body' Bows Out --- American politics will be duller without Jesse Ventura | It was a cliché to call Minnesota's Gov. Jesse Ventura larger than life. But Tuesday the former professional wrestler, Navy SEAL and bodyguard for the Rolling Stones claimed to be just a dad angry over media coverage of his family as he announced he would retire after just one term as governor. The truth--as with everything about Minnesota's independent governor--was more complicated.

A genuine American success story, Mr. Ventura was swept into the governor's mansion when, four years ago 37% of state voters decided they'd had enough of blow-dried politicians who produced little beyond platitudes. Voters laughed when Mr. Ventura ran campy ads portraying a Jesse action figure battling "Evil Special Interest Man." They cheered when he proclaimed "I'll fight to get those Democrats and Republicans to return the $4 billion in excess taxes they took from you. That's $1,000 for every person in Minnesota."

At first the bond between Mr. Ventura and Minnesota voters grew stronger when he appointed talented managers and succeeded in pushing through modest tax rebates. But three years later, Mr. Ventura sounded more like a traditional tax-and-spend politician. In January he called for $2 billion in tax increases to close a budget gap. The proposed hikes included increases in gasoline and cigarette taxes along with an extension of the sales tax to more items. The legislature eventually plugged the budget gap with a combination of spending cuts and accounting gimmicks but, to Mr. Ventura's embarrassment, no tax increases.

For all his anti-big-government rhetoric, Mr. Ventura was never willing to make truly tough budget decisions. The state budget has grown by 33% during his years in office, easily outstripping inflation. The Tax Foundation reports that despite his modest tax cuts, state revenue is still growing faster than personal income in Minnesota. In other words, government is still gaining ground at the expense of taxpayers.

Mr. Ventura alienated voters on matters of style as well as substance. He decided that the governor's office was a great platform to extend and further promote the Ventura franchise. He wrote two best-selling books, something few would begrudge him. But then he became an announcer for the raunchy XFL football network, a short-lived venture that nonetheless netted the governor more than $2 million for brief Sunday duties. When confronted with criticism over his failure to disclose his money-making activities fully, the governor threatened not to run for another term if he "got a better offer."

He didn't, but decided not to run anyway, lest voters refuse to offer him another term. Only 29% of voters in a St. Paul Pioneer Press poll this spring said they would vote to re-elect him. In a three-way race that still would have left him in contention, but not nearly the sure thing he had expected it to be.

Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, said Mr. Ventura's outsized personality often got in the way. In a notorious Playboy interview, he said religious people were using their faith as a "crutch." This year he was the only governor in the nation to refuse to sign a proclamation commemorating a National Day of Prayer.

He also began sounding more like the politicians he once railed against. When he announced his package of tax increases, he said, "I've been accused of breaking a campaign promise that I would never raise taxes. Well . . . in a time of war and in defense of our country, I will break any campaign promises." But talk-show host Jason Lewis accused him of phony patriotism. "What do reasonable reductions in, say, the Offices of Tourism and Trade--which Jesse cited in his veto message--have to do with the real commander-in-chief's war effort?" Mr. Lewis asks. "Under Jesse, war really became an excuse for the health of the state."

All that said, American politics will be duller for Mr. Ventura's retirement. Only someone with his brazen self-confidence could spend Saturday morning at a governors meeting, conferring privately with the president, then pop up on TV screens that night as a guest at a World Wrestling Federation match. Gov. Ventura stepped into the ring wearing the same suit in which he had met the president and proceeded to call a wrestling executive a "scumbag" as he promoted a high-fee appearance he would make at another WWF event a few weeks later.

He had two personas while he was governor. He usually adopted the patriotic, dependable personality of James Janos, the name he grew up with. But always lurking nearby was the acerbic, outrageous and ego-driven Jesse Ventura, his WWF stage name. In the end, voters got tired of trying to keep up with both of their governors. Like all good showmen, Jesse Ventura then decided it was time to close out his act.

But don't count him out. He knows America is the land in which people reinvent themselves and recover from adversity. Emulating his close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also hopes to someday enter politics, Jesse Ventura may well be lighting a cigar somewhere tonight, laughing and saying "I'll be back."

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06/06/02: It's time for President Bush to stand up to California's senators
05/16/02: A Court Intrigue: Procedural funny business in a racial-preference case
05/14/02: Thin moral ice: New revelations from a skater's Stasi files recall an oppressive era
05/09/02: Newark, Zimbabwe!?
05/02/02: Will Terror Leave Us No Choice? Teachers unions try to use Sept. 11 as an excuse for bad schools
04/23/02: The New Nixon? Al Gore plots his comeback
04/16/02: 'I, Uh, I Have No Comment': A union plays dirty in opposing an antitax initiative
03/31/02: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!: Filibusters can help the Senate GOP get things done
03/14/02: Red-Light District: It's time to draw the line on gerrymandering
02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?
02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
02/07/02: Arizona Highway Robbery: Politicians make a grab for campaign cash
01/31/02: Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
01/17/02: Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy
01/10/02: Oil of Vitriol
01/04/02: The little engine that couldn't--and the senators who don't want it to
12/24/01: E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution
12/13/01: How Gore could have really won
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones
12/04/01: Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot
11/12/01: A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican
11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
10/24/01: Chicken Pox: Hardly anyone has anthrax, but almost everyone has anthrax anxiety
10/11/01: Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible
10/04/01: Three Kinds of pols
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?
08/08/01: Tome Alone: Clinton's book will probably end up on the remainder table
08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
07/31/01: Affairs of State: The Condit case isn't just about adultery. It's about public trust and national security
07/14/01: The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform
07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund