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Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 1999 /4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

George Will

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A Beguiling Amateur -- ST. PAUL, Minn.—Lenin said that any cook can run the state. The wrestler running this one believes, as Lenin did not, what Lenin said.

Jesse Ventura, a human Vesuvius who does not believe in hoarding himself, has Minnesota so well in hand he has time to give interviews promiscuously -- 25 a week, he says. Nowadays these include interviews to tidy up after interviews, such as the one in Playboy wherein he said organized religion is for the weak-minded (such as Mrs. Ventura, he later explained), and that the military-industrial complex killed Kennedy because he supposedly had decided to withdraw from Vietnam.

This Ventura glut is on the verge of making him boringly exciting. This matters because the folly of public financing of presidential campaigns has put $13 million on the table to be pocketed by whoever captures whatever the Reform Party is nowadays.

It may be little more than a mailing list in Ross Perot's computers in Dallas. Ventura, elected as a Reform candidate, is not conversant with the party's platform or presidential nominating process. But he knows he does not feel warmly toward Ross Perot. Perot may like Pat Buchanan primarily because Perot dislikes the idea of a Ventura-backed candidate -- enter Donald Trump, on a trapeze with Oprah Winfrey -- thinking about trying to take over his, Perot's, toy.

The platform is akin to sauerkraut ice cream, a jumble of incompatible ingredients. The party fancies itself libertarian: It wants nothing to do with abortion and the other social issues that cause Buchanan's pulse to race almost as much as the thought of $13 million does. But it is anti-libertarian in favoring protectionism and government rationing of political speech ("campaign finance reform"). And get this: The party favors generous subsidies -- dependence on government -- for public television "so that it does not become too reliant on corporate sponsorship and in turn compromise its news coverage."

Ventura's mind is quick, and his temperament constantly pops the clutch that connects his mind to his mouth. However skewed his conclusions, he is steeped in the arcana of the Kennedy assassination controversies. He knows next to nothing about the Constitution. Asked by Playboy about his statement that government should not create jobs, he indicates no awareness of rather a lot of history surrounding the clause that says Congress shall "provide for . . . the general welfare." He says: "Have you read the Constitution? Does it say anything about government's ability to create jobs?"

But what makes him a leading cultural indicator is precisely his aversion to calculation, an endearing spontaneity that produces pratfalls. He rose from a realm of honest, no-bones-about-it fakery -- professional wrestling -- to become an embodiment of authenticity.

The danger is that fame -- "the frenzy of renown" -- will become a drug that deranges him, turning his supposed authenticity into a form of fakery. Having insulted his religious constituents and others with his musings in Playboy, he says his problems stem from being "truly honest."

But that "Aw, shucks, I'm just too forthright for my own good" is arrogance in drag. There is no vanity quite like that of a populist man-of-the-people who is too darn humble to concern himself with anything as highfalutin' as manners. And it is plain bad manners to insult and embarrass constituents.

"Hell, we got too much dignity in government now," said George Wallace in 1968 as he worked to rectify that defect. Seven years of the Clintons have banished that worry, replacing it with a recognition of a dignity deficit in public life. That deficit is exacerbated by Minnesota's governor saying that he would like to be reincarnated as a 38-DD bra.

Wallace's 1968 expostulation about dignity continued, "What we need is some meanness." Ventura seems to be a meanness-free zone in today's politics. He is a genuinely friendly man, curious about the world, and without pretense, other than the delusion that it is a public service for him to give public tours of the mansion of his mind, regardless how sparsely some rooms in it are furnished.

Coming months will tell whether he will discipline his entertainer's impulse enough to respect the public's thirst for some decorum. If so, politics can accommodate a beguiling amateur uncontaminated by careerism. Meanwhile, try an experiment:

Watch the Senate on C-SPAN with the sound turned off. Just the body language of many of the ganders, who can strut while seated, will make you understand how a plurality of Minnesotans came to vote for Ventura. Even after the Playboy interview, a majority of Minnesotans are glad that a plurality did.

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