Sunday, May 26, 2024

Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura’s shocking election 25 years ago previewed Trump’s

Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura’s shocking election 25 years ago previewed Trump’s

Twenty-five years ago Friday, the former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura shocked America by winning the Minnesota governor’s race as a third-party candidate. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential race, Ventura was “ecstatic” as Donald Trump — another brash outsider celebrity candidate — mounted a run.

And now? Ventura compares Trump to Charles Manson and looks back “shamefully” on how his upset victory in 1998 served as a catalyst for Trump’s win.

“Oh, he watched my playbook, don’t kid yourself,” Ventura said in a telephone interview.

Ventura toppled the political establishment as the Reform Party gubernatorial candidate by throwing out everything in the conventional politician’s playbook. As The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote in a 1998 story on Ventura’s victory, “With support heavily concentrated among young men, Ventura roamed the state demonstrating his straight talk and regular-guy habits. He ate big burgers, talked of big tax breaks and quoted the big, deceased thinkers — Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and the Doors’ Jim Morrison.”

Looking back a quarter-century later, “The Body” said election night was like an “out-of-body experience.”

A Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll found that he had energized new voters — 10 percent said that they wouldn’t have voted if Ventura hadn’t been one of the candidates. Ventura, who won nearly 50 percent of voters under 30 in a three-candidate race, said his campaign aides had tried to talk him out of his plan to visit every college campus in the state.

“My people said to me, ‘Oh, you’re wasting your time. They don’t vote,’” he recalled. “I went, ‘Baloney. They’ve never had a chance to vote for Jesse the Body. They’ll vote.’ And I went to every college campus, and they were hanging from the rooftops.”

Compared to his major-party rivals, Ventura ran his campaign on a shoestring budget. Republican candidate Norm Coleman outspent him 5-1, and Democrat Skip Humphrey outspent him 3-1, according to the New York Times, which called his victory “an earth-rattling political upset that shellshocked politicians and prognosticators everywhere.” The paper described him as “a colorful mixture of affable, often amusing, bravado and plain-spoken drive.”

That could describe Trump in 2016, and the two men did have similar styles. Both delivered a “tell-it-like-it-is” message in booming voices and attracted previously disaffected voters. Both knocked off a pair of well-known establishment politicians. Humphrey was the son of the late vice president Hubert Humphrey; Coleman was the mayor of St. Paul (and a future U.S. senator). Trump defeated the early GOP front-runner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — the son and brother of presidents — before beating Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election. (A Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Both Trump and Ventura got a boost from the name recognition that came with their celebrity. Many Americans knew Trump from his years hosting “The Apprentice” and his hotels, casinos and other real estate holdings. Ventura was a famous pro wrestler who had his own action figure doll, as well as a radio show. They even had pro wrestling in common: Trump sponsored two early WrestleManias and headlined another and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013.

In fact, the two men appeared together at WrestleMania XX, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2004, about 14 months after Ventura’s single term as governor. (He didn’t seek reelection.) Ventura, dressed in black and sporting a thick beard, left the ring to do a quick interview with Trump, who was sitting in the front row. Ventura, who often speculated about running for president, put Trump on the spot. “If I were to get back into politics, could I expect your moral and financial support?” he asked.

“One hundred percent,” Trump replied firmly.

“You know what? I think that we may need a wrestler in the White House in 2008!” Ventura yelled, to enthusiastic cheers.

Ventura, a self-described social liberal and fiscal conservative, governed as more of a centrist than Trump. But Ventura’s contempt for the media — as evidenced by issuing “Official Jackal” Capitol press badges to the Capitol press corps — was a precursor to Trump’s “fake news” taunts.

Trump considered a 2000 presidential run with Ventura’s Reform Party. He eventually ran as a Republican, but only after engineering a “hostile takeover” of the GOP, as Ventura (and others) said.

Back when Ventura first became governor, the two men were friends, Ventura said. “He came up and visited me,” Ventura recalled. “I don’t know what was going on in his mind; at the time we were embracing him because we were a third party. We were looking for anything to give us a foothold. And we thought, ‘Wow, if we can get Trump to run, he’s a name. He’s got money.’”

In Trump’s book “The America We Deserve,” published in 2000 as he mulled a presidential run, Trump sounded like he had been taking notes from Ventura’s victory two years earlier.

“I’m not prepackaged,” he wrote. “I’m not plastic. I’m not scripted. And I’m not ‘handled.’ I’ll tell you what I think. It’s quite a departure from the usual office-seeking pols.”

Trump continued, “Consider Governor Ventura. I met him when he appeared in some of the monster wrestling events I used to stage in Atlantic City. He was elected governor of Minnesota (knocking off a couple of old-time political pros) because he talks straight. Nonpoliticians like Ventura are the wave of the future.”

In February 2000, barely a month after Ventura took office, Trump came to a Minnesota Reform Party fundraiser and complained about the previous night’s presidential debate, according to a 2016 story by Minnesota radio station WCCO. “I watched the debates last night,” Trump said. “I mean, tell me: Are these guys stiffs, or what? Give me a break!”

That same month, Ventura left the Reform Party, calling it “hopelessly dysfunctional.” A few days later, Trump said he had decided not to seek the party’s nomination for president, claiming the party was “self-destructing.” He added: “Jesse has left, and that’s a problem.”

Right-wing candidate Pat Buchanan wound up running under the Reform Party banner in 2000. The year before, when Trump resigned his Republican registration in anticipation of a possible challenge to Buchanan for the Reform Party nomination, Trump had denounced him as a “Hitler lover.”

In August 2015, as Trump was gaining momentum in his run for the White House, Ventura went on CNN and seemed giddy about his candidacy.

“I’m ecstatic over it, because he’s throwing a wrench, and Bernie Sanders is throwing a wrench in the Democratic Party,” Ventura told host Don Lemon. Ventura said that when he ran for governor, he never used a note or a prepared speech. “And it resonated tremendously. Well, Donald Trump was watching because he was there. He was in support of me way back then. And Donald and I have been friends for a long time.”

Ventura said he’d “seriously consider” being Trump’s running mate if offered. “If Donald came to me, and asked me to run with him, I would give it its due consideration. I respect Donald Trump enough to do that.”

“It would be a smart move,” on Trump’s part, he said. “Look at all the independent and libertarian voters I would bring with me.”

Ventura has since soured on Trump, especially after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. In August of this year, he wrote a Substack piece with his son Tyrel likening Trump to Charles Manson, arguing that both men encouraged their followers to engage in violent activities that led to deaths.

Ventura is also quick to point out a key difference between their candidacies: Before running for governor, Ventura had been mayor of Brooklyn Park, a Minneapolis suburb, while Trump had no government experience.

Ventura cited efforts to recruit actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to run for president (he said last year he would not run) and said, “You know, my response to that is, get elected [to another office] first. We just had a guy with no political experience run the country. He sucked.”

What about his praise of Trump in that 2015 CNN interview?

“I’ll tell you where I was coming from there,” he said. “I’ve been an advocate to bust up the two-party monopoly my entire political career, and I viewed what Trump may be doing here is busting up the two-party monopoly. Which would be good. But the end result hasn’t been good. Sometimes you miscalculate who you send to do the job.”

If there’s a rematch between President Biden and Trump, Ventura said he would probably vote for Biden.

“Because to me, the Republicans and Trump are fascists,” he said. “They think Jan. 6 was some walk in the park, and I will not forgive them for that day until they make amends.”

Displaying the same bravado he had 25 years ago, Ventura insisted that if he could get on the ballot in all 50 states and appeared in the final debate with Trump and Biden, “You’re talking to the next president.”

“I could beat either one of them, beat them both,” he said, citing voters’ dissatisfaction with the candidates. But he’s quick to point out that he’s not running.

“If I was 50, sure,” he said. “I’m 72 now. I don’t want to get involved in this stuff.”

He added, with a laugh, “And I’d be the young guy. I’d win the young voters — I’m youth.”

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