My first trip to the White House was a humbling experience. Terry and I had flown into Washington for the annual Governors' Association conference, which included a dinner at the White House. When we walked in that enormous front door, we just stood there for a moment, in awe. I remember thinking to myself, my God, this is where it all happened. This is where Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy made history.
When you arrive at the White House, you go through a receiving line to meet the President. Then you go into the dining room, where they have place cards that tell you where to sit. To help mix things up socially, you don't sit with your spouse. That makes it kind of fun. After dinner you go into the next room for the entertainment and dancing.
When we were there, a swing band was playing. The President and First Lady were dancing all by themselves, because everybody else was giving them a wide berth. So I took Terry by the hand and said, "Put your champagne glass down. We're going to go dance." We went up and started dancing right next to the President and First Lady. We were the only other couple out on the dance floor!
I thought, who cares? I may never get this chance again!
At one point I leaned toward Terry and said, "You dare me to cut in?" She gritted her teeth and gave me a look that said "Don't even think about it!" But in hindsight now, I bet she wishes I had. The Clintons are very gracious hosts; I think they would have gotten a charge out of it!
After the song was over, the Clintons immediately engaged us in conversation. They're great to talk to. I told them about my very first proclamation as governor, declaring February 15 Rolling Stones Day. They thought that was great. I had them both autograph my menu that night. Hillary Clinton signed it, "With deep admiration and respect." I believe she was sincere. That's coming a long way from the time she arrived in Minnesota during the gubernatorial campaign and told Minnesotans to put aside the "circus side show act," which was how she referred to my campaign, "and get down to the business of electing Skip Humphrey."
I don't hold that against her. She was brought in as a hired gun to stump for Humphrey, so of course she had to say something like that. There are all kinds of things that are said in the heat of battle, but when the election is over, you have to move on. That's the way it is in politics.
Hillary's got a phenomenal memory for personal details. This year, Terry wasn't able to go, but when Hillary Clinton greeted me, the first thing she asked was, "How are Terry and the horses?" Of all the people she has to remember, she held on to details like that about me and Terry. She had only met Terry once, a year earlier. I leaned in and asked her at one point, "Madam First Lady, are you sure you want to run for the Senate? Are you positive you wanna do this?" She just laughed and said, "Yeah!"
It's incredible to me that less than two years ago I was more or less a political nobody, and now I'm rubbing elbows with people in America's highest offices. In February of 2000, Vice-President Al Gore's people called to let me know that he was going to be visiting the state, and that he would be calling me at home to set up a meeting. The day he was supposed to call, Terry was just walking in the door with an armload of groceries when the phone rang. You know how sometimes when the phone rings, you get a premonition of who's on the other end of the line? I just had a feeling that it was Al Gore, so I sat tight and let it ring so that Terry would pick it up.
I heard her answer in the other room, then a pause. Then she said "Really?" in an incredulous voice. She thought it was just one of my friends pulling a prank.
But it was the Vice-President all right. He canceled his meeting with party caucuses that morning so that he could have a breakfast meeting with me. Our first meeting was just the two of us in a room together for fifty minutes. I talked to him about the fact that even though the federal government had mandated special ed programs for all the states, it had never delivered most of the money it promised to help fund those programs. Special ed kids are usually in competition with regular ed kids for funding, and they've traditionally been so dramatically underfunded that my daughter has actually had to go to classes in a broom closet. The Vice-President made me a promise that during his time as president he would get special ed kids the funding that they should have.
Vice-President Gore made it clear that he would love an endorsement from me, but he didn't ask for one. Of course, before I would even consider giving an endorsement, being the good politician that I'm learning to be, I'd feel it was only fair to give George Bush the same opportunity to be heard. And then I'd probably get away with not endorsing either of them! My excuse would be that I'm a third-party guy, and I don't endorse Democrats or Republicans.
This is amazing, when I think of where I came from, and that a little over a year ago I had virtually no political connections. Now the Vice-President is seeking me out! It boggles my mind that I'm now seen as some kind of political expert. Political science majors want to hear what I have to say. I was the keynote political speaker at Harvard last year. A year and a half ago I had hardly any political experience, and now I'm giving a talk in front of Harvard's political best and brightest. Me, with a high school education, talking to Ph.D. candidates. And these kids were hanging on every word I said. Alan Dershowitz, who was in the audience, told my literary manager that my "performance was most impressive."
It was great. First they introduced me and I gave a speech with the media present. Then they kicked the media out and I got to sit down and eat pizza with the students and just talk. Now I've got an invitation to go do the same thing at Yale, Harvard's natural rival. They told me in the invitation, "If you had fun at Harvard, come to Yale!"
I'm so flattered by the response I've gotten from the public. It's phenomenal. A few months ago Terry and I went out to a little bar and burger joint for a quick lunch. We could hear people whispering as we walked in, but they left us alone and waited until we were almost done eating before they started coming up with their kids and asking for autographs. And then as we were getting ready to leave, they all stood up and applauded. And all I did was eat a burger!
Once when the first lady and I drove from downtown to our house in Maple Grove, people kept driving by, smiling and waving and giving us the thumbs-up. We were laughing so hard in the car, it was getting borderline ridiculous! Then we started looking at who was doing it, and it was truly across the board: African Americans, elderly couples, young teenagers. It crossed all boundaries of ethnicity, age, and gender. It's stuff like that that makes me feel that I've gotta keep fighting the fight. They're the ones I'm doing it for.
To what can I attribute this phenomenal outpouring of public support? I have to think it's simply that the public sees my winning the election as a victory for them. They're not showering me with all this support because I'm special, but because I'm an ordinary guy. I'm one of them. And they know I represent them in everything I do.
My strength out there is in that silent majority. They don't necessarily speak out, but they're listening. The media, the legislature, and the behind-the-scenes power brokers give me a lot of grief. But I get exactly the opposite from the people of Minnesota. Their encouragement and support is what keeps me going.
Every month I do a bus tour to a different part of Minnesota, to see what's going on and to talk to the people. I get a lot of positive energy from those tours, because the people are always so supportive. When I leave the Twin Cities and get into the outstate areas, the people's support is especially strong. And yet the mayors and councilpeople in greater Minneapolis-St. Paul recently gave me an unsatisfactory rating. Maybe it's simply that they don't want to have to take the blame for things being crappy in their area. It's easier to blame me.
The first lady keeps telling me, "Don't even worry about these politicians. The people love you." When my security people call up the local police in these little towns and tell them I'm coming, they ask, "What type of protection do you need?" And my security people say, "Rock star!" Meaning, when I come to town, you're going to get a response like you would if I was a rock star. The kids will be going nuts. Everybody is going to be trying to shake my hand and touch me.
I'm so flattered by that! It's remarkable. And I think that response from the people, too, may contribute to the unsatisfactory rating the mayors in the outlying towns give me. Maybe there's some bitterness there. I think when these representatives see me go out to their districts, and they see their constituents come out and treat me like that, maybe they feel a little jealous. They live there, and they're not treated that way. I'd probably be jealous too. So maybe that adds to the friction between us.
I'm an anomaly on the American political scene: I'm a private sector guy through and through, and I'm not a member of either of the two traditional parties. I have no aspirations to build a political career, so I'm not interested in swapping favors or garnering influence. I answer only to the people. I don't think very many other political figures in high office can say that. It gives me a unique perspective into the state of American politics today.
But isn't that what politicians are supposed to be, in a government of, by, and for the people? Aren't they supposed to come from the public, identify with the public, serve the public? How can they claim to serve the people if they're beholden to anyone else?
Within the next several chapters of this book, I'm going to be talking a great deal about the snags in our political system that keep it from working the way it should. But as you're reading, I want you to keep one thing in mind: The greatest threat to our political freedom is not the career politicians, the partisan gang wars, or the power-hungry lobbyists. It's the apathetic public that allows them to flourish!
I'd like to be able to take the people's enthusiasm as a sign that public apathy isn't necessarily a permanent condition. I hope it means that when the people believe they're being heard, they will come back into the system and participate. I dearly hope that that's so. I want to believe that my public service has made a difference. Because I'll let you in on a secret: Being in public office is tough!
Starting from the moment I threw my hat into the gubernatorial ring, the traditional political power brokers have been doing everything they can think of to knock me out of power. I truly believe that I have gotten more harassment than any other governor, because I'm independent, and because I'm powerful. I'm a threat. And they have to take me down.
At least the politicians' hatred of me is understandable: I'm jeopardizing their comfortable careers. But the media have no excuse for the way they've treated me. They smelled blood in the water and they've been circling ever since, ready to go on the attack whenever they see an opening. Why? Because sordid headlines make money. If anyone says something derogatory about me, whether it's true or not, whether the source is even remotely credible, they're all too eager to print it. There's big money in character assassination.
But it's not just the politicians and the media that make this job difficult. The average American has no idea what kinds of things you have to endure today to serve in public office. Did you know, for example, that I average about one death threat a week? Even my family gets threatened. My sixteen-year-old special ed daughter has been threatened, in vile, horrible ways. And she hasn't ever harmed a soul. She's as innocent as anybody on earth.
I don't know if the people who do this are just trying to get back at me, or if it's just that bad people tend to focus on someone innocent. But I have to assume that if these wackos are capable of making threats, they're capable of carrying them out.
I may or may not seek a second term as governor. Of course, I don't plan on even thinking about making that decision for another couple of years. But the further I go in this job, with the never-ending media beatings and the continuous hassle I get from the legislature, I'm feeling less and less inclined to sign up for another four years of it. I'm probably about fifty-fifty right now; I could go either way. But I was more enthusiastic even six months ago than I am now.
Even though there are times when I get depressed and I think, "This isn't worth it. I'm not running again," I wouldn't trade the experience and the education I've had for anything. And I hope I've done some good, if only to shake up the tired old status quo of public office. Whatever else they say about me, nobody can say I'm your run-of-the-mill politician!
My security people, who are a truly outstanding bunch of guys, told me that the first time we went to Washington for the governor's conference, when we were there with fifty governors and fifty sets of security, the other security people were coming up to them saying, "What's Governor Ventura like?" My people said, "He's great!" And they all said, "I knew it!"
They like working for me because I do stuff that no other governor will do. They never know what to expect. Once, Terry and I went to a Warren Zevon concert -- that was unusual enough as it is; usually governors and first ladies go to see Swan Lake or something like that. But I'm strictly a rock-and-roll governor.
Warren Zevon is one of my favorite artists. But one of his songs has a lyric that goes, "My shit's fucked up." While we were at the concert, Warren Zevon sang this lyric. Terry's security person turned to my security person and said, "What did he say?"
If I ever were to become president (which will probably never happen) and it comes time for me to host the National Governors' Association, instead of having the entertainment for the evening be a swing band like they had the first time we went, or Kenny G, whom they had this year, I'm going to have Warren Zevon play. And I'm going to tell him beforehand, "Don't change a single lyric!"
I can just imagine all the governors in their tuxes and the first ladies in their ball gowns, hearing, "My shit's fucked up," and then turning to each other, whispering, "What did he say?"
Copyright © 2000 by Jesse Ventura
Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals
Do I Stand Alone?
Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals
In his first controversial New York Times bestseller, I Ain't Got Time to Bleed, ex-Navy SEAL and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura told the remarkable story of his climb up the Reform Party ladder to the governorship of Minnesota. Now, with jackhammer force and candor, Governor Ventura issues an urgent wake-up call to America -- a resounding indictment of our creeping national cynicism, and how our political system rewards mediocrity while turning a blind eye to accountability.
In Do I Stand Alone? Ventura sternly warns against the danger of expecting too little from our elected officials. He decries the ease with which most Americans surrender their freedoms and apathetically accept a system of governance driven more by pork and patronage than by the best interests of the constituency. He also denounces an irresponsible media, taking them to task for too often confusing fame with notoriety, and for driving the news instead of simply reporting it. And he unabashedly speaks out on today's hot-button issues, including welfare, racism, youth violence, immigration, abortion, campaign finance reform, and gay rights.
Giving us fascinating insights into the future of independent parties, Governor Ventura ushers us deep into the polished corridors of power, exposing the best -- and worst -- of our current crop of political personalities. He offers straightforward, uncompromising profiles of the current presidential candidates, and lays out a workable strategy for bringing our political system -- and its politicians -- back to greatness.
In a forthright, razor-sharp, and entertaining critique, Governor Jesse Ventura has once again thrown down the gauntlet -- challenging today's politicians as well as a disenchanted public to transcend the tired rhetoric and defiantly reclaim the freedom and opportunity that is our American birthright.