Wrestling with reform

I’m a six-foot-four, 250-pound ex-Navy SEAL, pro wrestler, radio personality, and film actor … I won’t say absolutely not, but I wouldn’t put any money on there ever being a Jesse "The Prez" Ventura.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura

Well, I wouldn’t bet my last penny against it, either. Something is happening out there and I am not sure what it is, except that it is supposed to be impossible. Our social studies teachers taught us that sometimes, indeed, our sacred two-party system gets a trifle out of touch with the folks, and needs a shot of 3-In-One oil to get it back on track.

That is why God invented third parties. They are supposed to spring up from the street, or prairie, usually over a single issue or charismatic candidate, make some noise, get some votes and then be co-opted by one of the big parties and quietly disappear.

Indeed, that has been the case forever, from the Greenbacks to the Free-Soilers. Franklin D. Roosevelt outflanked the left in the 1930s; Richard Nixon’s boys did the same to George Wallace’s racist populism in the early ’70s. The two-party system creaked on.

Next week, we may get a clue as to whether this is still so. The Reform Party is holding a national convention in Dearborn (I don’t know why, either) and a huge fight is being waged for its soul and its future.

Originally, the party was a creation of the ego and bankroll of H. Ross Perot, and he’d like it to stay that way.

Last year, he refused to help finance a maverick reform bid for governor by a seemingly eccentric ex-Navy SEAL on the Reform ticket. Said SEAL was also a radio talk-show host, and, many forget, the successful mayor of a medium-size city.

Spurned, Jesse Ventura won anyway; the first Reform Party candidate to win any statewide election. Now, he wants to wrest control of the party from Perot.

Few of the famous experts think that matters very much. What they don’t fully appreciate, however, was how terribly damaged the old firms have been, by Vietnam, Watergate, and everything that has happened since, and everything they have done to themselves. We have almost forgotten this now, but seven years ago, a cranky billionaire with a brush cut burst on the scene and for a while threatened to topple the system.

Perot was nasal, whiny and bizarre. He got in the race, got out, got back in. He called blacks "you people" and said lesbians encouraged by George Bush the First had plotted to ruin his daughter’s wedding. His ethics were puritan, and he had the style and culture of a fuel-oil salesman from Tulsa, except he hated blue jeans. He was up against the president who ended the Cold War and won the Gulf War, and a charismatic, Southern-fried Kennedy wannabe who promised to restore hope.

Nevertheless, 20 million people voted for Reform. Four years later, though Perot was out of gas and ideas, and his heart plainly wasn’t in it, 8 million voted for him again.

Since then, the political system has lost further credibility. The man from Hope proved to be a low-class Bubba who slimed the office and failed at the one thing he tried, health care reform. The Republicans took over Congress as a result, but wasted most of their mandate. If Clinton felt being president was all about unveiling his pork sword, the loyal opposition thought they were elected to peep in the windows.

Disgusted, and lulled into indifference by the supercharged economy, the people turned away. The press then largely missed the meteoric emergence of the most interesting political figure in a long time, and then got it wrong. By now, everyone knows that Jesse Ventura, a colorful ex-pro wrestler, was elected governor of Minnesota last year, and wore a feather boa to his own inaugural ball. What fascinated me was where this was happening.

Minnesota is full of sensible, hard-working Scandinavians, who gave us Walter Mondale. They have few minorities; government seems to work there, and it has been any liberal Democratic presidential candidate’s easiest state.

How could they elect a man in tights? I stopped wondering the first time I heard him speak. Not only is he a natural orator, he is smart – very smart, and has a style that seems certain to resonate with every blue-collar worker in the land. Were he to run for president, he would easily sweep Warren and Taylor and Hazel Park.

His message is simple, compelling, and powerfully packaged in his just-published autobiography, I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed (Villard, $19.95.):

"Neither of the two parties is truly representing the people anymore. They are at opposite extremes, with about 70 percent of us in the middle. That needs to change."

Mostly, he sounds vaguely libertarian. "I’m a working man with common sense ideas and goals. I describe myself as fiscally conservative and socially moderate-to-liberal." That’s a menu with powerful appeal to the baby boomers and their successors, and one which, bafflingly, neither party has offered.

Baffling, that is, unless you accept his theory that both parties are paralyzed by their extremes. Ventura says he wants the party to run Lowell Weicker for president. Right. That’ll stir the blood. Incidentally, voter turnout in Minnesota when he ran was enormous. Keep your eye on Dearborn next week. You never know when you may need a feather boa.

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