Photos by Lauren B. Faulk
Before there was Trump, “the Donald,” tough-talking celebrity-turned-politician, shaking the political establishment to its core, there was Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
A Vietnam veteran, actor and former professional wrestler, Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998, the most successful candidate of Ross Perot’s Reform Party before or since. The man who fought an alien alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator and preferred the bad guys in his heated color commentary on WrestleMania proved just as feisty as governor, battling both major parties for four years before stepping aside.
But he was only getting started. Not one to fade into the sunset, he has attacked the partisanship of American politics and exposed government lies and cover-ups in half a dozen bestselling books and several internet shows. He is a staunch advocate of cannabis reform and though he’s been out of office for 12 years, he remains a force in American politics, waiting on the outside for a time when America might again be fed up with the two-party system.
And 2016 just might be that time.
CULTURE recently caught up with the 64-year-old Ventura by phone from his half-year home in Minnesota. He talked at length about his storied political career, his love of cannabis and how he could be the game-changer in next year’s election.
Could you tell us a little bit about your new book?
It’s a rehash of an old one, American Conspiracies, but we’ve added about four more chapters. That’s one good thing in general about the government. If you wait four or five years, you can do four or five more chapters on them because they’re good for about one a year. It seems to be that way.
You spend a good part of your time in Mexico?
I spend probably half the year or more.
I bet you’re a not big fan of (Mexican-bashing presidential candidate) Donald Trump.
I’ve actually known Donald for 25 years now, and I do respect Donald. I don’t agree with him on everything, especially on the immigration policy, but that’s just one issue. I love what he’s doing, the fact that he’s fracturing the Republican Party, and I love what Bernie Sanders is doing to the Democrats. As you know, I’m fiercely independent and I’ve written a book called Democrips and Rebloodicans, where I’ve equated them to being the same as the L.A. street gangs. In fact, I apologized to L.A. street gangs for using their names that way.
On certain issues, Democrats are maybe a little bit closer to you. They’re coming around on cannabis legalization and some other issues. Do you identify with them at all?
I’m fiscally conservative and I’m socially liberal. That puts me on the conservative side of lesser government because I feel we have far too much government overseeing us. I’m closer to being Libertarian . . . I’m absolutely a believer in ending the war on drugs, which is also a Libertarian viewpoint. The war has been a miserable failure and always will be. In what’s supposed to be a free country, it comes down to this: How can the government tell you what or what not to use, as far as what you want to ingest in your body, as long as you don’t harm anyone else?
Did you ever partake in cannabis as a young man?
Of course. I grew up in the ‘60s. Anyone that would tell you they didn’t and they grew up in the ‘60s is either lying or they didn’t grow up in the ‘60s . . . I remember one time a friend of mine who sold me an ounce had to apologize six times because it cost $12 instead of $10. The standard thing in those days was $10 a lid, and a lid was an ounce of pot. Can you imagine? Ten bucks. The first time I tried it I said, “This is way better than drinking. They’re not even comparable.” And I drank way before I touched pot.
Were you a hippie?
No. Not a bit. I enlisted right after high school in the United States Navy and became a frogman and a Vietnam veteran . . . The culture went beyond the hippies. The whole generation wound up (smoking pot.)
After you left the military, did you ever partake, like when you were in the wrestling world?
Absolutely. I wrestled in Hawaii before they made it illegal and everyone in the nation wanted to get Hawaiian. That was the primo of the primo in the ‘70s. Because it’s grown over there and I don’t know what the volcanic soil does to it but it makes it very good. I’m also old enough today to know that when they spread this stuff about the dangers, that the pot today isn’t like the pot of the ‘60s because it’s more powerful, that’s actually a positive. If it’s more powerful it doesn’t require you to smoke nearly as much, does it? And that makes it healthier, doesn’t it?
Were you always political, or was it after the acting slowed down that you decide to get into politics?
I think I was always aware politically, because my father made me so. My father had six bronze battle stars in World War II and my mother was also a World War II veteran, so I come from a family of all veterans. My dad was opposed to the Vietnam War before the hippies were . . . I had a father who, at the dinner table, would get worked up. I remember times my mom would send him to the basement because he’d get so worked up over Vietnam or whatever the issue might be; so being from my dad, I can see where it comes from.
Was your father a big part of your decision to run for mayor and then governor?
No I had no intention to ever seek office. The run for mayor happened because the city council wanted to access a storm sewer curb and gutter tax and we didn’t need it . . . Then I realized the city of Brooklyn Park had a massive good old boy network, headed by the 25-year incumbent mayor. As I got more involved locally, one day I was there and I looked at him and I had the podium and I said, “You’re going to make me run, aren’t you?” And his buddy on the council burst out laughing and said, “You couldn’t win.” And I left the city hall that night with the usual attitude that nobody tells me I can’t do something. So I was running for mayor. I ended up beating the 25-year incumbent 66 percent to 33 percent.
How do you feel about what you accomplished as mayor and how did that lead you to run for governor?
We rousted out the good old boy network. It took us three elections to do so. Then I moved on. Because I don’t believe public service should ever be a career, like most of these guys get re-elected for 30 years. I think that’s ridiculous . . . Then I moved to my ranch out in Maple Grove and I was doing just fine. I was doing morning talk radio four years later and Minnesota had billions of dollars of surplus; too much money. The economy was great at the end of the Clinton years and the state had, I don’t know, three billion dollars more than they budgeted for. And instead of returning it to the taxpayers, they spent it. I got outraged on talk radio, I said, “Wait a minute. They set the budget. They have no right, because the economy is powerful and they’re taxing us too much then, to just collect this money and spend it above and beyond their budget?” I kind of backed myself in a corner. I kind of threw it out there and said, “Maybe I should run for governor?” And boy that took off like wildfire.
Are you going to run for president in 2016?
I don’t know. I’ll wait until the pikers are gone. Who’d be stupid enough to jump in now? The Libertarians have their convention next June and that’s where they’ll pick their candidate and if you get in next June you’ll have ballot access for pretty much the whole country and then you only have to run until November. It’s all about timing. So when these other two gangs get down to one, whoever their guy is, then you jump in and you beat them and you steal the election.
So you’re considering a run as a Libertarian?
Yeah. It’d be the only way I could get ballot access. You’ve got to get ballot access and the libertarians have it. All you have to do is go to their convention in June and if they pick you as the nominee, then you’re off and running. Then the key is to force them to let you in the debates. I was polling only 10 percent (when he joined the Minnesota gubernatorial race) which would not get me into the debates today. And yet in Minnesota, 10 percent at Labor Day and I won the election in November. It took me only two months. Two months and three debates and I destroyed them. Let me do that in the presidency and we’ll see a repeat of it . . . If I ran, I would run on one issue. I would make the Libertarians agree I’m not part of their party but I’ve got their endorsement to run, and I’m not a member of their party. I could use this to win. I would challenge the American people to elect the first president since George Washington, the father of our country, who does not belong to a political party, and I believe you could win on that alone right now.
You’ve been known for so many different things–a wrestler, actor, governor and writer. How do you hope you’re remembered?
I don’t care. They were all important to me at the specific times I lived them. I’m 64 now and if I live to 80 or 85, if I’m lucky, I don’t want to say “woulda coulda shoulda.” I never planned anything out. I just live life and when you come to a Y in the road you make a decision and you go that way and you see what t happens. I had no vision ever. I didn’t have a vision that much of even being a pro wrestler—it just kind of fell into place.
Now that you’re 64, you still feel like you ain’t got time to bleed (the title of one of your books and a famous quote from the film Predator)?
Now that I’m 64, I don’t even worry about it. I got an offer to do a film and I turned it down. I don’t feel like acting anymore . . . I’m pretty happy doing my internet show right now. It gives me the freedom to talk about what I want to talk about. I can say anything. Nothing’s’ censored. You can call bullshit “bullshit” without worrying about being fined.
Do you think we’ll ever see national cannabis legalization or do you think we’ll see it go state by state?
The federal government should get out of it completely and they should leave up to each state like they do alcohol. Alcohol is governed by each state, whether they have dry counties, what the drinking age is, and how they handle it. There’s no reason to have the federal government involved in any way, shape or form.
It’s going well in states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington . . .
I’ve been through Colorado quite often because there is a sense of freedom there that I really enjoy feeling. I tip my hat to Colorado and the people of it and for having the courage to do what they did . . . It’s long overdue. It’s too many jobs. And that plant itself has too many uses to be eradicated. I love to say this to all the religious people out there: If you believe in God, then you believe that God created every plant on this planet. Well I don’t think he created marijuana for us to eradicate it. I think he created it for us to use it. Religious people should look at it from that perspective when they take a stance on marijuana.
Do you still partake yourself every now and then?
Only if I’m in Colorado. (Laughs.) There’s a good political answer for you. Only if I’m in Colorado, that way I can’t get in any trouble, right?