Tim Penny got his first dose of Jesse the Governor within days of the election last November. The morning of the victory party, a dazed Ventura woke up in a mild panic, with no idea of what to do next. So he called Penny, a respected centrist and former congressman whom he'd never met. Intrigued, Penny agreed to accompany Ventura to a governors' meeting in Delaware, where "The Body" would give his first national press conference. Penny figured he could guide Ventura through the gantlet of political pros and jaded reporters who expected the one-time wrestler to make a fool of himself.
As the big moment arrived, Penny, dressed in his standard-issue suit, waited nervously outside his new protege's hotel room. He was amazed when Ventura emerged in a size 52 fringed buckskin jacket and pointed snakeskin boots, striding purposefully toward the elevator as if Hulk Hogan were waiting inside. "I see you decided not to change," Penny said cautiously. "No," Ventura winked, "I just decided to give 'em what they want."
Nobody understands Jesse Ventura's appeal better than The Body himself: he is who he is, and even when he's wrong, at least he's real. A year ago, Ventura was a sideshow freak at the political carnival; now he's beginning to look like the ringmaster. His book is a bestseller. His action figure is hot. A Broadway musical on his life is in the works. And if you want to run for president--and your name isn't Al, Bill or George--Jesse is The Man To See. Donald Trump calls him regularly. Pat Buchanan has been trying to get a meeting--but hey, the schedule's tight. Ventura himself could yet be drafted to run, a prospect that terrifies the major parties.
But even blunt talk has its limits, and Ventura appears bent on finding them. The latest example is his explosive interview in the November issue of Playboy, where he shared his views on religion--namely, that it shouldn't exist. "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers," Ventura said. He claimed he had been quoted out of context by newspapers, and in fact he had a small point; a caveat at the end of his diatribe seemed to imply that he was talking at least partly about the "religious right." Even so, Reform's outgoing chairman quickly called on Ventura to resign from the party. And at a time when Jesse is muscling his way into presidential politics, even some of his advisers had to wonder: is candor in itself a political platform? Or will voters get tired of hearing views, however honest, that seem a little unhinged? "It can get in the way of your larger goals, and I think that's something the governor is sorting out," says Penny, who remains an unofficial adviser. "This was not a pleasant experience."
It wasn't exactly unfamiliar, either. It's one of those funny paradoxes about Ventura: when he's on the phone or in public, he's often guarded. But put a tape recorder in front of him in a relaxed setting, and it's almost like a form of therapy. Prostitution should be legal, he told Playboy. So should drugs. People who kill themselves are just weak. So are fat people. (Here he was referring to the former wife of his predecessor.) "It's good to be the king." And on and on.
And yet, as is typical with Ventura, his antics overshadowed the interview's more courageous observations, which are the essence of his maverick political appeal. A former Navy Seal, Ventura articulately decried the draft as discriminatory and said he'd be glad to fight next to a gay man. He criticized politicians for making promises about crime. ("Half these guys wouldn't know crime if it bit them on the ass.") And in a playful comment that surely caught the attention of political operatives, he hinted that if he were to get in the presidential ring, he'd wait until next summer, when the other candidates were old news. In fact, Ventura implied the same thing in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. "By next year, people are going to be sick of [the candidates] because they've been shoved down their throats for so long," he said, riding in the back seat of his Lincoln Navigator. …