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Jesse Ventura’s last gasp

Whatever the verdict in his libel case against Chris Kyle, Jesse Ventura has lost. He had lost years before the trial, and everyone knew that except for Ventura himself. In so many ways this trial revealed that Ventura came to believe the hype that indicated he was a popular and respected political figure. The reality is that he was never the icon that he and a compliant media made him out to be, and this trial is Ventura’s last gasp for fame.

The basis of Ventura’s lawsuit against Chris Kyle, to quote his legal complaint, is that the published statements in his book the American Sniper “negatively affected, and will continue to negatively affect Governor Ventura in connection with his businesses and professions, including but not limited to his current and future opportunities as a political candidate, political commentator, author, speaker, television host and personality.” Ventura denies that he made disparaging remarks about other Navy SEALs and that Kyle knocked him down. Ventura asserts that Kyle knew these statements were false, and that they damaged Ventura’s career.

Whatever damage that has come to Ventura’s career was mostly self-inflicted. Yes, Ventura was elected governor, but remember first that he received only 37 percent of the vote — 63 percent of Minnesotans did not vote for him. He ran at a time when the state enjoyed a nearly $5 billion surplus and an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent. Ventura benefited from great economic times, his popular though largely unknown political persona, disenchantment with the establishment candidacies of Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman, and promises to give back the entire surplus if elected. He ran against government.

One interpretation of his victory was that 37 percent of the voters gave the state the middle finger. Ventura’s initial popularity as governor soared to record levels, but that was a consequence of his giving tax rebates or “Jesse checks” back to voters along with a careful national media campaign that fawned over him.

By the time he left office, his popularity had fallen dramatically — in part as a result of actions taken by Ventura himself. These actions may have included his public performance as governor as well as personal behavior in hosting events such as XFL football, his famous Playboy interview, or the combative posture that he took with the media and with political opponents. By the time he left office his popularity was wearing thin, and had he decided to run for governor again in 2002, it is uncertain whether he would have been re-elected.

In the decade since Ventura left office, he has taken a series of actions that have probably done damage to his political fortunes. His comments about the war in Iraq, 9/11, his failed television shows, boorish interviews, bland books, and relocation to Baja, Mexico, have all made him a less popular figure than in the past. Also, continuing the lawsuit against Kyle’s widow after he was murdered did not help. The morally decent thing to do would have been to drop the case and walk away. But he did not, and that decision too has been no help to Ventura’s reputation. What made Ventura so interesting and successful initially was his ability to combine his entertainment and pop culture persona with politics; he held the status of a poli-tainer, as I once argued.

But now his act is boring and predictable — every time he says he is going to run for office again, or every time he makes a media appearance, it is for self-promotional purposes.

What Ventura most wants but cannot get is to be taken as a serious, relevant public presence. The lawsuit against Chris Kyle is about relevance, but it is also about ego. If Kyle is telling the truth, he decked Ventura, bruising the latter’s ego before fellow Navy SEALs. That was intolerable — as, perhaps, was the fact that Kyle’s book was selling while his own were not. They were just ignored.

And even as Kyle’s book came out he was ignored — his reputation was largely unaffected. Two surveys by Public Policy Polling (PPP) would appear to show that Kyle’s book had no impact on Ventura’s reputation. The first one was dated June 6, 2011, before Chris Kyle’s book came out. The second survey is dated October 8, 2012, several months after the book was published. Among the many questions that PPP asked Minnesotans was “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jesse Ventura?”

In the first poll 29 percent said favorable, 58 percent said unfavorable, and 13 percent said not sure. The poll was subject to a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points. In the second poll, 29 percent said favorable, 53 percent said unfavorable, and 18 percent said not sure. The poll was subject to a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. Thus, there was no perceptible change in aggregate public opinion regarding Ventura’s favorable rating between the time before Kyle’s book and several months afterward. More importantly, the second poll reveals a 5 percent decrease in Ventura’s unfavorable views between the time before Kyle’s book and several months afterward, along with a shift of opinion away from unfavorable to undecided. Given the margins of error in the two polls, it is either possible that: 1) Ventura’s unfavorable views decreased after Kyle’s book; or 2) there was no real change in public opinion attitudes among Minnesotans regarding Ventura as a result of Kyle’s book.

These two polls therefore suggest that Kyle’s book had no real aggregate impact in terms of damaging Ventura’s reputation, at least in Minnesota. Perhaps that was because Minnesotans’ views on Ventura were largely decided long ago, or perhaps it means that no one is really paying attention to him anymore. Given that PPP no longer asks about Ventura, that itself may speak to his irrelevance.

Ventura’s lawsuit was a cry for help. It was a last gasp effort to make the public take him seriously and count him as relevant.

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