Taking Jesse Seriously

THE REFORM PARTY has come in for a good deal of ribbing from the nation's press. It has been dismissed as flaky, a circus and "a ship of fools."

It is easy to understand why. The party seems to have attracted an odd assortment of egocentric candidates with little political experience and almost no political principles in common.

Editorial cartoonists have had a field day with Ross Perot's ears, Jesse Ventura's bald head and feather boa, Donald Trump's hair and Pat Buchanan's pinched face. Truly an odd lot.

But not all the criticism is merited. A good deal of it stems from a desire to dismiss some of the ideas being offered without having to argue against them. It is a familiar ploy of the national press and one of the reasons why so many people say they do not trust the media.

Take a second look, if you will, at Jesse Ventura. The Reform Party may not interest you very much, but Ventura should. In a recent Playboy interview the Minnesota governor showed himself a solid, decent man not much given to tolerating prejudice and not afraid to say what he thinks.

If you are looking for a prominent politician in any party who supports gay equality, you cannot do better than Ventura. He makes Bill Clinton and Al Gore look like cold fish.

What does Ventura, a former Navy SEAL, think about gays in the military?

"Who am I to tell someone they can or cannot serve their country? I couldn't care less if the person next to me is gay as long as he gets the job done."

This is almost exactly what Sen. Barry Goldwater, a general in the Air Force Reserve, said when he supported letting gays serve in the military: "A good soldier will respect those who get the job done. . . . You don't need to be 'straight' to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight."

When Playboy asked about gay marriage, Ventura said he opposed the use of the word, but favored some policy like that: "I don't oppose gay people forming some type of legal bonding, but you can't use the word 'marriage.'"

Fair enough. Give gays the equal status and the language will eventually follow. In Norway, many people already use the word "marriage" for the legal partnerships of gays and lesbians even though technically those are not marriages.

Ventura explained his reasons for supporting gay partnerships during an October 1998 election debate with his Republican and Democratic opponents:

"I have two friends who have been together 41 years," he said, "and if one of them becomes sick, the other one is not even allowed to be at the bedside (in a hospital). I don't believe government should be so hostile, so mean-spirited. Love is bigger than government."

I suggest if you want a motto for the gay movement that will fit on a bumper sticker, you could not do much better than that: "Love is bigger than government."

It is useful to make another point explicit here. Ventura is saying not only that gay relationships should be acknowledged because we need to be more tolerant, accepting, etc., but also because we need to prevent the government from intruding into all our lives with a moralistic agenda that makes invidious distinctions among love-relationships, approving of some and disapproving of others.

Ventura, in fact, said his objection to the religious right is that religion "tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people's business. The religious right wants to tell people how to live." And, of course, have the government impose that way of living on everyone.

Again, this is reminiscent of Goldwater, who said "every good Christian ought to kick [the Rev. Jerry} Falwell right in the ass," and told the Advocate in a 1993 interview, "I don't have any respect for the religious right. They are a detriment to the country, and the sooner they get their asses out of politics, the better."

On other issues generally, Ventura describes himself as "fiscally conservative but socially liberal," a thoroughly consistent combination which can produce some surprising results.

When Playboy asked how he felt about protesters who burn the American flag, Ventura shot back, "If you buy the flag it's yours to burn."

This is a good example of how someone can come to a supposedly liberal position but based on a supposedly conservative support for property rights. Ventura does not bother with any appeal to First Amendment protections for symbolic speech. He simply points out that the flag you buy is your property to do with as you like, a point that would never occur to liberals.

The same general libertarian approach leads Ventura to oppose both gun control and the death penalty. The connection seemed to escape a writer for the New York Times Magazine who found those positions inconsistent. But the connection is clear: Government has no business taking away people's ability to defend themselves (from the government itself, Ventura makes clear), nor should the government have the power to take away people's lives.

Ventura's support for lifestyle libertarianism extends further than most politicians would advocate in public, whatever their private behavior. He opposes prosecuting people for prostitution or using drugs. He acknowledges paying for sex and smoking marijuana. "I have smoked a joint, and there is nothing wrong with that," he said. "I have done far stupider things on alcohol."

Playboy is not good at asking follow-up questions to find out why Ventura holds these positions, but we can guess he would say that your body is your property and the government should not control what you do with it. When asked why he opposes mandatory helmet laws, Ventura gave a one-word answer: "Freedom."

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