ST. PAUL, Minn.—Minnesota excels at producing unlikely pairs. In the field of literature there is the dissimilar duo of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis (Riviera and prairie); in politics, Eugene McCarthy and Harold Stassen; in music, Bob Dylan and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The illustrators LeRoy Neiman and Charles Schulz are both Minnesotans, as are the sports heroes Greg LeMond and Bronko Nagurski.
Even the Twin Cities -- Minneapolis and St. Paul -- have unique identities, as distinct from each other as the two American icons to emerge from Minnesota this century: Charles Lindbergh and Judy Garland. Currently the two celebrities most associated with the state -- grandly continuing the tradition of dual personalities -- are Garrison Keillor and Jesse Ventura.
As odd couples go, this one seems classic. Keillor is a writer with a nationally syndicated radio show, the latest in a long line of Midwestern humorists that stretches from James Thurber and George Ade to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He is a complex man who has brought religion into the fiercely secular world of popular culture while wryly trumpeting the cause of the chronically shy. Ventura is a Navy SEAL turned professional wrestler who last November was elected governor.
Yet there are more things linking them than a shared home state. They are physically imposing men, both standing well over 6 feet tall and speaking in sonorous, signature voices. Both took noms de plume (or guerre) for careers in entertainment -- Garrison having been born Gary, and Jesse Ventura, Jim Janos. Similarly, both created a folksy persona -- the homespun raconteur, the bombastic brawler -- that played in theaters and arenas and over time attracted a loyal following. Each adopted in the process a sartorial trademark, the red socks peeking out from under Keillor's pants cuffs being the shy person's equivalent of a feather boa.
And neither is particularly fond of journalists.
They are also, now, locked together in a war of words. It began soon after the election, when Keillor wrote a mocking essay for Time magazine. Ventura followed, shortly after his inauguration, by suggesting an end to state funding for public radio. The new governor quickly became a weekly object of ridicule on "A Prairie Home Companion" -- a heretofore harmless collection of music and skits -- and the subject of a Keillor book. Now in its sixth month, the feud has attracted the attention of Doonesbury and ruffled, at least for non-Minnesotans, the placid surface of a state known for its numerous lakes.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are not the twins many think they are, connected at the hip by a bridge (like Philadelphia and Camden). Cross the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis and you arrive not in St. Paul but in Old Minneapolis. Our Lady of Lourdes Church rises on its hill behind Nye's Bar & Polonaise Room, which huddles just down the street from Kramarczuk Sausage Company & Deli. For St. Paul you should get on the freeway and, as if you were going from Burbank to Pasadena, head southeast for half a dozen unexceptional miles.
The Capitol sits alone on a hill overlooking downtown, skirted by rolling green lawns and animated by a golden chariot at the base of its dome. It could be the seat of government for a medium-sized country. Inside, the echoing corridors are hung with oil paintings of governors past: Floyd Bjerstjerne Olson, Edward Thye, Luther W. Youngdahl, Harold Stassen. It is difficult to make the proper chronological progression from these stern and provident faces to the silkenly shaven head now in office.
I made my way to that office one recent Wednesday morning for my 10 o'clock interview. The governor was running late, a staff member told me; he first needed to address a group of representatives from various governmental departments. I was more than welcome to watch.
I stood in the back, already feeling guilty for taking precious time out of his hectic schedule. (He had just arrived home the previous night from a trip to California.) He appeared through a side door, dressed in a brown double-breasted suit, dark blue shirt and tie. I had not realized how tall he is. He moved a little stiffly, looking vaguely like a cross between Lurch and Uncle Fester. In his brief remarks, he explained that his managerial style was one of delegating. He spoke with his usual mild bluster, but seemed ill at ease, as if he realized, underneath it all, how far out of his realm he really was.
He answered questions for a few minutes, and when there was a lull, and the session seemed over, he asked, "Nobody wants to know about the Hollywood trip?" And everyone laughed, with the stunned relief that follows a joke at a funeral.
"I spent 5 or 10 minutes talking with Nicolas Cage," he said in that deep boreal drawl that sounds as if it should be emanating from an animated character. "Real nice guy. I went to Elton John's party. His party was in support of AIDS, so I thought that was a good party to go to. I talked with Nick Nolte. How many of you saw `Down and Out in Beverly Hills'? Remember the scene with the dog food? The dog food was real." I began to feel less guilty.
"I was a presenter at the Spirit Awards, for independent films. I got to give out the Truer Than Fiction award. I thought, `How real.' Because many people thought my election was truer than fiction. Though Garrison will do it after the fact."
He was much less jovial 10 minutes later when he stared at me across an enormous desk in his corner office. (He had been quoted in Newsweek a few months earlier saying he'd installed a special bumper on his SUV for running over reporters.) Something about the bald head, the dark shirt, the double-breasted suit -- his impatient rocking back and forth in his chair -- kindled unpleasant images from St. Paul's gangster past. I asked him where he would take me in Minnesota if he had the time -- hoping for an armchair tour of former hangouts -- and got nothing but a Chamber of Commerce listing of standard highlights: Stillwater, on the St. Croix River; the lakes; the Boundary Waters; Duluth ("the San Francisco of the Midwest," he called it); the Mall of America ("It's like the 8th Wonder of the World.").
"But I don't want to say one place is better than another," he interjected at one point. Two staff members were in the room with us.
"Like on Letterman," I said, remembering his statement that of the Twin Cities he preferred Minneapolis because, for one thing, he always got lost in St. Paul, the streets having been laid out by drunken Irishmen.
"That doesn't worry me!" he snapped. It was the conversational equivalent of a body slam.
Leaving, I drove up past the Italian-Renaissance hulk of the Cathedral of St. Paul, as noble on its mound as the Capitol, two lone sentinels -- in an elevated equilibrium of church and state -- watching protectively over the city. Coming around the corner I found myself on Summit Avenue, St. Paul's pride, said to be the nation's longest stretch of inhabited Victorian houses. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald described it once as "a museum of architectural failures." I found his home at 599, a handsome, turreted, three-story brownstone. While I was taking pictures, a neighbor stepped out onto his stoop.
I mentioned that I'd just come from seeing his governor; the crack on Letterman came up. "I'm Irish myself," he said, then, turning on the heavy brogue, "and I've touched nary a drop since I was 12."