Inside the stately halls of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace on Thursday morning, two conservatively dressed Republican women in their 60s wondered aloud: “Did he wear underwear?”
Not President Nixon--Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the former bad-boy professional wrestler who stunned the nation in November when he was elected governor of Minnesota.
The blunt-talking, gun-toting, baldheaded political phenomenon kept on stunning and winning fans at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, even when wistfully recalling his youthful exploits at a Nevada brothel and tearing up at the mention of his modern-day hero, Muhammad Ali.
Nixon Foundation director John H. Taylor began by comparing Ventura to Thomas Jefferson, and a handful of admirers began singing “Hail to the Chief” when the governor, a former Navy Seal, walked before the standing-room-only crowd.
Ventura was in Southern California to plug his autobiography, “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed, Reworking the Body Politic From the Bottom Up,” and swept through Yorba Linda to sign copies after appearing Wednesday night on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
Ventura, the first U.S. governor chosen from Ross Perot’s Reform Party, delighted his audience Thursday with a barrage of loose-lipped comments that would torpedo other politicians. At one point, he warned his longtime Navy pals in the audience “don’t yell skivvy check,” a subtle reminder to one of many risque tidbits disclosed in his book: The governor is averse to undergarments.
Ventura dismissed criticism that the book’s raw accounts of his wild youth make him a bad role model, saying it was an honest description of his life--warts and all--in the politically and socially tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.
“It wasn’t written to shock. It was written, in some ways, to teach,” Ventura said.
“Certainly, there is no one in this room who, at age 18 or 19, didn’t do things that you look back on today and think, ‘Boy was I stupid,’ ” he said.
The hall at the Nixon Library was filled with young and old, with gray-haired Republicans and Reform Party activists sporting Mohawks, all of whom lined up to meet the former wrestler who won them over with the same honest, blue-collar political ideals that landed him in the governor’s mansion.
“He’s always been opinionated,” said Greg Platt of Norco, who went through Navy Seal training with the governor in 1970 and came to hear his speech. “I always thought he’d be a good politician--or an actor. He’s good at playing so many parts.”
Most of Ventura’s comments were riffs on his mantra for government accountability and personal responsibility, and his disgust with career politicians and media hype. He spent most of the morning recounting the trail to his upset victory, taking over political debates and stoking the fire of the Reform Party first lit by Perot.
“He’s the one thing that’s healthy and entertaining in politics today,” said Patricia Gaunt, a volunteer social worker from Tustin. “I’m a Republican, and the bright light in the whole debacle of the last election was Jesse Ventura.”
Taylor, the director of the Nixon Foundation, called Ventura a “cold shower for American politics” and complimented the Minnesota governor for pulling voters off the sidelines.
“He’s comfortable in his skin, and people can sense that,” Taylor said.
Ventura made an effort to compliment Nixon, saying he had “many many remarkable accomplishments,” but only after blasting the administrations of the 1960s and early ‘70s for hypocrisy, especially regarding the draft and Vietnam War.
He also attacked today’s leaders in Washington, especially those pushing to restrict handgun purchases to adults 21 and older, in light of last month’s slaughter of high school students in Littleton, Colo.
Such restrictions make no sense when the U.S. military gives 18-year-old soldiers assault weapons to fight our wars, said Ventura, a strong advocate for gun owners.
Still, despite pleas from supporters Thursday, Ventura said he has no intention of running for president. Putting his family through the rigors of a national campaign would be too much to ask, he said.
“I have no desire to go to Washington,” Ventura told the crowd of 600, some of whom paid $15 just to sit in an outside room and watch the Minnesota governor on a large-screen, closed-circuit TV. “I’ve been inside the Beltway. I wrestled there. I don’t like it.”