Is politics a populist sport or the domain of the pros?
You thought it couldn't be done. No one, it seemed, could top Bill Clinton's famous equivocation, "I did not inhale," when confronted with the nemesis of baby-boom politicians: past drug use. Yet somehow Slick W. has managed it, responding to unproven rumors of youthful cocaine-sniffing with a forked-tongued formula that bests even Clinton's classic confession/denial: "I have learned from the mistakes I may or may not have made."
It's enough to send a shudder through a Clinton-weary populace. Most people, the polls tell us, don't care if the guy snorted coke before his 30th birthday. But can we bear another four years of wiggle words and noncommittal New Speak from the Oval Office? The ghost of Bill Clinton was supposed to be Al Gore's problem!
As entertaining as the Bush cocaine contretemps have been, I don't think they qualify as the most important political event of the summer. Ditto for the Iowa straw poll. That honor goes to SummerSlam, the World Wrestling Federation pay-per-view event for which Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura refereed.
Imagine if the man who lays down the law to wrestlers "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Mankind was confronted with drug-use rumors. Ventura did have a brush with the volatile drug issue during his gubernatorial campaign, when the press pounced on remarks he made sympathetic to legalizing the stuff. But Jesse blew right past them. Do you think he'd let a bunch of pesky journalists and Sunday-morning talking heads get between him and the people?
I didn't see Ventura in Summer- Slam (although an unofficial estimate of 600,000 at $29.95 a pop did). I caught him on free TV earlier this month, promoting his upcoming SummerSlam appearance on one of the WWF's innumerable shows. Costumed in a tan suit--he'd rushed to the telecast straight from the annual Governors Conference--he stood lapel to biceps with some standard-issue villain and faced him down.
To prove his good-guy status, he badmouthed wrestling's evil boss, Vince McMahon, to lusty cheers.
Although out of the ring for many years, he hasn't lost it; he still has the over-the-top bluster and the cartoon machismo. Between Ventura and his audience, there was the we-know- that-you-know-that-we-know-this-is- pretend intimacy that binds wrestling and its fans. At SummerSlam he declared, "I'm proud to be here tonight." And why not? In the ring, he is of, by and for the people in ways other politicians can only dream.
This bond helps explain why Ventura is less vulnerable to the land mines routinely planted in the way of anyone seeking elective office. As George W.'s "inevitable" candidacy briefly wobbled in the wind of a cocaine nonscandal, one realized how precarious that inevitability is.
Many pundits have noted how strange it is to have an overwhelming favorite so early in the race. What's even stranger is to have a candidate crowned from the top--the party regulars, the big donors, the hard-core Republican editorialists--in a society that increasingly operates from the bottom up, one in which the citizen-consumer increasingly calls the shots.
Nor is George W. the only top-down candidate in this race. Gore is the traditional version of the "inevitable" contender anointed on high, an incumbent vice president. What Steve Forbes lacks in a constituency he makes up for in a bank account. He'll likely seek the presidency as long as his money and his ego hold out. Warren Beatty has contemplated rescuing the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from the empyrean of Hollywood. My heart stopped momentarily when I read that Donald Trump was considering a run, then started again when I learned that, despite alleged popular pressure to enter the race, he decided to sit this one out.
Presidential politics has never been a game for people's candidates. What's striking is that in the face of the consumer self-empowerment revolution that's transforming every other aspect of society, the top-down nature of presidential politics is hardening. By withdrawing in disgust from traditional politics, Americans have created a vacuum for the pro's favorites or the moneyed self-anointed to fill. Thus, the feeling that politics and politicians are irrelevant feeds on itself.
So whatever else one can say about Ventura, he doesn't feel irrelevant. He's strictly from the bottom up. (It's no accident the guy comes out of the Midwest, historic home of American populism, even if this time around, the movement emerges not from the farm but out of the
suburbs.) In a state that has already approved citizen-initiated legislation, Ventura proposes a nonpartisan unicameral legislature. No political parties, no "inevitable" candidates, no top-down contenders, just the people's candidates, directly responsible to the voters.
In such a world, the wrestling ring is as good a political launch pad as any. Warren Beatty, are you listening?