Minn.'s Ventura is still shooting from the hip

April 30, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In his first four months in office, Gov. Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party's unexpected gift to Minnesota, has been a mixture of the flamboyant and the serious.

His history as a professional wrestler, his Western attire and his shoot-from-the-lip style so far have largely overshadowed the fact that he has -- for the most part -- buckled down to the substantive challenges of the job.

Added to his political inexperience (his only prior elected office was as mayor of a small Minneapolis suburb) and his position as an independent is the fact that he must deal with a split-party legislature.

GOP in control

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party retained control of the Senate in November but lost the House to the Republicans.

In the midst of a state budget battle, Mr. Ventura also has been bothered by press and other criticism of his penchant to say things first and think about their ramifications later. But there are indications he is learning to do otherwise.

The latest lesson is public reaction to the quick comment he made in response to reporters' questions on the school shooting tragedy in Colorado, and his statement of regret soon after. "Imagine if someone with a concealed weapon happened to have been there," he said. "Maybe lives would have been saved."

The remark created a furor, interpreted by some as Mr. Ventura using the tragedy to defend or even advocate wider acceptance of concealed weapons. A bill endorsing the practice under prescribed regulations, supported by Mr. Ventura, had been rejected by the Minnesota legislature earlier. His comment may have left an impression that he was suggesting that teachers or students pack guns, though he never said that.

`Conceal and carry'

The governor, under continued questioning, issued another statement the next day saying he regretted "mixing this incident with the `conceal and carry' issue." Asked about it later in his office, Mr. Ventura said "I regretted the timing of it, in the time of the sorrow," but had discovered an important lesson for himself in the process.

"I'm the kind of person who was brought up, when you're asked a question, you answer it," he said with earnestness. "I regret that I haven't fully learned that I should answer the questions when I want to, not when the reporters want me to. I don't regret what I said, I just regret that, at that point in time, it may have been inappropriate to make those statements to the reporters when they pressed me. . . . I have to learn that in this business I can't be that forthright."

Mr. Ventura blames the news media for even asking the question at that time, if it was inappropriate for him to answer it. When a visitor reminded him of an earlier political furor over his holding a license to carry a concealed weapon, and suggested that this history might have inspired the questioning, he yanked open his suit jacket and raised his arms high to show he wasn't wearing a gun.

Mr. Ventura said he was "instructed" by his security guards to apply for the license to carry a concealed weapon. "Yes, I have one," he said, "but as you can see, I'm not carrying, and I've never carried in this building. But I have the ability to, because I have the license to do so, which is done for my own safety.

"Let's say hypothetically it was a late Saturday night and I needed to come over here to get some papers for whatever reason. Well, do I have to then call my security people, wake them out of bed, have them come over and escort me. . . . Or would it be better to just simply let me provide my own security?"

The governor said all this without rancor, although he also said that what has surprised him most in the job was that the news media "tends to create the news rather than report it." It was clear from his remarks that he feels somewhat victimized by the press in this latest episode, but somewhat cautioned at the same time.

It's probably not a bad tradeoff for him in his first months as a novice performing in a new arena.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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