Venturura tries on a bit of Crimson

Tourist: The Minnesota governor chats with academics, students on visit to Harvard University.

October 07, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Jesse "The Body" Ventura met Harvard "The Mind" University yesterday -- the anti-politician coming to the land of the brainiacs in an encounter that left both sides mildly bemused, if not enlightened.

Bashing the media at every opportune moment -- his aides said he would hold a news conference only if he felt "in the mood" -- the governor of Minnesota did not quite squelch talk about his inflammatory comments in Playboy magazine.

But his visit certainly changed the subject for a moment.

There was Ventura, like an overgrown freshman, eating pizza with undergraduates, pep-talking with the football team, soaking up knowledge from the big shots on the faculty, toting a Harvard tie.

"If you'd have asked me at any point in my life, would I be at Harvard talking politics, I would have laughed very loudly," Ventura told 70 students, winners of a campus lottery for hotly contested seats at a question-and-answer session for undergraduates.

"I hope I don't disappoint you."

At first, some students sniped about him.

"I wanted to witness the embarrassment firsthand," said Teresa Bechtold, a sophomore from Blackduck, Minn.

But they seemed a little more star-struck after seeing the former boa-toting, trash-talking professional wrestler in the flesh.

"I love him! I love him!" said B. J. Novak, a junior and an editor at the Harvard Lampoon.

His friend Jackie Newmyer agreed: "He's genuinely curious -- he's happy to be at Harvard and around bright minds."

Even Bechtold had a change of heart. "I liked him better than I thought I would," she said.

It was not clear whether Ventura was student or teacher here.

He brought some advisers with him to take notes while he met for more than an hour with economists, government professors and civics theoreticians at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Then it was on to a lecture of his own, where he chatted with students about grass-roots politics and self-styled campaigns.

Conspicuous by size

Ventura, who does not have a college degree, mingled perhaps a tad conspicuously in this ivy-walled environment, his signature head-bobbing and deep chin dimple, not to mention the sheer size of him, easy to spot in all the tweed.

When a member of his entourage mentioned books, he boomed, "Well, there sure are plenty of 'em here!"

Keenly aware of this crowd's collective smarts, he gamely told a group of students, "You don't look any different than the University of Minnesota."

When he received two Harvard ties, he said, "I asked for these because I'm a big fan of the movie `Trading Places.' "

Ventura seemed pleased with the very fact of his visit: "The American dream lives because Jesse Ventura is at Harvard!" he said at a news conference (he did, indeed, get in the mood).

And he seemed delighted with the way the Harvard crowd received him.

"The students had more important things to do," he said, when reporters asked whether undergraduates had grilled him on his comments in Playboy.

Those statements were that organized religion was a "crutch" for "weak-minded people," that fat people have a "saliva gland" problem and that he would like to be reincarnated as a 38-double D bra.

Takes over a fellow's office

Not everyone was so thrilled to have Ventura here -- if merely for the logistical nightmare his presence prompted.

Dan Lungren, a former Republican candidate for governor in California, a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics and the host of a national talk show on Catholic Family Radio, might have been upset over Ventura's comments on religion.

But the more pressing problem seemed to be that Ventura had ousted Lungren from his own office while meeting with other professors.

So there was Ventura at the Kennedy school, schmoozing with the top minds in the academic establishment -- the improvisational politician getting wisdom from the pros.

But the governor did not seem too worried about tainting his self-taught governing style by joining the political mainstream for a day.

"I'm always open to alternative ideas," he said.

This was hardly a typical visitor, and neither was the cast of characters this celebrity attracted.

`Edgy and armed' guards

Ventura's bodyguards -- one of them the subject of criticism in Minnesota for following him even to golfing tournaments -- cooled their heels behind the ivy walls with little to do while Ventura held meetings.

"I'm feeling edgy," one said. "Edgy and armed. That's not a good combo."

And there were other attractions to a day that seemed like a bit of political theater.

George Stephanopoulos, the former top Clinton aide, waited for a Ventura interview in his new capacity as ABC News reporter while a breathless freshman approached him with blushes: "You're completely and totally and seriously my hero," she told Stephanopoluos before snapping his picture.

Ventura, who is on something of a media blitz, crammed several national news interviews into his schedule yesterday, topped by a student forum with host Chris Matthews of "Hardball" on CNBC.

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