The other morning, in his house near Minneapolis, Jesse Ventura rolled out of bed, looked through a window, saw clouds and driving rain, and said out loud what he was thinking to himself: "Not too promising." Still, despite its ugliness, the day beckoned, so he lumbered around his room, naked to the world, because that's how he sleeps, and eventually put on a pair of pants, though underwear came first.
He was 63. For the most part, his health was OK. With age he'd become a little stooped and was no longer the colossal, balloon-muscled, awesomely intimidating figure he'd cut as a professional wrestler, 1975–1986, and then the most unlikely governor the state of Minnesota has ever seen, 1999–2003. But he can still fit into a Porsche, play 18 holes of golf, and walk four miles in the Mexican sand at his second home. The way he views the world, however, and how the world perceives him, and how he even goes about his daily life — those things had recently undergone some very unfortunate changes.
It was very unfortunate, for instance, that when he put on his trousers today, he did so after first putting on underwear. Until recently, he would have gone commando, as he had for decades, because going commando is what Navy SEALs do (skivvies being for lesser mortals), and he'd been a SEAL in the Vietnam era, 1969–1975. Actually, he was in a unit called the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), which wasn't folded into the SEALs for another decade. No matter — he'd undergone SEAL training, so he called himself a SEAL, and, oh, how he'd loved being a SEAL. He had the SEAL insignia tattooed on his chest. He owned more than a hundred SEAL T-shirts, bought at various SEAL reunions. During press interviews, he often spouted off about his days in country, bellowing Hemingwayesque things like "Until you have hunted man, you haven't hunted yet." If wrestling was one kind of phony-baloney theater and politics was another, being a retired SEAL gave him weight and a bearing that could not be denied. It meant he'd seen some stuff. It meant he was the real deal, just like every other SEAL, all of whom he called "brothers."
But then he went and sued one of those "brothers" — Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. history, author of the bestselling 2011 book American Sniper, and the subject of a new movie directed by Clint Eastwood — and it all went to shit.
In his book, Kyle tells the story of a 2006 bar fight in which he coldcocked a guy, identified only as Scruff Face, for criticizing the Iraq War and saying that SEALs "deserved to lose a few." Later, on the Opie & Anthony radio show, Kyle revealed that Scruff Face was, in fact, Ventura. Only, Ventura said the incident never happened, that it was a lie. He filed suit for defamation and pressed his suit even after Kyle was killed by a Marine vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, in an unrelated incident in 2013. Last July, the jury found in Ventura's favor and awarded him $1.8 million — $1.3 million of that for "unjust enrichment" due to the book's success — with the loser being Kyle's estate and its executor, Kyle's widow, Taya, the mother of his two fatherless children. So, in a technical, legal sense, Ventura won.
But in another sense, he lost far more than he gained, because almost the entire SEAL community turned against him, with former SEAL Marcus Luttrell, author of the bestseller Lone Survivor, leading the charge and tweeting a photo of Ventura captioned, "Hit me. I won't fight back. I'll just wait for you to die and sue your wife." And it wasn't just SEALs who were outraged. In a post-trial tweet, CNN's Anderson Cooper wrote, "I cannot believe that Jesse Ventura successfully sued the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. Has he no shame?"
This left Ventura upset and bewildered. The way he saw it, he'd sued the estate, not the widow personally, and any money owed him would come from the publisher's insurance company, not the widow, so he wasn't taking food out of anyone's mouth. All he'd wanted was to have his reputation restored and to recoup earnings he says he lost because of all the bad publicity. And now this.
"It's funny," he says. "For all these years, I've lived for and wanted the notoriety. It's given me everything I've gotten. But today I don't want it. That trial was the most traumatic thing I've been involved in since my parents died. I mean, being a Navy SEAL was such a big part of my life. Being with the SEALs is the one place where I always felt safe. I always felt they'll never turn on me. And to be betrayed by a group that I never thought would do that?" He shakes his huge balding noggin. He just can't believe it.
And so now the fact that he's gone from never wearing underwear to wearing underwear all the time makes perfectly good sense. He's no longer a part of that SEAL world. "I've left that life behind," he says. And those 100 SEAL T-shirts he bought? They're all packed away in boxes and stored in his garage, where right now he's folding himself into one of his Porsches and backing out. On any given day, he could be headed to his favorite golf course or into the city to record episodes of his podcast, We the People with Jesse Ventura, or a Web video program called Off the Grid in a bare-bones studio in a bare-bones neighborhood, where if a Minnesota big shot like Ventura is working, it's news to the mailman. He's become a bit hidden like that. He doesn't go out to restaurants much anymore, either. He'd rather stay home with his wife, Terry, and his giant Belgian Malinois dog. And then sometimes he thinks maybe he'll go one step further and jettison the stage name he took when he first started wrestling, give up being the great Jesse Ventura and go back to the name he was born with, plain old Jim Janos. "As I'm getting older, I'm starting to feel that I want to go back," he says. "Why not? It's who I am." Plus, maybe the Ventura name doesn't mean what it used to. Maybe it has outlived its usefulness. Maybe being a lesser mortal who isn't subject to all these attacks wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.
No matter which way you look at it, Ventura has always been an outstanding oddball. As a professional wrestler, of course, it was part of the job. Jesse "The Body" Ventura was a cocky, thunder-stepping, pink-tights-and-feather-boa-wearing, cheap-shot-giving, bad-guy heel whose signature line was "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!" It made him extremely popular with anyone who went in for that kind of make-believe. After wrestling he took up acting and was given lines that matched his persona; his famous one from 1987's Predator was "I ain't got time to bleed!" which went on to become the title of one of his many books. During his tenure as governor of Minnesota, he did lots of constructive things, but he also seemed to take inordinate joy in deriding the press as "media jackals" and saying impolitic things like "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak- minded people who need strength in numbers" and "If I could be reincarnated as a fabric, I would come back as a 38 double-D bra."
Since that time, whenever he fades from public view, he always seems to do something that suddenly returns him to center stage. Most often, it's trotting out the idea of possibly running for president, which guarantees him a media-coverage bonanza. He last did this in 2012, right around the time Kyle went on the Opie & Anthony show and gave up Scruff Face's identity. Lawsuits have worked out pretty well for Ventura, too. In 2011, for instance, he got fed up with the TSA constantly patting him down after his hip replacement set off metal detectors, and sued the agency, calling its searches unconstitutional. "They're going to your groin. They're touching your privates. Ain't that a sexual assault?" When the case was thrown out, the press lined up to hear Ventura loudly and angrily announce that he would no longer fly commercial airlines (he drives everywhere, including to Mexico) or stand for the national anthem at sporting events (he apparently steps away when it's being played).
On other occasions, though, he seems just as content to let loose on one of his online programs. Today, walking into the recording studio, which is basically nothing more than two small rooms in a cavernous warehouse, he's wearing a red, white, and blue T-shirt, with his hair pulled back into a thin, old-dude ponytail. As usual, his voice sounds as if it could chew up wood better than an industrial wood chipper. He's smiling and rubbing his hands together. He's got a couple of good piped-in guests to interview, including Richard Gage, who founded Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth and is a noted disbeliever.
Ventura, alongside co-star Bill Duke in the 1987 action film Predator (Getty Images)
Ventura takes a seat in front of a microphone. Then, over the next little while, both on the air and off, he reveals his current outlook on various and sundry. A lot of it has to do with the Kennedy assassination. "People always say to me, 'Why are you obsessed with Kennedy?' I always say, 'Because if they — and I don't know who they is — can kill the president and get away with it, what can't they do?' "
He also says that "things about 9/11 don't add up," and that it was most likely a government "false-flag operation." That fluoride is "the 90 percent ingredient of Prozac, so when you drink fluoridated water, you're drinking liquid Prozac, so I don't drink city water. No, Jesse's not got the Prozac in him." That Pat Tillman, the pro football player turned tragic Afghanistan casualty, was murdered "and then they burned his diary. Now why would they do that?" That he expects martial law to be declared here "in my lifetime, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point. The signs are there."
It's all very dark and conspiracy-minded, with lots of conclusions drawn only by questions involving the unknowable "they" — "Now why would they do that?" — which makes it about as interesting to listen to as someone's dream from last night. Even so, Ventura's delivery is a wondrous thing, just the way he can modulate that booming voice of his, the thick, drawn-out monophthongal mid-vowels, especially the o, taking on snaky lives of their own. At times he claps his hand to his heart in disbelief, rocks back and forth like a little kid needing to pee, nearly lifts out of his seat in outrage, with the cleft in his chin merrily winking and bobbing along. It's an entertaining performance.
After that comes lunch, which he can be equally enthusiastic about, happily devouring a sandwich and expounding on the virtues of the apple turnovers he buys by the six-pack. He spreads his hands. "They're about this wide and this long, and, oh, God, we'll go get them on NFL Sunday, and, oh, they're so good, they've got the white frosting on top with the apples right from the orchard, oh!" A bit later he stops to acknowledge that, yes, he knows he is considered a flake and a nut for his conspiracy talk, but ever since being labeled a 9/11 Truther, he's thought to himself, "If truth gets attached to you now, you're considered bad, and how the shit did they accomplish that?"
So this is Ventura's day-to-day life, and it all seems pretty normal given that this is Jesse Ventura. But then, at various times, the Kyle lawsuit debacle will creep into his conversation and some dirt will gunk up the frosting on his apple turnovers. He'll be happily going on about the virtues of his truTV cable show Conspiracy Theory (2009–2012) and then go entirely somber, noting that he suffered a huge income drop when the show was not renewed because of "the whole Chris Kyle thing, and I was the most hated man in America." Indeed, according to tax records produced in court, Ventura earned $676,000 the year before American Sniper came out and $190,000 the next, and his present job here, where he works only one or two days a week, has got to be more of a hobby than a livelihood. Later on he brings up Anderson Cooper and how "Anderson Cooper seems to think that if you're a widow, you're allowed to profit from defamation, because there's a double set of laws for defamation, one for widows and one for the rest of us, so he portrays me as the villain." And later: "I have a whole generation of SEAL sons that hate me because of a lie." And later still: "A guy, I would assume he's a former SEAL, sent me Kyle's book and wrote in it, 'It's all true,' and then he quoted back to my first line in Predator — he called me a 'slack-jawed faggot.' " And then there's lots more like that.
This all got its roundabout start in 1969, when Jim Janos was a jock growing up in working-class south Minneapolis. His brother, Jan, three years older, had joined the Navy SEAL program. So when Jim graduated from high school, he joined, too. He was 18. He underwent basic SEAL training near the naval amphibian base in Coronado, California, had the blisters ripped off his hands by a cruel instructor, was waterboarded, and suffered through everything all SEALs suffer through.
A former SEAL who practiced judo with Jim says he was pretty obnoxious. "I was much smaller and lighter than him, and he was very fond of slamming me to the mat with a leg sweep, knocking the wind out of me, and then standing over me and saying, 'Come on! Get up! Don't be a wuss!' I held my own, but I will say the man was strutting tall. A real peacock." He wore a kerchief around his head, rode with a hoodlum motorcycle gang called the Mongols, and would roar back to base revving his bike's engine — a big showboat who also had a reputation for general slovenliness and always needing a shower. His nickname was Dirty Jim. For fun and games, he'd go to peace marches in San Diego. "We went to score girls," he says. " 'Oh, gee, you've got to deploy in a month, I feel so bad for you. Let's go out.' There's a method to the madness. Are you kidding me?"
Once the six-month training program was over, Jim, a competitive swimmer in high school, was assigned to the Underwater Demolition Team to become a frogman, instead of to the SEALs proper. For the next four years, he was stationed either on a boat in the South China Sea or at the naval base in Subic Bay, the Philippines, where UDT guys led a pretty cushy life: lots of basketball, boozing, and hanging out with bar girls.
If you ask Ventura what action he saw during his deployment, he stiffens and says he can't say, looking grim, as if it was some real heavy, super-secret shit, which is how he always responds. But according to his former judo partner, whatever he did, it may not have been all that dangerous. On one occasion, he says, Jim and another UDT frogman were sent to the Mekong River to take over a psyops mission from the SEALs, freeing them to go stalk Charlie. The mission involved attaching transistor radios to helium balloons and sending them skyward, whereupon a small charge would detonate, the balloons would pop, the contraptions would fall to Earth, and curious Vietcong would stumble across the radios, turn them on, and suddenly find themselves saturated with U.S. propaganda.
They did this for a few weeks, then returned to Subic Bay. Says the former SEAL: "I was told the only danger they were in was blowing off the end of a finger with one of those little explosive squibs."
Jim Janos was honorably discharged in 1973 and went to community college on the GI Bill for a year, where he discovered a passion for acting. Shortly thereafter, he took his new love of theater, married it to his love of athletics, and became the professional wrestler known as Jesse "The Body" Ventura. In 1998, running on the Reform Party ticket and funding his grassroots campaign with only $300,000, plus lots of pioneering internet savvy, he became the 38th governor of Minnesota. The New York Times called his election "an earth-rattling political upset that shell-shocked politicians and prognosticators everywhere." Ventura himself proclaimed, "They said a vote for me was a wasted vote. Well, guess what? Those wasted votes wasted them."
Ventura refs a WWF match while Governor of Minnesota in 1999 (Getty Images)
His four years in office were a mixed bag. To the good, he gave his constituents a tax-free rebate on sales taxes, supported the construction of a light-rail system, vetoed a bill requiring public-school kids to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and was pro–gay rights, pro-choice, and pro–medical marijuana legalization. On the other hand, the guy could be a buffoon. During a 2001 audience with the Dalai Lama, Ventura thought the best question he could ask him was whether he'd ever seen the movie Caddyshack. (He had not.)
Meanwhile, Chris Kyle was into his second year as a Navy SEAL, and by the time he finished his four tours of duty in Iraq, in 2009, he'd racked up 160 confirmed kills. He was 35 years old when he returned home, a bona fide war hero who also may have been a kind of whopper-telling fabulist. He once said that during Hurricane Katrina, he and a sniper buddy went to New Orleans, set up their rifles on top of the Superdome, and picked off 30 looters and troublemakers, maybe more. Another story he told has two guys trying to steal his pickup truck at a Texas gas station and him blowing them away with a couple of under-the-armpit trick shots. Both stories have been exhaustively investigated, with no corroborating evidence found. And then there is the Jesse Ventura bar-brawl story, the only one of the three that'll ever be heard by a jury. And the jury found that Kyle lied. The publisher, HarperCollins, has said it will strike the story from all future editions of the book. The movie version, starring Bradley Cooper and released in December, doesn't feature a scene of the fight. And Ventura, the winner, has been the villain ever since.
Outside, on a Twin Cities golf course, near the 18th hole, a couple of hard-core golfers are playing their last round on a rainy, blustery day. Inside, the clubhouse restaurant is deserted but for Ventura. Not another soul in the joint. Which is fine by him. No one there to hassle him or stare at him with daggers in their eyes.
He's an interesting guy to hang around. At first it's kind of overwhelming, if only because of how massively bombastic he is about everything. The last time he returned from Mexico, where he spends his winters and works out several hours a day, he says he was "ripped and ready for a bodybuilding contest! I looked in the mirror and went, 'Holy shit!' " And that time in 2004, when he taught a political science class at Harvard, How Pro Wrestling Prepares You for Politics: "I had the largest classes in Harvard history!" he bellows. "They had to move me to the Commons!" And let's not forget the giant Belgian Malinois that came to him trained to be the most ferocious, SEAL-worthy dog ever. "He's a level-three dog, meaning he's better than what the government has! He cost as much as a car! What's his name? I don't tell people his name. I can have him ripping the shit out of someone, and walk up and pet him while he's doing it!"
And yet you know that underneath this mountain of blather is a man who has been married to the same woman for 40 years, raised two kids, and at home is called Honey or Dad or, sometimes, Jim.
"Growing up, I couldn't have asked for a better father," says his son, Tyrel, 35. "When I was in high school, he came to basketball games and it was great because he'd be totally involved, cheering and yelling at the refs. Around the house he's not Jesse Ventura, the, you know — I don't know how to describe it. He's much more subdued, much quieter, likes to sit and watch a Minnesota Lynx game on TV."
"What I am in public and what I am in private — different," Ventura says. "I don't rant and rave like I do in public. I'm not an out-of-control crazy man like the mainstream is trying to portray me."
Ventura with fellow governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1999. (Getty Images)
Occasionally, like today, this Jim does come out to talk. He seems like a regular, everyday fellow. One of his hobbies is retrieving lost golf balls. "I don't feel right if I go to a golf course and leave with less balls than I came in with," he says. "I have probably 25 canisters filled with Titleist Pro-V 1s, the most expensive golf ball you can use, $4 to $5 apiece. I clean them, and then I have them, so I never have to buy them again." In other words, Jim Janos is a penny pincher, just like the rest of us. Also like the rest of us, he was once hooked on The Young and the Restless, and he's not much of a basketball player: "I was born with white man's disease. Can't jump good." But Janos can stick around for only so long before Ventura bulldozes his way back in, this time with some unanswerable questions about the unknowable "they," concerning how it came to be that Kyle put that slanderous story in his book in the first place.
He leans forward, flattening his porterhouse-steak hands on the table. "What's happened is totally tragic and it should have never happened, but whenever I start rattling my sword about going for national office, strange things start happening. Who's to say a conspiracy wasn't part of this? If they can't assassinate you physically, they'll assassinate you credibility-wise. Do you think that's been done to me? Do you think this trial could've played a part in that? Right now I don't want to be in public at all. If this was a planned thing, they succeeded. See what I'm getting to?"
The only honest answer is no, not really, not unless he's a government plant sent out to screw up his own life, which could be a sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise but isn't.
In court, Ventura said that while he was indeed at the bar, McP's, in Coronado, California, during the supposed fight night, he didn't meet Kyle, didn't even know who Kyle was. Today he says that the first time he met Kyle was in June 2012, in the judge's chambers shortly before the trial started. No lawyers, just the two of them, with the judge sitting in a corner. They were going to talk about a settlement. Ventura looked Kyle in the eye and said, "You didn't hit me. I don't even know who you are. No one's ever hit me out in Coronado." Kyle looked him in the eye and said, "Yes, I did." Ventura turned to the judge and said, "Your honor, we got nothing more to talk about. This story is a complete, fabricated lie, and if he's not going to admit it, we can't come to any settlement here." The meeting lasted less than five minutes.
At trial, Ventura produced witnesses who corroborated his version of events, as did Kyle, who called upon the testimony of four SEALs who swore that Ventura got decked. What about those four SEALs?
"They lied," Ventura says flatly, then he shrugs. "I understand they did it in loyalty to their buddy, because when you're willing to die for somebody, you're certainly willing to lie for them." He elaborates:
"SEALs have a T-shirt that says on the back, 'Admit nothing, deny everything, and make counteraccusations,' which is what those SEALs did."
Admit nothing, deny everything, and make counteraccusations. It's what Ventura does, as well, though he probably can't see that and no doubt would not appreciate the irony if it were pointed out.
Has any money come his way since the verdict?
His eyes nearly eject themselves from his skull. "You think I've been paid? They've appealed! I'll be lucky if I see that money for another six months! Are you kidding me? And my lawyer bills? I won't hardly see a nickel! I might see half a mil, tops." He blinks and shakes his head, like he wishes all this would just go away. Certainly he doesn't regret the lawsuit, if only because regret isn't in his nature. But it seems perfectly obvious that the rift between Ventura and his brother SEALs has caused considerable pain. "He was very hurt by what's happened," says Tyrel. "It's definitely affected him in his life. Something very important was taken away."
The vitriol has been so extreme that at this point you'd think Ventura would be planning to suffer through the pending appeal and then get on with his life, try to leave the ruinous consequences of the lawsuit behind, maybe even donate what money he finally receives to some charitable SEAL organization. It's the only thing that makes sense, if all he mainly wanted to do was restore his reputation. But that's not the Ventura way.
"I'm currently contemplating a lawsuit against HarperCollins," he says. "If they want to write me a check for $3.5 million, I might say OK, but I think I got their asses, so I might not. And guess what else we get with this one that we didn't with the other? We're going after punitive with these guys, too, which means that the jury can basically say, 'You were the asshole, and we're going to make you pay to punish you.' We haven't sued them yet. We've just told them, 'You're next.' "
This is an astounding and disturbing bit of news. It's hard to know what to make of it. It makes Ventura sound as if he's out just for the money, has always been out just for the money, and if he never goes commando again, he could really care less. Or else it's just another example of his being compelled to do everything to the biggest, most extreme. But at times like these, you really have to wonder why someone who loves him doesn't beg him to return to being mere-mortal Jim Janos full-time and to stop trying to screw up his life like something out of a sci-fi movie. He'd never go for it, though. A screwed-up life in the thick of it is apparently where he's happiest. "I'm content with myself," he says later on. "I can look at myself in the mirror every day, eye to eye, and there is no problem at all."