Weaned on southern politics, I thought nothing of it when a professional wres-tler was elected governor of a sovereign state. Only when it registered that the state was Walter Mondale's Minnesota, not Singin' Jimmie Davis's Louisiana, did I realize that a sea change was taking place in national politics.
The system is being Southernized. The politics I grew up with in Louisiana–party be damned, every candidate for himself–has spread to the heartland. Jesse "The Body" Ventura's election in Minnesota was no accident. It might even be the wave of the political future.
Hold that laugh–laugh is what the experts in Minnesota did when Ventura announced he was running for governor. There was no way, they said, that voters in a state that produced Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey would elect a trash-talking wrestler who once wore feather boas in the ring.
The argument sounded familiar. Lou-isiana experts also scoffed in 1944 when Singin' Jimmie, fresh off a B-movie lot in Hollywood, threw his white hat into the political ring. A cowboy warbler whose claim to fame was having written "You Are My Sunshine" seemed a stretch for the governor's mansion–even one that had housed both Kingfish Huey and Crazy Earl Long.
But Singin' Jimmie had the same thing going for him as "The Body." To those grown cynical about the political system and the insiders running it, a warbling cowboy and a trash-talking wrestler were as far away from a professional politician as a voter could get.
What's more, if you're a candidate running against a field of opponents who all seem to be saying the same thing, it pays to stand out from the pack.
Give 'em a show. From Alabama's Kiss-in' Jim Folsom to Pappy O'Daniel in Texas, it's as Southern as grits and red-eye gravy.
It's not that a candidate has to be a professional entertainer to stand out in Southern politics. All that's needed is the maverick quality that in past years separated the Southern politician from his Northern counterpart.
The quality, that is, that led a small-state Southern governor like Bill Clinton to jump into the 1992 race for president against an incumbent with a 90-percent approval rating at a time when prudent Democrats were shying away.
What Clinton understood was that the old system of choosing presidential nominees had crumbled. As another Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, proved in 1976, a media-smart candidate doesn't have to come from a large state or be backed by party kingmakers.
The old kingmakers–like Chicago's Richard Daley–have been replaced by media-hyped primaries and caucuses.
Free-for-all campaigning. No waiting in line to be anointed. All it takes is a smile, an outstretched hand, and the ability to look a camera in the eye and sound "authentic." >
By age 15–before his famous White House photo session with President Kennedy–young Bill Clinton's vision of what politics was all about had been shaped by his Arkansas experience.
On one hand there was the appealing image of Senator J. William Fulbright, a university president who stood out from the pack as a man above politics; on the other, there were candidates who conducted round-the-clock "talkathons," campaigned with country-music bands, and flew from town to town in what awed audiences–most had never seen a helicopter–called "whirlybirds."
At an age when classmates were watching Dobie Gillis, Bill was dipping into the bible of regional campaigning, V.O. Key's Southern Politics in State and Nation.
Key's book pointed out that ambitious young politicians in states like Arkansas held their fate in their own hands. Unlike their counterparts up north, they could be self-made rather than machine-made candidates.
Two-party Northern politics, wrote Key, puts a premium on discipline and teamwork. You start at the bottom of the power pyramid and work your way up. But in the one-party South of the time, no boss or machine hierarchy existed to tell a wannabe it wasn't his turn. That's why Southern gubernatorial campaigns so often became raucous affairs involving anywhere from 6 to 16 candidates, most of whom had little or no chance of winning.
From Iowa in January to California in March, that's now the way we choose our presidential nominees. No more kingmakers or smoke-filled rooms. Instead we have–in photo ops and sound bites–rich men on a lark, celebrity broadcasters, single-issue zealots, and ego-driven political hacks trolling for five minutes of fame. Come one, come all. Three primaries to a finish.
My Louisiana congressman, The late Hale Boggs, once told about being "defended" by Earl Long in a heated governor's race. When a charge was made that Boggs had been a hot-eyed radical in his college days, Long–feigning outrage at the "unfairness" of it all–proceeded to tell Protestant crowds upstate that "Hale can't be a Communist because he's a good churchgoing Catholic."
"It was no secret I was Catholic," Boggs later recalled, "but Earl wouldn't leave it at that. He'd say, 'And I don't mean one of those Sunday-morning Catholics, but a close friend of the Archbishop, even the Pope."
This was the 1950s, when it was widely believed in upstate Protestant Louisiana that electing a Catholic governor would bring the Pope up the Mississippi in a submarine.
Going negative: It's practiced everywhere, but in Southern politics it's an art form passed down through generations.
Consider Al Gore. The pundits, not to mention Bill Bradley, were surprised when the man billed as a cardboard politician showed an instinct for the jugular. What they overlooked was the Vice President's having learned campaigning from a father who, in his first Senate race, found a way to trash an opponent as too old without mentioning his age. He did it with a radio jingle to the tune of a popular song, "Whoop-Dee-Doo":
"Go with Gore, Albert Gore, he's wise and able, and he's just 44."
Al Gore's father won his race in Tennessee largely on the age issue, just as Hale Boggs would lose his race in Louisiana largely on the religious issue. It's politics Southern-style: Age, religion, college smoking habits, sex life–they're all fair game.
Which isn't to say that a catholic couldn't win election as governor of Louisiana. All it would take was a candidate like "Fast Eddie" Edwards, so brazen that he could campaign downstate among Catholics as a friend of the Archbishop, then upstate among Protestants as a Nazarene disciple of Jimmy Swaggart.
If you're entertaining enough, "Fast Eddie" proved, voters will forgive a wide variety of personal lapses, including government corruption, Las Vegas gambling trips, extramarital sex–anything short of, in Edwards's words, "getting caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl."
Politics as entertainment: whirlybirds, country music, down-and-dirty trash talk–which brings us back to where we began.
Laugh if you will, but given the course of this year's presidential race, it's likely that by the election of 2004, Jesse Ventura will be performing his act on the Larry King show as a candidate for president.
You want an outsider in the White House to shake up the establishment? Move over, McCain. Make room for "The Body."
Or is it an eccentric billionaire you're looking for? Forget Steve Forbes. Even without Jane, Ted Turner is a better act.
An acerbic, in-your-face, celebrity broadcaster who'll tell it as he sees it? Why waste time on Pat Buchanan when there's Don Imus to kick people around?
Finally, there's the anti-establishment celebrity who, if his ratings hold up, can enter the 2004 race with a proven record. What more can you ask than a candidate we've seen in the Oval Office, cool and collected, handling crises and beating down special interests in prime time every week?
Martin Sheen. Not only does he look like a president, but any man who finds a place for Rob Lowe in the West Wing has his act down pat.