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Tag Teams: The High-Contact Sports of Wrestling and Politics

November 08, 1998|Todd Gitlin | Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University and a 1998-99 fellow at the Media Studies Center. He is the author of "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars."

NEW YORK — Why all the surprise over the victory of Jesse "The Body" Ventura, wrestler and radio talk-show host, now governor-elect of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket? Politics is wrestling. They're both show-biz sports.

In each, talent matters: the body, the mind, the timing. But so does the fakery, or, to use a kinder word, the simulation. The wrestler works up bravado, grunts with false pain, grimaces in spurious triumph, grins with glee and, in a hundred ways, with a wink and a nod, gives the folks what they want. The folks wink and nod back, because they're in on the joke. They like being taken seriously and like being in on the joke, too, knowing that the other is in on the joke. Everyone's knowing. That's all part of the fun. Very postmodern.

Contemporary faux wrestling requires cooperation skills, too. Dave Meltzer, publisher and editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, told a newspaper reporter that Ventura "wasn't really a very good wrestler, but he had charisma. His best move was standing on the apron yelling at the fans while his tag team partner did all the work." Ventura is that modern organization man, a team player, in other words. How reminiscent of Ronald Reagan doing his impersonations of presidentiality from "talking points" while staffs of advisors scripted him.

A talk show amounts to wrestling, too. The host gets worked up, or feigns getting worked up--it's hard to tell--to keep up interest, suspense, detonations. Creating astonishment is part of his game, astonishment that somebody who talks so tough is actually on the radio or TV dropping these bombs. The melodrama is essential for the impact. This is why right wingers and other professional oversimplifiers make perfect hosts: They don't have to trouble themselves with nuance.

Further, big-league politics is a matter of show. Presidents need to look presidential. They manage impressions, after all. They put a good face on doubtful events. They dress up statistics. They inspire. They must be on and sound on. They must convey the impression that they know what they are doing. They are, in that sense, confidence men.

For a politician, taking yourself too seriously is something of an impediment. Imposing theatrics, even tongue-in-cheek, are indispensable. ("I paid for this microphone!") Comic relief impresses pundits and voters alike. As Reagan knew, masterfully, a wisecrack in the right place at the right time gets you out of a heap of trouble.

So, Ventura comes to his new career with plenty of lineage. He is not, in fact, the first radio figure to graduate to the bigger time. Reagan is usually remembered as a movie and TV actor, but he started his career as the Great Simulator, hosting Des Moines radio broadcasts of baseball games. From the bare facts of the wire ticker--a strike, a ball, a hit--Reagan could conjure plausible details, and, thus, verisimilitude, or to put it in postmodern terms, "verisimilitude." Later, he graduated to what former Reagan aide Michael K. Deaver called "our little playlets," tarting up photo ops that conveyed the impression he endorsed social programs that, in fact, he had cut. A wrestler, a talk-show host, an elected official--all must be able to speak the phrase "in all candor" with a straight face with the greatest of ease.

A certain flair for demagoguery, known to today's pundits as "populism," stands all these in good stead. When a billionaire can campaign as a populist and win 19% of the presidential vote, why shouldn't a wrestler and shock jock win election on the same ticket? Evidently, Ventura hired a spiffier ad director than Ross Perot, who had a fool for a client. Ventura, no fool, ended up the winner.

Fiction has trouble catching up. Jerzy Kozinski's "Being There" gave us Chauncey Gardener, the naif whose every piety sprang, evergreen, directly into popular parlance, whereupon he was presidentialized. Warren Beatty's "Bulworth" gave us a rapping politician, a precedent taken up by Vice President Al Gore during the recent campaign. Pale prefigurations of Gov.-elect Ventura, whose exploits make for a perfect match between his earlier careers and his new one.

Future executive headhunters might listen up and start scouring the wrestling leagues, muddy farm teams and other such venues for serviceable candidates. So might the Republican Party, challenged for leadership. Muscular Hollywood awaits the call! Sen. Bruce Willis? Vice President Hulk Hogan?*

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