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Jesse Ventura's passionate primer about American government
on November 24, 2002
As the sub-title of "Jesse Ventura Tells It Like It Is," this is a book in which "America's Most Outspoken Governor Speaks out About Government." Now, at first look this title might suggest that Ventura is going to engage in his patented rants about what is wrong with the government. But the book is actually more of a primer about government for young readers, albeit based on Ventura's unique personal experiences in and out of office.
Co-written with journalist and children's author Heron Marquez, this book certainly plays on Ventura's notoriety. The book's introduction starts with a picture of Jesse "The Body" Ventura in action in the wrestling ring and campaigning for governor in jeans, a Timberwolves jacket, and baseball cap. Ventura's explanation for his surprising gubernatorial victory is simple: he had a key issue (returning Minnesota's $4 billion tax surplus to the taxpayers), a pair of "boring" opponents, and an electorate looking for alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats. He also inspired a lot of people to register and vote who had given up on politics or never gotten excited in the first place.
But the main part of this book does not look at Ventura's time in office, but rather at the government itself. In doing so, Ventura's political philosophy comes through: (1) What is Government? traces the development of the concept from family groups forming tribes to the complicated systems that exist today. Clearly Ventura favors the informal governments humans first created to fulfill these needs over the bureaucratic entities that exist today. (2) Freedom and the Constitution tells the story of how the Founding Fathers came to write the Constitution, which is based on the simple idea of freedom, and the Bill of Rights, emphasizing that the latter protects people from too much government. Sidebars in this chapter talking about how the Constitution can be Changed and some of Ventura's dealings with other countries as governor. (3) The Many Levels of Government uses the metaphor of the pyramid to explain how government works on the local, state and federal level. Ventura looks at September 11th and floods as examples of how the different levels of government function in an emergency. (4) Voting and Election Campaigns is the most autobiographical of these chapters, since Ventura talks about his own experiences running for governor and provides some of his most telling critiques of the current system (e.g., "I'll be you dollars to doughnuts, five or every six days are spent on political fund-raising. But if the candidates are raising money, they aren't talking issues"). (5) Cutting up the Pie talks about how we are taxed and what the government does with the money. A side bar allows Ventura to attack Special-Interest Groups, who he believes "control our government today, point-blank, no doubt about it." Consequently, Ventura emphasizes that his independence from such groups allowed him to "govern with no strings attached." (6) What Can Kids Do? elicits a simple answer from Ventura: "Keep them involved."
That last bit is what tips the scales for me with this book, which is certainly not the most informative book on American Government young readers can find. But there is a passion about the subject that Ventura brings and an insistence that people have beliefs and be able to justify them that makes this book, on balance, a good thing. We all know that the percentage of Americans who vote has been in a constant state of decline for decades and we can all tick off on our fingers the reasons why people have become apathetic and disgusted by politics and politicians. If there was one thing Ventura did in his two campaigns, for mayor of St. Louis Park and governor of Minnesota, it was drive up voter participation, and if at the end of his term of office he puts out a book like this get kids interested in politics, then I am all for it. I also appreciate the idea that kids will read this book long before they are eligible to vote.
The back of the book contains some of Ventura's pet political ideas, such as the unicameral legislature, discarding laws that are no longer useful, and reforming property taxes. There is also a list for further reading and useful web sites. My guess is that as time goes by readers will forget the specifics of Ventura's positions, but what they will remember is his passionate insistence that politicians listen to the voice of the people. It might be an elementary lesson, but when you consider the high dropout rate in American politics, it is a lesson worth repeating. We will have to see if Ventura's political legacy endures after he leaves office or if he becomes a political footnote.