Whatever the verdict in the libel case against Chris Kyle, Jesse Ventura has lost. He had lost years before the trial and everyone knew that except for Ventura himself. In so many ways this trial revealed that Ventura came to believe all the hype about himself that he was a popular and respected political figure. The reality is that he was never the icon that the media and he made himself out to be and this trial is Ventura's last gasp for fame.
The basis of Ventura’s lawsuit against Chris Kyle, to quote his legal complaint, is that the published statements in his book the American Sniper “negatively affected, and will continue to negatively affect Governor Ventura in connection with his businesses and professions, including but not limited to his current and future opportunities as a political candidate, political commentator, author, speaker, television host and personality.” Ventura denies that he made disparaging remarks about other Navy Seals and that Kyle knocked him down. Ventura asserts that Kyle knew these statements were false, and therefore they damaged Ventura’s career.
Whatever damage that has come to Ventura’s career was mostly self-inflicted. Yes, Ventura was elected governor, but remember first that he received only 37% of the vote–63% of Minnesotans did not vote for him. He ran at a time with nearly a $5 billion state surplus and an unemployment rate of 2.2%. Ventura benefitted from great economic times, a popular but largely unknown political persona, disenchantment with the establishment candidates of Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman, and promises to give the entire surplus if elected. He ran against government.
One interpretation of his victory was that 37% of the voters gave the state the middle finger. Ventura’s initial popularity as governor soared to record levels, but that was a consequence of him giving tax rebates or “Jesse checks” back to voters along with a careful national media campaign that fawned over him. By the time he left office his popularity had dramatically fallen, in part as a result of actions taken by Mr. Ventura himself. These actions may have included his public performance as governor as well as personal behavior in hosting events such as XFL football, his famous Playboy interview, or his combative posture that he took with the media and with political opponents. By the time he left office as governor his popularity was wearing thin, and had he decided to run for governor in 2002 it is uncertain whether he would have been re-elected.
In the decade since Mr. Ventura left office he has taken a series of actions that have probably done damage to his political fortunes. His comments about the war in Iraq, 9/11, his failed television shows, boorish interviews, bland books, and moving to Baja, Mexico have all made him less of a popular figure than in the past. Also, continuing the law suit against Kyle’s widow after he was murdered did not help. The morally decent thing to do would have been to drop the case and walk away. But he did not and that decision too has not helped Ventura’s reputation. What made Ventura so interesting and successful initially was his ability to combine his entertainment pop culture persona with politics; his politainer status as I once argued. But now it is boring and predictable–every time he says he is going to run for office again or every time he makes a media appearance it is for self-promotional purposes.
What Ventura most wants but cannot get is to be relevant and taken seriously. The lawsuit against Chris Kyle is about relevance, but it also about vanity or ego. If Kyle is telling the truth, he decked Ventura, bruising the latter’s ego before fellow Navy Seals. That he could not take, nor could he take that Kyle’s book was selling but his were not. They were just ignored. And even as Kyle’s book came out he was ignored–his reputation was largely unaffected.
Two surveys by Public Policy Polling (PPP) largely show that Kyle’s book had no impact on Ventura’s reputation. The first one was dated June 6, 2011, before Chris Kyle’s book came out. The second survey is dated October 8, 2012, several months after the book was published. Among the many questions that PPP asked Minnesotans was "Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jesse Ventura?"
In the first poll 29% said "Favorable, "58% said "Unfavorable," and 13% said "Not sure." The poll was subject to a margin of error of +/-2.9%. In the second poll 29% said "Favorable, "53% said "Unfavorable," and 18% said "Not sure." The poll was subject to a margin of error of +/-3.2%. There was no change in aggregate public opinion regarding Ventura's favorable views between the time before Kyle's book and several months afterwards. More importantly, the second poll reveals a 5% decrease in Ventura's unfavorable views between the time before Kyle's book and several months afterwards, along with a shift of opinion away from unfavorable to undecided. Given the margins of error in the two polls, it is either possible that: 1) Ventura's unfavorable views decreased after Kyle’s book; or 2) there was no real change in public opinion attitudes among Minnesotans regarding Ventura as a result of Kyle's book.
These two polls therefore suggest that Kyle’s book had no real aggregate impact in terms of damaging Ventura's reputation, at least in Minnesota. Perhaps that was the case because largely Minnesotans’ views on Ventura have largely been made up, or perhaps no one is really paying attention to him anymore. Given that PPP no longer asks about Ventura, that itself may speak to his irrelevance.Ventura’s lawsuit was a cry for help. It was a last gasp to take him seriously and be relevant.
Note: This essay originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota on July 24, 2014.