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The Mind of Jesse Ventura

Aubrey Immelman

May 25, 1999

(Report prepared for Minnesota Public Radio)

In the United States lingering apprehension about personality in politics following the Watergate scandal and the Iran-Contra affair have been resurrected as concerns over "character issues" in the Clinton presidency during a period in public psychology that Stanley Renshon (1996b, chap. 1) has labeled "an era of doubt." Consequently, the construct of personality has assumed a position of prominence in the contemporary study of political leadership. Thus, Renshon (1996b) has argued that "many of the most important aspects of presidential performance rely on the personal characteristics and skills of the president. . . . It is his views, his goals, his bargaining skills . . . , his judgments, his choices of response to arising circumstance that set the levers of administrative, constitutional, and institutional structures into motion" (p. 7).

    The same can be said with respect to gubernatorial performance. Renshon’s perspective provides a context for the present analysis, whose object was to assess the personality of Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and to examine the political implications of his personality style with reference to his personality-based leadership characteristics, including leadership style and executive performance.

    Renshon (1996a) asserts that the definitive political trend of the 1990s has been "a decline in confidence and trust in public leadership and institutions" (p. 24). In Renshon’s view, the decline of public trust is the "basic public dilemma" for political candidates in the 1990s (pp. 30-31).

    A reliable indicator of the extent of public apathy is the voter turnout of less than 37 percent in the 1998 midterm election, a fifty-year low. The state of Minnesota, however, with a viable third-party alternative in the person of Jesse Ventura, recorded the highest turnout in the nation: 59.5 percent.

    In his autobiography, I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed: Reworking the Body Politic from the Bottom Up (copyright 1999 by Villard Books), Jesse Ventura writes: "[I]f I had to pick one reason Minnesotans voted for me, I would have to say that it is because I tell the truth. I stand tall and speak freely, even when it isn’t politically expedient to do so. That, above all, is what I think Minnesotans voted for: honesty" (p. 4).

    If Renshon is correct in his analysis of the "basic public dilemma" in this "era of doubt," Ventura may well be right. Perhaps his penchant for telling the truth as he sees it provides the best -- if partial -- explanation for Ventura’s upset election victory and his subsequent sustained popularity. In his own words, "I’ve restored people’s hope in our political system. I’ve reawakened their hope" (p. 11).

Ventura’s Personality Profile

    By all accounts, Jesse Ventura is an outgoing, dominant individual. John M. Oldham, M.D. and Lois B. Morris, in The New Personality Self-Portrait (copyright 1995 by Bantam Books) describe an "adventurous" personality style. Essentially, this personality style has the same etiological roots as antisocial personality disorder, but by dint of more favorable socialization experiences expresses itself "in behaviors that are minimally obtrusive, especially when manifested in sublimated forms, such as independence strivings, ambition, competition, risk-taking, and adventuresomeness" (Millon, 1996, p. 448).

    In his autobiography, Ventura writes, "I’m not easy to ignore. I’m big, I’m loud, and I’m not afraid to say what I think. But I also got a powerful set of ethics from my parents, some serious discipline from the Navy SEALs, and some decent people skills from my careers a professional wrestler, film actor, and radio personality" (p. 4). It may well be Ventura’s military training that rescued him from settling down into the pattern of emerging delinquency and incipient drifting that characterized his adolescent years.

    Oldham and Morris (1995) describe the adventurous style as follows:

Throw caution to the winds -- here comes the Adventurer. Who but Adventurers would have taken those long leaps for mankind -- crossed the oceans, broken the sound barrier, walked the moon? The men and women with this personality style venture where most mortals fear to tread. They are not bound by the same terrors and worries that limit most of us. They live on the edge, challenging boundaries and restrictions, pitting themselves for better or for worse in a thrilling game against their own mortality. No risk, no reward, they say. Indeed, for people with the Adventurous personality style, the risk is the reward. (p. 227)

    The "adventurous" personality pattern provides a congenial conceptual framework for the political personality of Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. In fact, Ventura himself, with reference to his boyhood, acknowledges: "We were adventurers. We roamed the riverbank. And we drank. In that era, that’s what you did. This was early junior high school" (pp. 48-49).

    Following is an inventory of Oldham and Morris’s (1995, pp. 227-228), eight traits and behaviors that serve as reliable clues to the presence of an adventurous style, annotated with illustrative quotes from Jesse Ventura’s autobiography.

1. Nonconformity. Live by their own internal code of values; not strongly influenced by the norms of society.

"There’s some kind of bachelor strain running through my dad’s side of the family -- an independent streak, a taste for not having to answer to anybody" (p. 42). "My brother and I inherited our dad’s genetic tendency toward independence" (p. 43).

"We [the ‘South Side Boys’] weren’t juvenile delinquents; I wouldn’t put it that way. We just had a streak of mischief in us" (p. 49).

2. Challenge. Routinely engage in high-risk activities.

"Jerry [Flatgart, a boyhood friend] and I ended up getting labeled. It was always ‘The Jerry and Jim Show.’ We would find someone to pick on, and we’d have fun with them. The other South Siders speculated about who would fall prey to us. There was a teacher in junior high . . . whom we hated. . . . One night we built a stuffed replica of him. . . . Then we traveled the alleyways until we found an aluminum stepladder, and we stole it. We took it to the school and hung . . . [the teacher concerned] in effigy from the flagpole. When we were done, we couldn’t decide what to do with the ladder, so we pitched it through the school window" (p. 49).

3. Mutual independence. Not overly concerned about others; expect each individual to be responsible for him- or herself.

"[W]hat he [my father] taught me was that the country was us, the people, not the government" (p. 45).

"[W]e’ve become too reliant on that same government for things it has no business providing" (p. 3).

"I don’t believe we need the government’s help as much as we think we do" (p. 12).

"The Constitution guarantees our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s all. It doesn’t guarantee our right to charity. // The government is not a parent. . . . When we make decisions in life, we have to be willing to live with the consequences. . . . We have to accept responsibility for the decisions we make" (p. 14).

4. Persuasiveness. "Silver-tongued" charmers talented in the art of winning friends and influencing people.

"When Dennis [childhood friend of Jerry’s older brother] went to college, we bargained our way into wild frat parties he and his friends had every weekend by promising to clean up the next day. We passed ourselves off as college students to the coeds. We were sixteen" (p. 51).

"One day in high school. . . . [w]e threw all our money together and drove down to Mary’s liquor store near Twenty-seventh. I put on an army jacket and a pair of shades, and I walked in in broad daylight and ordered three cases of beer and assorted liquor. // When I walked in, the guy behind the counter said, ‘You in the army?’ // I said, ‘Nah, I just got discharged. I was stationed in Germany.’ // He asked, ‘We still got a lot of troops in Germany?’ // I said, ‘Oh, yeah, quite a few.’ Totally bullshitting him’" (p. 51).

5. Wanderlust. Love to keep moving; live by their talents, skills, ingenuity, and wits.

"We [the ‘South Side Boys’] used to sleep in out in the backyard in tents. But as soon as our folks were in bed, we were up and out of the tents, running the streets all night. We stayed out until two or three in the morning, and we were only in sixth grade" (p. 48).

"A lot of the South Side Guys ended up going into the military, oddly enough" (p. 51).

"My dream of retirement is to sell everything I own, go to one of the Hawaiian Islands, buy a little cottage on the beach, and become the surf bum I pretended to be all those years" (p. 191).

6. Wild oats. History of childhood and adolescent mischief and hell-raising.

"You sowed your wild oats, and it was generally considered harmless. We packed a lot of fun in those years [of boyhood in Minneapolis]" (p. 55).

"We [the ‘South Side Boys’] started out that way, being pretty wild kids. We’ve never grown up. We still misbehave when we get together" (p. 49).

"We [the ‘South Side Boys’] weren’t juvenile delinquents; I wouldn’t put it that way. We just had a streak of mischief in us" (p. 49).

7. True grit. Courageous, physically bold, and tough.

"I had my own copy of True Grit sent out [to the Predator film set] -- that great John Wayne classic that’s one of my all-time favorites" (p. 128).

"We were all tough. We never backed down from anybody. We weren’t above defending our turf when we had to. . . . Nobody carried guns and knives in those days. . . . If you had a problem to settle, you settled it with skin. // Of course, we did what we could to make sure that when it came down to skin, we could make an impression. In shop class we made what were called ‘fist-loads,’ on the sly [from tubular steel welding rods]. We took it home and cut it into four-inch lengths that fit inside our fists" (p. 50).

"I always strove to do my best. So it was a challenge [to join the Navy SEALs]. Irresistible" (p. 62).

"I had another reason for wanting to join the SEALs: I had a dreadful fear of heights that I wanted to conquer. . . . To this day, when I have fears, I always go out to conquer them" (p. 62).

8. No regrets. Live in the present; do not feel guilty about the past or anxious about the future.

". . . I’m thankful for the South Side Boys. They would never let me get too far out of line. . . . I have them to thank for giving me such a solid base to push off into life from" (p. 53).

    Summing up his core personal values, Ventura himself, in an inference-rich 38-word paragraph invokes six of Oldham and Morris’s (1995) eight criteria for the adventurous personality style: "I believe in simplicity, hard work, and independence [#3]. I love a challenge [#2]. I love living life to the fullest [#5, #6]. I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve achieved [#7]. I’ve taken risks along the way [#2], and I have very few regrets [#8]" (p. 38).

    Theodore Millon, professor of psychology at the University of Miami and Harvard Medical School, and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Personology and Psychopathology -- arguably the preeminent contemporary authority on personality theory and disorders of personality -- describes an antisocial-histrionic composite personality pattern, which he labels "the risk-taking antisocial" (see Millon, 1996, p. 452; Millon & Davis, 1998, p. 164). Millon (1994) also describes a normal, adaptive variant of antisocial personality disorder. These individuals tend to "flout tradition" and "act in a notably autonomous fashion, are not social-minded, and are not inclined to adhere to conventional standards, cultural mores, and organizational regulations" (p. 32). In a nutshell, this "dissenting" style includes

unconventional persons who seek to do things their own way and are willing to take the consequences of doing so. They act as they see fit regardless of how others judge them. Inclined at times to elaborate on or shade the truth, as well as ride close to the edge of the law, they are not conscientious -- that is, they do not assume customary responsibilities. Rather, they frequently assert that too many rules stand in the way of people who wish to be free and inventive, and that they prefer to think and act in an independent and often creative way. Many believe that persons in authority are too hard on people who don’t conform. Dissenters dislike following the same routing day after day and, at times, act impulsively and irresponsibly. They will do what they want or believe to be best without much concern for the effects of their actions on others. Being skeptical about the motives of most people, and refusing to be fettered or coerced, they exhibit a strong need for autonomy and self-determination. (p. 33)

    Millon and Davis’s (1998) description of the "risk-taking psychopath," though somewhat less adaptive and socially more obtrusive than the dissenting style, appears to be more closely related to Oldham and Morris’s adventurous style, given its combination of dauntless and outgoing features. Unlike most psychopathic personalities, "whose basic motivations are largely aggrandizement and revenge," risk-taking psychopaths, according to Millon and Davis, "are driven by the need for excitement and stimulation, for adventures that are intrinsically treacherous"; they are "thrill seekers" consumed by the need to "prove their mettle." They are classified as psychopathic primarily by virtue of "the undependability and irresponsibility of their actions, and their disdain for the effects of their behaviors on others as they pursue a restless chase to fulfill one capricious whim after another" (p. 164).

    Beyond a tendency to respond before thinking, acting impulsively, and behaving "in an unreflective and uncontrolled manner," these individuals are "substantially fearless," undeterred by events "that most people experience as dangerous or frightening." They are disinclined to give up their need for autonomy and independence, may lack self-discipline, and "are tempted to prove themselves against new and exciting ventures, traveling on a hyperactive and erratic course of hazardous activity." Descriptively, these individuals may be characterized as "dauntless, intrepid, bold, and audacious." The essential feature of risk-taking psychopathy is risk taking for its own sake -- "for the excitement it provides, and for the sense of feeling alive and involved in life, rather than for such purposes as material gain or defense of reputation" (Millon & Davis, 1998, p. 164, emphasis added). In this regard, one of the most diagnostically significant passages in Jesse Ventura’s autobiography is the following:

I got to be especially good friends with the stunt guys. They liked me because I wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with them. I did my own rappelling in Predator. They didn’t want me to, but I’ve got to defy death occasionally, just for my own peace of mind. Sometimes, you need to defy death so that you can appreciate life more. (Ventura, 1999, p. 126, emphasis added)

Implications for Executive Leadership

    According to Oldham and Morris (1995),

It’s rare to find a predominantly Adventurous style in a regular nine-to-five job, let alone in management, and certainly not in a corporate setting. But sometimes, in a nontraditional, creative enterprise, a highly Adventurous person will have a brilliant idea and enough magnetism to attract others to join in the excitement and carry the idea through. Adventurous people certainly have style, but they’re not managers in any effective sense. They have charisma, though, and if the rewards keep coming in, 'real' managers may stick around and make sure bets are adequately hedged and the enterprise keeps functioning. But the Adventurous manager may well lose interest once everything’s up and running, becoming inattentive to what others are doing, and put at risk everything he or she has inspired. (p. 237)

Adventurous types are good workers when they want to be, as long as the work provides constant challenge, new projects, and renewed excitement. Although they may be entrepreneurs, they’re not what one might call management material. Adventurers operate on instinct and ingenuity rather than on intellect. They tend to resist authority, they are poor planners, they deplore tedious follow-through, they do not accept responsibility for other people, and they don’t handle money or budgets well. // Adventurers are easily bored. When they are not stimulated by their work, no matter how successful they are, they’ll peter out or move on. (p. 235)

Motivation to Politics

    Ultimately, adventurous types "are fundamentally out for themselves" (Oldham & Morris, 1995, p. 228). If they also possess significant narcissistic traits (supreme self-confidence and high ambition), as may be the case with Jesse Ventura, they are driven not only by the visceral thrill of excitement, but are also "ambitious to break records and make a name for themselves in the process" (p. 229). They "do not need others to fuel their self-esteem or to provide purpose to their lives, and they don’t make sacrifices for other people, at least not easily" (p. 229).

    Furthermore, they believe in themselves and do not require anyone’s approval; Oldham and Morris note that they have "a definite sense of what is right or wrong for them, and if something is important to them, they’ll do it no matter what anyone thinks" (p. 229). This may be Jesse Ventura’s greatest political strength, because career politicians are usually socialized, or at least conditioned, to be responsive to public and peer approval. Despite their fundamental self-centeredness, according to Oldham and Morris, adventurous people are capable of advancing a cause "while in the service of their own experience" (p. 29). In this regard, the key to Ventura’s success as governor will likely be the quality of the people with whom he surrounds himself in the formulation and execution of public policy for the state of Minnesota.

Conclusion

    An apt analogy for Jesse Ventura’s personality pattern is the controlled chain reaction of a nuclear reactor -- a productive process of harnessing nature’s power, efficient, and relatively safe if all goes well and there is no catastrophic meltdown. Jesse Ventura seems to have harnessed, as it were, what is potentially one of the more destructive impulses in human nature -- the antisocial character -- and transformed it into a socially constructive, life-enhancing force in Minnesota’s body politic. But, as in the case of, say, Northern States Power Company’s Prairie Island plant, for some the questions and uncertainty remain.

References

Millon, T. (1994). Millon Index of Personality Styles manual. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.

Millon, T. (1996). Disorders of personality: DSM-IV and beyond (2nd ed). New York: Wiley.

Millon, T., & Davis, R. D. (1998). Ten subtypes of psychopathy. In T. Millon, E. Simonsen, M. Birket-Smith, & R. D. Davis (Eds). (1998). Psychopathy: Antisocial, criminal, and violent behavior (pp. 161-170). New York: Guilford.

Oldham, J. M., & Morris, L. B. (1995). The new personality self-portrait (rev. ed.). New York: Bantam Books.

Renshon, S. A. (1996a). High hopes: The Clinton presidency and the politics of ambition. New York: New York University Press.

Renshon, S. A. (1996b). The psychological assessment of presidential candidates. New York: New York University Press.

Ventura, J. (1999). I ain’t got time to bleed: Reworking the body politic from the bottom up. New York: Villard Books.


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Last Updated: 16 April 2000