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Playboy Interview Puts Ventura in Crisis Mode
By Martin Kaste
October 1, 1999
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Governor Ventura has offered an explanation for the controversial interview he gave Playboy magazine, but he's stopping short of an apology. Politicians and some religious leaders have reacted angrily to a quote in which he criticizes organized religion. Many people also took offense at other comments from the interview, which they considered to be offensive to women and out of touch with the prevailing morality.

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Listen to the entire Ventura news conference.

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MOST OF THE OUTRAGE YESTERDAY was directed at a portion of the interview in which Governor Ventura calls organized religion a "crutch for weak-minded people." Under mounting pressure from the media and fellow politicians, the governor emerged from his office and explained to a live TV audience that he, in fact, does respect other people's religious beliefs. But he says he also harbors a certain degree of skepticism about religion, something that grew out of his experiences in the Philippines, where he served in the Navy in the 1970s.
Ventura: It was very much a poverty-strickend (sic) area, and I walked into my friend and he was stuffing a large amount of money into an envelope, and I asked him what that was for, and he said, "My nephew is being baptized," and I said, "So, why the money," and he said, "If you don't pay, you don't get baptized," and I said, "Well I recollect John doing it in the river for free."
Asked point-blank whether he believed religious people were "weak-minded," as he said in the interview, Ventura vacillated.
Ventura: No, or if they are, they seek religion to, that makes them better people. So if they are weak-minded, it helps them.
And he offered this rhetorical gambit in his defense.
Ventura: I haven't started any wars, has religion? I'm not saying anything, I asked a question! I said, "I haven't started any wars through time, has religion?"
The governor sent a similar explanation - but not an apology - to area religious leaders, along with his assurances that he respects the positive role religion can plan in communities, along with his hope that his administration will be able to cooperate with religious groups to solve social problems.
Chamberlin: There's a mixed message here, that we're getting from the governor. There's obviously some antagonism there.
Peg Chamberlin is one of those who received the Ventura letter. She's the executive director of the protestant-leaning Minnesota Council of Churches.
Chamberlin: The letter has a conciliatory tone, and I appreciate that his own religious experience has a particular experience behind it. But that's not enough to give a good analysis of the role of religion or the nature of religion.
During the news conference, Ventura said religious leaders should be willing to forgive his comments, but Chamberlin says forgiveness doesn't come that easily.
Chamberlin: Forgiveness generally entails someone making confession, and changing how they do what they do.
And confession - or a clear apology - is not exactly Ventura's style. In fact, he made it clear during his "explanatory" news conference that he had no intention of apologizing to anyone for the interview.

Ventura is being unapologetic about a lot more than just the remark about religion. In the Playboy interview, he roams across all sorts of controversial territory, and seems to say something for everybody to hate. He says schools might need more armed guards. He says the media are dangerous. He says he understands why Navy men felt compelled to harass women at the notorious Tailhook event in Las Vegas in 1991. And he defends the right to burn the U.S. flag.

Ventura prides himself for his straight-talking style; he often says he can afford to talk this way because he's not a professional politician and he has nothing to lose. But others might have more at stake. The chairman of the national Reform Party, Russell Verney, says he's appalled at the portions of the interview he's read, and he's adamant that the party does not share Ventura's opinions.
Verney: Although the media may portray the party as Jesse Ventura, the party is not Jesse Ventura, the party is tens of thousands of good folks around the country, who are not represented by these views expressed by Governor Ventura.
Verney, who is allied with Ross Perot and has generally been hostile to Ventura's insurgent influence in the party, says the governor is misusing the gift of celebrity.
Verney: Celebrity status is simply a tool, and the real question is do you use the tool for personal self gratification like Dennis Rodman, or do you use it for the greater good of the community, like Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah Winfrey's name, by the way, has started showing up in conversations with Reform Party leaders as a possible recruit for the presidential nomination. Many Reformers think the talk-show host would have many of the straight-talking, celebrity qualities of Jesse Ventura, without the propensity for causing offense. Winfrey could not be reached for comment.

Local Reform Party politicians may also suffer some consequences. The party is trying desperately to get a candidate elected in one of the two special local legislative races this fall, or at least a good showing for their U.S. Senate candidate next year. James Gibson, the only Reformer in the Senate race so far, says he never counted on riding Ventura's personal popularity to victory.
Gibson: Hopefully, people looking at me, not Jesse; and when they see "Reform Party," they see that Jesse is simply one individual in the party, and that we're a party with a purpose, not just a cult.
Ventura says he doesn't think his comments will hurt the party; he says they're just his personal opinions. And he ended a tumultuous day by pledging not to change his straight-forward, sometimes shocking manner of expressing himself in public.