05.22.09

Jesse the Body vs. Torture

As Obama and Cheney clashed over fighting terror, a new voice has entered the fray: Jesse Ventura, who has declared war on torture. He talked to The Daily Beast about taking on opponents from both parties.

As the national debate over torture reached its boiling point this week, a new champion emerged: Jesse “the Body” Ventura. While President Obama and former Vice President Cheney gave dueling speeches Thursday, Ventura was talking to The Daily Beast about how he has suddenly become one of the most effective and sought after anti-torture speakers in the country—a noodge to Sean Hannity and Elisabeth Hasselbeck alike.

“Whenever the government says it's time to move on, that means there's something they don’t want you to know about," Ventura said.

Video screenshot

Jesse Venture on The View; click here for full video.

Watching Ventura cut through the cable chatter like a rusty bayonet has been thrilling. "You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney, and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders," Ventura told Larry King last week, adding an exclamation point to his contention that torture produced unreliable intelligence. On Monday, he faced off with Hasselbeck, The View's house conservative, and took the debate over waterboarding's effectiveness to its logical extremes: "If waterboarding's OK, why don't we let our police do it to suspects so we can learn what they know?" he asked. "We only seem to waterboard Muslims. ... Have we waterboarded anyone else?" Later that night, it was a cage match with Fox’s Hannity. Ventura declared he'd rather have "a thousand Monicas" than the terrorist attacks that occurred on Bush's watch. Videos of these appearances generated hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

“Whenever the government says it’s time to move on that means there’s something they don’t want you to know about,” Ventura says.

For Ventura, it marked a kind of return to his tough-guy roots. Nearly four decades ago, he left home after a brief Christmas break from his military training to go be stalked, abducted, and tortured by his fellow soldiers. The exercise was part of the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program, known as SERE, which was designed to prepare soldiers for deployment to Vietnam by simulating the conditions of enemy capture. Participants who were captured during the training mission had a bag placed over their head and were waterboarded. Those who managed to escape won an hour of freedom and a jelly sandwich for their efforts.

"One of my SEAL team classmates—I don't know how he did it, but he escaped four times," Ventura recalled in an interview. "So he got four jelly sandwiches and four hours off."

Ventura was less lucky. His pursuers caught up with him, subdued him, and bagged him. Then came the torture.

"At one point, I was put in a box that was so small they had to stand on it to close it," the 6"4, 250-pound Ventura said. "I don't know how long I was in there: When I got out all my extremities were numb and I couldn't move."

Since graduating from SERE, Ventura, 58 years old, has journeyed through the professional-wrestling world, the Minnesota state house, and these days lives as a surfing hermit in Mexico. But it’s his SEAL training, mixed with a bit of wrestling bravado, that lends an emotional immediacy to his arguments that even Obama has struggled to match. And in contrast with Obama's reluctance to dwell on the issue, Ventura has gladly played the face to Dick Cheney's heel in myriad TV appearances, mercilessly citing the former vice president's five draft deferments and challenging him to submit to torture himself.

"It's tough when you fight against a guy who's been in all these occupations," Ventura said, "And who sees that they're all wrestling."

According to Ventura, his recent reemergence from a self-imposed exile in Mexico, where he lives (and surfs) without electricity for six months a year, was less out of a desire to leap into the torture debate and more to promote his book Don't Start the Revolution Without Me. But he added that the timing was appropriate, given his experience in the military, which has been on his mind often in recent days.

"That was probably the height of my patriotism, and probably for many young men and women as well—when you commit, sign on the line, give up your life to your government to protect your country," Ventura said. "When I watch my country on this issue of torture, that disturbs me because my belief is that my country should be better than all the other countries in the world."

Politically, Ventura, who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998 as a third-party candidate, is a relic from an earlier time. He represents the high-water mark of Ross Perot's Reform Party, which collapsed into irrelevance during the next decade. Ventura describes himself as a "centrist" who is "fiscally conservative and socially liberal," and while it's true that his positions on a variety of issues (pro-gay marriage, pro-legalizing drugs) defy traditional partisan labels, he is also clearly on the fringe of the political spectrum. For example, he openly questions whether 9/11 was an inside job employing controlled demolitions, a favorite trope of conspiracy theorists.

But Ventura's status as an independent is in large part responsible for his prominence in the torture debate. While Democratic talking heads find themselves caught up in discussing what Nancy Pelosi knew when, and Republicans are stuck defending the Bush administration's record, Ventura has no interest in partisan distractions. You could almost hear Hasselbeck's mood sink on The View after Ventura agreed with her that Democrats bore responsibility for torture, as well, only to mercilessly return to dismantling the rationale behind the interrogation techniques.

"Both parties are culpable," Ventura told The Daily Beast. "Pelosi knew, Harry Reid, I'm sure, and the president knows he needs that party loyalty. He knows if they continue with an open investigation it will drag the Dems in, too."

And while Ventura said that Obama's speech Thursday "gave him chills," he was quick not to let his guard down.

"I hope he walks the walk and not just talks the talk," he said.

Ventura says he’s happy getting his kicks in Mexico, with his wife of 34 years and his surfboard for company, but there’s one political post that might attract him.

"I'd rather be surfing," he said. "I'd have to be motivated to [run for office]. You have to be, because you have to give 100 percent and be completely focused on winning. I've been a mayor, I've been a governor—the only job I'd go for is president."

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.