09.16.09

Senate Smackdown

Pro-wrestlers weigh in on Chris Dodd’s new challenger: Linda McMahon, the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, who threw her hat in the ring Wednesday.

Linda McMahon, the chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment and wife of wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, announced Wednesday she was seeking Chris Dodd’s U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. With that, McMahon joined Mike Bloomberg and Meg Whitman as CEOs of billion-dollar companies who have pursued high office. But perhaps it was the aura of men in tights, which the McMahons has deployed so lucratively for years, that made this election feel a bit unusual. And so for the opening round of political punditry, we turned to the muscle-bound grapplers themselves.

“The idea that Vince McMahon could be in the vicinity of one of our lawmaking bodies just frightens me,” says former wrestling announcer Jim Cornette.

“Connecticut needs Linda McMahon,” said Lanny “The Genius” Poffo, who wrestled in the WWE in the 1980s and ‘90s. “She is the opposite of Nancy Pelosi.”

Poffo praised McMahon as a deficit hawk, as someone who would push Congress to balance the budget. “She’ll be something new in the Senate, someone who is very conscientious,” Poffo said.

“Luscious” Johnny Valiant, who joined the federation in 1967, concurred. “I bet she’d be very good,” he said from his apartment in New York. “She’s very worldly and she has a very good pulse on what the people on the street are saying.”

Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, and “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart could not be reached at press time.

Because her announcement comes from the world of professional wrestling, it is tempting to regard McMahon’s candidacy as a “work,” wrestling lingo for an absurdist, ratings-grabbing stunt. As McMahon blasted Chris Dodd Wednesday morning—she said the senator has “lost his way and our trust”—one could imagine a 300-pound man in a singlet taunting a hapless opponent. But as The Hill reported, McMahon has retained several well-known political consultants; she has a massive fortune to fund the campaign; and the scandal-plagued Dodd, if you glance at his latest poll numbers, is a somewhat hapless opponent. Meaning, if Linda McMahon’s candidacy is a work, it is no more of one than, say, anything in contemporary GOP politics. (The campaign director for McMahon’s GOP opponent Rob Simmons said: “Anyone has a right to run and we welcome her to the race.”)

McMahon, who is 60, is the only figure in professional wrestling who could be described as retiring. “Linda was unique in that she's the one McMahon who was incapable of leaping off the screen and being bigger than life,” said Rick Scaia, Web master of the wrestling site Online Onslaught. This was largely self-determined. Since the McMahons took over the family business in 1982, purchasing the WWF (as it was then known) from Vince’s father, Linda styled herself as the wise, demure businesswoman who would give wrestling an imprimatur of sanity.

It was Linda who took the title of WWE CEO in 1994, after Vince was indicted on federal drug charges for distributing steroids (he was acquitted); Linda who calmed nervous investors after their 1999 IPO; Linda who oversaw massive campaigns like the WWE’s “Smackdown Your Vote!” registration drive, which culminated in Barack Obama and John McCain recording appeals last year on Monday Night RAW. McMahon used her spiffed-up image to gain a seat on Connecticut’s state board of education in 2009, despite the wails of one state representative who accused her of “harm[ing] our youth and society and our quality of life.”

That was overstated, but McMahon was not above her own contributions to wrestling’s commedia dell’arte. There was the time that she entered the WWE ring and kicked an announcer in the groin The night she was slapped by her daughter, Stephanie. (And then Linda appeared as a wheelchair-bound vegetable at ringside—and, well, it all makes Rep. Joe Wilson look like a lightweight.)

McMahon’s greatest political liability will almost certainly be her husband. Vince McMahon’s onscreen antics have gone far beyond Linda’s; he has admitted (in the non-wrestling world) to being unfaithful. Where she is relentlessly on-message, he says whatever he wants. “The idea that Vince McMahon could be in the vicinity of one of our lawmaking bodies just frightens me,” says Jim Cornette, who worked for the McMahons for a dozen years as a performer, creative-team member, and color commentator.

Wrestling is a political art form, and not just because Jesse Ventura, one of Vince McMahon’s star performers in the 1980s, managed to get elected governor of Minnesota. Cold War feuds have given way to villains from the Axis of Evil; lately, beret-wearing French “appeasers” have grappled alongside Arab Americans who criticize the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. And that doesn’t count the geopolitical grudge matches in the locker room.

“Oh, yeah, there were some political freaks over there,” says Christopher Nowinski, the Harvard-educated wrestler whose WWE character was … a Harvard-educated wrestler. “[Oversexed wrestling lothario] Val Venis is a well-known libertarian. Glenn Jacobs [the bald brawler known as Kane] was very vocal about his opinions. And [wrestling legend] Ric Flair is a Republican fundraiser.” You may now add to this formidable roster Linda McMahon, the mild-mannered deficit hawk with and an inconvenient husband as a tag-team partner trailing her to the political ring.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast.