CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Jesse "The Body" Ventura met Harvard "The Mind" University yesterday -- the anti-politician coming to the land of the brainiacs in an encounter that left both sides mildly bemused, if not enlightened.
Bashing the media at every opportune moment -- his aides said he would hold a news conference only if he felt "in the mood" -- the governor of Minnesota did not quite squelch talk about his inflammatory comments in Playboy magazine.
But his visit certainly changed the subject for a moment.
There was Ventura, like an overgrown freshman, eating pizza with undergraduates, pep-talking with the football team, soaking up knowledge from the big shots on the faculty, toting a Harvard tie.
"If you'd have asked me at any point in my life, would I be at Harvard talking politics, I would have laughed very loudly," Ventura told 70 students, winners of a campus lottery for hotly contested seats at a question-and-answer session for undergraduates.
"I hope I don't disappoint you."
At first, some students sniped about him.
"I wanted to witness the embarrassment firsthand," said Teresa Bechtold, a sophomore from Blackduck, Minn.
But they seemed a little more star-struck after seeing the former boa-toting, trash-talking professional wrestler in the flesh.
"I love him! I love him!" said B. J. Novak, a junior and an editor at the Harvard Lampoon.
His friend Jackie Newmyer agreed: "He's genuinely curious -- he's happy to be at Harvard and around bright minds."
Even Bechtold had a change of heart. "I liked him better than I thought I would," she said.
It was not clear whether Ventura was student or teacher here.
He brought some advisers with him to take notes while he met for more than an hour with economists, government professors and civics theoreticians at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Then it was on to a lecture of his own, where he chatted with students about grass-roots politics and self-styled campaigns.
Conspicuous by size
Ventura, who does not have a college degree, mingled perhaps a tad conspicuously in this ivy-walled environment, his signature head-bobbing and deep chin dimple, not to mention the sheer size of him, easy to spot in all the tweed.
When a member of his entourage mentioned books, he boomed, "Well, there sure are plenty of 'em here!"
Keenly aware of this crowd's collective smarts, he gamely told a group of students, "You don't look any different than the University of Minnesota."
When he received two Harvard ties, he said, "I asked for these because I'm a big fan of the movie 'Trading Places.' "
Ventura seemed pleased with the very fact of his visit: "The American dream lives because Jesse Ventura is at Harvard!" he said at a news conference (he did, indeed, get in the mood).
And he seemed delighted with the way the Harvard crowd received him.
"The students had more important things to do," he said, when reporters asked whether undergraduates had grilled him on his comments in Playboy.
Those statements were that organized religion was a "crutch" for "weak-minded people," that fat people have a "saliva gland" problem and that he would like to be reincarnated as a 38-double D bra.
Takes over a fellow's office
Not everyone was so thrilled to have Ventura here -- if merely for the logistical nightmare his presence prompted.
Dan Lungren, a former Republican candidate for governor in California, a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics and the host of a national talk show on Catholic Family Radio, might have been upset over Ventura's comments on religion.
But the more pressing problem seemed to be that Ventura had ousted Lungren from his own office while meeting with other professors.
So there was Ventura at the Kennedy school, schmoozing with the top minds in the academic establishment -- the improvisational politician getting wisdom from the pros.
But the governor did not seem too worried about tainting his self-taught governing style by joining the political mainstream for a day.
"I'm always open to alternative ideas," he said.
This was hardly a typical visitor, and neither was the cast of characters this celebrity attracted.
'Edgy and armed' guards
Ventura's bodyguards -- one of them the subject of criticism in Minnesota for following him even to golfing tournaments -- cooled their heels behind the ivy walls with little to do while Ventura held meetings.
"I'm feeling edgy," one said. "Edgy and armed. That's not a good combo."
And there were other attractions to a day that seemed like a bit of political theater.
George Stephanopoulos, the former top Clinton aide, waited for a Ventura interview in his new capacity as ABC News reporter while a breathless freshman approached him with blushes: "You're completely and totally and seriously my hero," she told Stephanopoluos before snapping his picture.
Ventura, who is on something of a media blitz, crammed several national news interviews into his schedule yesterday, topped by a student forum with host Chris Matthews of "Hardball" on CNBC.
The tour continues today in New York with a Barbara Walters interview and an appearance on David Letterman's show.
Power of celebrity
It was as much a celebrity visit as a political one.
While Ventura was talking global economics with Harvard professors, an aide was talking loudly on a cell phone about how Ventura had spent time with Woody Harrelson and how Donald Trump would send a limousine for him in New York.
Ventura has recently embraced the idea of Trump as a possible Reform Party presidential candidate next year.
But Ventura need not go to New York to find an ally.
Alan K. Simpson, the former Republican senator who now teaches at the Kennedy School, greeted Ventura warmly.
A blunt-spoken politician who has endured his share of scrapes with the media, Simpson said some of the fuss over the Playboy interview seemed out of place.
"This article wasn't exactly in the Atlantic Monthly," Simpson said, noting that Ventura's statements were hardly made in the context of policy-making.
"It's a girlie magazine -- it's about chicks. If Playboy interviewed me for two days, I'd be cremated."
Run for president?
To give Ventura some moral support, Simpson gave the former wrestler a copy of his book, "Right in the Old Gazoo," which details Simpson's own body slams with the press.
The inscription: "Never let your face show how hard they're kicking you in the ass."
Ventura might well stick around long enough to heed that advice.
Asked by reporters for the umpteenth time whether he would run for president, he left just a little wiggle-room. Enough to tease.
"Talk to me in the year 2000," he said.
"I'll deal with it when we get into the year of the election."
Pub Date: 10/07/99