Jesse Ventura’s election to the governorship of Minnesota marked the apex of the full-fledged merger of politics and entertainment.  When it came to celebrity, “Jesse Ventura” (his stage name, which, tellingly he used at his inauguration) was a jack-of-all trades: actor, professional wrestler, announcer, talk-radio host, football broadcaster.  All of these professions, held in some combination or another for nearly three decades, allowed him to have more name recognition than, say, someone who had served in the state legislature for ten years would have had.  It may have been a wave of disgust at the establishment suits running the state that vaulted Ventura into the governor’s chair four years ago, but it was his celebrity that Minnesota voters craved, wishing that some might rub off on them.  Our governor’s famous; he’s fun; he’s exciting.  We’re not just a bunch of boring, morose Scandinavians up here: We’re hip; we’re happening.  We actually elected a professional wrestler to our state’s highest office.  And he can beat up your governor, too.

Yet the same celebrity status that propelled Ventura to the governor’s office helped to undo him.  He recently announced that he will not run for reelection, perhaps signaling an end to the idea that entertainment and politics can be more than just fundraisers, endorsements, and political propaganda.

Ventura did not become the stereotypical jock-turned-student-body-president just because of his athletic prowess.  When engaged, he could be as thoughtful and knowledgeable about public policy as any wonk.  His administration did make significant strides in property-tax reduction and reform and in building a light-rail transit system in the Twin Cities.  He surrounded himself with competent administrators.  He asked tough questions of public-employee unions, educators, university officials, and others looking for handouts.  And he didn’t back down when they were offended.

Ventura, however, could not let go of his other personality, “The Body.”  Simply being governor either was not enough to satisfy his ego or was just too boring.  He had to be “The Body” in his books, in his countless interviews on talk shows and in magazines all across the country, in his participation as a guest referee in a WWF match in Minneapolis, in guest roles on soap operas, and in serving as an announcer in the very short-lived Xtreme Football League (XFL).  The idea that he damaged the dignity of his office by entertaining the masses was simply lost on him.  All that mattered was collecting another handsome paycheck.  He was another Bill Clinton: No sense of duty to the offices that they held was enough to keep them away from what they desired—for Clinton, women; for Ventura, money.

Despite all of that, despite all of the gaffes and the verbal battles with the media and the legislature, despite all of the nasty off-the-cuff comments and the excessive travel, Ventura was still in a position to win reelection.  His two major-party opponents were legislative veterans, the kind of people he had successfully campaigned against in 1998, and he had their deficit-ridden budget—which he had vetoed and the legislature had overridden—to use against them.

But the lure of celebrity struck again.  Like many celebrities, Ventura wants to have it both ways—to be famous and to avoid scrutiny.  Thus, when disgruntled workers at the governor’s mansion (which Ventura closed as a cost-cutting measure to thumb his nose at the legislature) began talking to the press about Ventura’s son throwing wild parties there and con men becoming houseguests, Ventura threw a fit, whined about his family’s privacy being violated, and pulled the plug on his reelection campaign.

Ventura’s departure raises doubts about whether he was even serious about being governor or just viewed the campaign as an ego trip, another show to perform.  In any case, his Independence Party will likely die a slow, quiet death robbed of its celebrity candidate.  It has no identifiable cultural or economic base, and its grassroots are shallow because Ventura never bothered to cultivate them.  Like its predecessor, the Reform Party, it floundered on the rocks of celebrity politics and candidates: Celebrities view parties as vehicles to make them bigger stars, not the other way around.

The American people may be souring on the idea that celebrities have anything to contribute to politics or policy debates other than money, p.r., and shopworn slogans.  After September 11, would you want Warren Beatty, Cybill Shepherd, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Donald Trump, Alec Baldwin, or any other celebrity running the country?