• U.S.

The Ventura Way: If It Isn’t Fun, I Quit

4 minute read
Tamala M. Edwards/Dearborn, Michigan

Reporters were promised high jinks at the Reform Party National Convention. “Bring your asbestos suit,” chortled Phil Madsen, an aide to Jesse Ventura, relishing a skirmish between his boss and Ross Perot, the party’s founder. “Its going to be hot.”

But a leisure suit would have been more appropriate. First of all, Ventura, the party’s highest-ranking elected official and the repository of its presidential urges, didn’t show. Bad weather and a bad back kept him in Minnesota. When they got him on speakerphone, instead of taking on Perot, Ventura promised not to run for President; his grab for power was more a wink and a nudge. He pitched Jack Gargan, a retired financial consultant, as party chairman, but then swaddled the endorsement in protestations that he wasn’t telling the fiercely independent delegates how to vote. The room, which had sparked with applause at other points in the speech, went silent as Gargan sat in the last row staring at his shoes. I thought old Jack was done for, but Saturday there was a proliferation of Gargan buttons. Many of those who were undecided said the Body had won their vote.

But it wasn’t all about Jesse. The two Perot-blessed chairman candidates had problems of their own. Thomas McLaughlin, a quiet man known for doing the party chores, seemed too retiring in a party where more than a few delegates think the presidency should be filled by Donald Trump. And the other candidate, Pat Benjamin, the sitting vice chairman, was busy tamping down a war between members of her New Jersey delegation. Accusations swirled that Benjamin had kept delegate contact information away from Gargan. “Such lies,” she hissed. Not a great backdrop for a woman promising to be a unifier.

Gargan’s strategy, if he had one, was to play the reluctant warrior. His shock troops were made up of three befuddled senior citizens who swooshed around the ballroom wearing GARGAN’S GEEZERS T shirts. He compared the chairmanship to captaining the Titanic. “I don’t want the damned job,” he said. “But I’m not about to let this ship go down.” Proof that he was a hard worker? He used to drive live chickens to market, a job that meant stopping every few minutes and beating the sides of the truck to keep the birds flapping and alive. During his speech, he listed his credentials as loving poker, pool and motorcycle rides and having an eye for the ladies. “And those are my good qualities,” he told the hooting crowd.

One imagined that somewhere the elusive Perot, a man used to having the last laugh in this party, was not having much fun. In his speech he never mentioned Ventura. And he and Gargan, once friendly, haven’t spoken in years. Gargan intends to move party headquarters away from Perot’s home roost of Dallas to Gargan’s nest in Florida’s Cedar Key. He and patron Ventura made clear they’re not interested in a third Perot run for the presidency. “We are going in a whole new direction,” Gargan said.

Getting the party to follow him there will be challenging because Reformers like being, as they say, “individuals.” These are the people to whom society doesn’t listen much. But here they can be heard–and heard and heard, making the debate, with its shouts of “point of inquiry,” its endless amendments and its glacial balloting, seem mad.

And is the yuckster Gargan serious enough to attract voters and good candidates? Or will the Reformers fail to get at least 5% of the vote, thus losing their $12.6 million in matching funds for 2004, and go the way of the Bull Moose Party, which evaporated in 1916? In a party where one vice chairman candidate served beer out of his hotel bathtub, where its only Governor plans to referee this month’s WWF SummerSlam wrestling match, concerns about being serious may miss the point. “Jesse rejects that notion. He’s always said, ‘If it isn’t fun, I quit,'” says Ventura aide Madsen. “Serious enough? That’s a negative term here.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com