St. Paul, Minn. On Gov. Jesse Ventura's inauguration day, the resplendent Capitol rotunda here became a theater of populism not seen at such a level since the election of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long in 1928.
A young mother in her "My governor can beat up your governor" T-shirt stood near a man who worked the night shift at a gas station, who was standing not far from an unemployed truck driver, who was looking across the room at Ventura's movie pal Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Not everyone there that day had voted for the former pro wrestler. But nearly everyone seemed downright tickled that a loud-mouthed muscleman who favored pink feather boas and effeminate sunglasses in the ring had rolled state politics onto its back.
Nearly four years later, that magic is so far gone that last week when Ventura announced he would not seek re-election, many Minnesotans thought it was one of the wisest decisions he made as governor.
Patrick Passe was the unemployed truck driver on Jan. 4, 1999, at the Capitol, along with his wife and infant daughter. He's employed now, has a second baby girl, and is a political observer so astute he can name Ventura-backed bills and tell you how far they got in the state legislature not very far, usually.
On inauguration day, the then 38-year-old who had voted Republican for 20 years had this to say: "They had their chance. Now it's his."
This is how Passe feels now: "I was hoping to get an outsider in there," he said last week. "He wasn't really an outsider. He turned out to be mostly personality, and his personality got in the way of any effectiveness. I'm disappointed."
Ventura was elected in a fascinating upset. A Reform Party candidate whose only political experience was as the mayor of a Minneapolis suburb, he refused to hold his tongue or read from a script as he spoke to mostly young, disenchanted voters. Show up on Election Day, he implored them at college campuses and on what was then a groundbreaking political Web site, and show career politicians that you really are fed up with their ways.
They did just that. Sixty percent of Minnesota voters turned out on Nov. 3, 1998, the highest figure of any state. Some 15 percent of them were people who, under state law, were allowed to register and vote the same day, many of them males under 30. Ventura defeated two established politicians Norm Coleman, the Republican mayor of St. Paul, and Hubert H. Humphrey III, the Democratic state attorney general and son of the late vice president by taking 37 percent of the vote.
His inauguration party lasted several days, cost a maximum of $20 to attend.
Although he enjoyed what appeared from the outside to be a two-year honeymoon, Ventura began upsetting people here right away, including many who shared his views.
He bolted the Reform Party for the Independence Party. He set up what analysts agree has been a well-oiled administration, but he handed almost all the important posts not to fellow independents but rather more experienced Democrat and Republican operatives.
Not a single independent candidate has been elected to statewide office since, and many one-time supporters feel his failure to fulfill his own dream a viable third party has been Ventura's greatest failure.
He derided organized religion. He made millions moonlighting as an author, a football commentator and a pro wrestling referee.
He seemed to leap at the chance to go on high-profile national television programs but handed out media passes to local reporters that read "Official Jackal."
Couldn't play the game
What began to make it all come apart, some here say, was that while he beat up on others endlessly and with apparent glee, the hulking former Navy SEAL couldn't take a verbal punch himself.
"He really has quite thin skin," said Alan Frechtman of Minnesota Public Radio, who works with humorist Garrison Keillor.
On his weekly show "A Prairie Home Companion," Keillor provoked Ventura mercilessly with lines such as, "You couldn't pour water out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel."
Instead of playing along, however, Ventura ridiculed perhaps the last man Minnesotans like to see ridiculed, the folksy, bespectacled and beloved Keillor.
"Garrison was actually light-hearted," said Frechtman. "But the governor didn't see it that way. I think if he would have played along, a lot more people would have found him endearing."
Most Minnesotans give Ventura credit for pushing through a light-rail plan for the Twin Cities, a novel property tax-reform package that is yet to be decided and a few other bills. The thing pretty much everyone liked most were the tax refunds he gave for three years until the state ran out of money.
But politics is tough business, and in the end, it seems, tougher than Ventura.
After three years of mocking other state politicians, he proposed a tough, lean and what many analysts saw as a completely viable, budget to address the economic slowdown here. The legislature instead passed its own budget, perhaps the political blow that dropped the governor.
A dedicated family man, Ventura's wife wasn't happy with his run the first time around and, by most accounts, staunchly opposed a second.
The man who reveled in the fame and show-business of it all at the same time complained repeatedly about his personality and his family getting more attention than his budget proposals. And following reports that Ventura's son had trashed the governor's mansion during parties when mom and dad were away, Duluth political scientist Craig Grau said Ventura appeared to move up the announcement that he wouldn't run again, from late in the week to Tuesday.
Most here say it would be a difficult race, but that Ventura almost certainly would stand a chance of winning a second term against a deeply divided field of potential candidates. Even more, it seems, say he made the right decision.
"He wasn't the best governor but he wasn't the worst," said Passe, the truck driver. And then, echoing his inauguration-day sentiments of 1999, he added: "I guess it's time to give someone else a shot."