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Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2001 /23 Shevat, 5761

Bob Greene

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The words and ideas in this column are unauthorized


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IF Bill Clinton is looking for a way to get rid of his current public relations problems, the answer may reside in an unexpected place.

The same goes for George W. Bush, if he's anticipating future criticism from the news media. Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. George Ryan, here in Illinois, would be well-advised to take this advice, too.

It comes from Minnesota.

As the entire world knows by now, a former professional wrestler -- Jesse Ventura -- is the governor of that state. Ventura also has a side job as a Saturday evening commentator on XFL football game telecasts.

One of Minnesota's largest newspapers -- the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- decided to launch a running editorial cartoon about the state's famous and controversial governor. Called "VenturaLand," the cartoon -- done in comic strip form -- runs once a week on the editorial pages.

In announcing the feature, editorial page editor Ronald D. Clark wrote: "Don't you think a governor who doubles as an author, soap opera actor, TV football commentator, pro wrestling celebrity official and the subject of a Broadway play ought to be featured in a comic strip?" Clark quoted the artist assigned to draw the strip -- Kevin Lenagh -- as saying that Minnesota politics have begun to feel like Disneyland: "I think of the ups and downs the governor has been going through as a political roller coaster. It feels to me like we are in an amusement park. The state of Minnesota is VenturaLand."

Gov. Ventura was not amused; his spokesman said that the first strip -- which knocked Ventura's skills as an XFL commentator -- was "cruel" and "demeaning." He said the strip was an insult to the "hard-working Minnesotans" who voted for and support Ventura.

But the most intriguing response to "VenturaLand" had nothing to do with its content. And this is where Clinton, Bush, Daley, Ryan and other elected officials can learn a lesson.

Ventura said to a reporter: "My name is trademarked. And yet they're using my name and likeness without any approval from me at all."

Two of Ventura's allies emphasized this point in the Pioneer Press:

"[S]ome public figures, like our governor, have created their own proprietary and legally protected names and images. Jesse `The Body' Ventura is no less a legitimate trademark and corporate asset than are those of Arnold Palmer, Sting and Martha Stewart. David Bowie, among others, has syndicated himself and sold stock shares.... The list goes on: Elizabeth Taylor, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. All have worked hard to create -- and have a proprietary right to -- their names, their images, their likenesses and references thereto (however tastefully done)."

So there was the argument from the Ventura camp: No newspaper should assume it has the right to comment on the governor in an editorial comic strip, because the governor has trademarked himself. Ventura said: "I would like some input in it. If they're going to use my likeness, and they're going to make money off me, I think I deserve the right to have input into it, as I would with anything with my likeness on it."

It's an inventive concept: for a politician to say that he or she cannot be criticized in editorial cartoons (and, perhaps by extension, in editorial columns) because he or she has trademarked his or her name and likeness. Clinton could try it; Bush could try it; Daley could try it; Ryan could try it. Trademark their names and faces, and then tell the news media: You can't comment on me without my approval. I own me.

Apparently the concept of Ventura as a cartoon character is not limited to the pages of the Pioneer Press; the Twin Cities' other daily newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, features, on its Internet site, a cartoon likeness of Ventura that readers can command to "speak" by clicking on the screen. With each click, the cartoon Ventura is shown saying something that the actual Ventura has publicly said.

We live in an era in which public figures -- from Madonna to Mike Ditka to Dennis Rodman to Ventura himself -- have learned that the way to rise above the pack is to transform themselves into figurative cartoon characters: to purposely market themselves as larger-than-life human exaggerations easily grasped by their fans and foes.

This may be the ultimate extension of that. Elected officials, following Ventura's lead, can pull out their trademark registrations and say to the press:

You can't make me a cartoon. Only I can make me a cartoon.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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